One thing that surprised me when working on How Many Neurons Are There was the number of neurons in the brains of very small animals.

Let’s look a classic measurement, the brain-mass:body-mass ratio.* Smarter animals generally have larger brain sizes for their body mass, compared to animals of similar size. Among large animals, humans have famously enormous brains for our size – the highest of any large animal, it seems. But as we look at smaller animals, that ratio goes up again. A mouse has a comparable brain:body-mass ratio to a human. Getting even smaller, insects have higher brain:body-mass ratios than any vertebrate we know of: more like 1 in 6.

But brain mass isn’t quite what we want – brains are mostly water, and there are a lot of non-neuron cells in brains. Conveniently, I also have a ton of numbers put together on number of neurons. (Synapse counts might be better, but those are hard to come by for different species. Ethology would also be interesting.)

And the trend is also roughly true for neuron-county:body-mass. Humans do have unusually high numbers of neurons per kilogram than other animals, but far, far fewer than, for instance, a small fish or an ant.

If you believe some variation on one of the following:

  • Different species have moral worth in proportion to how many neurons they have
  • Different animal species have moral worth in proportion to how smart they are
  • Different species have moral worth in proportion to the amount of complex thought they can do
  • Different species have moral worth in proportion to how much they can learn**

…then this explanation is an indication that insects and other small animals have much more moral worth than their small size suggests.

How much more?

Imagine, if you will, a standard 5-gallon plastic bucket.

Now imagine that bucket contains 300,000 ants – about two pounds.*** Or a kilogram, if you prefer.

Imagine the bucket. Imagine the equivalent of a couple large apples inside it.

A bucket. Two pounds of ants.

Those ants, collectively, have as many neurons as you do.

You may notice that an adult human brain actually weighs more than two pounds. What’s going on? Simply, insect brains are marvels of miniaturization. Their brains have a panoply of space-saving tricks, and the physical cells are much smaller.

*Aren’t the cool kids using cephalization quotients rather than brain-mass:body-mass ratios? Yes, when it comes to measurements of higher cognition in vertebrates, cephalization is (as far as I’m aware) thought of as better. But there’s debate about that too. Referring to abilities directly probably makes sense for assessing abilities. I don’t know much about this and it’s not the focus of this piece, anyway.

**Yes, I know that only the first question is directly relevant to this piece, and that all of the others are different. I’m just saying it’s evidence. We don’t have a lot of behavioral data on small animals anyways, but I think we can agree there’s probably a correlation between brain size and cognitive capacity.

***Do two pounds of “normal-sized” ants actually fit in a five-gallon bucket? Yes. I couldn’t find a number for “ant-packing density” in the literature, but thanks to the valiant efforts of David Manheim and Rio Lumapas, it seems to be between 0.3 gallons (5 cups) and 5.5 gallons. It depends on size and whether ants pack more like spheres or more like blocks.

Suggested readings: Brian Tomasik on judging the moral importance of small minds (link is to the most relevant part but the whole essay is good) and on “clock speeds” in smaller animal brains, Suzana Herculano-Houzel on neuron count and intelligence in elephants versus humansHow many neurons are there. (The last piece also contains most of the citations for this week. Ask if you want specific ones.)

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Here's another potentially interesting example, based on your article here and this Vox article.

Dan Fergus, a researcher that works with Menninger, estimates that the average person has between 1.5 and 2.5 million mites, but no one really knows.

You wrote:

No formal count has been made of the number of neurons in a springtail, but Tomasik compares its body size to a fruit fly and concludes that if neurons scale linearly with body size between the two, a springtail has about 5800 neurons.

(The number is taken from Brian Tomasik's article here.)

5,800 might be an overestimate for mites, if they're much smaller, but I would assume mites have at least as many neurons as C. elegans, 302. Combining the estimate for the number of mites and the estimate for the number of neurons per mite, it looks like at least 0.5 billion neurons from mites on your body, but maybe up to around 10x more. The human brain has ~86 billion neurons. So at least around 0.6% of the neurons in or in close proximity to your body are not your own, but invertebrates'. I wonder what this would look like if you include the mites on your bed, in your room, or your whole home. Could the number of neurons in a house be in the same order of magnitude for human neurons and mite neurons?

I think densities of mites in soil are typically in the range 10^3 to 10^5 per square meter. For example, see the Brady (1974) and Curl and Truelove (1986) numbers here.

In 2016, I used my microscope camera to look for dust mites around my own house during the summer, and I mainly only found them in areas with lots of accumulated skin flakes. Even in the flake patches, they didn't seem dramatically more densely concentrated than the mites I filmed in the soil outside my house. Of course, this is just one data point. (Also, maybe I could only see the biggest ones? But that would apply to both indoor and outdoor mites.)

If we assumed moral weight was exactly proportional to the square root of whole nervous system neuron count, then the 1.5-2.5 million mites on your body would have at least 80x as much moral weight as you.

This is fascinating! I’ve heard (though it may well be bunk) that intelligence in humans is somewhat correlated with brain size but that the brain size is limited by the size of the birth canal. (Which made me think that c-section should lead to smarter people in the long run.) But if there’s still so much room for optimization left without changing the brain size, does that merely indicate that the changes would take too many mutations to be likely to happen (sort of why we still have our weird eye architecture when other animals have straightforward eyes) or that a lot of human thinking happens at a lower abstraction level than that of the neuron so that, e.g., whole brain emulation at a neuronal level would be destined to fail?

Recent large sample within-family data does seem to establish causal effects of brain size on intelligence and educational attainment. The genetic correlation is ~0.4, so most of the genetic variance isn't working through overall brain size.

Some kinds of features that could contribute to genetic variance in humans, but not scale for arbitrary differences across species:

  • Mutation load (the rate at which this is trimmed back, and thus the equilibrium load, depends on the strength of selection for cognitive abilities)
  • Motivation: attention to learning, play, imitation, and language comes at the expense of attention to other things
  • Pleiotropy with other selection combined with evolutionary limits (selection for lower aggression also causes white patches in fur via changes in neural crests, and retention of a variety of juvenile features), e.g. selection for disease resistance changing pathways so as to accidentally impair brain function (with the change surviving because of its benefits)
  • Alleles that provide resistance to disease (genetic variance is maintained in a Red Queen's Race) that damages the brain would be a source of genetic variance, likewise variants affecting nutrition or other environmental influences

Upvoted! Thanks for the clear argument, descriptive title, and amusing cartoon. Ideally, good Forum posts will also be memorable, so that people remember them in future discussions, and images are a good way to achieve this.

This post was awarded an EA Forum Prize; see the prize announcement for more details.

My notes on what I liked about the post, from the announcement:

"Small animals have enormous brains for their size” makes a single, simple point (you can see it in the title), but does so with unusual elegance.

I still remember the core simile — "you have as many neurons as a half-full bucket of ants" — many weeks after I first read the article, and expect to remember it for years to come, thanks to the original art which enlivens the piece. Illustrations aren’t essential to Forum posts, but making good ideas memorable, however you choose to do it, amplifies their impact.

Additionally, the author:

  • Recommends further reading for anyone who found the article interesting (this is surprisingly rare for EA Forum posts, despite the vast literature that informs many of our ideas).
  • Doesn’t overstate her point; instead, we get facts about neurons, plus a list of ways in which these facts could interact with certain beliefs to produce other beliefs, without advocacy for any of those beliefs.
    • There’s nothing wrong with advocating beliefs, of course, but there can be major benefits to separating "fact posts" from "belief posts". For example, a fact post is more likely to be cited by authors with a range of beliefs, making everyone’s belief posts more evidence-based in the process.
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities