Friday, 12 October 2012

Event Report - Climate Change, Gossip and the Evolution of Our Big Brains

We continued our events this term with a talk from Mark Maslin, UCL climatology professor and researcher. Maslin gave a fascinating and fun exploration of how modern humans have evolved – through processes not quite involving ribs, clay and evil snakes.

Our oldest ancestor is around 6-7 million years old, and our defining characteristic was in fact upright walking rather than a large brain. The importance of this trait can be seen by the fact that it takes a human infant a whole year to learn to walk. Walking is a good travel solution as humans can walk upright all day without tiring too much. Maslin explained how modern humans developed in the East African Rift system, a rift valley with open landscape that helped development. Changes in brain sizes can be charted through the discovery of skulls in this area.

Maslin’s research in East Africa is concerned with finding the explanation for primitive humans’ leap in brain capacity. The solution may be in the frequently appearing and disappearing lakes along the rift. Rapid shifts from wet to arid conditions may stimulate competition and evolution. Other human species developed large jaws to eat more types of food, whereas we developed larger brains.

But how did this help us survive? Larger skull sizes can hugely impede survival as birth is so difficult and dangerous. Maslin postulated that our brains are tools for dealing with the complex social situations arising from a tribe of around 150 individuals. Keeping track of other individuals’ activities (gossip) is an advanced task which allows the creation of valuable affiliations. These alliances can help protection against predators and the accumulation of resources.

This enlightening talk was followed by questions from the audience which prompted whole new areas of discussion, continuing in the pub. Join our facebook page to keep track of further events, we’ve got lots of great things planned for this term! 

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