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Cost of Brain Evolution on Evolutionary Budget

Brain evolution may have started the end of natural evolution. It is believed that humans beings represent the highest evolved species on Earth today. All other other organisms are at the mercy of evolutionary forces. But human beings not only have the ability to face and survive these natural forces efficiently, but also transform nature and make it adapt to human needs. There is this eternal debate in deciding if humans are more powerful than nature and if it’s disastrous to modify nature the way we do. The very fact that these debates exist proves that we have become masters of our own evolution and we can potentially control evolution of other organisms as well.

Scientists have repeatedly claimed that it’s our brain that gives us invincible advantage over all other existing living beings. In this series of articles, I intend to explore how brain became the focus of evolution and how everything else evolved to support brain’s evolution. I also intend to nudge reader’s mind to wonder what makes brain so powerful in this game of survival of the fittest- is it memory or is it speed of processing or is it the ability to solve complex problems? Or is it something which is much more simple and which we seldom focus on while training our brain?

In this article, I would try to explore the concept of “evolutionary budget”, and how efficient “budgeting” can empower an evolved species crunch evolution timeline from million of years to just couple of days.

We Got Weaker, Yet We Are STRONGER

Man is weaker than animals

Humans beings are supposed to be one of the best evolved species on earth. But a closer observation shows that we are actually quite weak from almost all aspects.

Look at a deer or a cheetah or an antelope. We, humans, have a laughable stamina. Our legs are weak. We celebrate pace at which we can run, via Olympics- yet the truth is that even dogs run faster than humans. The record speed of  27.78 mph by Usain Bolt is nowhere close to 45 mph that a Greyhound can clock.

The most powerful of MMA fighters will get easily mauled and dismembered by any average lion or tiger. Our muscles and bones appear almost rudimentary when compared to many of the animals who are believed to be “under- evolved”.

We have got amongst the weakest of the eyes. Any average bird can make us feel ashamed of our visual abilities. So is true about our sense of smell. An average dog’s sense of smell is 100 times better than a human’s. A blood hound is 300 times better than ours. A bear’s sense of smell is around 2,100 times better than a human’s.

We can hardly hear. Any sound with frequency below 20 Hz or more than 20,000 Hz is inaudible to us. But the less evolved organisms around us have auditory abilities way beyond any human. For example, elephants can hear sounds with frequency as low as 14 hz. On the other end of spectrum, cats can hear sounds with frequencies as high as 64,000 hz frequencies. Bats pick up frequencies as high as 200,000 hz.

We can’t fly at all. A leap from the top of a three storied building can be death sentence for us.

We can barely swim. In water, fishes demonstrate an effortless grace and power that humans can only dream of. Our best swimmers throughout history couldn’t ever cross 6 mph unassisted, while the fishes can easily touch 60 mph speed.

As per the currently popular Darwin’s theory of “Survival of The Fittest” we should have gone extinct long back! But we haven’t. In fact we have survived the toughest of the times that have wiped off several other species. We not only survived, it seems we have practically ruled this world, despite the stark weaknesses we have compared to other animals. We are the only ones of this earth who have managed to tame and cage other animals just for entertainment! Elephants and horses have served humans to fight their battles throughout human history.  A fierce carnivorous lion bows down to the instructions of a ringmaster in a circus.

Man rules the earth

While we truly cannot fly, we have managed to soar at heights which no eagle has ever reached. When nature inconvenienced us by offering no wings, we managed to build airplanes and rockets that surpass aerial dimensions untouched by the wings of nature. We are definitely very weak swimmers and can’t survive in water for long- yet we today can easily live in the midst of a stormy ocean for years. The sturdy ships and the powerful submarines that cut through the mighty waves allow humans to drink champagne on seas while watching the graceful looking fishes hunting for food, trying to manage and survive underneath.

Even “God” works on a budget

Imagine “God” as a sculptor who has been assigned to design life forms . The sculptor would have loved to equip his creations with perfection. An ideal creation would have the most sophisticated and powerful bones, muscles, eyes, ears, brains etc.

