Sunday, February 26, 2023

Was Man Created in God's Image? Or in the Image of Primates, With 16 Billion Neurons in His Cerebral Cortex?


                                  The Hidden Neuroscience in Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam"


Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" is his visual depiction of the teaching in Genesis 1:27--"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (KJV).  Remarkably, Adam's body is already fully formed, but God is going to transmit to him something essential to his humanity through God's extended finger.  Presumably, God is endowing Adam with a human soul.  But how exactly is that to happen?  

We should notice that Michelangelo chose not to depict another image of Adam's creation from Genesis: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (2:7).  Michelangelo decided not to show God breathing into Adam's nostrils the breath of life as the source of ensoulment.

So what is it about the image of God flying through the air and stretching out his arm towards Adam lying on the ground that conveys the emergence of a human soul in Adam?  Some neuroscientists have pointed out that one can see a hidden drawing of the human brain in the image of God.  And God's right arm is extended through the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the cerebral cortex responsible for decision-making, planning, creativity, working memory, and language.  Previously, I have written about how the liberty or freedom to choose between alternatives is a function of the cerebral cortex, under prefrontal control, in its reciprocal interaction with the environment. 

Is This a Hidden Drawing of the Human Brain?

We know that Michelangelo studied human anatomy carefully, and that he dissected human bodies and brains.  We know this from his anatomical drawings.  (Leonardo da Vinci--a contemporary of Michelangelo's--was also a talented anatomist of the brain.)  But of the thousands of Michelangelo's drawings, he destroyed most of them, and only about 600 have survived.  Some of these show drawings of the human skull and brain, but none of them show the exact outline of the cerebral cortex that some neuroscientists have seen hidden in Michelangelo's pictures.  And there is certainly no evidence that Michelangelo understood the cognitive functions of the cerebral cortex and the prefrontal cortex.  Seeing a hidden neuroscientific message in Michelangelo's picture seems fanciful.

Nevertheless, we could argue for a modern neuroscientific revision of Michelangelo's picture, in which the image of God could be replaced by the image of the human cerebral cortex.  This would not have to be seen as an atheistic revision of the picture.  Because if the theistic evolutionists (like Francis Collins, Deborah Haarsma, and the last three Catholic popes) are correct, then God works through the natural laws of evolution to execute His creative design.  Some of the theistic evolutionists (like Pope Francis) say that while God works mostly through natural evolution rather than miracles, the creation of the human soul did require an "ontological leap"--a supernatural miracle--that transcended natural evolution.  But as I have argued, there are good reasons to believe that the natural evolution of the primate brain can explain the emergence of the soul in the human brain, so that no miracle was required.  And yet we still have to wonder what properties of the evolved human brain explain the amazing intellectual and emotional capacities of the human mind.


Over the past fifteen years, the research of Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a Brazilian neuroscientist now at Vanderbilt University, has shown how this natural evolution of the human brain can be understood as based on the remarkable number of neurons in the human cerebral cortex, as it has emerged from the evolution of the primate brain, and thus we can see that we were created in the image of other primates, just as Charles Darwin suggested in 1871 in The Descent of Man (Gabi et al. 2016; Herculano-Houzel 2016, 2021; Herculano-Houzel and Lent 2005).  I am persuaded by most of what Herculano-Houzel says, although I will identify two points of disagreement with her.

                                                Suzana Herculano-Houzel Counts Neurons

How many neurons are in the human brain?  For many years, the answer from many scientists was 100 billion.  But, surprisingly, when Herculano-Houzel began some years ago looking for the original scientific research that provided evidence for this number, she found nothing.  She discovered that neuroscientists had repeated this number over and over again without realizing that there was no scientific verification for it.  

Moreover, she discovered that scientists had no reliable method for counting brain cells.  The most common method for attempting to do this was stereology: virtual three-dimensional probes are placed throughout thin slices of brain tissue from some part of the brain, then the number of cells within the probes are counted, and finally this is extrapolated to the total number of cells in the entire tissue volume.  The problem is that this works only for tissues with a relatively homogeneous distribution of cells.  In fact, the highly variable density of neurons across different structures of the brain, and even within a single structure, makes stereology impractical for counting the cells in whole brains.

