If Darwin was correct, our brains got as big and dominant as they are today because of sex: women dig brainy guys. But what if Darwin was incorrect? What if our brains kept developing simply because they could, thanks to something as deceptively simple as a baby sling?
"Upright female hominins walking the savannah had a real problem: their babies couldn't cling to them the way a chimp baby could cling to its mother," explains archaeologist and anthropologist Timothy Taylor, Professor of the Prehistory of Humanity at the University of Vienna and author of THE ARTIFICIAL APE: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution. (His Twitter is @artificialape.) "Carrying an infant would have been the highest drain on energy for a hominin female - higher than lactation. So what did they do? I believe they figured out how to carry their newborns using a loop of animal tissue." While hard evidence of slings hasn't been found, Taylor explains their existence can be inferred, the same way that surviving bones of fossils allow researchers to infer lungs and organs, and stone tools allow them to infer items made from wood, sinew, grasses and leather.
As humans tucked their young offspring into a pouch, like two-legged marsupials, babies were then able to leave the womb without having completed their development. Underdeveloped, a human child could continue to grow and develop within the snug safety of the pouch - a "fetus in the sling." Thus, it was this human-kangaroo technology, the baby sling, that allowed our wee lil' heads to grow bigger and bigger, not Darwinian sexual attraction.
The sex explanation also doesn't make sense from a biomechanical perspective. For two big reasons: (1) walking upright means having a narrower pelvis, which would act as a cap on the size of a baby's head; (2) walking upright calls for a shorter digestive tract, which makes it more difficult to support our big, energy-hungry brains. "Clearly our big brains did evolve, but I think Darwin had the wrong mechanism," says Taylor. "I believe it was technology. We were never fully biological entities. We are and always have been artificial apes."
In short, sexual preference didn't cause baby heads to develop and grow after birth, rather technology permitted it to happen. And increasing brain mass relative to body mass, a measure of intelligence known as encephalization, is how Taylor solves the paradox of the smart-biped. "Once you have slings to carry babies, you have broken a glass ceiling - it doesn't matter whether the infant is helpless for a day, a month or a year. You can have ever more helpless young and that, as far as I can see, is how encephalization took place in the genus Homo."
What I find fascinating about this perspective is the way technology has allowed us to survive and become less fit, less lean, less fabulous. Over the last 30,000 years, cutting tools have allowed our fingernails to become less sharp, advances in surgical implants have permitted our biological eyesight to worsen, while computers have enabled us to outsource our memories, arguably reducing our intelligence. (Neanderthals had bigger brains that we do, plus they were known to be symbolic thinkers who most likely made art.) Those who advocate overcoming these accumulated biological deficits through technology - specifically implants that turn us into cyborgs - are, in a way, attempting to get us back to how we started out, to return us to nature. (image)
Like futurist Ray Kurzweil, a director of engineering at Google, who believes that around 2045, our biological limits will be surpassed by machine intelligence, changing cilivization so much that the rules and technologies will no longer be comprehensible to previous generations. This point-of-no-return is known as the singularity, which Kurzweil describes in his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. As to whether computers will be able to develop even smarter computers and suddenly transcend biology, leaving us behind "as a kind of pond scum" at the feet of robots who take over, is of course hotly debated. "That scenario implies a sharp division between humans and our technology, and I don't think such a division exists," adds Taylor. "I am sympathetic to Kurzweil's idea because he is saying that intelligence is becoming technological and I'm saying, that's how it's been from the start. That's what it is to be human. Humans are artificial apes - we are biology plus technology."
Biology versus technology, the way we don't adapt to our environment but force the environment to adapt to us, is at the heart of what it means to be human. This theme has always had interesting expression in art. Take the 90s MTV cartoon Aeon Flux. The series was created by animator Peter Chung and depicts a future world, both dystopian and bizarre, where the scantily clad Flux, from a "dynamic anarchist society" called Monica infiltrates the neighboring police state, Bregna. Sometimes, she secret-agents. Other times, she sleeps with its ruler, Trevor Goodchild.
In the original six-part pilot, Flux dies violently at the end of each episode, sometime due to her own incompetence and sometimes due to fate. And yet, she keeps coming back to life to cause mayhem in each new episode. The specifics matter less than the theme - our perpetual struggle to adapt our environment to us and what it costs. (image)
As to what one wears to make the future our own, Chung should probably not quit his day job to take up fashion design. When one girl gamer dressed as Flux to attend Comic Con, they made her leave until she covered up her butt cheeks. (So if I understand this correctly, animated butt cheeks = perfectly acceptable for the young attendees to ogle, while real life booty = no-no. How very...American.) Chung's ensemble is undenably seXXXXy, but I think only a drag queen would attempt to perform espionage in it. No genetic girl (and I should know as I am one) wants her assets blowing in the breeze while attempting acrobatic assassinations, trust me.
What I did think interesting was that Chung had been frustrated when he worked on Rugrats (of all things) by the limitations on the characters, which then influenced his aesthetic on Aeon Flux. "Aeon, unlike the revolutionaries in so much science fiction, is not struggling to win her freedom," notes Chung, whose favorite writers are Borges, Nabokov, Robbe-Grillet and Kafka. "The typical rebel heroes are fighting to free themselves from oppression. When their struggle succeeds, their stories end. But what happens after they attain their long-sought freedom? That is where Aeon's story begins. She isn't striving to be free. She IS free. However, Aeon doesn't want the Breen populace to become as free as she is. They're not up to it," Chung continues. "She likes Trevor's hands to be tied, so to speak, by the burden of his office, by his addiction to power...Revolutionaries need an oppressive establishment to thrive, just as governments need hidden enemies to justify stricture. If he were to be deposed or give up his office, she might even have to face the possibility of a committed relationship. Better that he remain unattainable. Besides, it's his supreme power that makes him attractive. Not because she likes powerful men-- but because his sense of responsibility is something she identifies with so strongly. She bears her own responsibility in her own way, for sure, but only for herself. She's both repulsed and fascinated that Trevor would take on the burden of so many that depend on him." (image)
Although Chung deemed the movie version of his work "a travesty", I will say, on the fashion front, I like the way they costumed Charlize Theron - especially the top half of her ninja suit, which is kickass. An easy way to get the look is with this very rawr bra from MICHI called the Lioness. (via)
- Lesley Scott