The Ape That Wouldn’t Grow Up

 

“It takes people years to see that there is something un-childish about the condition of childhood, that it is not merely a temporary state of innocence but a zone of pure philosophy”

- Andrew O’Hagan, in ‘Leave the kids at home and go see where the wild things are’

“Mommy, where are we?” I asked during a transatlantic flight from Montreal to Lisbon. “We’re still flying over the ocean” answered my mother. Baffled and looking into the darkness that extended beyond my oval window, I replied: “Yes I know! but on which planet? Portugal or Canada?” You see, in my six year-old head lay an intricately woven cosmos of fantastical concepts to which my parents were oblivious. As I understood it, each country was a planet, each with its own oceans, and aircrafts were inter-galactic flying devices transporting passengers to their interplanetary destinations.

I also believed that cats and dogs were different sexes of a same species (cats were females, of course), cars had faces and emotions (our red chevy was a temperamental old man), bad people were hired to get killed for real in movies, and about half the world was made up of Benjamin Buttons (I constantly tried to guess if a person was growing older or younger).

… And little else do I remember of this lost land. Puberty, like a bad night out, has virtually erased all that is left of that mystical universe I inhabited in my head. By the time adolescence showed me the door, I knew I would spend a good part of my twenties nursing the hangover from my teenage years. At 27 (ahem, 28) childhood is nothing but a distant memory of that time when shit hadn’t hit the fan yet.

But while shit does hit the fan eventually for all mammals – and by this I mean sexual maturity, the proverbial ‘coming of age’ and all the reality checks that come with it - humans are the only species lucky enough to be graced with four years of pure radiant bliss, a time of suspended growth. That bracket of infinite magic, childhood.

True, childhood is tainted with all that is dark and evil in human nature – I will not soon forget my ‘Lord of the Flies’ moments – but from the perspective of our evolutionary journey, of our own coming of age as a species, childhood might just have been the most perfect invention of all. It is the cushiest season, the most carefree and glorious of times. And it may very well be the reason for our overwhelming success.

The evolution of childhood (in red), unique to Homo species which has been increasing for the past two million years

We might like to think of the four seasons of life, but we do in fact have five: infancy, childhood, juvenile, adolescence (right after puberty), and adulthood. Most mammals progress from infancy to adulthood almost seamlessly, without the growth-spurts, the growing pains, the voice changes and acne-ridden faces. Highly social mammals, like wolves, wild dogs, lions, elephants and primates, postpone puberty by inserting a period of juvenile growth between infancy and adulthood. Puberty, marking the onset of sexual maturity, is delayed to allow for larger brains and the acquisition of proper life-skills. But only in the human species do we find a 5th season: childhood – a well defined step both physiologically and behaviourally, spanning roughly from three to seven years of age.

Relative to our body size, the human brain is bigger than that of any other animal, but our human bodies constrain the size of our heads at birth. In fact, during the last part of the 3rd trimester of pregnancy, the human fetus is so large that it presses against internal organs and constricts blood vessels. We have no choice but to slow down our growth and then rebound after birth to catch up to the size we would have had if growth had been continuous.

Our journey to adulthood is in fact rather counter-intuitive from an economic and even logical point of view. Its sinuous course, more akin to the stop-and-go motion of a highway traffic jam, leads us first into a period of rapid growth immediately after birth, then a period of rapid decrease in growth rate until the age of four, followed by a period of almost arrested growth that lasts until our juvenile years, at which point we hit puberty and grow up to 7-9 cm per year! (that’s about three inches per year).

Children at the AADHU/CYCA Centre for Orphaned Children in Kenya, Africa. I am particularly fond of this project because it is not affiliated with any religious organizations


Children at Kibera, Kenya

Childhood is defined by the period after weaning, which in nonhuman primates marks the beginning of independence since individuals can now walk and fetch food on their own. But not so for humans. There is no society on earth in which children deprived of care by older individuals, survive.

Due to the nature of our growth pattern, which is not equal for all body parts, our brains achieve adult size when our body growth is only at 40% complete. This leaves us with small bodies, small digestive systems with immature dentition, and big heads that require high-quality foods (low in volume, high in nutrients) that we cannot get hold of on our own. It isn’t until the age of seven when significant milestones of dental and brain maturation are reached that we are able to adopt an adult diet and shift to a new plateau of cognitive functions (and realize countries are not planets…).

