A new study says that looking after babies led the human race as a whole to greater intelligence, TIME magazine reports.
“The theory is that we are much more intelligent because our infants are so helpless,” says Celeste Kidd, assistant professor in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at the University of Rochester, NY.
Indeed, humans do need to look after their young for much longer and more comprehensively than do other mammals.
The key to this strange argument is the human head: since it is very large, and very hard to get out of the birth canal, needs a lot of time to develop and grow. Human babies are born before their brains are fully developed.
Compare a human child to an infant giraffe or a baby horse — within an hour of its birth, both animals are up and wobbling around. Human babies take at least 5,000 times that long.
Intensive childcare of this order requires in turn a higher level of cognitive function. In the evolutionary scheme of things, the human babies who survive are the ones whose parents are smart enough to protect their long helpless children from threats like predators, cold, and cliffs.
At the University of Rochester, scientists tested this theory by creating a mathematical model, which proved what they had theorized. Indeed, when looking at data from other primates, those who scored the highest on intelligence scales have the longest weaning times for their young.
Childcare now looks very different than it did while the human species was evolving. Children now spend an average of seven and a half hours in front of a screen. But that adorable helplessness really might be the reason that humans developed an intelligence very much based around sophisticated social reasoning.
As Kidd says, “When you’re looking down at your newborn and you’re wondering why the universe is doing this to you, you can take solace in knowing that your newborn being very useless is why you’re so intelligent.”