Wednesday, January 30, 2019


Stephen Jay Gould introduced me to the idea of “neoteny,” in regards human beings, that is, we retain features of juvenile apes even as we become sexually mature adults. Our faces are relatively small (like chimp infants). Our brains stay large (chimp infant brains are relatively larger than adult chimp brains). We’re gentler and more playful into adulthood. Stuff like that. 

When I read Gould it just seemed that having a super big brain maybe required bringing along other baby-like features. 

I have read that domesticated animals are relatively neotenous compared to their undomesticated brethren. But note that domesticates have smaller brains. 

Carl Safina makes a connection I hadn’t. Our relatives the Neanderthals had bigger brains than we do. I knew that. And I wondered at it. After all, Neanderthals long had a reputation for being brutish and stupid because they left behind little material culture, whereas one can trace the progress of anatomically modern humans by the material culture they left behind — tools, art. Perhaps, even before the discovery of a reliable agriculture, humans had begun to, in Safina’s words, “domesticate themselves.” 

Compared to Neanderthals, the first modern human, at 130,000 years ago, ‘had a much smaller face,’ according to American anthropologist Osbjorn Pearson. At the end of the Pleistocene, certain human groups and their associated animals begin progressively to show parallel reductions in size and stature, shortening of the face and jaws, tooth crowding, and reduced tooth size. … Experts debate whether human brain size relative to body weight has declined. But regardless, we have smaller brains than did Neanderthals. … Our modern brains, with a volume of about 1,350 cubic centimeters are 10 percent smaller than the 1,500-cubic-centimeter brain formerly possessed by Neanderthals.
As people provided safer, more sedentary conditions for their livestock, they did the same for themselves. … [W]e became in a real sense just another farm animal. … [H]umans domesticated themselves. We now depend on others to provide food and shelter. … Domestic creatures don’t need to live by their wits. It behooves them to be accepting of their lot, not uppity. Cows and goats don’t seem very alert to their surroundings; they don’t have to be. And neither do the people who keep them. … [S]ecurity has cost us a certain dulling of senses [blunting] our awareness of the natural world. [all italics Safina’s]

In the last bit Safina highlights human obliviousness relative to the wild. That’s probably less true of people who live in and rely on the wild; there remain small populations of hunter-gatherers who do. But it kind of goes without saying how ignorant, how unobservant civilized humans are of the non-human world. We should look at that. 

source: Beyond Words: what animals think and feel by Carl Safina
2015. Henry Holt & Co., New York

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