The head, limbs, and body grow at different rates, resulting in a human adult with proportions completely different from those of the newborn baby. Growing in this way allows us to keep our ‘cute’, infantile looks for longer than in any other species of mammals

… But why take this four-year detour if all paths lead to Rome (or adulthood)?

One favorite explanation is our dependence on culture and on learning for survival. For all intents and purposes, childhood can be viewed as en extended coffee break, where the day’s activities are arrested so that we can catch up with the the New York Times, the latest celebrity gossip and finish that Sudoku puzzle. It allows for an extra period for brain growth and time for acquisition of technical skills, time for socializing, playing, and the development of social roles and cultural behaviours. It is effectively a pit-stop, a period of waiting, an oasis of protection, a state of lower nutritional requirements and of low mortality.

Age (in years)

Probability of death by age of rural Gambians. Note how low this is for children

Some researchers even view childhood as a sort of parasitic stage, a way to selfishly elicit parental care after infancy because we maintain a ‘cute’, infantile appearance for longer than any other mammal species.

From the mother’s perspective, having offspring that pass through childhood reduces the interval time between births. Weaning time is what sets the pace between births – if you are done breastfeeding, your are ready to go – and in preindustrialized societies this averages at three years, which coincides with the onset of childhood – a stage when we are so ‘cute’ that just about any grown-up (especially grandpa and grandma) will offer to take care of us. So while the average birth interval for chimpanzees is about five years (age at which chimps become independent), in humans this interval averages at about 3.6 years… now consider the much lower weaning average for industrialized societies (six months to a year) and our overcrowded planet will start to make sense.

But if you’ve cringed at the thought of lending your breast to your offspring for more than six months, you’re not alone. In the United States, for example, women receive conflicting advice about when to wean their children from breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends one year, while WHO and UNICEF recommend at least two years and many physicians consider six months to be extended breastfeeding, while some health professionals question the motives of women who nurse for more than a year. Women have even been known to hide the fact that they are still nursing an older child from disapproving health care professionals or family members. But the reality is that in many non-Western cultures children are routinely nursed for three to four years, which is likely the more ‘natural’ state of affairs.

Childhood is then the perfect ‘parking space’ for offspring and avoids us having to choose between producing few expensive, large brained babies, or many smaller-brained offspring. It lasts about four years, just enough time for your first-born to hit childhood so that a second one can be on its way. Because weaning and childhood go hand in hand, it sets the pace at which a mother is ready to bear another child so that she is not overwhlemed with a Lilliputian army of defenseless babies, but rather is able take care of one baby at a time, unless you have octuplets… nature errs too (in which case, good luck to you).

Me, an ape refusing to grow up

At seven years of age, our 1st permanent molars come in. In primates, this marks the onset of independence but for humans this is just the beginning of our long, arduous march to adulthood. While chimpanzees are ready to be be competent parents at about 10 to 11 years of age, humans remain largely dependent on theirs for a staggering 20 years!

(Unless you complete half a university degree, move countries twice, take four years to complete a second degree, take 2 gap years, a Masters and now a PhD, in which case you are still, at least partially, in a state of dependency at 27. Ahem, 28).

But whichever the case, as a species we seem to have evolved into the eternal pupil. Instead of striving to be adults, our journey has been about prolonging and inserting evermore states of dependency, forever extending the umbilical chord uniting us to our parents, stretching it until we must grow our own with our very own offspring. Of all our closest relatives we are the ones with the most childish appearance, the ones who grow the slowest, who play and learn for the longest. We are the forever young apes. The apes that refused to grow up.

While I now know that cats and dogs belong to different species, there is still much I don’t know about my own species, and so I find refuge in the safety of school where I get to look up to taller, bigger people to teach me wondrous things. And as London spreads before me from my 13th floor student residence window on the eve of my 28th birthday, I’m thinking… “Who will come out and play?”.

