The Human Advantage
A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable
272 pp., 6 x 9 in, 79 b&w illus.
- Published: March 18, 2016
- Published: March 18, 2016
Why our human brains are awesome, and how we left our cousins, the great apes, behind: a tale of neurons and calories, and cooking.
Humans are awesome. Our brains are gigantic, seven times larger than they should be for the size of our bodies. The human brain uses 25% of all the energy the body requires each day. And it became enormous in a very short amount of time in evolution, allowing us to leave our cousins, the great apes, behind. So the human brain is special, right? Wrong, according to Suzana Herculano-Houzel. Humans have developed cognitive abilities that outstrip those of all other animals, but not because we are evolutionary outliers. The human brain was not singled out to become amazing in its own exclusive way, and it never stopped being a primate brain. If we are not an exception to the rules of evolution, then what is the source of the human advantage?
Herculano-Houzel shows that it is not the size of our brain that matters but the fact that we have more neurons in the cerebral cortex than any other animal, thanks to our ancestors' invention, some 1.5 million years ago, of a more efficient way to obtain calories: cooking. Because we are primates, ingesting more calories in less time made possible the rapid acquisition of a huge number of neurons in the still fairly small cerebral cortex—the part of the brain responsible for finding patterns, reasoning, developing technology, and passing it on through culture.
Herculano-Houzel shows us how she came to these conclusions—making “brain soup” to determine the number of neurons in the brain, for example, and bringing animal brains in a suitcase through customs. The Human Advantage is an engaging and original look at how we became remarkable without ever being special.
Elephants have bigger brains than humans. So why are we more intelligent? Suzana Herculano-Houzel tells how her ability to count neurons gives us a radical new understanding of brain biology. Her science is convincing, fun, and inspiring. The Human Advantage is a game-changer.
Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
In this highly readable and entertaining book, Herculano-Houzel summarizes her unique and important body of work. Her numerous discoveries regarding the number of neurons in animal and human brains lead her to conclude that human brains are fairly typical primate brains, though they are unusually large. As fascinating as the science is her vivid account of both her research adventures and her challenges.
Georg Striedter, Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine; author of Principles of Brain Evolution and Neurobiology: A Functional Approach
Beginning 1.5 million years ago with Homo erectus, Suzana Herculano-Houzel convincingly concludes that the human brain, a primate brain, owes its cognitive abilities to the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex. Engagingly and accessibly, she expands upon Wrangham's and Aiello's hypotheses that the brain was 'fed' by calories from cooked foods.
Frances Burton, Professor Emerita, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto; author of Fire: The Spark that Ignited Human Evolution