September 17, 2004

CHICKEN? EGG? DUST? (via Charlie Herzog):

Childhood May Separate Humans From the Apes (SHARON BEGLEY, September 16, 2004, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)

Big brain? Walking upright? Dexterous hands? With so many striking differences between modern humans and all other primates, including our extinct ancestors, scientists have no shortage of suspects for the essential feature that first set Homo sapiens apart from everyone else on the family tree. But new research suggests the real quantum leap in human evolution was something previously unsuspected: the invention of childhood.

A high-tech examination of the only fossil of an infant belonging to the species Homo erectus -- a direct ancestor of today's humans -- indicates childhood is a much more recent development than scientists once thought. It also suggests it took childhood to produce truly modern humans. [...]

The new timeline has many implications for scientists' understanding of human evolution, says anthropologist Richard Klein of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., who wasn't involved in the study. For one thing, it suggests that many of the key developments in human evolution, such as the birth of language and stable social structures, were squeezed into much less time than had been thought. Also, although some human ancestors looked like people walking around today -- albeit shorter and hairier -- they fell far short of having the full dose of modern traits, especially intelligence and language. And the reason may well be that they didn't have childhoods.

Scientists can only speculate about how childhood, marked by a still-growing brain, arose in human evolution. Helpless newborns with undeveloped brains wouldn't have survived without constant parental care, but it is hard to see how doting parenthood would have arisen unless there was a need for it -- that is, helpless newborns. That presents scientists with a chicken-and-egg conundrum.


Gosh, yes, that is a conundrum if you believe that variations are preserved because they convey survival advantage. Of course if you think Darwinism is nonsense this is just another chink in its quixotish armor.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 17, 2004 6:47 PM
Comments

No conundrum. Childhood is advantageous because it lengthens the time available for learning. Human groups that cared better and longer for their kids were more likely to surprise and prosper. Both can happen at the same time: it's not a "first one, then the other" process.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 17, 2004 7:19 PM

That's called determinism, with learning as an end

Posted by: oj at September 17, 2004 7:27 PM

I'm shocked, shocked, to discover that amoeba dont' raise their 'offspring'.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at September 17, 2004 7:32 PM

OJ:

No, it isn't.

Progressively bigger brains provided progressive survival advantage, and progressively prolonged childhood.

Until birthing such large heads left a Hobbes choice for women: stop walking, or notch God's slaughter of women past the replacement rate.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 17, 2004 8:19 PM

Other primate babies, particularly ones in the near-human branches, aren't exactly ready to forage for themselves at birth. Childhood is merely an extension of post-natal care that's common among the mammals. I fail to see the chicken and egg problem.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at September 17, 2004 8:22 PM

Jeff:

That's an assertion, not science. Let us suppose gradualism--what did the first human who was helpless for one day learn in that day that gave him an advantage?

Posted by: oj at September 17, 2004 8:28 PM

AOG:

They cling to and ride their mothers from birth--their claimed helplessness is an attempt to make them more human, no?

Posted by: oj at September 17, 2004 8:36 PM

We're told that we chare 99% of our DNA with chimps, but I've yeat to hear of any reports of 33 year old chimps living in their parents' basement. So that 1% must make all the difference.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 17, 2004 9:09 PM

"...although [they] looked like people walking around today -- albeit shorter and hairier -- they fell far short of having the full dose of modern traits, especially intelligence and language."

Ya know, that sounds a lot like places in the Bay Area like Palo Alto. (I've never been to France, so I'll leave that comparison for others...)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 17, 2004 9:13 PM

what did the first human who was helpless for one day learn in that day that gave him an advantage?

Maybe it made his mother more loving and protective of him.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 17, 2004 9:36 PM

Raoul:

Your image of 33-year-old chimps living in parents' basements cracked me up. However, as a grandson of the Ballard, I must defend Palo Alto. Palo Alto . . . Seattle (I'm ashamed to say) . . . flip a coin politically.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at September 17, 2004 10:18 PM

Papaya:

Millions of years of evolution and mothers hadn't been programmed to love offspring yet? Odd that.

Posted by: oj at September 18, 2004 8:13 AM

I said "more." It's a matter of degree. Many animals don't seem to love offspring at all, and certainly not to the extent humans do.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 18, 2004 1:07 PM

Papaya:

Why?

Posted by: oj at September 18, 2004 1:23 PM

Why do humans love their offspring more? Let's just say there are multiple explanations, biological and theological.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 18, 2004 9:38 PM

Mr. Ortega;

Actually, there was a recorded case of a chimpanzee male who never "moved out" and eventually wore his mother in to an early grave. He didn't long survive her, having very few survival skills.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at September 18, 2004 11:32 PM
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