Human brain evolution, theories of innovation, and lessons from the history of technology

J. Biosci 29 (3):235-244 (2004)
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Biological evolution and technological innovation, while differing in many respects, also share common features. In particular, implementation of a new technology in the market is analogous to the spreading of a new genetic trait in a population. Technological innovation may occur either through the accumulation of quantitative changes, as in the development of the ocean clipper, or it may be initiated by a new combination of features or subsystems, as in the case of steamships. Other examples of the latter type are electric networks that combine the generation, distribution, and use of electricity, and containerized transportation that combines standardized containers, logistics, and ships. Biological evolution proceeds, phenotypically, in many small steps, but at the genetic level novel features may arise not only through the accumulation of many small, common mutational changes, but also when distinct, relatively rare genetic changes are followed by many further mutations. In particular, capabilities of biologically modern man may have been initiated, perhaps some 150 000 years ago, by one or few accidental but distinct combinations of modules and subroutines of gene regulation which are involved in the generation of the neural network in the cerebral cortex. It is even conceivable that it was one primary genetic event that initiated the evolution of biologically modern man, introducing some novel but subtle feature of connectivity into the cerebral cortex which allowed for meta-levels of abstraction and upgraded modes of information processing. This may have set the stage for the evolution of integrated but diverse higher capabilities such as structured language, symbolic thought, strategic thought, and cognition based empathy.

Author's Profile

Alfred Gierer
Max-Planck-Institute of Developmental Biology, Tuebingen, Germany


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