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on 15 June 2017
At the core of the "Social Brain" hypothesis is the suggestion that social group size in primates is limited by the relative size of the neocortex. This posed a challenge for the early hominins who moved beyond the forest habitats occupied by their ancestors, as in open habitats, they would be more vulnerable to predators and their main defence would be that of a belonging to a larger group. At the same time, increased group size also makes direct contact between individuals more difficult. Physical grooming - a primary means of maintaining relationships in primate groups - must be replaced by other, more symbolic connections (such as language) if the group is to remain cohesive. In meeting these challenges, our ancestors embarked on a process of brain evolution which facilitated larger effective group sizes and the transmission of innovations over long distances and between widely scattered groups. This capacity to handle large, dispersed, social networks is the key to human evolution.

It's a persuasive thesis. However, it is significant that this book does not represent a balanced synthesis of all the disciplines which have contributed to the "Social Brain" hypothesis. Rather, it emphasises the work of the 7 year long "Lucy to Language" project which focused on the archaeological evidence. and the book reflects the strengths and weaknesses of this emphasis.

Highlights include discussions of the exclusively hominid innovations of the use of fire and the technology of the handaxe. Less satisfactory is that evidence from extant models - particularly other primate cultures, and modern hunter-gatherer societies - is too often absent or inadequately considered. For example, the key graph establishing the relationship between neocortex size and group size includes points that appear to represent 19 monkey species and 3 (not 4?) great apes - but no point is identified on the graph and nowhere in the text is the specific social organisation of any one species described. Since some could include species like the baboon - which occupies precisely the same kind of savannah environment that the book suggests the earliest hominins did - this failure seems strange. Similarly, although the book describes the colonisation of the interior of Australia by Aboriginal humans, there is no discussion of their social organisation - instead, we are left with highly speculative suggestions from extremely scanty fossil hominin evidence. Just how precarious this evidence may be is indicated by the number of remarks that anywhere else would be casual asides, but here seem to be offered as actual evidence. For example, the discovery of a broken axe, found beside a pool with the handle close by the head, seems to be cited as evidence of the emotional disposition of Homo heidelbergensis - "Probably any modern human would have reacted to breaking a favourite tool- you or I might have reacted by throwing it into the pond. But H. heidelbergensis placidly left the two pieces side by side". Similarly, it is suggested that humans are able to maintain concentration on a task for longer periods than other primates as a result of our need to focus on others' mental states. No evidence is offered for this, beyond the following statement - "Chimpanzees are notoriously poor at concentration (except in prolonged bouts of gaining food), but humans can spend hours gazing into each other's eyes, solving a problem or listening to a sermon". The critical reader will immediately ask - "why is chimp's concentration disqualified? And when was the last time I gazed into another person's eyes *for hours*?" The bar for "evidence" here seems exceptionally low!

Part of the problem seems to be the insistence on human exceptionalism - "Truly, we are no longer apes" declares chapter one. But a closer and more sympathetic consideration of the behaviour and cognition of other apes actually makes the steps towards humanity easier. For example, when discussing the importance of social grooming, the authors assert that more abstract and particularly human forms of connection - such as music and laughter - are necessary to extend an emotional bond beyond a dyad, but doesn't that prompt the reader to think, "So what about wolves chorusing?" or to recall how chimpanzee females habitually groom males who have just fought each other so as manipulate them into grooming each other as a means of repairing social bonds?

By the end, my copy was bristling with post-its notes bearing double question marks and phrases beginning, "But what about....?!" But I kept reading, and am glad that I did. There is a great deal of thought-provoking and fascinating material here, and it's well worth the time.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 January 2018
When I was young, my main exposure to popular science was through my Dad's collection of Pelican paperbacks, where academics expounded on the likes of animals without backbones or some archeological wonder such as Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb or Schliemann's adventures uncovering Troy. On the whole I preferred the archaeology titles, as they tended to have more of a story - but when I read Thinking Big, I was plunged back into that world.