Herculano-Houzel developed a new technique for counting neurons that starts with creating brain soup.  She dissects the brain into its anatomically distinct parts--such as the cerebral cortex, the cerebellum, and the olfactory bulbs.  She then slices and dices each part into smaller portions.  Next, she puts each small part in a tube and uses a detergent that dissolves the cell membranes but leaves the cell nuclei intact.  By sliding a piston up and down in the tube, she homogenizes this brain tissue into a soup in which the nuclei are evenly distributed.  She stains all the cell nuclei blue so that she can count them under a fluorescent microscope.  She then adds an antibody labeled red that binds specifically to a protein expressed in all neuronal cell nuclei, which distinguishes them from other cell nuclei such as glial cells.  Going back to the microscope, she can then determine what percentage of all nuclei (stained blue) belong to neurons (now stained red).  Finally, she can estimate the number of neurons for each structure of the brain.  She has done this in studying the brains of many mammalian animals.

Now she can tell us that the total number of neurons in the whole human brain is not 100 billion but 86 billion.  Of that total, 16 billion are in the cerebral cortex, which includes 1.3 billion neurons in the prefrontal cortex.  The cerebral cortex is the outer covering of the surfaces of the cerebral hemispheres.  The prefrontal cortex covers the front part of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex located behind the forehead.


Comparing the numbers of neurons for the human brain with the numbers for other primate brains and other mammalian brains allows Herculano-Houzel to explain the conundrum of how the human brain can be at once so similar to and yet so different from other animal brains.  She makes four arguments about how the human brain gives human beings four kinds of advantages in their mental abilities: the primate advantage, the human advantage, the advantage of cooking, and the advantage of cultural learning.

Her claim that differences in cognitive capabilities across species can be explained by differences in the absolute numbers of neurons depends on a fundamental assumption.  If neurons are the basic units of brain networks for processing information, and if the networks are structured in similar patterns, then the greater the number of neurons in a network, the greater the capacity of the network for processing information.

The primate advantage.   Not surprisingly, larger brains tend to contain more neurons than smaller brains.  But different groups of animals show different scaling rules in proportioning brain size to number of neurons.  For example, a rodent cortex will have fewer neurons than a primate cortex of similar mass.   Primates always concentrate larger numbers of neurons in the brain than rodents of a similar, or even larger, brain size.

So here a capybara brain of 76 grams has 1.6 billion neurons, while a capuchin monkey brain of 52 grams has 3.7 billion neurons.  Comparison of primates with other mammals shows the same primate advantage:  in primate brains, the neurons are packed more tightly in a similar volume.  As primate brains, human brains have the same primate advantage over other mammals.  Thus, while the number of neurons in the human brain is remarkable, it is not extraordinary, because it falls on the primate scaling line: it's what one would expect for a primate with a body the size of the human body.  As Herculan-Houzel says: "The human brain is just a scaled-up primate brain: remarkable but not special."

One common objection to this is that the bodies of gorillas and orangutans can be as large as human bodies, but the brains of gorillas and orangutans are only about one-third the size of the human brain.  Gorillas and orangutans can weigh about 165 pounds, but their brains have only about 30 billion neurons, in contrast to the 86 billion neurons in the human brain.  Doesn't this show that the human brain is three times larger than what one would expect for a primate with the same size body? 

Herculano-Houzel's answer is that if one excludes the great apes (gorillas and orangutans), the scaling of the human brain in proportion to body size follows the same scaling rule as all other primates.  So the outliers here are not human beings but the great apes: it's not that human brains are too large for their bodies, but that gorillas and orangutans have brains that are too small for their bodies.

She explains this as showing that as primate evolution reaches the outer limits of the primate energy budget--the extra effort to find food--there is a tradeoff between brains and brawn.  More energy for a big body means less energy for a big brain.  The evolutionary history of the great apes shows a tradeoff  favoring big bodies and small brains.  By contrast, the evolutionary history of the human species shows a tradeoff favoring a typically primate slim body but a big brain.

