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Evidence that human brain evolution was a special event

mutations in perhaps hundreds or thousands of genes -- and even that is a conservative estimate."

It is nothing short of spectacular that so many mutations in so many genes were acquired during the mere 20-25 million years of time in the evolutionary lineage leading to humans, according to Lahn. This means that selection has worked "extra-hard" during human evolution to create the powerful brain that exists in humans.

Varki points out that several major events in recent human evolution may reflect the action of strong selective forces, including the appearance of the genus Homo about 2 million years ago, a major expansion of the brain beginning about a half million years ago, and the appearance of anatomically modern humans about 150,000 years ago. "It's clear that human evolution did not occur in one fell swoop," he said, "which makes sense, given that the brain is such a complex organ."

Lahn further speculated that the strong selection for better brains may still be ongoing in the present-day human populations. Why the human lineage experienced such intensified selection for better brains but not other species is an open question. Lahn believes that answers to this important question will come not just from the biological sciences but from the social sciences as well. It is perhaps the complex social structures and cultural behaviors unique in human ancestors that fueled the rapid evolution of the brain. "This paper is going to open up lots of discussion," Lahn said. "We have to start thinking about how social structures and cultural behaviors in the lineage leading to humans differed from that in other lineages, and how such differences have powered human evolution in a unique manner. To me, that is the most exciting part of this paper."


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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-208-6560
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
28-Dec-2004


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