Noah's Children: Restoring the Ecology of Childhoodby Stein, Sara Stein
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Sara Stein interweaves her own observations with those of linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists to reveal the world through the eyes of a child -- illuminating the features that their nature leads them to expect (but that contemporary life often disappoints): a place they will come to know intimately through their own explorations, a chance to develop real skills in their play, and adults who pass along, through explanation and myth, a way to comprehend the relationship between nature and culture. She shows how we can restore such pathways to adulthood in our own homes and backyards.
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Ezra was born old. It was astonishing. Everyone noticed it.
He looked nothing like his youthful parentsJoshua the curly haired, whose smooth and smiley face still prevented him from buying beer without proof of age, or Laura, his mother, who sometimes was mistaken for Joshua's kid sister.
Ezra clearly was going on eighty. Sad and knowing worry lines furrowed his brow row after row to where the hairline receded beyond his high-domed forehead. His eyebrows arched sardonically, and when he lifted one in seeming skepticism, the lines lifted with it in a unison of doubt. His ears were generous; his nose prominent too. His lower lip protruded slightly as if in puzzlement.
He had skipped a generation: line for line and feature for feature, in every expression that fleetingly crossed his world-weary face, Ezra was the seeming clone of his grandfather Henry, who was approaching eighty. The old man cradled his newborn image and with a smile, introduced the baby to his ancient species.
Ezra was born human. It was worthy of note, but no one remarked on it.
Unlike the intense scrutiny with which we seek in every newborn evidence of descent from close kin, we overlook entirely the much more dramatic evidence of a baby's descent from a primate species that first appeared in the fossil record two hundred thousand years ago. Babies much more resemble one another in that ancient genetic endowment than they resemble anyone in their families. No one remarked on Ezra's ability to cry, nor did anyone pause in wonderthat the crying was so powerful as to compel two grandmothers, two grandfathers, and two parents to fairly leap to his attendance.
The adults, in fact, didn't notice the odd ways they themselves were behavingbobbing their heads at Ezra, arching their eyebrows, lifting their voices to a singsong croon, grinning eight inches from his face. The behavior would be absurd in any other context: imagine greeting a friend that way. We reserve this greeting for babies, although it may be elicited by puppies too.
Ezra was captivated. He spent long moments gazing at each face so vividly presented to him, and as he held the image with his eyes, his body relaxed and occasionally a smile trembled at the corners of his mouth. He seemed to appreciate his audience's approaches, as though he had come prepared to greet his fellow humans. Yet he wouldn't have been able to do so without their unconscious but considerable help.
Newborn babiesEzra was one week old at this first meeting with his grandparentscan't focus on an object that is much closer or much farther than eight inches from their face. Peripheral vision is still undeveloped: they see what is straight in front of them, unaware of anything that lies to either side. They follow a very simple set of rules for visual exploration: provided the light is not too bright, they open their eyes, keep them open, look for the light, and locate an edge. They are then constrained in their infant curiosity to stick with that discovery, examining just the near vicinity of the edge without exploring the remainder of the shape. This primitive set of rules might fix Ezra's gaze on Laura's hairline or on Grandfather Henry's chin. One wouldn't think that line of attention was much of a greeting.
But as though to put our every feature on display, we slowly weave and bob our face within the baby's narrow field of view, and from this animated sight also come sounds that happen to be pitched within the baby's preferred range of hearing. Although he can hear low rumblings and dull thumps, again a perceptual rule forces his attention to the lifted tones and singsong tunes that biology prescribes to adults greeting babies. The face has depth and contour, color too, bright flashing eyes and teeth, andat eight inchesbreathes a human scent. The adult so ludicrously bobbing for the baby makes his face into a super-object that certainly riveted Ezra's attention more than any other attraction his doting family could devise.
Ezra's inborn package of preparations to meet his species was not limited to near-face encounters: he accommodated our cradling arms, slumping into them even in the midst of a stiffening cry. Here again, we "knew" how best to mesh with him. When we picked him up, we automatically crooked him in the left arm to hold him against the heart without having to be told that the thump of his life before birth would soothe the baby. It was natural too, when he was distressed, to walk or rock him in imitation of his swaying prenatal environment. More tellingly, it was also natural to hold this potentially bipedal animal upright in our arms, with his head supported on a shoulder. This posture, while calming, prolonged his periods of alertness as though the upright vantage point provided him with a more coherent and engaging point of view than he could achieve helplessly floundering on his back or belly.
