Evolution of the Nervous System

Many scientists and thinkers (Cajal, 1937; Crick & Koch, 1990; Edelman, 2004) believe that the human nervous system is the most complex machine known to man. Its complexity points to one undeniable fact—that it has evolved slowly over time from simpler forms. Evolution of the nervous system is intriguing not because we can marvel at this complicated biological structure, but it is fascinating because it inherits a lineage of a long history of many less complex nervous systems (Figure 1), and it documents a record of adaptive behaviors observed in life forms other than humans. Thus, evolutionary study of the nervous system is important, and it is the first step in understanding its design, its workings, and its functional interface with the environment.


Figure 1 The brains of various animals

The brains of some animals, like apes, monkeys, and rodents, are structurally similar to humans (Figure 1), while others are not (e.g., invertebrates, single-celled organisms). Does anatomical similarity of these brains suggest that behaviors that emerge in these species are also similar? Indeed, many animals display behaviors that are similar to humans, e.g., apes use nonverbal communication signals with their hands and arms that resemble nonverbal forms of communication in humans (Gardner & Gardner, 1969; Goodall, 1986; Knapp & Hall, 2009). If we study very simple behaviors, like physiological responses made by individual neurons, then brain-based behaviors of invertebrates (Kandel & Schwartz, 1982) look very similar to humans, suggesting that from time immemorial such basic behaviors have been conserved in the brains of many simple animal forms and in fact are the foundation of more complex behaviors in animals that evolved later (Bullock, 1984).

Even at the micro-anatomical level, we note that individual neurons differ in complexity across animal species. Human neurons exhibit more intricate complexity than other animals; for example, neuronal processes (dendrites) in humans have many more branch points, branches, and spines.

Complexity in the structure of the nervous system, both at the macro- and micro-levels, give rise to complex behaviors. We can observe similar movements of the limbs, as in nonverbal communication, in apes and humans, but the variety and intricacy of nonverbal behaviors using hands in humans surpasses apes. Deaf individuals who use American Sign Language (ASL) express themselves in English nonverbally; they use this language with such fine gradation that many accents of ASL exist (Walker, 1987). Complexity of behavior with increasing complexity of the nervous system, especially the cerebral cortex, can be observed in the genus Homo (Figure 2). If we compare sophistication of material culture in Homo habilis (2 million years ago; brain volume ~650 cm3) and Homo sapiens (300,000 years to now; brain volume ~1400 cm3), the evidence shows that Homo habilis used crude stone tools compared with modern tools used by Homo sapiens to erect cities, develop written languages, embark on space travel, and study her own self. All of this is due to increasing complexity of the nervous system.


Figure 2 Changes in cerebral volume across evolution

What has led to the complexity of the brain and nervous system through evolution, to its behavioral and cognitive refinement? Darwin (1859, 1871) proposed two forces of natural and sexual selection as work engines behind this change. He prophesied, “psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation” that is, psychology will be based on evolution (Rosenzweig, Breedlove, & Leiman, 2002).


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UPEI Introduction to Psychology 1 Copyright © by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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