The human advantage.  Herculano-Houzel's counting of neurons has allowed her to see that we human beings have one great advantage over all other animals: "we are the species that owns the largest number of neurons in the cerebral cortex--the part of the brain responsible for finding patterns, reasoning logically, expecting the worst and preparing for it, developing technology and passing it on through culture" (2016, x).  Notice that she is not saying that we have the largest number of neurons in the whole brain.  The African elephant brain has 257 billion neurons, three times our count of 86 billion.  But an amazing 98 percent of the elephant's neurons are in the cerebellum.  Although the elephant's cerebral cortex weighs over 6 pounds, it has only 5.6 billion neurons, far fewer than the 16 billion neurons in the human cerebral cortex weighing 2.6 pounds.  The sperm whale has the largest animal brain--weighing about 18 pounds--but Herculano-Houzel predicts that the number of neurons in the sperm whale's cerebral cortex is probably far fewer than 16 billion.

What Herculano-Houzel says about this human advantage confirms what I have argued about how the human mind or soul can arise from a natural process of emergent evolution in which differences in degree become differences in kind after passing over a critical threshold in the size and complexity of the primate brain.  As a consequence of her research, I can now identify that critical threshold as the remarkably large number of neurons in the human cerebral cortex and particularly in the prefrontal cortex.  Unfortunately, she herself does not see how her research supports the idea of emergent evolution.  That's my first disagreement with her.

In her book chapter on Darwin's Descent of Man--particularly, Darwin's chapter on "Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals"--she supports Darwin's claim that human mental powers differ from the mental powers of other animals only in degree and not in kind, and that if this difference were a difference in kind, that would deny his theory of human evolution from lower animals (Herculano-Houzel 2021, 48-49, 51, 61).

Herculano-Houzel does not see that Darwin in The Descent of Man is forced to contradict himself by both affirming and denying that there are differences in kind between human beings and other animals in their mental capacities.  Despite Darwin's explicit statement that humans differ only in degree, not in kind, from other animals, he implicitly recognized differences in kind.  That is to say, Darwin recognized that human beings have some mental traits that other animals do not have at all.

Darwin noted that self-consciousness is uniquely human: "It may be freely admitted that no animal is self-conscious, if by this term it is implied, that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth" (Descent, Penguin edition, 105).  Morality is also uniquely human: "A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them.  We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity. . . . man . . . alone can with certainty be ranked as a moral being" (135).  And language is uniquely human: "The habitual use of articulate language is . . . peculiar to man" (107).

Darwin could implicitly affirm such emergent differences in kind without affirming any radical differences in kind.  Emergent differences in kind can be explained by natural science as differences in kind that naturally evolve from differences in degree that pass over a critical threshold of complexity.  So, for example, we can see the uniquely human capacities for self-consciousness, morality, and language as emerging from the evolutionary increase in the neurons of the primate brain, so that at some critical point in the evolution of our ancestors, the size and complexity of the brain (perhaps particularly in the frontal cortex) reached a point where distinctively human cognitive capacities emerged at higher levels of brain evolution that are not found in other primates.  With such emergent differences in kind, there is an underlying unbroken continuity between human beings and their hominid ancestors, so there is no need to posit some supernatural intervention in nature that would create a radical difference in kind in which there is a gap with no underlying continuity.  

Like Darwin, Herculano-Houzel fails to see how evolutionary science can recognize emergent differences in kind that arise from natural evolution while denying radical differences in kind that would require supernatural miracles.

The advantage of cooking.  If human beings are created in the image of primates, and yet they are unique among the primates because of those 16 billion neurons in the human cerebral cortex, why are human beings the only primate species to evolve such an increase in those neurons?  Herculano-Houzel's answer is that the evolutionary expansion of the human brain was made possible by the human invention of cooking.  Here she adopts the cooking hypothesis of Richard Wrangham in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009).

The energy cost of the human brain is huge.  The brain is only 2 percent of the total body mass, but it consumes on average about 25% of the daily total energy budget for the human body.  On average 3.3 billion molecules of glucose are consumed per human neuron per minute.  6 kilocalories are consumed per billion neurons per day.  And so the more neurons in a brain, the more energy that a brain costs.

