instinctive survival

The Evolution of Childhood: Earlier Puberty and Instinctive Survival

“Empowering women is the next step in human evolution, and as the uniquely endowed creatures we are, we can choose to help bring it about.”

–Melvin Konner

Dr. Melvin Konner, author and professor at Emory University combines anthropology, neuroscience and behavioral psychology to formulate some theories about the evolution of human instinctive survival skills. His book, “The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind” received rave reviews. If you’ve ever wondered why humans take so long to reach maturity compared to other mammals, he presents some interesting answers.

According to Konner, in order for women’s bodies to accommodate the evolutionary increase in the size of the human brain during childbirth, women began giving birth three months sooner than the ideal twelve month gestation period. This premature birth accounts for the complete helplessness of the human infant compared to other mammal infants. That larger brain continues to mature for the 7 to 10 years of childhood until puberty. During that time, one instinctive survival technique for most cultures is to begin entrusting children with increasingly complex tasks, which in Western culture is usually schoolwork.

While it may be mature enough in childhood for short term tasks, the brain continues developing for several more years. The frontal lobe of the brain responsible for suppressing impulses and controlling behavior isn’t fully developed until approximately age 20. The combination of a fully developed body, a still developing brain, and the addition of hormones can make adolescence an instinctive survival challenge for parents. However, Konner suggests that the expectation of Western culture that children move out on their own at the age of 18 may be a contributing factor to the difficulty of adolescence.

In many other cultures, children continue to live with their parents or extended family until they are married, sometimes as late as their thirties. Gaining independence and all the responsibilities associated with it is easier with a fully developed brain and without surging hormones. Konner believes that adolescents often rebel as a way of rejecting parents who they feel are rejecting them through their expectations that they leave home and achieve independence in the near future.

Recent Evolutionary Biological Changes for Instinctive Survival

Human evolution is the result of adaptation to both the physical and social environments. One recent evolutionary change, that of puberty being younger than the previous generation, has been in response to social customs. One of the possible reasons is improved nutrition. However, while puberty has accelerated, the development of the human brain hasn’t, which is one reason that the hormones associated with puberty cause more aggressive behavior There is also some evidence to suggest that earlier puberty can be triggered by a consistency negative, abusive or neglectful home environment. Stress hormones can trigger physical changes helpful for survival, including early puberty.

One reason humans achieved supremacy over other mammals was because of a longer life span after menopause, which resulted in more people to care for children. In an interview with Salon magazine, he suggested that homosexuality may serve a similar instinctive survival purpose. Many homosexual couples do not reproduce themselves, but often care for children of siblings and friends, as well as adopt children. Konner points to the fact that other species accept homosexuality for much the same reason.

Political Power for Women—A Modern Evolutionary Instinctive Survival Tool

Konner champions the empowerment of women, and points to scientific biological evidence that women may be better suited to serve in politically powerful positions than men. For example, in an article in the Wall Street Journal, he referred to a study of 120 mayors of cities over 30,000 which included 65 men and 55 women. The study concluded that women are more likely to seek and encourage broad participation and reallocate funds for necessary programs than men. They are also less likely to solve problems using violence and aggression.

In response to those who point to women in power who have waged war, such as Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir, he says that

“…these women were perched atop all-male hierarchies confronting other hyper-masculine political pyramids, and they were masculinized as they fought their way to the top.”

Much aggressive behavior is caused by testosterone. During gestation in males, testosterone creates the potential for future aggression by affecting the development of the hypothalamus and the amygdala. Women’s brains are less affected by testosterone, which makes them more likely to deal with conflict by using diplomacy rather than violence.

Now that technology has reduced the importance of physical size and strength as instinctive survival tools, it makes good evolutionary sense that women assume more equal positions of power.

Evolution of man

December 11,2015  |

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi, Parent, Green Activist and First Mother to a Young India

Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India, didn’t consider herself a feminist, but spoke eloquently for equal rights for women, as well as the elevation of their social status. In a speech she gave at a Women’s Conference in New Delhi in 1980 titled “True Liberation of Women”, she said

“I have often said that I am not a feminist. Yet, in my concern for the underprivileged, how can I ignore women who, since the beginning of history, have been dominated over and discriminated against in social customs and in laws… “

Indira Gandhi was the only child of Kamala Kaul and Jawarharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister after achieving independence from Britain in 1947 and protégée of Mahatma Ghandi. After the untimely death of her mother, Indira Gandhi served as her father’s hostess and companion at many political events all over the world. In 1942, Indira Gandhi married Feroze Jehangir Gandhi, a dedicated member of the Indian independence movement who was jailed several times for the cause. Together, they had two sons, Rajiv in 1944 and Sanjay in 1946. She suffered the loss of Sanjay in a fatal plane crash in 1980.

Indira Gandhi’s Political Achievements

Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India herself not once, but twice. She served from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 until her death in 1984. While she achieved any political and social successes during her service as Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi also proved to be a very controversial figure. One of her political successes was the creation of the independent nation of Bangladesh that resulted from her diplomatic work with Pakistani President Shimla in 1971. This agreement ended the violence that had caused almost 10 million people to flee to India.

Indira Gandhi was also one of the first global environmental activists and led a movement known as the Green Revolution. This movement consisted of diversifying crops and increasing the number of food exports. These policies helped reduce food shortages while creating much needed jobs and reducing poverty.

The administration of Indira Gandhi oversaw the nationalization of banks. This accomplished the goals of increasing household savings as well as providing money for investments in small and medium-sized businesses. It also made more investment in agriculture possible, which contributed to the nation’s development.

Indira Gandhli on Losing and Winning

However, from 1975 to 1977, in response to a call for her resignation as the result of an infraction of election rules, she declared a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties for Indian citizens. As a result, Indira Gandhi lost the next election and was briefly imprisoned, but won again in 1980 by a landslide.

According to her biography, a Sikh separatist movement began in India during the 1980’s. Ghandi, to repress the movement and a potential civil war, ordered an attack by 70,000 soldiers on the Golden Temple in which 450 Sikhs were killed. On October 31, 1984, she was assassinated by two of her most trusted bodyguards and died en route to the hospital. Indira Gandhi once said

“Even if I died in the service of the nation, I would be proud of it. Every drop of my blood… will contribute to the growth of this nation and to make it strong and dynamic.”

She died as she’d wanted, in service to India.

Indira and family matters

Her son, Rajiv, a professional airline pilot with little interest in politics before the death of his brother, became Prime Minister in 1984 amidst riots after her assassination. Over a decade later, he too was assassinated. His son, Indira Gandhi’s grandson, Rahul Gandhi continues the family legacy and was a prime ministerial candidate in 2014.

Being a parent, even in a politically stable environment, is perhaps the most challenging, and most important, occupation someone can undertake. Parenting a young country, newly liberated and composed of many opposing factions capable of contributing to civil unrest is even more so. Indira Gandhi made many valuable contributions to the survival and development of her country as well as her children and family.

If you are fascinated (like me) how famous women dealt with motherhood, head over to the article on Toni Morrison, here.

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi in 1977

August 7,2015  |