The costs and benefits of flexibility as an expression of behavioural plasticity: a primate perspective
Carel P van Schaik, May 2013
Phil Trans R Soc B
Traditional neo-Darwinism ascribes geographical variation in morphology or in behaviour to varying selection on local genotypes. However, mobile and long-lived organisms cannot achieve local adaptation this way, leading to a renewed interest in plasticity. I examined geographical variation in orang-utan subsistence and social behaviour, and found this to be largely owing to behavioural plasticity, here called flexibility, both in the form of flexible individual decisions and of socially transmitted (cultural) innovations. Although comparison with other species is difficult, the extent of such flexibility is almost certainly limited by brain size. It is shown that brains can only increase relative to body size where the cognitive benefits they produce are reliably translated into improved survival rate. This means that organisms that are very small, face many predators, live in highly seasonal environments, or lack opportunities for social learning cannot evolve greater flexibility, and must achieve local adaptation through selection on specific genotypes. On the other hand, as body and brain size increase, local adaptation is increasingly achieved through selection on plasticity. The species involved are also generally those that most need it, being more mobile and longer-lived. Although high plasticity buffers against environmental change, the most flexible organisms face a clear limit because they respond slowly to selection. Thus, paradoxically, the largest-brained animals may actually be vulnerable to the more drastic forms of environmental change, such as those induced by human actions.
[In particular, humans were selected for behavioral plasticity; for big brains, high intelligence and a "free will".]