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The human species as an intermediary stage


The evolution of the human brain
Christian de Duve Scientist
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There is one more point that I'd like to add to that. I mentioned before we have possibly 5... a life has possibly 5 more billion years to go – the whole history of life has taken less than 4 billion... a little less than 4 billion years, and if we look at the... at the advent of humankind in that, it's only about 6 million years ago that the line leading to humans has separated from the line leading to present day chimpanzees – 6 million years ago. 6 million in 4 billion; that's really a very short time. And that line has detached and has slowly risen. When I say risen... certainly in terms of the size and abilities of the brain, because in just a couple of million years the brain of... the pre-human brain has... has increased more than threefold to attain today a size that is more than... well, almost four times the size of the brain of the chimpanzee, which is the size of the brain of the ancestor we had in common. So in just a couple of million years, the brain which had taken 600 million years to reach a size of, let's say, 350 cubic centimetres, in a couple of million years has grown to the size of 1350, which is a most extraordinary event... the most extraordinary event in the whole of evolution. And with... well, many things have happened with this evolutionary development. But if you look into the future and you say that, well, at least 1500 million years are left – at least, that's what the cosmologists tell us – at most 5000 million years are left, it seems extremely unlikely that we, as human beings, are going just to persist for those very, very, very long times, more or less unchanged. That's impossible. So the question is: what is going to happen? And, well, we can disappear, we can evolve, which we will, and possibly, somehow in this evolutionary future, there may arise, either from the human line or maybe from some other animal line... there may arise beings with a bigger brain that the human brain – why should it stop? Why should this increase in the brain size, and I'm not just thinking of size, but a certain particular wiring that goes with the size, leads to increasing capabilities... why should it stop? Only human hubris can claim that we are the... the top, the final outcome of... of evolution. That obviously cannot be true. And so one may really ask the question: what would happen in the brain of, let's say, living beings, animals, who would have, say, twice the size of our own brain?

Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve (1917-2013) was best known for his work on understanding and categorising subcellular organelles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 for his joint discovery of lysosomes, the subcellular organelles that digest macromolecules and deal with ingested bacteria.

Listeners: Peter Newmark

Peter Newmark has recently retired as Editorial Director of BioMed Central Ltd, the Open Access journal publisher. He obtained a D. Phil. from Oxford University and was originally a research biochemist at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in London, but left research to become Biology Editor and then Deputy Editor of the journal Nature. He then became Managing Director of Current Biology Ltd, where he started a series of Current Opinion journals, and was founding Editor of the journal Current Biology. Subsequently he was Editorial Director for Elsevier Science London, before joining BioMed Central Ltd.

Tags: brain, evolution

Duration: 4 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008