Chatty Primates: Bipedal Babies, Big Brains, and Language


On this particular Sunday afternoon, I’ve been moving through some ideas about language.  I’ve spoken about Muses proper and informal, the power of the written word, and even touched upon the mystic nature of the creative mindset.  I think that now would be an excellent time to use those previous segments to talk about words, human evolution, and extra-genetic means of storing and conveying knowledge.


We’re All Born Half-Baked

No, I’m not saying all babies are born under the influence of drugs.  What I am saying is that, as a consequence of our bipedalism, our upright stature, every one of us is born only partially gestated.  That’s why human babies can’t even hold their heads up or grip with any coordination.  That’s why our vision is limited to a very narrow scope, and why even our protective powers of mimicry are limited.   If you’ve never thought about it, look at other primate babies.  Have you never wondered why this is the case?

The fact that we walk around on two legs rather than four has had a number of evolutionary consequences, such as the adaptation of the small bones in the wrist–no longer structured to take continuous pressure in the way non-human primate wrists do.  There’s even a differentiation in the arrangement of the nerves spanning out from the spinal cord, which govern heartbeat, stomach emptying, and respiration, and our spinal cords meet up with our noggins from underneath, not from the rear.

The reason behind our evolutionarily crafted premature births is that, by adopting an upright stance, the pelvic aperture is narrowed and the legs brought closer together.  If we were born when we were supposed to be–imagine a baby of some four to seven months of age–we’d kill our mothers in the process.  So, we’re born all floppy and helpless and squished looking.  The reason I bring this up is not because I have a particularly good footing in evolutionary anthropology, but because I do not.  I’ve got your basic interested anthropologist foundation, so if there are any in my audience who’d like to offer enlightenment, now would be an excellent time.

Because it’s Tangent Time…

What an Awfully Big Brain You Have, Grandma…

Evolutionary Anthropologists and Biologists, not to mention other professionals have been batting about a question for quite a while.  “Where did we get all these brains?” That, of course, is a dramatic oversimplification.  The exploration for the source of our big brains treats with all sorts of other evolutionary issues–even our methods of sociality, our use of tools and fire, which are not original to our particular repertoire–and our development of language.  We are a precocious species, and, so far as I know, that plasticity and potential for growth has been linked to our larger brain mass as well as how it’s bigger.

Here’s what I’m thinking: We come out unfinished.  During the first five years of human life, there’s an incredible explosion of neural development, which is important to overall individual intelligence.  But I think when we start that phase matters quite a bit.  We are exposed to various sensory stimuli in our incompleteness, when we might otherwise still be in the dark, safe, relatively quiet womb.  Because Nature wastes nothing, neuroscience can take steps backward in brain fashion statements, and all of these are present in make-up of our own brain mass.  Think about terms like reptilian brain, which is used to describe our most basic brain functions.

So, here we have this large brain.  It didn’t just come from nowhere, and I don’t believe we have to look very much to evolutionary links outside the human species to understand how we got it.  We have exercised selective breeding on domestic plant and animal species for thousands of years.  I’d say it’s a fairly safe to say that we selectively bred ourselves, too, choosing mates that had desirable qualities or offered advantages over other suitors.  That sexy gray matter just might have brought with it advanced problem solving, tool-making, and communication skills.  The ability to associate two ideas or predict events based on memory and extrapolation might have posed some substantially hot evolutionary benefits.


To Cry, to Sing, to Speak

The ability to vocalize is one of the first things we try out as babies.  While these vocalizations have meanings–we’re wet, we’re hungry, we’re tired, we’re alone–they don’t contain any standardized packets of meaning that can be understood, except perhaps on a pre-verbal emotional level.  But some research indicates that the neural pathways formed by our understanding of organized sounds–music, the cadence and rhythm of a caregiver’s voice, our own rhythmic footsteps and heartbeat–underpin those formed by language later on.  There’s a whole book’s worth of inquiry I’d love to follow up here, but I’m going to leave that point be for now.

