literature

Vignette: Mean Girls of the Serengeti (963 words)

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By lockswriter

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Back in her apartment, as Sandy filled the teapot and put it on the stove, thinking about the differences between her and Brooke got her thinking about the evolution of the human brain. This did nothing to improve her mood.

The intelligence of the australopithecines and the previous members of genus Homo was a little hard to gauge, but if you just went by brain size as shown in the fossil record, there was a slow, steady increase for about seven million years, then a slightly faster increase between three and two million years ago… and then things really took off. Over the course of two million years, the cranial capacity of proto-humans and humans tripled, with the fastest expansion happening between 800,000 and 200,000 years ago. So, why had this happened?

The usual explanation was that our distant ancestors must have run into problems that they’d needed bigger brains in order to solve. But what kind of problems could explain an increase like that? They had to be solvable, or they would have destroyed the species in one generation—but once a problem was solved, it stopped being a problem. To account for a continuous and accelerating rise in human intelligence, you needed a problem which was never completely hopeless but which got harder as people got smarter, so only the smarter people in every generation could solve it. The only problem that could so perfectly keep pace with the improving human brain was the human brain itself.

This was the so-called Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis—that the primary driving force in human evolution had been competition from other humans. Between groups, this had taken the form of war and raiding. Within groups, it had taken many more forms. Seduction. Treachery. Manipulation. Social climbing. Winning friends and influencing people. Building alliances to gain popularity and power. The ostracism of the unpopular, in a world where a lone human away from the fire was unlikely to survive a single night—lions and hyenas, after all, had much better night vision than any hominid.

It was just a hypothesis, not even a theory. But it made more sense than most other ideas of what drove human evolution.

Food shortages? Not only did a larger brain need a lot more fat and protein to grow and a lot more glucose to fuel it, but the body needed to make up for it by shrinking something else—and from what scientists could tell by looking at the fossils, what it had shrunk was its digestive tract. That put limits on the kind of food humans could eat. You didn’t adapt to a food shortage by getting hungrier and pickier.

Predation? With bigger brains—and therefore bigger skulls—it was harder and more dangerous for women to give birth and it took longer for children to reach maturity. If predators were picking you off one by one, you didn’t adapt to that by making your breeding slower and more precarious. In fact, just putting a fifteen-to-twenty-year gap between generations should have slowed human evolution to a crawl all by itself. Only a very powerful force could have kept pushing it faster and faster up such a steep gradient… a force like, say, intense social competition.

It was just a hypothesis, and would stay one until somebody found a way to observe the past directly. But it explained so many of the worst aspects of human nature—the conformity, the cruelty, the constant judging. It explained why social courage was so much rarer than physical courage. And it sure as hell explained why every single human endeavor seemed to dissolve into office politics at some point. With the best intentions in the world, people still had to make a conscious and continuous effort not to start doing what they were born to do.

And to make things even more awkward from a woman’s point of view, a theory that a lot of geneticists subscribed to was that most of the genes for intelligence in humans were located on the X chromosome. The thing about the X chromosome was that a mother could pass hers on to a son or daughter, but a father could only ever pass his on to a daughter. If this happened to be true, then whatever caused the rise of human intelligence, the female half of the species must have been at the heart of it.

Sandy hoped these theories and hypotheses were wrong. Because if they were right and you put them all together, the picture you got of human evolution was a two-million-year version of Mean Girls set at Serengeti High.

Sandy wanted that picture to be wrong. The smart money said it was, just on the principle that evolutionary biology wasn’t her field and she was probably missing something. But it would explain why so many teenage boys, no matter how horny, had a paralyzing fear of talking to girls and making fools of themselves. Even in the face of the drive to breed, fear of the social power of girls and women must once have been a survival trait for young men.

Also, Sandy hoped she was wrong because, as a scientist and inventor, she liked the idea that the human brain was meant to understand and manipulate the universe. It would be terribly disappointing to find out that this was just a gigantic side benefit of being able to understand and manipulate other people.

Most of all Sandy hoped she was wrong because if she was right, then challenging Brooke Morgan was exactly as bad an idea as it looked. Sandy was a genius in all the ways that were supposed to matter, but Brooke was smarter in all the ways that did.
A snippet from "Altered Seasons: Age of Consequences." It's not much of a spoiler to say that Holbrooke Morgan is emerging as the villain, and that Sandra Symcox and others are therefore rethinking their alliance with her. The trouble with writing a genius like Sandy is that it can take up to three pages to explain the thoughts she has while fixing tea.
This scene will probably raise some hackles. For the record, I did share it with an audience of sensitivity readers—women, to be precise. They weren't offended. I think they kind of liked the idea that the biggest single driving force in the evolution of the human brain was women interacting with other women, even if those interactions weren't anything that a woman or man should be proud of.
Credit where credit is due: the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis is a real thing that you can learn more about here.
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