But life as “God” is not that easy and simple, it seems! He too has resource constraints. The sculptor has been given a fixed budget to design and develop any life form. To make a “ideal” creation with all “best” components fitted, the sculptor needs $ 5000, let’s say. But the maximum budget assigned is $ 100.  He is allowed to under- spend, but he cannot surpass this budget. And because he has to stick with this meagre looking budget, he must make choices while designing any life form.

While making a life form for seas, the sculptor logically decides to spend more on gills and fins and other mechanisms necessary to sustain aquatic life.  He rightly did not choose to invest on full- fledged wings or legs. He would have loved to provide these additional features, but his budget did not allow. Similarly, for birds he wisely invested on developing wings and shoulder muscles. By the time he fitted birds with adequately powerful wings, his budget started hitting the limits. Likewise were the constraints when he designed a lion or a cheetah. Powerful muscles, high capacity lungs, iron strong jaws, sharp incisors and dagger like claws- all come at the cost of other features which the sculptor would have loved to offer. But the budget can’t be crossed.

And amongst all components, the costliest component is the brain– higher the version, costlier it is. And there is a reason why better brains have incremental cost. Each organism with better brain has performed better compared to those with lesser evolved brain. It’s a matter of simple arithmetic to conclude that an organism with superior brain is bound to have other components of inferior quality- as the budget is fixed. And human beings have the best evolved brains.

Let’s say it costs $ 30 to make a lion brain and $ 90 to make a human brain. So, the sculptor then has $ 70 left to equip lion with better muscles, superior bones and high capacity lungs. For a human, after fitting the brain, the money left in the kitty is only $ 10. Consequently, the sculptor could afford to provide humans with eyes, ears, muscles, bones and lungs which are of extremely inferior quality. But overinvesting in brain has been a wise investment. Millions of years of evolutionary experience has proven the sculptor again and again that a powerful brain can overpower all other attributes and abilities combined.

(Atheists- please excuse me for using “God” in this example. But I assure you this is not an article to prove/support any divine philosophies. The “sculptor” here is a personification of the collective evolutionary forces.)

Non- Genetic Adaptation

Brain warp speed adaptation

Brain is, by far, the most potent survival weapon ever developed by nature. A decently capable brain can easily overpower the most ferocious of the carnivores and can outrun the fastest of the cheetahs! However, amongst all its amazing attributes, there is one attribute that makes brain nature’s favorite too in this world of survival of the fittest- the attribute of “non- genetic adaptation”.

In nature, depending on the external challenges (weather, availability of food, competition etc), organisms must mold themselves with relevant attributes. A large black colored mamba hiding amongst green twigs waiting for the hunt will generally be wasting its time. The potential prey will easily spot this grossly exposed hunter and stay away from its line of action. Eventually, either this black mamba must change its hunting strategy or the hunger will strike its fist of death upon this mamba. However, a slim green colored mamba will emerge as a viciously successful hunter here. With its green slim body easily blending with the looks of an innocent twig, any fresh tree with lots of green colored twigs can perfectly camouflage a green mamba. It’s generally almost impossible for a squirrel to spot this slayer in time. The moment the squirrel comes within the line of action, our green mamba strikes at lightening pace- with its fangs delivering the paralyzing poison in seconds.

So, where black mamba can be a failure due to its color, green mamba emerges as the winner. But a black mamba cannot become green mamba overnight. It will take millions of years of small genetic changes to slowly make a black mamba to green mamba. And then, this black mamba’s family must continue multiplying and moving from one generation to next, as the genetic changes keep happening. Fact is, if the black mamba here doesn’t change its methods and stubbornly continues hiding amongst greens, most probably the black mamba’s family will get wiped out with hunger and there will be no one left to continue the family line.

green vs black mamba

Now imagine a scenario where black mamba is in a mountainous area resting widely with its large grey- black rocks. This is the place where our black mamba is “fit to survive”. But let’s say the surroundings are changing slowly. The changing magnetic field of earth is slowly changing the direction of wind and impact of sunlight. And these changes are happening extremely slowly- but surely. The strong winds and crashing drops of rains over thousands of years are chiseling out the rocks, flattening the mountains. The barren mountain tops are slowly becoming flat fertile landscapes. Slowly, our naked looking mountainous area, where the black mamba and his family have been hunting since thousands of years, is turning green with lots of trees growing wildly. 

