Evolutionary paleoneurology. The mind reels.

Michael Egnor

This is your assignment. You are to read the mind of someone named “Lucy.” Actually, you are to find out where Lucy’s mind came from. You can’t meet Lucy. She’s been dead for 3.2 million years. Your only data will be a fragment of Lucy’s fossilized skull and genetic analysis of some apes, men, and lice.
This isn’t a bad dream. This is an exciting new branch of evolutionary biology, and it’s on the cover of Newsweek magazine. And they’re serious.

This week’s cover story in Newsweek, “The Evolution Revolution,” is about evolutionary paleoneurology. It is the study of the brains and minds of ancient hominids, dating back to 7 million years ago. Newsweek reporter Sharon Begley gives a credulous tour of the standard Darwinist speculations: we can tell when humans first started wearing clothing by genetic analysis of modern body lice, or perhaps human society was the result of the emergence of the gene for oxytocin, a hormone that causes mothers to secrete milk and that may influence social behavior in humans. Evolutionary paleoneurologists claim to know some of what ancient hominids actually thought by studying fragments of their fossilized skulls. Ms. Begley tells us that “paleoneurology is documenting when structures that power the human mind arose, shedding light on how our ancestors lived and thought.” What can we really know about what ancient hominids thought?
I do research on living brains. My specialty is studying the pulsations in the blood flow that goes through the brain and trying to understand how the brain responds to the pulsations. I study rats and dogs in the laboratory, and I study brain blood flow in people using MRI scans. It’s hard to do, and three centuries after the discovery of capillaries, we’re just beginning to be able to actually see the blood flowing through capillaries in the brain.
I can’t tell what live people (or live rats) are thinking by looking at their brains, and I can’t even tell using two-photon confocal microscopy (the latest in capillary imaging). Of course, I can’t tell what dead people used to think by studying their brains, and I certainly can’t tell what dead people used to think if I don’t have a speck of tissue from their brains. And I certainly can’t tell what 3.2 million year old hominids used to think by studying their skulls.
Even the suggestion that we could understand the minds of extinct hominids who lived 3.2 million years ago by studying fragments of their fossilized skulls and by studying the genes of modern apes, men and lice, boggles the mind. This kind of science makes phrenology seem precise.
It’s a remarkable irony. The inference that the origin of the genetic code and the intricate nanotechnology in living cells might be from intelligent agency is deemed “not science,” and mere mention of it is banned in public schools. The inference that we can understand the brains and thoughts of 3.2 million year old hominids by studying fragments of their skulls and the genetics of lice is an “Evolution Revolution” and makes the cover of Newsweek.
The mind reels.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.