John R. Skoyles (2000) Brain Size Does Matter. Psycoloquy: 11(056) Brain Expertise (9)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 11(056): Brain Size Does Matter

Reply to Webster on Skoyles on Brain-Expertise

John R. Skoyles
6 Denning Road,
London, NW3 1SU
United Kingdom


Webster & Richardson's (1999) work on covariation and co-ordinate hyperstructural information merits wide discussion, however, it has little to do with my target article (Skoyles, 1999).


brain size, brain imaging, evolution, expertise, hemispherectomy, Homo erectus, individual differences, intelligence, IQ, language, microcephaly, MRI volumetrics, psychometrics.
1. Webster & Richardson's (1999) commentary seems less concerned with responding to my target article than with advocating their own work. They suggest that my approach ill informed (para. 1 to 10), then find a link to their own work (para. 11 to 14) and discuss their own work (para. 15 to 22). Although the tone of the following my reply may sound critical, I do consider their work to be of critical importance.

2. Webster & Richardson criticise me because they understand me to be proposing the capacity for expertise that I link to brain size as an alternative to IQ, whereas Webster & Richardson would instead like to see the capacity for covariation and co-ordinate hyperstructural information in this role (Richardson 1999a).

3. I am not in fact proposing expertise as an alternative to IQ, but merely arguing that the capacity for expertise underlies intelligent behaviour (which, of course, is not the same thing as underlying the cognitions measured by IQ). Moreover, nothing about expertise links it to the capacity for extracting and using covariation and co-ordinate hyperstructural information. I am trying to answer a different question about a different cognitive phenomenon.

4. Webster & Richardson ignore the fact that expertise takes many years of daily practice for several hours to acquire: ten hours for three to four hours each day seems to the minimum (Ericsson, & Lehmann, 1996). This extensive practice is needed to acquire the tens of thousands of information chunks that enable people to examine a complex data structure, such as a chess board or a horse-racing form, and extract a solution (Gobet, & Simon, 1996). The complex cognition Webster & Richardson are concerned with requires no such extensive practice, merely the ability to utilise the deeper covariation or co-ordinate structure in a domain. Such perceptual learning may take some time, but nothing like the quantity of experience needed to gain expertise.

5. Second, expertise correlates poorly with IQ (as measured by the Ravens matrices) (Ericsson, & Lehmann, 1996). But Webster & Richardson argue that the ability to utilise the deeper covariation or co-ordinate structure in a domain underlies such abilities (para. 18, 19, 20 and 21).

6. Webster & Richardson are accordingly discussing a phenomenon different from the one I raised in my target article. Why should they have mixed up the two up? One reason is that they have failed to absorb the literature upon expertise. They complain that I show "a certain blindness to the social and institutional dimensions of expertise" (para. 11). I challenge the reader to examine the research literature upon expertise and find any context in which this observation makes sense. I suspect that rather than understanding expertise as discussed by experimental researchers, they prefer to understand it in terms of nonexperimental intuitions such as those given by etymology -- as in their interesting but irrelevant observation that the first people to be called experts were witnesses in French courts (para. 11).

7. Webster & Richardson want to criticise not so much my target article but the notion of IQ in general (see for example, Richardson, 1998, 199a,b). My paper does criticise IQ, but only in a very limited way in regard to its link with brain size. These authors seem to want to present a competing history of intelligent behaviour -- one based around the idea that" the capacity to utilise ever-deeper hyperstructural information "has increased as humans have "moved into increasingly complex environments," and this "explains how bigger corticalized and restructured brains are brought into play" (all quotes para. 17). They have a problem, however: their theory does not make any predictions -- hence such vague phrases as "brought into play" (what does this mean?) My theory makes specific refutable predictions: for example, that expertise acquisition is linked to the capacity to have information chunks and so neural columns; through this it links directly links to brain size. All Webster & Richardson can offer are imprecise words about the capacity to utilise ever-deeper hyperstructural information being "qualitatively related to increased brain corticalization and restructuring" (para. 22). Nothing quantitative, nothing physical links this proposed capacity with increases in brain corticalization or its restructuring. In contrast, predictions follow from my conjecture: study microencephalics and others with Homo erectus sized brains but normal IQ and they should be deficient in their capacity to acquire expertise. Study experts and you should find that it takes over much of their brains.

8. There is not room to expose all the flaws in their criticism at my approach. Here are some examples.

9. They find "problematic" and "ambiguous" what they call "primitive expertise" (para. 3). The reasons they give are that my examples are modern (chess, racing forms) and that my one exception concerns the !Kung, who are "under modern pressure" and so "to use the !Kung in this way is questionable at the very least". These comments suggest that Webster & Richardson have not absorbed the literature upon expertise. What is central to this literature is that expertise is a general cognitive phenomenon -- there is no such thing as "primitive" or "modern" expertise, only expertise. No reason exists why it should be problematic to apply research upon such general processes to early hominids -- any more than applying last year's research done at CERN to the first moments after the Big Bang. Surely psychologists need not hesitate to follow physicists and other scientists in making inferences about earlier times from modern laboratory research?

10. Their comment about !Kung expertise in hunting also rests upon a nonsequitur. First, I mention them as an illustration of the role of expertise in hunting that fits surprisingly with what is known about expertise in other areas (i.e., it takes many years to acquire). I make no reference to the !Kung being modern representatives of early hominids: I refer to them, since no anthropological research of which I know makes any reference to expertise in the hunting of any other group, whether for survival or recreation. Whether the !Kung are survivors of pre-agrarian simple hunter-gatherers or a complex creation of modern circumstances (the debate was well aired in the journal CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY a few years ago) is irrelevant to the question whether the skill of prey tracking is expertise that needs many years of daily practice to acquire. This links to the problem of tracking animal prey, not the past history of those doing the tracking. Whether or not tracking requires expertise is an empirical question that can be tested in the field by anthropologists comparing the prey tracking abilities of hunters of different ages.


Ericsson, K. A., & Lehmann, A. C. (1996). Expert and exceptional performance: Evidence of maximal adaptation to task constraints. Annual Review of Psychology, 47, 273-305.

Gobet, F., & Simon, H. A. (1996). Recall of random and distorted chess position: Implication for the theory of expertise. Memory and Cognition, 24, 493-503.

Richardson, K. (1998) The origins of human potential: evolution, development and psychology, Routledge.

Richardson, K. (1999a). Hyperstructures in brain and cognition. PSYCOLOQUY 10(031). psyc.99.10.031.hyperstructure.1.richardson

Richardson, K. (1999b). Demystifying g. PSYCOLOQUY 10(048) psyc.99.10.048.intelligence-g-factor.5.richardson

Skoyles, J.R. (1999). Human evolution expanded brains to increase expertise capacity, not IQ. PSYCOLOQUY 10(002). psyc.99.10.002.brain-expertise.1.skoyles

Webster, D.S. and Richardson, K. (1999). How does brain size matter? Commentary on Skoyles on Brain-Expertise. PSYCOLOQUY 10(030). psyc.99.10.030.brain-expertise.5.webster

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