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Big Brain and Boskop Man
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I just got the new book Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence by neuroscientists Gary Lynch and Richard Granger. The book is supposed to be about the evolution and function of human brains. I read the first couple of chapters, which were reasonably well-written, but the conceptual launching point for the book is based on Boskop Man, a category of hominin fossils first found in the early 20th century having very large cranial volumes (modern humans are about 1350cc on average, while Boskops were in the 1800-2000cc range).

I kind of wish I'd come across anthropologist John Hawks' blog entry on Boskops before buying the book, because it sounds like Lynch and Granger are passing off some outdated and inaccurate information.

From Hawks' entry:


The supposed "Boskop race" was named after a South African skull -- consisting of frontal and parietal bones, with a partial occiput, one temporal and a fragment of mandible -- found on a Transvaal farm in 1913. The skull is a large one, with an estimated endocranial volume of 1800 ml. But it is hardly complete, and arguments about its overall size -- exacerbated by its thickness, which confuses estimates based on regression from external measurements -- have ranged from 1700 to 2000 ml. It is large, but well within the range of sizes found in recent males.

...

Later, when a more systematic inventory of archaeological associations was entered into evidence, it became clear that the "Boskop race" was entirely a figment of anthropologists' imaginations.

...

That is pretty much where matters have stood ever since. "Boskopoid" is used only in this historical sense; it is has not been an active unit of analysis since the 1950's.


Visit Hawks' entry for a more thorough account, but this gives you the gist. The skulls were large, but within the normal range of variation for human skulls.

Lynch and Granger frame the story of the Boskops as one of a brave minority of scientific evidence being ignored because it counters the prevailing orthodoxy, a steady progression from smaller brains to larger brains, less intelligence to more. But from what Hawks is saying, it's just junk science.

Now, this doesn't mean that the book doesn't have a lot of good and interesting things to say about cortical circuits, genetics, learning, and memory. I'll reserve judgment and keep reading the book. But it seems to me that the authors haven't gotten off to a good start.


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