Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 February 2010
We review the evidence for the concept of the “initial” or prototype brain. We outline four possible modes of brain evolution suggested by our new findings on the evolutionary status of the dolphin brain. The four modes involve various forms of deviation from and conformity to the hypothesized initial brain type. These include examples of conservative evolution, progressive evolution, and combinations of the two in which features of one or the other become dominant. The four types of neocortical organization in extant mammals may be the result of selective pressures on sensory/motor systems resulting in divergent patterns of brain phylogenesis. A modular “modification/multiplication” hypothesis is proposed as a mechanism of neocortical evolution in eutherians. Representative models of the initial ancestral group of mammals include not only extant basal Insectivora but also Chiroptera; we have found that dolphins and large whales have also retained many features of the archetypal or initial brain. This group evolved from the initial mammalian stock and returned to the aquatic environment some 50 million years ago. This unique experiment of nature shows the effects of radical changes in environment on brain-body adaptations and specializations. Although the dolphin brain has certain quantitative characteristics of the evolutionary changes seen in the higher terrestrial mammals, it has also retained many of the conservative structural features of the initial brain. Its neocortical organization is accordingly different, largely in a quantitative sense, from that of terrestrial models of the initial brain such as the hedgehog.