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Durham University

Research & business

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Cognitive evolution and the brain

A research project of the Department of Anthropology.


This project will develop a distinctive synthesis of evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience and cognitive ethology. It will draw on recent developments in these fields, including my own research on brain evolution, carried out over the last eighteen years and published in leading science journals such as Nature, PNAS and Proceedings of the Royal Society. This research is distinctive in applying powerful phylogenetic comparative methods for studying evolutionary patterns and processes to questions about the brain.  It has begun to shed light on the selection pressures and structural changes associated with evolutionary increases in brain size, the genetic and developmental basis of these changes, and their cognitive implications. Recent methodological developments enable us to ask new questions of these data. For example we can now model variable rates of trait evolution on the branches of a phylogenetic tree, correlate the rates for both phenotypic and genetic traits, and examine deviations from general trends along specific branches (such as the branch leading to Homo sapiens). This research is leading to some surprising findings and challenging some of our most cherished assumptions about what changed, when and how fast during human evolution. 


From the Department of Anthropology