Babies are useless for some pretty useful reasons | Our Corner

As a soon-to-be father, I’m learning a lot about my child.

Ray Miller-Still, Editor

Ray Miller-Still, Editor

Human evolution is amazing. I mean, look at us: we walk upright, have thumbs, invent tools, and solve complex problems— everything we needed to go from poo-slinging ape-izoids to masters of our little ball of dirt.

So really, after the millions of years we spent evolving from that into this, you’d honestly think our babies would have become something more than utterly, completely useless.

Take giraffes as an example — they start walking nearly an hour after they’re born, and that’s not even considering the fact that they’re built solidly enough to survive a six-foot drop from the mother.

Meanwhile, I will have to be careful not to jostle my baby too much for fear of its little slinky-neck lolling about too much!

There’s a whole laundry list of things I’m learning babies can’t do: sit up, pass gas, cry tears (that doesn’t come until the first month or so), see things more than 15 inches away, sleep through the night — heck, some babies even have trouble nursing. That’s, like, one of its three jobs! (The other two being A) leaking from various orifices, and B) screaming like a banshee.)

All that, combined with the fact that we still grow wisdom teeth, get goosebumps, and have testicles outside of the body, I’m really starting to doubt there’s such a thing as intelligent design.

But, of course, it turns out there are some really compelling reasons why babies are basically overgrown larvae.

People used to think that babies had to be born so uselessly young for a two-fold reason: we adapted to walking on two legs, and our brains are so big — this is called the obstetric dilemma.

I’d explain, except I can have someone smarter than me do it instead.

“The traditional explanation for our nine-month gestation period and helpless newborns is that natural selection favored childbirth at an earlier stage of fetal development to accommodate selection for both large brain size and upright locomotion—defining characteristics of the human lineage. In this view, adaptations to bipedalism restricted the width of the birth canal and, hence, the size of the baby that can pass through it,” writes Kate Wong in 2012 for Scientific American. “Human babies are thus born when their brains are less than 30 percent of adult brain size so that they can fit through the narrow passageway. They then continue development outside of the womb, with brain size nearly doubling in the first year.”

But now, some researchers are suggesting that babies are born when they are because it would be impossible for both the mother and the child to consume enough nutrients for both of them to survive if gestation was longer.

“By nine months or so, the metabolic demands of a human fetus threaten to exceed the mother’s ability to meet both the baby’s energy requirements and her own, so she delivers the baby,” Wong summarizes, adding that, “Once outside of the womb, the baby’s growth slows down to a more sustainable rate for the mother.”

Clearly, some form of physical limitation determines when babies are born — that much is clear, even if knowing the exact reasons are not.

However, some researchers also claim that in order for humanity to have obtained the intelligence it needed to go from the bottom of the food chain to the top, we needed to have unreasonably helpless kids.

“Humans become so intelligent because human infants are so incredibly helpless… The one necessitates the other,” Maria Konnikova writes in the New Yorker in 2016. “Natural selection favors humans with large brains, because those humans tend to be smarter. This may create evolutionary incentives for babies that are born at an even earlier developmental stage, which require more intelligence to raise. This creates the dynamic: over time, helpless babies make parents more intelligent, which makes babies more helpless, which makes their parents more intelligent, and so on.”

There is research that shows intelligence in different primates is correlated to how long their babies are weaned: “Orangutans have smarter babies than baboons and they wean them longer. Baboon babies, in turn, are weaned longer, and are smarter, than lemur babies,” Konnikova continued.

One way or another, a baby’s birth is about its brain — and what an exceptional brain it is!

I’ll try to remember that when I get spit up on my shirt for the umpteenth time.


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