Genes are where all the information is stored about this black mamba. How an individual snake will look, how sharp will its fangs be, how quick will its strike be- every single attribute is determined by the information stored in its genes.  While the chisel of time is slowing reshaping this landscape, the same chisel is slowly changing the genetics of green mamba, as one snake give birth to next and this next grows to pave way for its next. Most probably and hopefully, this “genetics” driven chiseling  would end up repainting the black mamba into a green mamba eventually so that it remains “fit to survive” and match the “green” reality of the surrounding.

But these genetic reshaping cannot happen overnight. In nature, for most animals, these genetic adaptations can happen only when a new generation is created. Also, the changes in the second generation will always be subtle and not drastic. What it means is, while the black mamba is changing to green mamba via genetic adaptations, there won’t be any observable difference in the color between two consecutive generations. No son of a black mamba will be “differently” black that his father. But, maybe, after three thousand years (and we are imagining that the black mambas grow up and become capable of making children within 3 years after their birth) the color of the new born snake will a “bit” visibly  different from the fist mamba that lived three thousand years back.

So, the process of genetic adaptation is painfully slow and can work only if the external environment is changing slowly. Sudden drastic changes in the environment will certainly wipe out most of the existing species except a few resilient one; and post such catastrophe future species will evolve from these few resilient “left- overs”.

Traveller adaptation

Brain offers a “star trek type” warp speed to the same process of evolution. Imagine a lone human tourist who is visiting “green” forests and “black” mountains to seek peace and solitude.  It’s unlikely that he won’t survive either of the scenarios if he is “well prepared”. He can easily erect a tent he has been carrying in his rucksack. He will go out to shoot a few animals and light fire to cook those animals into his meals. Wherever he goes, “green” forests or “black” mountains, he has the capability of surviving better than most of the inhabitants from other species who have been learning to live in those specific situations since millions of years. He need not wait for millions of years and rely upon genetic adaptation to strengthen his weak muscles or increase capacity of his lungs or grow claws over his fingers to survive here.

The brain allowed him to develop guns and knives and matchsticks that has shrunk the adaptation timeline from millions of years to couple of days.

In event of a large asteroid striking our planet, only humans have the capability to evolve rapidly and make survival possible. Our outer space telescopes will inform us long before the Armageddon. We would be able to cultivate a planet like Mars and make it suitable for human survival. Then we would be able to build space-ships to carry humans from Earth to Mars, just in time before the asteroid hits us. We can even build an hydrogen bombs laced space missiles that can blow the incoming asteroid into dust. Only humans here have the capability of continuing to survive. Rest species will get completely decimated if left on their own. Natural genetic evolution won’t protect other animals in face of such sudden and catastrophic challenge. Only humans will have the power to help other species survive (if we wish to), by destroying this asteroid or carrying few of them along with us to Mars. This is no different from the story of Noah’s ark!

And that’s the awesome power of brain in speeding up evolution and ability to survive.

An important point here to keep in mind is that while brain is extremely powerful evolutionary mechanism, a single brain is usually useless. Our lone tourist marching through green forests and black mountains wouldn’t have survived either of the landscapes if he had only his brain at his disposal. But, the truth is, since his birth he has been connecting with multiple other human brains. He had heard his father talk about survival skills in mountains and forests. He had seen videos on YouTube by multiple different experts explaining about how they lived in these challenging terrains. Someone discovered tenting. Someone sold tents. Someone built Amazon where he could buy a tent online. Someone taught him how to erect a tent. Somewhere he learnt how to light fire. So, though he is a lone traveler here, he is carrying power of multiple “connected brains”. As I said, a single brain is usually useless. We will take up this point and expand, in the next parts.

Coming up Next

Brain is the costliest component in the limited budget that the metaphorical God has, to help his creations survive the destructive forces of nature. And it’s really worth the cost. Brain has really driven non – genetic adaptation and has served as a wormhole that shrunk the time line of evolution from millions of years to couple of days.

Delving deeper, in another post we explore in- depth how evolution depended on forging interdependent networks and how brain became the ultimate weapon to develop, utilize and expand such networks, making it the best weapon in this continuous battle of evolutionary survival.

Dr Subir Roy

40 thoughts on “Cost of Brain Evolution on Evolutionary Budget

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