ABORIGINE VISUAL MEMORY

New research suggests that one part of an aborigine’s brain is 25 per cent bigger than a European’s – but the academic community refuses to take it seriously, for fear of being branded ‘racist’.

Sherilee is an eight year old who lives in Australia. She seems just like any other ordinary schoolgirl of her age, but she could help to resolve one of the most controversial topics in science: the relationship between genes and intelligence.

The question of how much of our brain power is fixed by what we inherit form our parents, and how much is a product of upbringing and education, is one that appears to fascinate and frighten everyone – scientists included.

It is not just the American constitution that is framed around the conviction hat we are all created equal. Practically the whole of contemporary politics is based on the idea that the differences betweenindividuals are not fixed at birth.

The suggestion that there are inherent differences, not just between individuals, but between races, is even less acceptable. There is now evidence, however, that one group of people may indeed have a superior mental capacity, in at least one respect, to everyone else – and some of it comes form the eight-year old Sherilee.

Sherilee has an astonishingly accurate visual memory. She scores 100 per cent on tests designed to measure how much individuals can remember of what they see. The only clue to the cause of her remarkable ability is her race: she is an aborigine, and aborigines have a proven ability to remember the exact location of objects that far exceeds that of other ethnic groups. They can find their way across deserts, locate water holes and identify animal lairs with an uncanny accuracy. They also perform about 50 per cent better on visual memory tests than, for instance, Caucasians.

What is the aborigines’ secret? To some evolutionary psychologists, the answer is relatively straightforward. The aborigines were, for about 4,000 generations, or 80,000 years, hunter-gatherers in the deserts of Australia.

That is enough time for natural selection to have worked on increasing the accuracy of aborigines’ memory, because if you could not find your way through the desert, or to the waterhole, you would starve, and so would your children. In the competition to stay alive, an accurate memory would – to put it mildly – have been an advantage.

Are today’s aborigine children the inheritors of that process? It has certainly been speculated that their extraordinary visual memories are the result of genes selected over thousands of years by evolution.

By Clive Harper, a professor of pathology in Sydney, may have discovered evidence that it is more than just a theoretical possibility. He found that the visual cortex – the part of the brain used in processing and interpreting visual information – was about 25 per cent larger in aborigines than in Caucasians.

Aborigines can find their way across deserts, locate waterholes and identify animal lairs with an uncanny accuracy

‘The idea of genetic differences between the different races’ mental abilities has about as bad a pedigree as it is possible to image’

‘The whole of contemporary politics is based on the idea that the differences between individuals are not fixed at birth’

ALASDAIR PALMER, The Sunday Telegraph

 

Genetics and Genealogy Display Prints and Key Texts

Genetics and Genealogy