The evolution of human altriciality and brain development in comparative context.

Bibliographic Collection: 
Publication Type: Journal Article
Authors: Gómez-Robles, Aida; Nicolaou, Christos; Smaers, Jeroen B; Sherwood, Chet C
Year of Publication: 2023
Journal: Nat Ecol Evol
Date Published: 2023 Dec 04
Publication Language: eng
ISSN: 2397-334X

Human newborns are considered altricial compared with other primates because they are relatively underdeveloped at birth. However, in a broader comparative context, other mammals are more altricial than humans. It has been proposed that altricial development evolved secondarily in humans due to obstetrical or metabolic constraints, and in association with increased brain plasticity. To explore this association, we used comparative data from 140 placental mammals to measure how altriciality evolved in humans and other species. We also estimated how changes in brain size and gestation length influenced the timing of neurodevelopment during hominin evolution. Based on our data, humans show the highest evolutionary rate to become more altricial (measured as the proportion of adult brain size at birth) across all placental mammals, but this results primarily from the pronounced postnatal enlargement of brain size rather than neonatal changes. In addition, we show that only a small number of neurodevelopmental events were shifted to the postnatal period during hominin evolution, and that they were primarily related to the myelination of certain brain pathways. These results indicate that the perception of human altriciality is mostly driven by postnatal changes, and they point to a possible association between the timing of myelination and human neuroplasticity.

DOI: 10.1038/s41559-023-02253-z
Alternate Journal: Nat Ecol Evol