Posted by: fireandstone | April 1, 2010

Crazy Babies

Okay,  so I got off to a blazing start…and then I just sort of fizzled out all sudden-like. That’s what happens when you’re dealing with a newborn. My new daughter is now about seven weeks old and she’s been more than a couple of handfuls. She’s finally sort of settling into a pattern of longer sleep sessions, but all in all she’s still clearly an arch demon from the dark underworld…except when she’s sleeping of course, in which case she’s an angel of light. Dealing with an infant, and musing about all of the things that motivated this blog in the first place, gave me a bit of inspiration about life for our ancestors in the savannas making a living for themselves.

It occurred to me in the obvious case that babies that cry and fuss get more attention, and as a result get more resources, which translates into a better chance at thriving, which leads to a better chance of reproducing and, viola: natural selection! The thing about wild life though, is that noise is almost always bad for organisms not so high on the food chain. It just serves as a nice handy beacon for hungry predators who naturally rush right on over for a tasty morsel. We’re often told by academicians that even our meat eating, predatory ancestors were at all times vulnerable to the other predators we shared space with (the assumption as always is that we are weak and soft, an idea which for some reason always seems to put a smile on their faces), especially the big cats and hyenas. Now, you wouldn’t think that my baby’s firmly ingrained need to cry when she’s even slightly hungry, cry when she wants to be held and carried, cry when she’s not positioned on her bed exactly the way she likes, or screams her living guts out if she has some gas, would be a very handy survival trait for a species supposedly surrounded on all corners by deadly super predators to which we had no clear defense.

It’s already well known that early human-like (bipedal) hominids had become habitual carnivores and high order predators, but that’s true of cheetahs and they just as often as not have to give up their kill to better predators and their young certainly don’t squander their vocalizations on things like subtle discomforts. They are vulnerable to lions, hyenas, African hunting dogs…and pretty much anything else that considers them competition and can also garner a quick snack out of the deal. Even lion cubs are defenseless and know better than to give up their position. So why do human infants have such a powerful instinct to be so damned noisy?

The answer is very likely: we were not vulnerable to *any* other species in our environment. It’s known from the archaeological record that hominin species’ had the luxury of being able to render meat from carcasses right at the site of the kill, so we know that at least our hunters were well equipped to deal with other predators and scavengers. Clearly we were also masters of nature back in our camps, where babies could enjoy the freedom to cry out to their hearts’ content, and to not randomly be plucked from their mothers by hungry competitors.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the insight that could only come from someone caring for an infant. I liked how you mentioned that people think we are supposed to be “weak and soft” instead of having the warrior like physiques of someone who lives primally or actually lives in the wilderness. It would be beneficial if we could change the societal expectation from “soft and weak” to strong and healthy. Very interesting post.

    • People on average expect themselves and others to be weak and vulnerable because they’ve only known lives of weakness and vulnerability, under the comfort and ease of modern civilization. I don’t blame them for that…it’s that special class of people (usually vegan types, but not always) that take special glee in that thought that give me a slight hint of nausea. Even our ancestors of only a hundred years wouldn’t have a clue what they’re talking about.

  2. Actually, some research shows that the amount of crying done by babies in hunter-gatherer societies was very little. Of course they cried, but whenever they did they were immediately attended to. Crying bouts were usually 30 seconds or less.

    • Yeah, I went on sort of a flight of fancy there without much research, though I have a nice comparative study on HG infancy sitting here collecting dust that I’ll get around to reading eventually. But I’ll take your figures for the sake of argument and assume 30 second bouts of crying. I don’t even think my baby cries quite that long, she has the benefit of high tactile contact most of the time and is always attended to. I don’t know if you have kids or have been involved in raising a baby, but 30 seconds of a baby’s cry is roughly equal to “from the beginning of time until the end of eternity”. A mere five seconds worth of it would be an absolute death sentence for a cheetah cub out on the savanna, even with the mother present.

      • 2 kids – one newborn and one toddler. I agree; crying bouts can wear you out.

        I’ve got a page on my website about Paleo & babies – you might find it interesting.

        Good luck with your newborn!


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