Wickedly Wired

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Modernista!’s ad campaing for Hearts on Fire jewlers

“In 1977, she was a translator at the US embassy in Bonn, West Germany. She met a man called Frank Dietzel, whom she described as looking like Robert Redford. She fell in love instantly. [...] She never suspected him; she said she loved him too much to think he would do anything bad.”

- Victim of an East Germany “Romeo” spy during the Cold War

On a rainy February day, following Peter Sozou’s lecture on ‘Courtship as a costly signaling at UCL, a handful of us took Peter to the nearest bar on campus. A few bottles of wine were ordered, and with our minds still very much on the courtship issue, we turned to the next most obvious topic. Birds.

… Well, their brains anyway.

For gravity-defying organisms, birds sport bigger brains than would appear advisable. “It seems”, said a fellow bird-lover, after explaining in some detail the fine intricacies of birds’ courtship displays, “that brain size in birds correlates with the mating system; the more monogamous the species, the bigger the brain”.

In an instantaneous (and ephemeral) light-bulb moment, a stream of images of my boyfriend adjusting his red bike helmet around his bulbous head condensed into one immensely reassuring thought: with a head that size, I have nothing to worry about.

Or do I? *light-bulb out*.

Despite my high hopes for a blissful existence of monogamous fidelity, I quickly realized that there must be something wondrously more complex and Machiavellian lurking behind these bulges of ours than a world of exclusivity and devotion; and it doesn’t take looking much beyond my own nose to understand that these brains of ours are not made for lovin’.

It is almost heart-warming to think of our big brains as evolved for long-term matrimonial love, but it takes just one ejaculation to tip that idea off its knees. Men release 280 million sperm during each single ejaculation. Why, then, would they waste all that sperm on one single being? Why put all their metaphorical eggs in one literal basket when they could be spreading the wealth? Why be monogamous when you can pretend to be monogamous?

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Baboon sexual swelling during ovulation period

… But when it comes to brains, there is no room for sexism; it’s one size fits all.

In what seems to be the most exemplary case of bad PR, women put themselves through the physically (and emotionally) demanding task of ovulating every month without ever making the effort of marketing their fertility periods. This rather passive-aggressive “I’m not telling” strategy seems not so conducive to matrimonial trust either, and this withholding of information makes it impossible for males to assert their  paternity (at least before chastity belts and DNA testing) – in fact, degrees of non-paternity can range from 0.4% to over 50% in societies worldwide.

Whether we vow our bodies and souls, for better or worse, to our better halves, there is no escaping our neocortical baggage. We are inescapably involved in a pull-and-tug war between bonding and cheating. Our souls and hearts may be rooting for coupling, but our bodies and minds scream deception all over.

According to the Journal of Couple & Relationships Therapy, 20 to 50% of married men and women cheat. But given our built-in trumpery widget, the surprise is not that pair-bonded couples should choose to sexually deceive their partners, but that we expect that they should not and that we equate monogamy to normalcy. In light of our prolific baby-making power, “till death due us part” seems, on the contrary, like a most extravagant demand. After all, even the most seemingly monogamous of animal species shy away from such a life of eternal one-on-one love – black swans, wolves and elephants may keep house together for many years but are sexually promiscuous; even penguins only remain monogamous and faithful to one partner for one breeding season.

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Tree Swallow feeding its progeny

Birds have long been upheld as poster-children for monogamy and until recently it was believed that 93% of  avian species bred monogamously (Lack, 1986). Griffith et al (2002), however, burst that last bubble of hope when their results showed that 86% of the 130 so-called ‘monogamous’ species were in fact very much adulterous; over 2/3 of female Tree Swallows produce at least one extramarital offspring and baby Starlings from the same nest often come from different fathers.

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Female gorilla caught in the act by the silverback

Although more common in primates (15% of species) than in mammals (less that 5% of species), monogamy is a very rare behaviour, as our closest living cousins can attest. While chimpanzees have long been known for their promiscuity, female gorillas, who have an alpha of a reason not to cheat, also seem to find ways to benefit from illicit affairs on the silver-side of things by sneaking away into the jungle for random quick flings. They’ve even learned the finer subtleties of betrayal in order to avoid getting caught, and while they are vocally appreciative of the alpha-male’s love-making efforts, they keep the sound to a minimum with their young furry toy-boys.

