What Babies Tell Us About Ourselves
Human Advantage #1—Parenting isn't an instinct but it is a vital skill.
Posted Oct 30, 2020
What can babies tell us about ourselves? The obvious answer is nothing. After they come into the world, it takes months, even years, before they are expressive enough to tell us not simply what they need and want, but what they actually think of us. For some, that day may never come because they never learn to trust our love enough to risk our possible disapproval or wrath.
Looked at from a less personal perspective, however, babies actually can teach us a lot about both the challenges and the distinctive advantages of being human.
The biological challenge
Regardless of the species in question, being a baby is a risky business. Being one of our very own babies, however, is astonishingly risky. It takes more than minutes, days, or months for us to become mature adults. It literally takes years. Moreover, although a baby's body may soon be able to cope fairly well with physical neglect or abuse, the same cannot be said about the baby brain for an obvious but easily overlooked reason.
As my colleague Robert Martin has written about extensively, there is a lot more to human reproduction than what, as the saying goes, comes "naturally." This is true even before a child is born. As a species, each of us relies — perhaps more than some of us care to admit — on the help and goodwill of others for our own safety and survival. But this is not all that has made us one of the Earth's most social species. We have also capitalized on the benefits of having big and often amazingly clever brains.
This investment in brain size and ingenuity has not been cost-free. Evolutionary biologists classify us as primates, a category that includes monkeys, apes, and other similar species as well as ourselves. As primates, however, we are uniquely different from the others.
When our babies are born, there is nothing truly outstanding about the size of their brains relative to their body size. What happens during the first 12 months of life is another story. During those months, a baby's brain grows at a rate that sets us apart from every other primate, indeed from every other animal on Earth. Instead of merely doubling in size (as is the case for other primates), human baby brains become nearly four times bigger than they are at birth. The slowing down of their growth in size which starts at birth for non-human primates does not take place for our babies until around the end of their first year.
Said another way, a human pregnancy takes about 9 months from conception to birth. Looked at from the brain’s point of view, however, our pregnancies can be reckoned instead as taking 21 months: 9 months in the womb and another 12 months outside it.
What is the message here? If our babies waited around for 21 months to be born, they would never make it out of a womb alive. Nor would their mothers survive such a truly excruciating ordeal.
Our human response
Given this information, it is painfully clear that during our evolution as a biological species, natural selection took our early ancestors down a dangerous path. As they became more and more committed to having large and clever brains, the survival of their own babies also became increasingly risky. If they hadn’t been willing to be parents, their young would have died. If this had happened, then we would not now be here on Earth to write about them, or wonder if they had any lullabies to sing or nursery rhymes to teach their young. In the jargon of modern evolutionary biology, there is no doubt about it. We humans are obligate social animals.
But this is not all. As my colleague Martin has also written about, biochemistry does lend a hand in nurturing within all of us (regardless of our personal roles in reproduction) both interest in and also commitment to parenting our offspring. This is true even when they are as slippery and seemingly unappealing physically as they are immediately after they have left the inner security of the womb and have begun to try their luck on the seas of life.
However, unlike other species for whom evolution has genetically "written" for them instinctual manuals on the care and feeding of the young, our babies don't come into our arms with a user's manual. Quite literally, if it weren't for the advice and guidance of others of our kind who have previously been through the joys and demands of birthing and parenting, we'd all surely find the challenges of being a parent overwhelming.
But our babies are more than just proof and witness to the importance of hormonal biochemistry and social assistance in the rearing of our young. Being a parent is not just an act of love but also a social role. Precisely how to perform in this manner varies around the globe and has varied over time, as well. In some places, the role of looking after the young is prescribed more or less entirely to mothers and others such as aunts and grandmothers. Elsewhere, fathers also are expected to lend not just a hand now and then, but play more substantial roles in the rearing of the young.
Again, however, this is not all that needs to be said about the skills and social roles traditionally singled out and labeled as "parenting." As I will explore in the next installment in this five-part series in The Human Animal on the advantages of being human, it can be argued that much of the motivation for wanting to fulfill this role in the lives of our offspring isn't biological or just socially scripted, but is done to reassure ourselves that life is worth living.
Next up — Sex, Love, and Life's Self-fulfilling Prophecies