We Are All Big-Brained Morons

Sometimes, babies do really dumb things. Ok, ok, a lot of the time babies do really dumb things. Take, for example, the other day: I had managed to wrangle our little bundle of joy back to sleep after a particularly early wake up call. My wife, productive and chipper, had left us for her schoolbooks. We two roustabouts remained in bed, surrounded by a wall of pillows. The wall is for him, though it’s not especially effective if he gets really motivated to make a break for the night stand and the things perched atop. Happily, dreamily, the two of us drifted back off to la-la-land. La la la.

I was awaked by a thwuuud. I wish I could play a recording of it for you. It might be the most horrific sound a new parent can hear: an infant hitting hardwood. Followed, naturally, by piercing screams. Yes, the baby had “fell off and bumped his head” as the classic story goes. He had probably been gunning for the cat, who likes to be where you’d expect the cat to be: at the foot of the bed. Sensing an impending fury of jerky baby fists, the cat no doubt bolted moments before the boy arrived on the scene. But something must have compelled him to continue exploring, out beyond the safety of the border made by the pillows. Some arcane, medieval instinct to push the boundaries of the plausible, to question God and the Church, to spin atoms of his own weird science, to stroke the dragon’s chin. Hell, he was probably just curious about the rug. And so he crawled right off the bed, and onto his infant skull. I must admit, he’s a tough little dude. He’ll cry and cry when he’s hungry or tired, but when he’s hurt, you get about nine good seconds and then he realizes, “Oh hell, I’m okay, let’s just move past this so I can keep getting into things.”

I got to thinking about why on earth babies are such idiots. (Why adults are such idiots may well be reserved for another post.) It just didn’t add up for me. How could a newborn fawn be darting around the forest floor within hours of being born when I was going to have to spend literally years teaching my own flesh and blood the most rudimentary of things? Why can’t babies pop out of mom fully formed like Will Ferrell?

The answer to these questions was waiting for me, again, in Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith F. Small. The reason, it turns, out, is evolutionary, Watson.

Infants of all kinds fall largely into two categories: those dubbed altricial and those marked precocial. Altricial (from the Latin root alere meaning “to nurse, rear, or nourish”) infants are those that are born relatively helpless – birds, rodents, cats, dogs. You can picture what I’m talking about. These are usually the creatures that look the grossest at birth: the hairless chicks and blind, swollen red mice. (Shudder.) Precocial infants are just the opposite: precocious. They are natural born badasses. Ungulates (hooved animals) are the most recognizable of the lot: horses, deer, wildebeests, etc. These babies are up and around and outrunning predators, in some cases, within minutes of being born. Good lord. It’s been nearly eight months and my son can hardly poop without assistance.

So, where are humans? Interestingly, humans are neither here nor there. (We always have to be so special, don’t we?) We are considered secondarily altricial. When means we had “precocially adapted ancestors and then, for some reason, evolved some altricial traits that now overlay that basic pattern.” What is the reason for this? It always seems to circle back to Kurt Vonnegut. The man was a god. It’s because of “our big brains.”

When we were in the process of branching off from our distant human ancestors, modern humans began walking more and more upright. This didn’t happen overnight. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty. But it eventually happened. Have you tried reverting lately? Go on. Get down on all fours and try to get through your day. See how well that goes for you. Our forebears may have looked similarly ludicrous as they toddled their way onto two legs. But the change did take place, and with it, some rearranging of our anatomy. To make a long story short, women’s hips and pelvises contorted a whole hell of a lot. Some compromises were made to allow us humans the luxury of bipedalism. And what was once a roomy and luxurious hallway for an infant became a cave of convex horrors. Do you know what a human baby has to do to be born? We might all be Olympic gymnasts. This is made even more absurd by the fact that we have the biggest brains of all (the primates). Natural selection erred in our favor, intellectually speaking. But it made our craniums bulb out and our moms grunt more in childbirth. Instead of getting super cool fully formed, ready to rock limbs, we got bulbous heads with rapidly expanding brains. But even that has a catch to it, because of our bipedalism. Because babies have to squeeze through the labyrinth that is the modern female pelvis, they needed moldable skulls – ones with shifting, plastic-y plates, actually. And we can’t wait to be born. Our brains start blooming the minute we’re born, and expand more rapidly than any other animal – for an entire year. In fact, R.D. Martin, a paleontologist, claims that humans really have a “twenty-one-month gestation: nine months in utero followed by twelve months outside.” The accomplishments the human infant achieves in the first year of life on earth are a miracle to behold: eyesight, emotional responsiveness, movement, a voice, standing, crawling, walking, eating. It’s truly amazing.

But, lest we grow fat, gorging ourselves on the sycophantic sound of our own horns, remember this: my month old pig is smarter than your year old honor student. We are actually at a severe, acute disadvantage if the animals ever decide they’ve had enough and move to gang up on us. How well will your 16 month old do versus a feral horse of the same age? Not pretty people.

So, please, protect your babies, especially if they are under a year old: they are really just big-brained morons who don’t yet belong in the realities of the physical world. And, if at all possible, do all of your sleeping on the floor so there’s no bed for anyone to fall out of.

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