The caloric intake from the typical raw food diet of primates is not enough to supply the energy needs of the human brain.  The human controlled use of fire and the invention of cooking about 1.5 million years ago expanded the daily supply of energy to support the evolutionary expansion of the human brain, which can be seen in the fossil record of the huge expansion of the brain from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens.

The slicing and dicing of food and cooking with heat start the process of digesting food before it enters the mouth.  Cooking with heat breaks down the collagen fibers of meat and softens the hard walls of plant cells.  Cooked foods yield 100 percent of their caloric content to the digestive system.  Without cooking, our ancient human ancestors could never have fed their hungry human brains.

In a previous post, I have suggested that this cooking hypothesis for human evolution confirms what Lucretius said about the importance of fire and cooking for the evolutionary emergence of a fully human species.

The advantage of cultural learning.  The controlled use of fire and cooking are technologies that are invented and passed down across the generations by cultural learning.  As Herculano-Houzel observes, this shows us that "plenty of neurons aren't enough," because while having lots of neurons endows a brain with the capacities for complex cognition, turning those capacities into abilities requires cultural learning across an individual lifetime and across many human generations.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, cultural learning is not uniquely human because some other animals have cultural traditions of behavior.  But human beings are unique in their capacity for symbolic culture.

The behavioral inheritance system is the transmission of information among animals through social learning. For example, among some animals (including human beings) mothers transmit food preferences to their offspring, because information about what mother is eating is transmitted either in the womb or through suckling, so that the offspring inherits a preference for that food. More complex forms of social learning come through animal culture. For example, some chimpanzees can discover how to open nuts with a stone, and then pass on this practice within their group so that it becomes a social tradition. Different communities of chimps in Africa have different cultures based on distinctive profiles of traditional practices transmitted by social learning. As opposed to genetic evolution, cultural evolution is not blind but targeted to functional change.

The symbolic inheritance system is uniquely human because it shows the qualitative leap that defines our humanity as based on our capacity for symbolic thought and communication. Other animals can communicate through signs. But only human beings can communicate through symbols. The evolution of human language was probably crucial for the evolution of symbolism. Symbolic systems allow us to think about abstractions that have little to do with concrete, immediate experiences. Symbolic systems allow human beings to construct a shared imagined reality. These symbolic constructions are often fictional and future-oriented. Art, religion, science, and philosophy are all manifestations of human symbolic evolution. 

Herculano-Houzel gives a good account of human cultural evolution as driven by six technological revolutions (2016, 206-213).  But she doesn't explain why the pace of that technological progress has become so rapid over the past 300 years.  I have argued that the best explanation for this accelerated human progress is the symbolic niche construction of Lockean liberalism, which has sustained the freedom for innovation that has made it possible for the Earth today to support a population of over 8 billion people who are living longer and healthier lives on average than has ever been possible.  That is a stunning enhancement of Darwinian survival and reproductive fitness through cultural evolution.


The evolved cognitive capacity of the human brain for symbolic cultural learning includes a propensity to religious belief, which can include the belief that human beings were created in the image of God, and that this endowed human existence with a supernatural purpose.  Herculano-Houzel fails to take that religious belief seriously as a part of human cultural evolution, and that's my second point of disagreement with her.  She does say that the human brain gives human beings "the ability to ponder our own material and metaphysical origins" (2016, 215).  But she says nothing more about how the religious belief in "metaphysical origins" might be rooted in the evolutionary psychology of the human brain.  In The Descent of Man, in his chapter on the "mental powers of man and the lower animal," Darwin comments on a long list of mental powers, concluding with "belief in God, spiritual agencies, superstitions."  In her commentary on this chapter, Herculano-Houzel is silent about this.

If she had examined that last part of Darwin's chapter on the evolution of the mental powers as leading to religious belief, she would have seen that Darwin anticipates the modern evolutionary psychology of religion as an expression of the human brain's evolved theory of mind or the "hyperactive agency detection device."  Darwin conveys this idea when he says that the earliest manifestation of religious belief is "when anything which manifests power or movement is thought to be endowed with some form of life, and with mental faculties analogous to our own" (117).  Through symbolic cultural evolution this "belief in spiritual agencies" or animism could eventually be expressed in the belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God who is the "Creator and Ruler of the universe" (116, 118).  This is the God depicted in Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam"--the God who created human beings in His image.

