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Some of the new genes created by this evolutionary process enabled new neurological functions and resulted, through positive selection, in the development of higher cognitive abilities.
The German group will use advanced micro-array technology to scan genes shared by humans and apes to look for those expressed differently in each species’ brain.
The consortium’s multidisciplinary research teams, combining skills in molecular and evolutionary biology, bioinformatics, clinical psychiatry and neuroscience, aim to reconstruct the history of the evolutionary changes that led to the emergence of the human mind as it is today.
In a three-pronged approach, each team will look for turning points in the development of the human mind by studying different stages in the molecular process.
Furthermore, greater insight into the origins of human motivation, social behaviour and cooperation would assist the design of social and cultural institutions to accommodate human needs in better ways.
This global understanding of the human mind is clearly a very long way off.
This progress would have considerable future benefits.
By understanding the specific nature and limits of human conceptual reasoning, for example, it would be possible to devise more powerful artificial learning technologies.
Improved education strategies could be developed as a result of further knowledge of specifically human capabilities to perceive and encode information and experience.
Identifying the molecular basis for these changes is key to understanding which cognitive abilities, and their corresponding genes, are unique to humans.
The NEST PKB140404 project, part of the PATHFINDER initiative to investigate ‘What it means to be human’, will use an integrated approach, bridging cognitive neuroscience and molecular evolution, to probe the differences between the brains of humans and their closest relatives, the apes.