A few weeks ago my daughter Katy was born. She started out terribly; grey, streaked with blood, and with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Central Vermont Hospital took care of all that very well and now she is less the worse for wear than I am.
But she is helpless, incredibly helpless. It’s been a few years since I’ve had an infant to watch and I’d forgotten. She can’t hold her huge head up; she can’t use her hands; and her eyes discover the world piece by piece at random.
No other mammal has babies nearly as helpless as ours. Even blind puppies walk to their first nursing. And the reflexive curling of Katy’s toes reminds me that, if she were a monkey, she’d already he able to hold onto a branch.
One theory is that the head is the problem. For better or for worse, humans have brains proportional1y far bigger than those of other species. The head built to contain this giant brain has run into an evolutionary trap. It’s almost too big to be born.
That is why humans have more trouble with childbirth than other species. And so, the theory goes, in order to be born at all, humans must be born prematurely. In other words, human babies are so helpless because they are still in an advanced state of fetal development. If they waited until they were as developed as other mammal babies, their heads would he too large for delivery.
I think there is another reason in the grand scheme of things why our babies are born with so much to learn.
The babies of other species come preprogrammed. They already have most basic motor skills. In general, the lower down the evolutionary ladder a species is, the more adult skills its babies have built in.
Our babies know how to nurse. Everything else they have to learn. It seems very inefficient that we have to learn to lift our heads, then learn to roll over, then creep, then walk. But I think this inefficiency serves a purpose.
While my daughter Katy is learning the simple task of making her hand touch what her eye sees, she will also he learning how to learn. As she tries and fails and tries again, her mind will learn how to retain experience. As her left hand learns what her right hand knows, her mind will learn to reason and extrapolate.
As Katy takes a year to learn the motor skills a monkey is born with, she will be preparing herself for the great task of mastering a spoken language. As she struggles pitifully to make a rattle work right, she will he learning to learn to read and write.
Above all, we are nature’s best learners. We have very dull eyes, puny teeth, a weak sense of smell, and we don’t hear very well. Our physical prowess is probably the laughingstock of the animal kingdom. But we can learn. We learn how to learn while we learn how to walk.
Welcome, Katy, to a genuine learning experience. And good luck.