How quickly do brains catch up with bodies? A comparative method for detecting evolutionary lag

Robert O. Deaner, Charles L. Nunn

Abstract

A trait may be at odds with theoretical expectation because it is still in the process of responding to a recent selective force. Such a situation can be termed evolutionary lag. Although many cases of evolutionary lag have been suggested, almost all of the arguments have focused on trait fitness. An alternative approach is to examine the prediction that trait expression is a function of the time over which the trait could evolve. Here we present a phylogenetic comparative method for utilizing this ‘time’ approach and we apply the method to a long–standing lag hypothesis: evolutionary changes in brain size lag behind evolutionary changes in body size. We tested the prediction in primates that brain mass contrast residuals, calculated from a regression of pairwise brain mass contrasts on positive pairwise body mass contrasts, are correlated with the time since the paired species diverged. Contrary to the brain size lag hypothesis, time since divergence was not significantly correlated with brain mass contrast residuals. We found the same result when we accounted for socioecology, used alternative body mass estimates and used male rather than female values. These tests do not support the brain size lag hypothesis. Therefore, body mass need not be viewed as a suspect variable in comparative neuroanatomical studies and relative brain size should not be used to infer recent evolutionary changes in body size.