Now, we’re incomplete.  We see approximately 30 percent of the world right in the center of our field of vision and not very well; we can’t hold our own head up or even muster much of a grip at first.  We are human-shaped blobs of meat dough that spit up and make dirty diapers, and lots of noise.  We’ve talked about why.  Now, I want to explore the consequences of this incompleteness, even though I lack the particular educational tools to do so.

What if, for supposition’s sake, that first few months is crucial, in an evolutionary sense, to why our brains got so big in the first place?  What if, those first, squalling meat dough blob months were the ultimate reason for why we developed language in the first place?  That, over thousands of generations, we mated our way to bigger brains, language, and human culture.  7 million years–the generally agreed upon date for our last common ancestor with Pan, or chimpanzees and bonobos.  While there are many steps between, how much of an impact did upright stature have on our present stage of evolution?  Yes, we are still evolving, as difficult as I know that is for some to grasp.

We, the self-styled Lords of Creation–because the language is ours, the meaning and the ideas behind words and meanings are ours to manipulate as well–find it difficult to fathom that there will be a next, a better, or a different elaboration on our present pattern. We call it “ours” and think that it somehow makes such ownership a reality.







3 thoughts on “Chatty Primates: Bipedal Babies, Big Brains, and Language

  1. I don’t have the training to really make a lot of sense here, but did have a couple of questions.

    Are you thinking that bipedalism was a necessary precursor to evolving bigger brains? (Thought that was implied, but wasn’t sure you’d connect the dots that way.) So….. if true, then As an evolutionary mutation, some of our ancestors were born more likely to stand upright. Some survived and bred with other freaks (from the ape cousins’ point of view), and all sorts of other changes were then possible.

    I like the idea of us being born unfinished, kind of like a Polaroid snapshot. To have a big brain and do all that developing in the womb would be self-defeating, as you said, because it would kill the mother and… end of experiment.

    But along with the idea about how language became necessary during the nurturing phase, I wonder what happened to make those early ancestors *be* nurturing enough so that some offspring survived to breeding age.

    But I think you have something there with the reason why we’re born all floppy and helpless.

    1. There’s a great deal I leave out that the lay person may not have had access to. First, Ecolution is mutation. Second, we’re the only surviving Homo–Cro Magnon and Neanderthal populations also exhibited culture, big brains, bipedalism…the list goes on. They were our close-cousins, but also represent comparatively late adaptations on the bipedal template.

      Homo erectus and habilis made fire and tools, as well as walking upright (and traveling all the way to Australia, in the case of Homo e.) this is not a simple progression, nor are large brains a direct consequence of species-wide premature birth. Think more indirectly than that. Like the development of the hyloid bone–permitting complex manipulation of sound if which our Pan relatives are incapable. Think about the recursive development that came about because we could make those sounds–body to mind and back again. And that’s just a tiny piece–albeit a crucial one.

      I think larger brains are also a consequence of enhanced evolutionary tactics developed by bipedal animals, which allowed greater intake of high-value foods. Not just prey pursuit, but also the ability to diversify tasks, specialization of foraging skills, etc.

      So we have premature offspring subjected to a massive influx of stimuli, diversified subsistence strategies that also lend themselves to memory, associative thought, and communication of abstract ideas like “over there by the big rocks” and “last season, last Wednesday, last time we were in the area” “descriptions of preferred or necessary items”. If you think about it, these very ideas–and the ability to have them, much less communicate them in a commonly accepted grammar, are fabulously complex. They transcend animal memory correlating reward with behavior by at least two orders of magnitude in their complexity.

      So, take that and add to it our tendency to teach our young. We exposed them to sounds and sights, demonstrations of tasks, animal and plant identification, and production of crafts over several million years.

      I’m pretty sure I probably lost you somewhere after the first paragraph, which is why I left so much unaddressed in the post. Because there’s so much, and I certainly am not an expert, though I’ve had more exposure than most non-anthropologists.

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