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Comparative analyses are the backbone of evolutionary analysis. However, their record in producing a consensus has not always been good. This is especially true of attempts to understand the factors responsible for the evolution of large brains, which have been embroiled in an increasingly polarised debate over the past three decades. We argue that most of these disputes arise from a number of conceptual errors and associated logical fallacies that are the result of a failure to adopt a biological systems-based approach to hypothesis-testing. We identify four principal classes of error: a failure to heed Tinbergen's Four Questions when testing biological hypotheses, misapplying Dobzhansky's Dictum when testing hypotheses of evolutionary adaptation, poorly chosen behavioural proxies for underlying hypotheses, and the use of inappropriate statistical methods. In the interests of progress, we urge a more careful and considered approach to comparative analyses, and the adoption of a broader, rather than a narrower, taxonomic perspective.

Original publication




Journal article


Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc

Publication Date





1278 - 1309


Dobzhansky's Dictum, Tinbergen's Four Questions, regression analysis, sloppy definitions, social brain hypothesis