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Two general kinds of theory (one ecological and one social) have been advanced to explain the fact that primates have larger brains and greater congnitive abilities than other animals. Data on neocortex volume, group size and a number of behavioural ecology variables are used to test between the various theories. Group size is found to be a function of relative neocortical volume, but the ecological variables are not. This is interpreted as evidence in favour of the social intellect theory and against the ecological theories. It is suggested that the number of neocortical neurons limits the organism's information-processing capacity and that this then limits the number of relationships that an individual can monitor simultaneously. When a group's size exceeds this limit, it becomes unstable and begins to fragment. This then places an upper limit on the size of groups which any given species can maintain as cohesive social units through time. The data suggest that the information overload occurs in terms of the structure of relationships within tightly bonded grooming cliques rather than in terms of the total number of dyads within the group as a whole that an individual has to monitor. It thus appears that, among primates, large groups are created by welding together sets of smaller grooming cliques. One implication of these results is that, since the actual group size will be determined by the ecological characteristics of the habitat in any given case, species will only be able to invade habitats that require larger groups than their current limit if they evolve larger neocortices. © 1992.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Human Evolution

Publication Date





469 - 493