Cooperation and the evolution of intelligence

One of the puzzles of evolutionary anthropology is to understand how our brains got to grow so big. At first sight, the question seems like a no brainer (pause for eye-roll): big brains make us smarter, more adaptable and thus result in an obvious increase in fitness, right? The problem is that brains need calories, and lots of them. Though it accounts for only 2% of your total weight, your brain will consume about 20-25% of your energy intake. Furthermore, the brain from behind its barrier doesn’t have access to the same energy resources as the rest of your body, which is part of the reason why you can’t safely starve yourself thin (if it ever crossed your mind).

So maintaining a big brain requires time and resources. For us, the trade-off is obvious, but if you’re interested in human evolutionary history, you must keep in mind that our ancestors did not have access to chain food stores or high fructose corn syrup, nor were they concerned with getting a college degree. They were dealing with a different set of trade-offs and this is what evolutionary anthropologists are after. What is it that our ancestors’ brains allowed them to do so well that warranted such unequal energy allocation?
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