A neurochemical hypothesis for the origin of hominids

Bibliographic Collection: 
Publication Type: Journal Article
Authors: Raghanti, Mary Ann; Edler, Melissa K.; Stephenson, Alexa R.; Munger, Emily L.; Jacobs, Bob; Hof, Patrick R.; Sherwood, Chet C.; Holloway, Ralph L.; Lovejoy, C. Owen
Year of Publication: 2018
Journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Date Published: 01/2018
Publication Language: eng

Two factors vital to the human clade are our unique demographic success and our social facilities including language, empathy, and altruism. These have always been difficult to reconcile with individual reproductive success. However, the striatum, a region of the basal ganglia, modulates social behavior and exhibits a unique neurochemical profile in humans. The human signature amplifies sensitivity to social cues that encourage social conformity and affiliative behavior and could have favored provisioning and monogamy in emergent hominids, consilient with the simultaneous origin of upright walking and elimination of the sectorial canine. Such exceptional neurochemistry would have favored individuals especially sensitive to social cues throughout later human evolution and may account for cerebral cortical expansion and the emergence of language.It has always been difficult to account for the evolution of certain human characters such as language, empathy, and altruism via individual reproductive success. However, the striatum, a subcortical region originally thought to be exclusively motor, is now known to contribute to social behaviors and “personality styles” that may link such complexities with natural selection. We here report that the human striatum exhibits a unique neurochemical profile that differs dramatically from those of other primates. The human signature of elevated striatal dopamine, serotonin, and neuropeptide Y, coupled with lowered acetylcholine, systematically favors externally driven behavior and greatly amplifies sensitivity to social cues that promote social conformity, empathy, and altruism. We propose that selection induced an initial form of this profile in early hominids, which increased their affiliative behavior, and that this shift either preceded or accompanied the adoption of bipedality and elimination of the sectorial canine. We further hypothesize that these changes were critical for increased individual fitness and promoted the adoption of social monogamy, which progressively increased cooperation as well as a dependence on tradition-based cultural transmission. These eventually facilitated the acquisition of language by elevating the reproductive advantage afforded those most sensitive to social cues.

Short Title: Proc Natl Acad Sci USA