James Arthur Lecture

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Stylized rendering of a human brain. Courtesy of Silver Blu3/Flickr

It has been 25 years since the publication of the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis (ETH), originally envisioned as a narrow hypothesis for the evolution of the brain in humans and possibly other primates.

Today, ETH has spread well beyond anthropology and has been described as one of the keystone concepts in the study of the evolution of metabolically expensive tissues across vertebrates, although it has also been the target of considerable criticism. In this lecture evolutionary anthropologist Leslie Aiello, who developed ETH with Peter Wheeler in 1995, traces this concept's history and development as well as its current status in evolutionary biology.

This is a far-reaching journey that encompasses bats, birds, fish, amphibians, as well as humans and other primates, and moves beyond the hypothesis’ initial focus on the energetic trade-off between brains and the digestive system to consider wide-ranging topics such as life history, sexual selection, fat, cooperation, locomotion, and niche construction. The ultimate goal is to circle back to its original focus and discuss the current significance of The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis to our understanding of the evolution of humans and the human brain.

How to Watch

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About the Presenter

Dr. Leslie Aiello is an evolutionary anthropologist with interests in human adaptation, focusing on evolutionary theory, life history and the evolution of the human brain and cognition. Together with Peter Wheeler (Liverpool John Moores University) she developed The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis in 1995. She spent the majority of her academic career at University College London (1976-2005) and was president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research from 2005-2017. Throughout her career she has been active with the media in the public dissemination of science and particularly in relation to human evolution. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, and of the British Academy (Corresponding Fellow). She has served as an officer for a number of anthropological and scientific societies and as a consultant and advisor to a variety of international anthropological institutions and initiatives. Other honors include the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Huxley Memorial Medalist and Lecturer (2006), an Honorary Fellowship from University College London (2007), and an honorary doctorate from University of Alcala, Spain (2017).