Massey University biologist David Penny recently received New Zealand’s top science award, the Rutherford Medal. Penny is a biologist who earlier this year published a paper in Nature speculating on how and why human beings evolved such relatively large brains. Penny’s hypothesis didn’t go over very well with animal rights activists, however, since his paper places meat eating as an important reason for the relatively sudden increase in brain size.
Penny’s hypothesis is complicated, but allow me to oversimplify it a bit. One of the downsides of having a brain the size of homo sapiens is that the damn thing needs a lot of energy to maintain it and keep it going. Although today there are plenty of plant sources that can yield a high protein, vegetarian diet, most of those sources simply wouldn’t have been widely available to early homo sapiens. For example, beans are a good source of protein, but only became domesticated very recently in human history. Penny’s conclusion? As he wrote in Nature, “an increased proportion of meat in the diet of early humans was important for an increase in brain size.”
Of course to some animal rights activists, that’s heresy. For example, here’s how one activist criticized the award to Dr. Penny on the AR-News mailing list,
This is yet another example of organized science in the service of industry engaging in dastardly support of vested interests that are contrary to the ethics of sound science. Is [sic] does not take a rocket scientist to deflate this flatulent hypothesis — look at the brains and social lives of elephants, who are vegetarian, and when it comes to doing good for their own kind and for their environment, do a far better job than those arrogant primates who believe that meat eating gave them bigger and better brains: Bigger egos, and little else.
Ah, yes, those dastardly scientists giving out awards in slavish obedience to “vested interests.” The elephant counter example was at least good for a laugh. The commentator apparently didn’t see fit to mention that although elephants do have large brains, they are smaller relative to body size than is the human brain and, more importantly, elephants in the wild have to spend as much as 20 hours a day foraging for the 300-500 pounds of vegetation they require daily to sustain their body mass and brain.
The person who posted this is also apparently unaware that Penny is himself something of an animal rights activist. Penny is affiliated with the Great Ape Project which seeks to have New Zealand amend its constitution to recognize the rights of Great Apes.
But he’s probably doing that simply in the service of industry and the dastardly support of vested interests. At least, unlike the AR-News individual, Penny knows the difference between science and ideology.
Evolution expert takes highest science award. Simon Collins, The New Zealand Herald, September 25, 2004.