woensdag 27 augustus 2014

The (Missing) Link Between the English League Cup and Charles Darwin

A short reflection on football and Darwinian history

Big shock in the English League Cup this week: Manchester United suffered a humiliating defeat (4-0) against Milton Keynes, a club from the third division. But my eye was caught by a more obscure result, Leicester City (newcomer in the Premier League this season) lost 0-1 against Shrewsbury Town (playing in the fourth division!). The only goal of the match was scored by Andy Magan.

Why did this match trigger my senses? Because Shrewsbury is the birthplace of none other than Charles Darwin! Here is a short paragraph from 'The Darwin Family and their Plants at The Mount in Shrewsbury' by Peter Boyd (2006):

"Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12th February 1809. His birthplace was a house called 'The Mount' that was built by his father, Dr Robert Darwin, in an elevated position overlooking the town. Charles spent his childhood in Shrewsbury but left it to attend university from 1825-1831 and for his voyage on 'The Beagle' 1831-1836. However, Shrewsbury remained his home and it was Shrewsbury and his family to which he returned between terms from university and after his great voyage. Although he spent most of the rest of his life living in London and Kent, he continued to visit Shrewsbury until his father's death in 1848 and, much later, on a memorable occasion in 1869 - three years after the death of his sister Susan in 1866 and the subsequent sale of The Mount."

Darwin's Birthplace: The Mount in Shewsbury
Unfortunately, Darwin never saw Shrewsbury Town in action, because the club was founded 4 years after his death. I wonder if old Charles would have enjoyed a good game of football...?

dinsdag 12 augustus 2014

The Marvelous Evolution of Brain Size

A reflection on the brain size of the Leader

I am a big fan of Marvel comics. In the Hulk franchise there is a character known as the Leader (Samuel Sterns). This bad guy got bombarded with gamma radiation, which resulted in a super-sized brain and superior intelligence. But is it biologically possible to live with a brain of this size?

When we look at the human fossil record, it is clear that there is an increase in brain size. The early hominids, such as Australopithecus and Paranthropus, have a cranial capacity of about 400 to 500 cc. The first members of our own genus Homo show a quick increase in brain size from 600 (H. habilis) to 800 cc (H. ergaster). Modern humans are endowed with a cranial volume of 1200 cc on average. Men have a slightly higher capacity compared to women, but I won't go into this (precarious) issue.

But have we reached a limit or can human brain size still increase to take the proportions of the leader? Research shows that this is improbable, the size of the brain is limited by the energy intake of an organism. The brain is a very active organ and requires a huge energy input. There appears to be a linear relationship between energetic cost and number of neurons. So, in principle, the brain could increase in size by adding more space between the neurons but keeping the number of neurons constant. However, this would probably not result in an increase in intelligence. So, it might be feasible to get a brain size similar to the Leader, but without the consequent increase in intelligence.

Is the Leader unrealistic? No, because he obviously extracts the needed energy input for his enormous brain from the gamma radiation! So...says...the Leader!