I couldn't tell whether Ezra knew his mother in any special way: he was an easy baby for anyone to care for at that age. But breastfed babies recognize their mother's milk by smell from less than two weeks oldand would rather hers than any other's. And certainly nursing provides more time to get acquainted than other activities do: Laura nursed him whenever he wished, often every two hours, sometimes more frequently. At intervals as he suckled, she jiggled him. Had she been asked why, she would have said that the jiggling was to wake the baby up, get him going again when he paused during the meal. All mothers say that. But slowed-down videotapes of nursing babies say differently: the jiggle precedes the pause; the baby looses his grip on cue. During the interruption, the mother leans her face toward his, captures his gaze, and chats with him. From the very beginning, mealtimes are social times; they nourish bonds as well as bellies.
One other phenomenon is worthy of note: there are babies who are pretty at birth; frankly, newborn old-man Ezra was not among them. "Comical" was the best compliment I could honestly offer. His other grandparents could do no better. Joshua and Laura, though, seemed to have developed a sudden immunity to aesthetic judgment, a sort of baby blindness: their infant was perfectly beautiful to them.
We don't know what ancient ape we are descended from. We are certain that our closest living relatives are chimpanzees, for they differ from us genetically by barely more than 1 percent. Descending vertically down four million years through the branches to the trunk of our own family tree, we are fairly sure we have identified our likely hominid progenitor, a humanlike species called Australopithecus afarensis. Presumably this species differed even less from the apes of that time than we differ from chimpanzees today, and yet A. afarensis was already a stunningly different animal. It walked on two feet: the family Hominidae is defined by gait, not brains.
A. afarensis is best known as "Lucy" for the nickname given to the first specimen of her kind to be unearthed, in 1974. Since then, many others of her species have been found. They are just fossils, of coursemineralized teeth, skulls, hips, limbsmere anatomy. Yet their bones have yielded intriguing clues to their way of life and suggest that Ezra's social readiness in part dates from that time.
Lucy stood between three and four feet tall and weighed about fifty pounds. Males, though, were a good deal larger. That contrast in body size usually indicates that males compete for females, as do chimpanzees. These males, though, lacked fangs. Maybe this was just a physical adaptation to tougher foods than most apes eat: fangs get in the way of grinding molars. A more intriguing explanation for loss of weaponry is that cooperation had become more pronounced than competition. Chimpanzee males cooperate in pig and monkey hunting and in raiding others' territory and defending their own. When it comes to sex, though, they turn fiercely against each other. A. afarensis's smallish canines hint that males of the species may have come to some agreement about apportioning females. Their larger body size would remain useful in gang assaults on predators, such as the leopards that prowled their savanna habitat.
Chimpanzees have been seen ganging up on a leopard to scare it off with sticks. National Geographic ran footage of chimps attacking a stuffed leopard. It was pretty funny: there they were, the bunch of them, jumping up and down, hollering and throwing sticks. There was plenty of racket, but the sticks mostly missed. Chimp thumbs are too short and at the wrong angle to firmly grasp a club; they tend to toss ineffectually underhanded.
Here Lucy's group differed radically. Their arms, in keeping with their arboreal-ape past, were still long in proportion to the rest of the body, and the finger bones were curved for easy hanging from a branch. It's thought that A. afarensis was still at home in trees, could climb and swing from branch to branch with confidence, and perhaps ascended to safety for the night. But the thumb was longer and had rotated to a position that allowed a grip on sticks and stones powerful enough to hold the missile through windup and release. Dental weight has been added to this skeletal suggestion: carbon-isotope analysis of A. afarensis teeth shows that the species must have eaten either dryland grasses or grazing prey. Since electron microscopy shows further that their teeth lack the type of wear associated with abrasive foods, it seems likely that these early hominids included meat as well as vegetables in their diet. That doesn't prove they hunted: scavenging carcasses was possible if other wild and hungry animals could be beaten from the meal.
About a year after Lucy was discovered by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, his expedition came upon a group of A. afarensis apparently drowned and buried in a sudden flood. There were thirteen individualsnine grownups, four children, and one babypresumably related and traveling as a band. The site of their burial is now a dried-up riverbed in searing wasteland, but in their day the habitat was grassy savanna similar to game parks like the Serengeti and thronged with ancestors of the elephants, giraffes, zebras, pigs, and lions that I'm whittling for the ark. All of these were originally forest dwellers and so was whatever ape it was that spawned the hominids.
