Babies Are Helplessly Dumb, and That’s Why Humans Are So Smart

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A stupid, cute thing.Photo: Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

Though there’s a lot happening underneath the hood, infants present as being damningly, maddeningly dumb. “A newborn baby has two moods: rage and satiation,” wrote dad-blogger Tom Scocca of his second child. “It is a howling mass of appetites, and nothing more. There are no better parts inside it, waiting to be discovered.” But the “humanity” of a baby is something you make up after the fact, deciding it was there all along, once the little bugger has arrived safely into childhood. But infants are just so helplessly stupid. And that, in an unironic, actually real way, may be a cause of human brilliance.

The case comes courtesy of University of Rochester cognitive scientists Steven T. Piantadosi and Celeste Kidd. In a recent paper, they argue that evolution selected for large brains, which lead to prematurely born babes, which take more intelligence to raise, leading to even larger brains in their parents. It’s a heartwarming and weird truth, captured elegantly by Maria Konnikova at The New Yorker. “The time it takes to shepherd newborns through absolute helplessness to a point of relative self-sufficiency predicts primate intelligence more strongly than the best measure that has previously been proposed, namely, head circumference,” she writes. “Orangutans have smarter babies than baboons and they wean them longer. Baboon babies, in turn, are weaned longer, and are smarter, than lemur babies.” For humans, the cycle of helplessness and care is more than a generational inconvenience, it’s a mechanism for intellectual growth. Or so says this model.

Kidd, the co-author, told Konnikova that this account adds to already established explanations for the historic expansion of human intelligence: that living in groups have made us dominantly intelligent over time (giving existential weight to the phrase “squad goals”) and that human’s tasty ability to unlock nutrients from food by adding fire has allowed us to feed our oh-so-hungry brains — which consume something like 20 percent of all the calories the body uses. In their gurgly way, infants are like tiny Zen masters — endlessly and inscrutably presenting their parents with problems, and training their intelligence along the way, generation after generation.