Our Westernized views of how many people should be involved in one amorous union compel us to feel disappointment if not shock at such social laxities. But the fact is that a menage-a-deux is not the only way to go for humans either. 80-85% of societies allow polygamous marriages even if the majority of them involve one husband and one wife (most of the men in societies that allow polygamy do not obtain sufficient wealth or status to have multiple wives). And in the few societies that shun these types of arrangements, like the US, about 12-26% of married women and 15-43% of married men engage in extramarital sex.

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Bill and his three wives in HBO’s ‘Big Love’ TV series

But while a polygamous arrangement may seem lax, it is certainly not relaxed. Bill’s constant Viagra pill-popping, neighbour-dodging and money-pouring, clearly requires a high degree of social intuition and very refined manipulative and diplomatic abilities – the same abilities needed for successful extramarital hanky panky… And international espionage. Take “Romeo” Spy Frank Dietzel’s good looks, for example, which paired with an enhanced knack for deception, duped Gabriele Kliem into unsuspectingly betray her country of West Germany during six years.

Increased social complexity and the ability to manipulate others is a unique primate condition. Superbly mastered by sociopaths and politicians alike, in humans, this quasi pathological ability to manoeuvre in complex and dense social environments is the genius we’ve been increasingly amassing in our globular think tanks. This evolutionarily favoured Machiavellian Intelligence neatly folded behind our faces – the neocortex – makes up to 76% of the human brain’s volume. To the detriment of our love-obsessed souls, encapsulated within these cranial vaults, rest 1,400 grams of jellied evil. Ganged up with an exuberantly lustful appetite, we seem unavoidably wired for inducing heartaches.

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Neocortex in blue

Eager to ignore my own 76% duplicitous nature, my suspicions turn to my long-distance big-headed partner: I knew it… lurking behind that red bike helmet lies a large mischievous fatty lump.

… Or does it? *light-bulb flickers*

While our self-imposed ‘for-all-eternity’ style monogamy may be borderline self-harming (from a genetic and reproductive point of view), the notion of pair-bondedness in nature takes a very different shape: it’s behavioural, not sexual – a necessary condition for spicing up the genetic pool. Behaviourally monogamous birds, for example, have been shown to seek males that are genetically more different than their better-halves, thereby (surreptitiously) increasing genetic diversity in the species.

Because survival is not just about production but also about reproduction (making sure the progeny procreates in turn), knowing how to juggle the quest for genetic flavour and successful rearing is why many behaviourally monogamous species pack more gray.

Lifelong monogamy is a risky commitment, but in species where substantial post-natal parental investment is needed, it may well be a necessity. It takes between 10 to 17 years for a human to be sexually mature (sometimes many more years to be emotionally or financially independent), and for over 1/3 of that period infants are physically dependant on their parents. Reproductively speaking, successful twosomes are those who will coordinate and synchronize their activities so that each half gets time for grubbing and napping. Perhaps as a precursor to this biological drive to procreate, successful human coupledom must also involve anticipation, harmonization and synchronization of behaviours and needs.

… And judging by the boy’s perfect Skype synchronicity, perhaps that fatty lump is also a good dose of sugar too.

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Eros and Psyche

What can be painful for the heart is essential for survival, and our thirst for clandestine caresses outside of the nest is what propels us to propagate and diversify. Sculpted over the course of our winding evolutionary road, our wrinkly bundles of gray matter have been shaped to a size fitted for our success.

While we cannot escape our wickedly wired brains, much room lies in its winding valleys and folds for the free human spirit to arise. A spirit as tortuous and shaded as our cortical matter betrays: one of good and evil particles indistinguishably blending together in a mesh of gray dough.

For better or for worse, our brains push us to move us forward all the while keeping us fickle. Like Eros to Psyche we constantly put our souls at Venus’ whim, despite clinging to the hopes of that intangible goal we’ve set for ourselves of exclusive and blissful duality. And in this permanent conflict between our vagabond bodies and brains, and our monogamous souls, we are able to find overwhelming pleasure in the form of great pain, and a way to forge true bonds in the midst of much deceit…