Animal life can be perceived as the selective use of information for maximizing survival and reproduction. All organisms including bacteria and protists rely on genetic networks to build and modulate sophisticated structures and biochemical mechanisms for perceiving information and responding to environmental changes. Animals, however, have gone through a series of innovations that dramatically increased their capacity to acquire, retain and act upon information. Multicellularity was associated with the evolution of the nervous system, which took over many tasks of internal communication and coordination. This paved the way for the evolution of learning, initially based on individual experience and later also via social interactions. The increased importance of social learning also led to the evolution of language in a single lineage. Individuals' ability to dramatically increase performance via learning may have led to an evolutionary cycle of increased lifespan and greater investment in cognitive abilities, as well as in the time necessary for the development and refinement of expertise. We still know little, however, about the evolutionary biology, genetics and neurobiological mechanisms that underlie such expertise and its development.
This article is part of the themed issue ‘Process and pattern in innovations from cells to societies’.