How the Hobbit films illustrate the way human brains evolved

Credit: Warner Brothers
Credit: Warner Brothers

For Northwestern University neuroscientist and engineer Malcolm MacIver, [a scene from the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey where Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins are chased through a New Zealand countryside] is an excellent example of the kind of patchy landscape—dotted with trees, bushes, boxers, and rolling knolls—that may have shaped the evolution of higher intelligence in humans, compared to their aquatic ancestors. Specifically, it falls within a “Goldilocks zone”—not too sparse, and not too dense—that favors strategic thinking and planning ahead.

“The basic idea is that open spaces—open grassland, flat plains—are just speed games, favoring the predator, since they are larger,” MacIver told Ars. “Closed spaces—dense forests or jungles—favor simple strategies of running for cover. Using a complexity measure, we show both of these habitats have low complexity.” That complexity measure is lacunarity.

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The complexity “sweet spot,” according to MacIver, is a landscape like the one featured in The Hobbit chase scene, or like Botswana’a Okavango Delta, both of which feature an open grassland and moss zones dotted with clumps of trees and similar foliage. “In this zone, neither speed games nor running for cover maximizes survival rate,” said MacIver. “But planning—by which I mean imagining future paths and picking the best based on what you think your adversary will do—gives you a considerable advantage.”

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