The rich social interaction and highly evolved brains of some whales are linked in a kind of evolutionary feedback loop, a newly published paper suggests.The research, largely done at the University of British Columbia, sheds new light on similarities between whale and human evolution.“Similar pressures and possibilities in the environment can select for a similar outcome,” said Kieran Fox, now a postdoctoral student at California’s Stanford University and co-author of the new paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution.Fox and his colleagues studied brain sizes and social behaviours of a wide variety of whale species.They found that whales with the most complex forms of social interaction — which includes learning from elders, social hierarchies, co-operation and play — tend to live in mid-sized groups of between five and 20. In species such as orcas, individuals have extended one-on-one contact required to develop social behaviour.“Orcas are in matrilineal family clans,” Fox said. “These groups stay together, very tight-knit, through their whole lives.”In addition, Fox found that whales with the largest “social repertoire” also have the largest and most developed brains relative to their bodies.But which came first, the bigger brain or the richer relationships? Fox said his research suggests the two go hand in hand.Learning beneficial new skills or social behaviours eventually requires a larger, more powerful brain. And a species that evolves a more powerful brain is better able to learn or develop relationships.“That’s the theory to this extremely powerful driver of brain evolution — once it gets going, you get some brain tissue that supports (social skills), then these individuals are going to do really, really well, because social co-operation and learning are very powerful survival strategies.”Fox calls the effect a positive feedback loop.“Let’s say a random increase in brain size or complexity gives you a greater capacity for social co-operation. If these new social skills pay off, then natural selection will keep favouring expansion of this same brain area. The capacity for social skills and co-operation will expand in turn, and the cycle will repeat.“What you’ll eventually expect to see is that species that have large, complex brains will also tend to possess a wider repertoire of social behaviours — and this is exactly what we found among the whales and dolphins.”Humans are the classic example of how the link between powerful brains and rich, adaptive cultures can create a smashing evolutionary success. Fox said his research shows how the same process may be at work in a completely different environment and species.Whales aren’t the only example of this kind of evolutionary strategy. Some primates and elephants also possess it, said Fox.“A very different species in a totally different environment, diverging millions and millions of years ago, can nonetheless be selected for this very similar life strategy.”What’s more, that strategy can be accomplished with very different types of brains. While whales lack the frontal lobes that humans rely on for most of their complex thinking, they have large and well-developed brain regions that don’t really have a human counterpart.Some scientists still maintain that because whale brains are so different, they can’t be “intelligent.”“To me, that’s foolish,” Fox said.“It denies the very possibility that a different brain structure could give rise to similar complexity or social skills. I think the evidence clearly shows that’s possible.”— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
HALIFAX – African Nova Scotians and other minority communities will have input as the province remodels schools administration under sweeping reforms, the education minister says.Zach Churchill said he wants full community involvement in the selection process for the new education advisory council that is to replace the province’s seven English-language regional school boards.“I want that to happen,” Churchill said. “We want this to be a fair process where we get good people who can contribute to good outcomes for kids in our province.”Minority groups have voiced concerns about losing their elected representatives through legislation introduced Thursday that will eliminate the school boards by March 31.Archy Beals, the African Nova Scotian representative on the Halifax Regional School Board, said Friday his community is concerned about losing its voice to a large bureaucratic body.“We need to have a strong voice at the table and we need to have a non-partisan voice and a transparent voice so that we are not just rubber-stamping what governments ask,” said Beals.Beals says there are concerns about who will be appointed to the 15-member council.He said the members of the African Nova Scotian school board caucus have written to Churchill but have received no response. He said they’ve also submitted the names of four people to sit on a transition team that will shepherd in the creation of the new advisory council, but have not heard back.“The problem with that is, you are hand-picking people,” said Beals. “Where’s the transparency in that? Where’s the non-partisan piece in that?”Beals said he believes a system of community nominations could be a part of the change process.However, he also defended the school boards as they are currently constituted, saying minority representation on the Halifax board has worked to make substantial changes. He pointed to reports on the incidents of racism and discrimination under the board’s auspices, and work on culturally relevant teaching methods.“Granted there are some things that we need to change and work on, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not the solution.”Churchill said there would be minority input as part of the transition team that will advise his department on the terms of reference and selection process for the advisory council.In addition to minority seats on the council, two new executive director positions representing the African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities will also be created at the Education Department as part of sweeping reforms based on a recent report by education consultant Avis Glaze.