Biology, Meaning of Words

The Evolution of Childhood: Earlier Puberty and Instinctive Survival

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

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