It is commonly said that hominids "moved" from forest to savanna as climate dried and trees had trouble growing. That can't be so. Nothingnot a pig or a grass or a Lucycould have made the transition from woodland to grassland without serendipitous preparation for it. Rather, those species that could persist in spite of what was happening to their habitat stayed on. Those that couldn't died out. Chimps remain only in habitat that is still as it had been. For hominids to have persisted where forest thinned to woods and then to grassland, they must already have taken up a way of life that worked as well for them in the forest as it would on the open plain. Australopithecines must have descended from the arboreal highways of their origin before the canopy vanished. But what is the use of walking in the woods?
When biologists note a behavior that is shared by two related species that in other respects have diverged from one another, they conclude that both species inherited the conserved behavior from a common ancestor. Thus, if flocks of sheep and goats are made up of related females following one male leader, and if in both species the male leads his flock along a route of greening grass within a circumscribed home range, biologists assume that the common ovine ancestor was similarly sheepish. For all the stunning difference between hominids and apes, the genetic overlap is so nearly complete that we ought not be surprised that we show behavioral traits in common.
One of these is food sharing. Chimpanzees are not notably generous, but cooperating males do sometimes parcel meat out among the hunters according to their rank, and a courting male may offer a morsel to his love. His love is likely to copulate promiscuously if he's not around to interfere, but sometimes short-term faithfulness is assured by whisking the female away on "honeymoon" while she is in estrus.
If only that chimpthat chumpcould be sure he was responsible for her pregnancy, it would be in his interest to continue to provision his mate and the offspring she produced. His provisioning of bothespecially with high-protein meatwould favor the survival of his genes in the next generation and the descent of his good nature through succeeding ones. This is all that animal evolution is: some structural or behavioral individuality is transmitted to descendants who are thereby more likely to survive and reproduce. Nothing is foreordained; nothing is either on purpose or to a purpose. And yet the accident of a little extra generosity might bias the future of the race.
Look at us now! Note our courtings with candy, our marriage feasts, our festivals of food and family reunion! We are breadwinners, providers; we bring home the bacon.
And recall now the suckling infant reminded with a jiggle to stop and socialize: food sharing and social eating are so deeply ingrained in our species that it is inconceivable in any culture to invite a guest without offering food or to turn our backs to one another during a meal or to nurse a baby without pausing for a chat.
And now consider Lucy: hips and legs and feet had been reshaped for walking but so had her hands been reformed for grasping. Imagine that her ape progenitors were a species of more than usual generosity yet no more able to walk and haul than an ordinary apewhich is to say, a few yards with a light load. Given the behavior of food sharing, any slight anatomical change that made it easier for an ape to carry food would favor his descendants. The behavior, though invisible in fossils, drives the reshaping of the bones until by small increments over a million years or more a straight-legged, strong-handed Lucy walks into the fossil record.
It's a good story anyhow; no better one has been suggested. And it makes the point that we don't have to look for physical pressures like climate change or scarce resources to drive evolution: an animal by its culture can create the pressures that drive its own selection. If that were not so, we would be at a loss to explain how an Ezra ever arose from a Lucy, for his skull is nearly the size and shape of a bowling ball and her brain was no bigger than an ape's.
I next saw Ezra when he was three months old. It was June by then and, in his North Carolina habitat, already sweltering. I'd been summoned to baby-sit, and I sat most of the week indoors breathing at the air conditioner. There wasn't much to look at except Ezra.
He was quite changed. The worry lines were smoothed by baby fat, and new creases had appeared around his plump wrists and thighs. I won't say he had become handsome: he resembled Maurice Sendak's rendition of himself as an infant, a definitely round-headed Eastern European look. Adorable, though, especially when he smiled.
This he did at every opportunity. He smiled at my face; he smiled at his toys; he smiled at lamps and kitchen pots and window blinds. He fairly chortled to have his diapers changed. If you want to see how hopeless it is to deny biology, try keeping a straight face to a smiling baby.
Ezra had few motor skills. He could grasp an object but couldn't reliably hold on to it or bring it to his mouth, and his interest was only briefly sustained by any of his toys. His legs were strong and he delighted in digging them into my lap to stand while I supported him, but he couldn't turn over, creep, or sit. His vocalizations had become charming: I would reproduce them for you here if I could spell those deliciously wet and gurgly, airy or chirruping sounds with which, though lacking a shared lexicon, we nevertheless communicated very well. He slept much less than half the day. The rest of the time was devoted to socializing with smiles.
Excerpted from Noah's Children by Sara Stein. Copyright © 2001 by Sara Stein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Robert Michael Pyle, author of The Thunder Tree and Chasing Monarchs
Meet the Author
Sara Stein is the author of Noah's Garden, among several other books for adults and children. She lives in Pound Ridge, New York.
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