A neurochemical hypothesis for the origin of hominids

Mary Ann Raghanti, Melissa K. Edler, Alexa R. Stephenson, Emily L. Munger, Bob Jacobs, Patrick R. Hof, Chet C. Sherwood, Ralph L. Holloway, C. Owen Lovejoy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


It has always been difficult to account for the evolution of certain human characters such as language, empathy, and altruism via individual reproductive success. However, the striatum, a subcortical region originally thought to be exclusively motor, is now known to contribute to social behaviors and "personality styles" that may link such complexities with natural selection. We here report that the human striatum exhibits a unique neurochemical profile that differs dramatically from those of other primates. The human signature of elevated striatal dopamine, serotonin, and neuropeptide Y, coupled with lowered acetylcholine, systematically favors externally driven behavior and greatly amplifies sensitivity to social cues that promote social conformity, empathy, and altruism. We propose that selection induced an initial form of this profile in early hominids, which increased their affiliative behavior, and that this shift either preceded or accompanied the adoption of bipedality and elimination of the sectorial canine. We further hypothesize that these changes were critical for increased individual fitness and promoted the adoption of social monogamy, which progressively increased cooperation as well as a dependence on tradition-based cultural transmission. These eventually facilitated the acquisition of language by elevating the reproductive advantage afforded those most sensitive to social cues.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E1108-E1116
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number6
StatePublished - 6 Feb 2018


  • Ardipithecus
  • Basal ganglia
  • Dopamine
  • Hominin
  • Neurotransmitter


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