We were talking about politics. My housemate, an English professor, opined that certain politicians were thinking with their reptilian brains when they threatened military action against Iran. Many people believe that a component of the human brain inherited from reptilian ancestors is responsible for our species’ aggression, ritual behaviors and territoriality.
One of the most common misconceptions about brain evolution is that it represents a linear process culminating in the amazing cognitive powers of humans, with the brains of other modern species representing previous stages. Such ideas have even influenced the thinking of neuroscientists and psychologists who compare the brains of different species used in biomedical research. Over the past 30 years, however, research in comparative neuroanatomy clearly has shown that complex brains—and sophisticated cognition—have evolved from simpler brains multiple times independently in separate lineages, or evolutionarily related groups: in mollusks such as octopuses, squid and cuttlefish; in bony fishes such as goldfish and, separately again, in cartilaginous fishes such as sharks and manta rays; and in reptiles and birds. Nonmammals have demonstrated advanced abilities such as learning by copying the behavior of others, finding their way in complicated spatial environments, manufacturing and using tools, and even conducting mental time travel (remembering specific past episodes or anticipating unique future events). Collectively, these findings are helping scientists to understand how intelligence can arise—and to appreciate the many forms it can take.