The Hominid That Wasted Its Brain

To sum up the last few sections, I think that the handicap principle casts a new light on the human brain. Everyone who proposes a theory about the brain's evolution mentions its costs. Our brains are only 2 percent of our body weight, but they consume 15 percent of our oxygen intake, 25 percent of our metabolic energy, and 40 percent of our blood glucose. When we spend several hours thinking really hard, or just conversing with people whose opinion matters to us, we get hungry and tired. Our brains cost a lot of energy and effort to run. Usually, theorists argue that these costs must have been balanced by some really large survival benefits, otherwise the brain could not have evolved to be so large and costly. But that survivalist argument holds only as long as one ignores sexual selection.

If we view the human brain as a set of sexually selected fitness indicators, its high costs are no accident. They axe the whole point. The brain's costs are what make it a good fitness indicator. Sexual selection made our brains wasteful, if not wasted: it transformed a small, efficient ape-style brain into a huge, energy-hungry handicap spewing out luxury behaviors like conversation, music, and art. These behaviors may look as if they must be conveying some useful information from one mind to another. But from a biological viewpoint they might signify nothing more than our fitness, to those who might be considering merging their genes with ours.

The better our ancestors become at articulating their thoughts, the deeper the principles of wasteful sexual signaling could reach into their minds. By favoring fitness indicators, sexual choice demanded courtship behavior that stretched the mind's capacities. It demanded that which is difficult. It forced the human brain to evolve ever greater condition-dependence, and ever greater sensitivity to harmful mutations. It asked not what a brain can do for its owner, but what fitness information about the owner a brain can reveal.

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