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Cortical evolution and human behaviour

Lookup NU author(s): Dr David Neill


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All mammals have complex behaviours but these are generally stereotyped in nature and lack the flexibility of human behaviour. Can the flexibility of human behaviour be understood as an evolutionary extension of previous behaviours or is it a departure? Theories pertaining to this question have a long history including, now refuted, theories on neoteny. This paper, using an evolutionary developmental biology approach, outlines some existing theories and suggests some novel ideas. Previous trends during brain evolution are determined by outlining the phylogeny and ontogeny of the six layered mammalian isocortex with particular reference to the primate lineage. These evolutionary trends are extrapolated to hominids to postulate the effect of increasingly large brains. The palaeoanthropological literature is cited to debate the nature and time course of behavioural change during hominid evolution. In particular, when was truly flexible behaviour first evident, and did it occur gradually or suddenly? The proposed isocortical and behavioural changes during hominid evolution are then equated to determine if modern human behaviour can be seen as part of a continuum. It is concluded that a continuation of previous trends in isocortical evolution maybe inadequate to explain human behavioural flexibility. Several possible departures from previous trends that would be compatible with increased behavioural flexibility are suggested. These mainly relate to evolutionary changes in the later stages of isocortical development and in particular during the activity-dependant phase when cortico-cortical connections are refined. © 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Neill D

Publication type: Review

Publication status: Published

Journal: Brain Research Bulletin

Year: 2007

Volume: 74

Issue: 4

Pages: 191-205

ISSN (print): 0361-9230

ISSN (electronic): 1873-2747


DOI: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2007.06.008

PubMed id: 17720540