Alfred Gierer (2004)
Human Brain Evolution, Theories of Innovation, and Lessons from the History of Technology.
Journal of Biosciences 29(3), 235-244 [PDF
(Also as Preprint 254, Max-Planck-Insitut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte Berlin)
Biological evolution and technological innovation, while differing in many respects, also share common features. In particular, the implementation of a new technology in the market is analogous to the spreading of a new genetic trait in a population. Technological innovation may occur either through the accumulation of quantitative changes, as in the development of the ocean clipper, or it may be initiated by a new combination of features or subsystems, as in the case of steamships. Other examples of the latter type are electric networks that combine the generation, distribution, and use of electricity, and containerized transportation that combines standardized containers, logistics, and ships. Biological evolution proceeds, phenotypically, in many small steps, but at the genetic level novel features may arise not only through the accumulation of many small, common mutational changes, but also when distinct, relatively rare genetic changes are followed by many further mutations. New evolutionary directions may be initiated by, in particular, some rare combinations of regulatory sections within the genome.
The combinatorial type of mechanism may not be a logical prerequisite for biological innovation, but it can be efficient, especially when novel features arise out of already highly developed systems. Such is the case with the evolution of general, widely applicable capabilities of the human brain. Hypothetical examples include the evolution of strategic thought, which encompasses multiple self-representations, cognition-based empathy, meta-levels of abstraction, and symbolic language. These capabilities of biologically modern man may have been initiated, perhaps some 150 000 years ago, by one or few accidental but distinct combinations of modules and subroutines of gene regulation which are involved in the generation of the neural network in the cerebral cortex. This hypothesis concurs with current insights into the molecular biology of the combinatorial and hierarchical facets of gene regulation that underlie brain development. A theory of innovation encompassing technological as well as biological development cannot per se dictate alternative explanations of biological evolution, but it may help in adding weight and directing attention to notions outside the mainstream, such as the hypothesis that few distinct genetic changes were crucial for the evolution of modern man.