The topic helps - we've got a combination of archaeology, palaeontology and psychology here - but there's also something about the feel of the book. The authors are generally rather serious about what they're doing, there's that same small, finicky print and the reader does have to work reasonably hard to get much out of it.

Part of the difficulty is that the thread of the book is quite meandering and the underlying science sometimes feels distinctly vague. At the core is the 'social brain hypothesis' - the idea that the size of the brain (or to be precise, certain aspects of the brain) is correlated to social group sizes and that the story of the evolution of homo sapiens is driven strongly by these social group sizes and their implications.

The reason the science can seem vague is that inevitably there is a lot of hypothesising going on here. Apparently many archeologists don't like the approach taken and prefer to adopt a WYSWTW - What You See is What There Was - mantra. The trouble with this is that it is guaranteed to be wrong, where the approach taken by the authors only might be wrong. the WYSWTW fans simply deny the existence of anything in prehistoric society that doesn't leave concrete remains. But you can't find a fossilised belief, a mummified song or the remains of a conversation - so this leaves their picture of the life of these early hominins and humans that is very sparse and boring.

The alternative approach taken in this book is to accept that there was more going on than will leave remains and to try to make deductions from how developing brains will, for example, be able to deal with more levels of intention (I know that you are aware that she is lying, for example) and will be reflected in different group sizes, with the significant implications these will have for culture. Throw in how factors such as religion, music and language can also impact the effectiveness of social groups and there seems to be a way here to feel crudely back to the social life of our ancestors.

Although it's not written in a hugely approachable style - too academic in approach - and the driving concept suffers from an inevitable degree of vagueness, this feels like an important piece of work and one that anyone with an interest in early human and pre-human society should add to their reading list.
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on 29 August 2014
As a Physicist by training, I tend to look for strong evidence and assess it objectively. I found the evidence for the rule of three and Dunbar's number, as presented, a little weak, given that humans tend to find patterns even in random numbers. More particularly, the aspect that I found most disconcerting is that, in places, the book asserted the social brain hypothesis as though it were established fact, thereby displaying a rather worrying bias, given that many, if not most, people do not accept that the hypothesis is well established. In other parts, the book was much more cautious about the speculation that group size drove brain size and hence human evolution. With the addition of more objective skepticism, the account made for more pleasant and indeed, for me as an outsider, very interesting reading. Perhaps, the slight variability of assertion and caution arose because of the different approaches of the three different authors. In the grand scheme of things however, this is more of a quibble than a major point.

I have since started reading "Social Physics" by another author, Alex Pentland, and this uses more robust big data from the modern digital age. Though I have barely started that book, it appears to show that social interaction in the modern world is far less straightforward than the social brain hypothesis would have us believe. That said, it is relevant to add that, great apes aside, there is much less evidence for the social patterns of our hominid ancestors and one can well take the view that even wild speculation is better than nothing (provided that it is not taken too seriously). In Thinking Big, the speculation is mostly carefully explained. All in all, it seemed to me to be a valiant attempt to peer through the mists surrounding our prehistoric past, albeit that I did not always find the assertions about the glimpsed apparition convincing.
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on 12 September 2014
from my blog:
The authors start from the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis (we need large brains to be able to deceive others in our social group) to which Gamble et al counter with the social brain hypothesis. They claim that sophisticated social animals need to be able to mentalize (infer others state of mind) at high levels of sophistication and to understand complex social structure while maintaining cohesion. Laughter and music act as substitutes to grooming and are termed social grooming. Social grooming happens in our mind. And our mind is about being relational and not just rational. All social emotions (guilt, shame, pride) are only possible when a belief exists about another’s belief (mentalizing). By developing social structures and language we are also able to “store relationships”, which facilitates the creation of even larger social units. While language is furthermore driven by the necessity to accommodate interaction with “unobserved” others.
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on 8 August 2016
Really recommend! A great read!
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on 24 January 2015
Start with this and you find yourself in a bigining of new road...
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on 4 August 2014
Good book; contains a stimulating hybrid of recent developments in archealogy and evolutionary psychology.
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on 23 October 2014
Excellent thought provoking book by a leading archaeological writer.
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