Brains and guts in human evolution: The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis

Leslie C. Aiello

The brain is a very expensive organ in metabolic terms. Each unit of brain tissue requires over 22 times the amount of metabolic energy as an equivalent unit of muscle tissue. There is no correlation across mammals, however, between the relative size of the brain and the relative basal metabolic rate. The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis explains this apparent paradox by looking at the metabolic cost of the brain in the context of the costs of other metabolically expensive organs in the body. The results show that the increase in brain size in humans is balanced by an equivalent reduction in the size of the gastro-intestinal tract. In other words, the increased energetic demands of a relatively large brain are balanced by the reduced energy demands of a relatively small gastro-intestinal tract. This relationship also seems to be true in non-human primates. The size of the gastro-intestinal tract is dependent on both body size and the quality of the diet. It is argued that humans (and other primates) could not have developed a relatively large brain without also adopting a high quality diet that would have permitted a reduction in the relative size of the gastro-intestinal tract. Dietary change is therefore viewed as a 'prime releaser' in brain evolution. It is argued that a high quality diet is necessary for the evolution of a relatively large brain. However, the change to such a high quality diet, which involved an increased proportion of animal based products, need not have been one of the 'prime movers' in brain evolution. In this context, and based on the archaeological and palaeoanthropological record, the factors most probably surrounding the evolution of the human brain are discussed.

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