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Human intelligence evolved to care for helpless babies?

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There’s a certain haplessness to ScienceDaily. For example:

Human intelligence might have evolved in response to the demands of caring for infants, new research suggests. Experts in in brain and cognitive sciences have developed a novel evolutionary model in which the development of high levels of intelligence may be driven by the demands of raising offspring.

Piantadosi and Kidd tested a novel prediction of the model that the immaturity of newborns should be strongly related to general intelligence. “What we found is that weaning time–which acts as a measure of the prematurity of the infants–was a much better predictor of primate’s intelligence than any of other measures we looked at, including brain size, which is commonly correlated with intelligence,” said Piantadosi.

The theory may also be able to explain the origin of the cognitive abilities that make humans special. “Humans have a unique kind of intelligence. We are good at social reasoning and something called ‘theory of mind’–the ability to anticipate the needs of others, and to recognize that those needs may not be the same as our own,” said Kidd, who is also the director of the Rochester Baby Lab at the University of Rochester. “This is an especially helpful when taking care of an infant who is not able talk for a couple of years.”

“There are alternative theories of why humans are so intelligent. A lot of these are based on factors like living in a harsh environment or hunting in groups,” said Piantadosi. “One of the motivating puzzles of our research was thinking about those theories and trying to see why they predict specifically that primates or mammals should become so intelligent, instead of other species that faced similar pressures.”

The key is live birth. According to the researchers, the runaway selection of intelligence requires both live birth of a single off spring and large brains, distinctive features of higher mammals.

“Our theory explains specifically why primates developed super intelligence but dinosaurs–who faced many of the same environmental pressures and had more time to do so–did not. Dinosaurs matured in eggs, so there was no linking between intelligence and infant immaturity at birth,” said Kidd. More. Paper. (paywall) – Steven T. Piantadosi, Celeste Kidd. Extraordinary intelligence and the care of infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016; 201506752 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1506752113

Okay, sure. One big problem: Where’s the skyhook?

Human intelligence is vastly greater than what is needed to care for helpless babies.

Kittens are born blind and deaf and stay that way for weeks, but mother cats are much better known for their fecundity than their intelligence. In fact, the threshold of intelligence required to care for helpless offspring is probably not even very high. Hormones help, because the mother mammal must dispose of milk somehow, and the offspring seek it out.

And what is this about dinosaurs and eggs? Do we know how smart dinosaurs were?

With respect to modern egg layers, on some tests, ravens are smarter than chimpanzees, yet no raven is “evolving” toward live birth.

If singleton birth (as a norm) is the key, whales and dolphins (along with cows and buffalo) might qualify but none is anywhere near as intelligent as humans. Again, the threshold of intelligence needed to care for a large, single offspring is probably not nearly high enough to support the authors’ claims.

File under: That’s the trouble with naturalism in science. Explanations don’t need to make sense. They just need to be naturalist.

See also: Entertaining theories about human intelligence – “wired to persuade”

Human origins: The war of trivial explanations

Furry, feathery, and finny animals speak their minds


What has materialism done for science? Introducing “Science Fictions”

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4 Replies to “Human intelligence evolved to care for helpless babies?

  1. 1
    Andre says:

    This makes perfect sense on why we are killing helpless babies by the millions we are getting back at them for forcing us to leave the comfort of our trees.

  2. 2
    John S says:

    Horse first, then cart. So the first creature who had an offspring that was helpless to any extent what happened to it? It died and did not pass along its genes, because the parent did not possess the intelligence to raise it and therefore did not help it. Because the intelligence comes from raising offspring, but it had never raised offspring. Another nonsense idea paid for by high tuition and tax dollars so more people can be indoctrinated by the ‘anything but God’ novelty idea shop.

  3. 3
    mahuna says:

    I completely agree with John S. Humans have unusually long gaps between generations, which is not the best strategy for experimentation with new and possibly ineffective breeding strategies.

    And again, as Ann Gauger explains in “Science & Human Origins”, there are remains of unrelated bipedal primates and then there is homo erectus, who is arguably identical to homo sapiens. Humans expend extraordinary amounts of nurture on our young, and since I get to spend almost every day with my grandchildren, I can confirm that baby humans DEMAND attention from adult humans. They want to hold our hands even when the best they can do is use their entire hand to grasp 1 of our fingers, and they want to stare into our eyes to see things that are much more important than the shape of our faces.

    I don’t believe there was any “development” involved. We just appeared, POOF!

  4. 4
    Jon Garvey says:

    I don’t suppose that the evolution of helplessness in babies might have had something to do with the maturation time needed for a more complex developing brain? No, that would be too far-fetched.

    There’s another correlation between intelligence and the capacity for speech. Maybe once speech developed, intelligence had to evolve too so that, well, you know, you’d have something to talk about?

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