The evolutionary science of the brain can explain how this ability for believing in the existence of the Creator God evolved through the genetic evolution of the human cerebral cortex and prefrontal cortex and the symbolic cultural evolution of religious belief in monotheism.  But while some Darwinian psychologists (such as Justin Barrett) see this as showing that Darwinian science is compatible with the truth of believing in God, others (such as Jesse Bering) see this as exposing belief in God as a fictional construction of the evolved human mind. For those like Barrett, religious belief is an adaptive truth. For those like Bering, religious belief is an adaptive illusion.

Thus, we see that Darwinian science cannot resolve the Reason/Revelation debate.  But Darwinian liberalism can support the freedom of thought that promotes that debate.

Part of that Reason/Revelation debate is whether human beings have a natural need to see the purpose for their existence that can only come from believing in the revelation of a divine purpose for human life, or whether natural reason alone can give human life some purpose or meaning.  Some theistic scientists (like Deborah Haarsma) say that in answering our questions about the Universe, science can tell us when and how, but only religion can tell us who and why.

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that the cultural history of the "teachers of the purpose of existence" over thousands of years had changed human nature so that human beings had a culturally acquired need to see some cosmic purpose to their lives.  "Gradually, man has become a fantasizing [phantastischen] animal that has to fulfill one more condition of existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists; his race cannot flourish without a periodic trust in life--without faith in reason in life" (The Gay Science, sec. 1).  Consequently, Nietzsche observed, "I fear that the animals consider man as a being like themselves that has lost in a most dangerous way its sound animal common sense; they consider him the insane animal, the laughing animal, the weeping animal, the miserable animal" (sec. 224). 

Is this what happens when you have a brain with 16 billion neurons in its cerebral cortex fed by some delicious, cooked meals?


Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man. 2nd edition.  New York: Penguin Books

Gabi, Mariana, et al. 2016. "No Relative Expansion of the Number of Prefrontal Neurons in Primate and Human Evolution." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (no. 34): 9617-9622.

Herculano-Houzel, Suzana. 2016. The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Herculano-Houzel, Suzana. 2021. "Remarkable But Not Extraordinary: The Evolution of the Human Brain." In Jeremy M. Desilva, ed., A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin's 'Descent of Man' Got Right and Wrong About Human Evolution, 46-62.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Herculano-Houzel, Suzana, and Richard Lent. 2005. "Isotropic Fractionator: A Simple, Rapid Method for the Quantification of Total Cell and Neuron Numbers in the Brain." Journal of Neuroscience 25: 2518-2521.

Wrangham, Richard. 2009. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

1 comment:

Barto of the Oratory said...

The Two Darwins:
1. In this fascinating article by Professor Arnhart, the following phrase jumped out to me: "...Darwin in The Descent of Man is forced to contradict himself..."
2. Recently, largely as a result of reading this blog, I have been musing that in the writings of Darwin there are Two Darwins:
--Darwin the Scientist.
--Darwin the Philosopher.
3. And these Two Darwins are, I think, incompatible. I think they are in conflict. These Two Darwins lived in the same brain, but produced a lack of ease (a “dis-ease”) that tormented Darwin for all the years after he arrived at his scientific theory of the evolution of biological beings.
4. Darwin's 1859 book The Origin of Species is almost totally an expression of the mind and voice of Darwin the Scientist.
5. But I propose that Darwin's 1871 book The Descent of Man contains large segments that are an expression of the mind and voice of Darwin the Philosopher.
6. All this makes me think of the line from Goethe's Faust:
"Two souls, alas, dwell in my breast,
Each seeks to rule without the other."
7. I also think of Professor Unamuno's 1912 book The Tragic Sense of Life, in which he writes of the unresolvable conflict in man between (a) rational intellect that arrives at philosophical pessimism (man’s "head") and (b) the emotional desire for hope in enduring life or civilization of goodness and joy (man’s "heart").
8. I would certainly enjoy reading a book about The Tale of the Two Darwins. I imagine that within The Tale of the Two Darwins lies the whole story of Western intellectual culture since Darwin’s time.