• Richard Cornell

A New Theory on The Evolution of Neurodiversity



New research published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal proposes a new theory of human evolution entitled ‘Complementary Cognition’ which suggests that in adapting to dramatic environmental and climactic variabilities our ancestors evolved to specialise in different, but complementary, ways of thinking.

Researchers led by Dr Helen Taylor, Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde and Affiliated Scholar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, have proposed that complementary cognitive search abilities are central to understanding how our species adapts and evolves. This ‘searching’ takes many forms including searching the physical world for new resources to searching internal memories to determine the best approach in any given situation.


This new theory suggests that because our hominid ancestors had to contend with a very rapidly changing world, sometimes within an individual’s lifetime, cogitative behavioural adaptation was necessary. This adaptation is driven by individuals and groups continuously facing the dilemma of whether to pursue actions that exploit existing but possibly suboptimal information or exploring uncertain but potentially more profitable solutions. Exploration encompasses things such as search variation, risk-taking, flexibility, experimentation, discovery and innovation while exploitation includes aspects such as refinement, choice, production, efficiency, selection and implementation.


The researchers describe how a generalised brain such as the that of homo sapiens reaches a limit on its search capacity and efficiency. Beyond those limits, the only way to increase capacity is through specialisation and so a division of labour must have occurred in the context of a cooperative group. For this cooperation to take place language must have also developed at the same time. Navigating search at the group level confers a number of important benefits such as: significant efficiency savings; globally increased capacity; risk mitigation at the individual and group level; and recombination of different search strategies.


The authors discuss how “specialists with an exploitative bias may be better at faithfully copying and recalling detailed or procedural information passed down through generations, such as the correct sequence and way of making a tool. Conversely, those with an explorative search will be better able to identify global patterns in inherited information, enabling generalisations and predictions about unknown or ambiguous situations.”

The new theory provides an explanation for neurocognitive specialisation and shows how this has been vital for human survival and adaption. It also points the way for success in all enterprises, in all fields, where neurodiversity is essential to the success of the group.


So, when you’re next looking to hire a new member of the team consider whether you need someone who can exploit the existing body of knowledge or explore new ways of working or finding new markets. Your economic survival depends on “a careful balance of cognitive specialisations and effective collaboration. Not balancing this well can lead directly to maladaptive behaviours and culture.”


A final thought from the researchers that has wider reaching implications for our industry as a whole and the way we educate the next generation; “The challenge of collaborating and co-adapting at scale creates many difficulties. We believe that we have also unwittingly put in place a number of cultural systems and practices that may be undermining our ability to adapt.”


For further insight into creating a neurodiverse team check out the Neurodiversity 101 seminars.