Archive | January, 2013

The Evolution of Human Childhood and “Voracious Learning”

29 Jan

Today Slate.com posted an article titled “Why Are We the Last Apes Standing? How Childhood Let Modern Humans Conquer the Planet.”  It’s a brief piece based on journalist Chip Walter’s newly released book Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived.

Walter emphasizes the significance of our relatively long period of childhood and our strong desire to learn.  Here’s a summary of his thesis:

“The reason we are still here to ruminate on why we are still here is because, of all those other human species [extinct members of the genus Homo], only we evolved a long childhood…Human children are the most voracious learners planet Earth has ever seen, and they are that way because their brains are still rapidly developing after birth. Neoteny, and the childhood it spawned, not only extended the time during which we grow up but ensured that we spent it developing not inside the safety of the womb but outside in the wide, convoluted, and unpredictable world…Our extended childhood essentially enables our brains to better match our experience and environment…If not for our long childhoods, we would not be here at all, the last apes standing. Can we remain standing? Possibly. I’m counting on the child in us, the part that loves to meander and play, go down blind alleys, wonder why and fancy the impossible.”

Check out Slate.com for the full article or Amazon.com for the book (links above).

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What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?

3 Jan

I’ve enjoyed Jared Diamond’s popular works in the past, especially Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, Why is Sex Fun?, and The Third Chimpanzee.  His latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, was just published on December 31st, 2012.

Diamond 2012

Here is the publisher’s description of the book:

“Most of us take for granted the features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity. Yet for nearly all of its six million years of existence, human society had none of these things. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgeably wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently in existence. Societies like those of the New Guinea Highlanders remind us that it was only yesterday—in evolutionary time—when everything changed and that we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions.

The World Until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years—a past that has mostly vanished—and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today.
This is Jared Diamond’s most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn’t romanticize traditional societies—after all, we are shocked by some of their practices—but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us. A characteristically provocative, enlightening, and entertaining book, The World Until Yesterday will be essential and delightful reading” (Amazon.com).

It certainly sounds like “essential and delightful reading” for people with anthropological interests.  I have not read it yet, but plan to in the near future.  In the meantime, I’ll ask the question of Diamond’s subtitle: What can we learn from traditional societies?  The book (presumably) contains Jared Diamond’s answer.  How would you answer it, personally?