In Search of a Unifying Theory of Complex Brain Evolution


Address for correspondence: Leah Krubitzer, Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95618.


The neocortex is the part of the brain that is involved in perception, cognition, and volitional motor control. In mammals it is a highly dynamic structure that has been dramatically altered in different lineages, and these alterations account for the remarkable variations in behavior that species exhibit. When we consider how this structure changes and becomes more complex in some mammals such as humans, we must also consider how the alterations that occur at macro levels of organization, such as the level of the individual and social system, as well as micro levels of organization, such as the level of neurons, synapses and molecules, impact the neocortex. It is also important to consider the constraints imposed on the evolution of the neocortex. Observations of highly conserved features of cortical organization that all mammals share, as well as the convergent evolution of similar features of organization, indicate that the constraints imposed on the neocortex are pervasive and restrict the avenues along which evolution can proceed. Although both genes and the laws of physics place formidable constraints on the evolution of all animals, humans have evolved a number of mechanisms that allow them to loosen these constraints and often alter the course of their own evolution. While this cortical plasticity is a defining feature of mammalian neocortex, it appears to be exaggerated in humans and could be considered a unique derivation of our species.