Costly and Cute: How Helpless Newborns Made Us Human

Advanced Seminar

May 11–15, 2014

Costly and Cute: How Helpless Newborns Made Us HumanCostly and Cute: How Helpless Newborns Made Us HumanAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Karen R. Rosenberg, Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Delaware and Wenda R. Trevathan, Regents Professor Emerita, Department of Anthropology, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, May 11–15, 2014. Photograph by William Geoghegan.Costly and Cute: How Helpless Newborns Made Us HumanAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Karen R. Rosenberg, Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Delaware and Wenda R. Trevathan, Regents Professor Emerita, Department of Anthropology, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, May 11–15, 2014. Photograph by William Geoghegan.

Among the biological and behavioral foundations of humanness is the fact that we give birth to extremely undeveloped and dependent infants that require inordinate investment in time and energy, the consequences of which have never been fully explored. Participants in this seminar examined infant helplessness from biological, cultural, cognitive, behavioral, obstetrical, and pediatric points of view to understand how such a costly pattern of development evolved and what benefits it conferred on humans. Participants included twelve scholars from various subfields within Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology.

Wenda Trevathan provided a historical overview of the concept of human infant helplessness beginning with the work in the 1940s when human infants were described as “secondarily altricial.” Holly Dunsworth, Karen Rosenberg, and Christoph Zollikofer explored factors that seem to account for the fact that human infants are born with only a quarter of their adult brain growth. Katerina Semendeferi and Dean Falk provided insight into the state of the human brain at birth the fact that measuring the size of the brain alone is insufficient to account for the fact that there is “much more going on that can’t be explained by looking at size alone.” Jeremy DeSilva and Marcia Ponce de Leon presented their work on fossil evidence and comparisons with other primates. Lee Gettler discussed the role of natural selection in the biology of fatherhood and James McKenna explored the inclusion of the roles of fathers and others in the understanding of the infant’s behavior and physiology without compromising the importance of the mother-infant relationship. Sarah Hrdy compared the remarkably similar methods of raising young of humans and marmosets. E.A. Quinn discussed the very high costs of lactation compared to gestation in humans.

”Several themes continued to re-emerge through our discussions. Human infants are helpless but in a different way than other helpless mammals. Their helplessness is extremely costly in many ways but these costs are borne by the social fabric in which they are born – this includes, of course their parents, siblings, grandparents and other kin as well as non-related individuals who may help in their provision and care. And of course, human infants have evolved to attract this care in spite of the large investment that being a parent or alloparent involves. At the same time, helplessness seems to bring some benefits in terms of learning and emotional attachment. Throughout the seminar, participants pointed explicitly to aspects of human biology and behavior which are both a legacy of our mammalian, primate or ape heritage as well as those which are distinctive to our lineage, thus stressing both the continuities and differences between humans and the rest of the mammalian world,’ write co-chairs Rosenberg and Trevathan.

Karen R. Rosenberg, Chair Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Delaware The Evolution of Human Infant Helplessness, Complicated Labor and Big Babies
Wenda R. Trevathan, Chair Regents Professor Emerita, Department of Anthropology, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces Human Evolution and the Newborn Infant
Jeremy DeSilva Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Boston University Brains, Birth, Bipedalism and the Mosaic Evolution of the Helpless Human Infant
Holly M. Dunsworth Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Rhode Island The “Obstetric Dilemma” Unraveled
Dean Falk Professor, Department of Anthropology, Florida State University; Senior Scholar, School for Advanced Research The Impact of Helpless Prehistoric Infants on the Evolution of the Human Brain and Cognition: Is it Still Going on?
Lee Gettler Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame Male Life History, Pathways to Social Status, and Testosterone
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy Professor Emerita, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Davis Of Marmosets, Men, and the Transformative Power of Babies
James J. McKenna Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame Stone Age Infant Sleep and Feeding Arrangements Finding Expression in an Acrimonious Medical Culture: How Evolutionary Narratives Can Work Both for and against Women’s Rights
Marcia Ponce de León Senior Lecturer, Anthropological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich Inferring Fetopelvic Constraints in Homo Erectus (co-authored by Christoph P. E. Zollikofer)
Elizabeth Anne Quinn Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis Infancy by Design: Maternal Metabolism, Hormonal Signals, and the Active Management of Infant Growth by Human Milk
Katerina Semendeferi Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego Postnatal Development Changes in the Human Brain: Comparative Studies
Christoph P. E. Zollikofer Professor, Anthropological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich Birth at the Extremes: Exploring Fetopelvic Relationships in Primates with “Virtual Obstetrics” (co-authored by Marcia Ponce de León)

Sponsored by Paloheimo Foundation

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