Home: Scrying: While baby chimps grow faster, humans grow smarter

While baby chimps grow faster, humans grow smarter

January 09, 2006

“They grow up so fast,” we always say. But, as the mother of a 5-year old, I can assure you, it rarely seems so. I just spent the past half-hour “helping” to construct a giant k’nex robot. I put “helping” in quotes, as I had to do all the work.

Roland and his k'nexMy son, Roland, stood nearby and suggested which part I needed to attach next. When I tried to show him how they fit together, his small fingers couldn’t put enough precise pressure on the pieces to have them snap into place. I long for the day when he is independent and skilled enough to do the building while I watch and suggest parts.

If Roland were a chimpanzee, he would essentially have all of the skills—and larger fingers—he would need as an adult. If chimp life called for k’nex construction, he could do it. This is because, as this article describes, chimpanzee children reach adulthood at a much faster rate than human children.

Chimpanzee children are weaned around the age of 4 or 5, have a massive growth spurt, and become independent shortly thereafter. Humans, on the other hand, stay small and dependant on their parents into their teen years. The study, conducted by anthropologist Michael Gurvin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests this is because human children need a longer span of time to develop their minds before reaching adulthood. During that time, they must remain small, in order to not eat their parents out of house and home.

“The human strategy is to stay small as long as possible and then shoot up and get big just before you’re about to be useful,” Gurven said. “It’s good economics.” (ABC News article)

Since human children spend so much time developing their brains, they are able to (eventually) do complex tasks, such as dig marrow out of a bone, or build a robot from k’nex.Mother and baby chimpanzee; photo by Michael Neugebauer

The article also discusses the role of family in the lives of human children versus chimpanzee children. Since our children live with us much longer, our resources must extend further, into the form of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends. A chimp mother is typically alone in her responsibilities for her young.

A dark side exists to this coin, however. The chimp mother nurses her child practically until they leave home. Only then will she have another child. Humans, on the other hand, wean our babies after an average of three years, and move on to have more children. The article explains:

“…chimps can reproduce only every five to seven years, while people can reproduce every two to four years,” Bogin said. “Chimps are endangered; we’re not.”

(Chimpanzee photo courtesy of Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees)