Nicholas J. Strausfelt
Nicholas J. Strausfelt

When scientists talk about the evolution of the brain, they often disagree over whether brain functions evolved separately in living creatures that have brains, or whether they were inherited from a common ancestor.

Nicholas J. Strausfeld, director of the Center for Insect Science and a Regents’ Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Arizona, favors the common ancestor theory.

Strausfeld discussed that theory in the opening lecture of the UA College of Science’s annual Science Lecture Series, whose theme this year is “The Evolving Brain.” The six weekly lectures conclude March 10 at Centennial Hall on the UA Campus.

A recording of his lecture, entitled “Time Traveling: What Our Brains Share with Beetle Brains,” will be shown on the big screen at the Arizona Senior Academy Wednesday (March 12) at 3:30 p.m. As in past years, the Arizona Senior Academy is bringing these lectures – live or via podcast – to east side audiences free of charge.

Strausfeld’s belief in the theory of a common ancestor, known in scientific circles as “homology,” is shared by many evolutionary biologists but disputed by most neuroscientists.

A fossil discovery Strausfeld made in 2012 has bolstered the homology scenario and made the UA professor a sought-after speaker at scientific gatherings. The fossil of a now-extinct arthropod shows evidence of a brain that may have already evolved, 520 million years ago, to segment into three parts corresponding to the forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain in humans.

“Lots of people don’t like that idea, sharing a brain with a beetle, but there’s good evidence suggesting that you do,” Strausfeld said in an Arizona Daily Star interview last month. “If you compare our behavior with that of the dung beetle, you find some very interesting similarities,” he said.

The dung beetle, in rolling its ball of fecal matter, transporting it, burying it and finding it again demonstrates decision-making, memory and selection of action, Strausfeld said. Those three aspects of behavior are, “in a sense, identical to ours,” he said.

Submitted by Mike Maharry, Academy Village Volunteer

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Do Humans and Beetles Share Brain Functions?: March 2014