Childhood and old age are key to our human capacities
Homo sapiens have evolved a particularly weird life history, with a much longer childhood and old age than other animals. […] It appears that there’s a kind of symbiosis in the human life history: a long childhood allows exploration and learning, while a wider set of carers, including elders, allows that childhood to unfold. […] Both childhood and old age appear to be critical periods in the life history of our species when it comes to the transmission of human culture – another thing that is distinctive, if not unique, about human beings. More than any other animal, we pass on information and knowledge from one generation to another. […]
[Our] vulnerabilities [in childhood and old age] are intimately related to some of our greatest human strengths – our capacities for learning, cooperation and culture. […] Just as the impulsiveness, curiosity and noise of children might contribute to exploration and compensate for their other inabilities, the older humans’ expertise, patience and storytelling skills might compensate for loss of speed and strength. It seems that all these life-history developments interacted to create the coevolutionary cascade that led to the remarkably swift emergence of Homo sapiens. A longer, smarter, more social childhood, as well as an extended old age, lets you develop more skilled adults. […]
So, childhood and old age – those vulnerable, unproductive periods of our lives – turn out, biologically, to be the key to many of our most valuable, deeply human capacities. They nurture and facilitate our exploration and creativity, cooperation, coordination and culture, learning and teaching. In some ways, we are at our most human before puberty and after menopause. Caring for those vulnerable humans at either end of life lets all of us flourish. The dance of love and lore between grandparent and grandchild is at the centre, not the fringes, of our evolutionary story.
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