Suppose the brain of a fully grown Turkana Boy was 60 percent the size of our brain today. (We have to suppose because we have no adult ergaster cranium to consult.) And let’s assume ergaster children would have come into the world after fourteen months of gestation, approximately 30 percent sooner than a chimp. This isn’t as drastically different as the eleven-month disparity between other primates and us modern humans, but it would have represented the beginning of a significant human childhood, and it would have begun to upend the daily lives of our ancestors in almost every way.
Why? First, there would have been more death in a world where, unfortunately, death was no stranger. Many “early borns” would have died after birth, unable, unlike today’s chimps and gorillas, to quickly fend for themselves. Because gorilla and chimp newborns are more physically mature than human newborns, they often help pull themselves out of the birth canal and quickly crawl into their mother’s arms or up onto her back. It’s unlikely that ergaster infants were capable of this. Of all primates, human newborns are by far the most helpless. When we arrive, we are utterly incapable of walking or crawling. We can’t see well or even hold our heads up. Without immediate and almost constant care, we would certainly die within a day or two. Though these “preemies” were not likely as defenseless at birth as we are, they would have been far less physically developed than their jungle or even early savanna predecessors.
But even if the newborns didn’t die in childbirth, their mothers might have, their narrow pelvises unable to handle what scientists call the expanding “encephalization quotients” of their babies. To compensate, ergaster newborns may have begun to turn in the birth canal so that they were born face-up, a revolutionary event in human birth. Unlike other primates, our upright posture makes it necessary for babies to rotate like a screw so they emerge face-up. If they came out with their faces looking at their mother’s rump as chimps and gorilla infants do, their backs would snap during birth.
The job of bringing a child into the world would not only have become more complicated, but imagine life for the mothers of these offspring, assuming both survived the ordeal of birth. They were already living a precarious existence in a menacing world—open grasslands or at best thick brush with occasional clusters of forest. Predators such as striped hyenas and the scythe-toothed Homotherium had appetites and needs, too. There was no such thing as a campfire to keep predators at bay. Fire had yet to be mastered. When night fell, it was black and total with nothing more than the puny illumination provided by the long spine of the Milky Way, a fickle moon, or an occasional wildfire in the distance sparked suddenly and inexplicably by lightning or an ill-tempered volcano. And the big cats of the savanna like to hunt when the sun has set.
Not only were these new human infants more helpless than ever, but their neurons were proliferating outside the womb at the same white-hot rate they once did inside. Rapidly growing brains demand serious nutrition. Studies show that children five and younger use 40 to 85 percent of their standing metabolic rate to maintain their brains. Adults, by comparison, use 16 to 25 percent.9 Even for ergaster children, a lack of food in the first few years of life would often have led to premature death. Nariokotome Boy might have been undernourished himself. His ancient teeth reveal he was suffering from an abscess. His immune system may not have been strong enough to defeat the infection, and lacking antibiotics, scientists theorize blood poisoning abbreviated his life. He was probably not the first among his kind to die this way.
In every way, early borns would have made life on the savanna more difficult, more dangerous, and more unpredictable for their parents and other members of the troop. So why should evolution opt for larger brains and earlier births? And how did it manage to make a success of it?
Difficult question to answer. Looking back on the scarce orts of information science has so far gathered together, premature birth doesn’t make an ounce of evolutionary sense. Not on the surface. Darwinian adaptations succeed for one reason—they help ensure the continuation of the species. That means if your kind misplaces the habit of living long enough to have sex successfully, extinction will swiftly follow. Since this is the ultimate fate of 99.9 percent of all life on earth, it is difficult to fathom how the mountains of challenge that early-arriving newborns heaped on the backs of their gracile ape parents could possibly help them successfully struggle to stay even a single step ahead of the grim reaper.
It certainly wouldn’t seem to make much sense to lengthen the time between birth and sex. Keeping that time as brief as possible has immense advantages after all. It’s a powerful way to maximize the number of newborns either by having large numbers of them at once or by having them often, or both. Dogs, for example often enter the world in bundles of five or six at a time, are weaned by six weeks, and ready to mate as early as six months. They aren’t puppies long, and once they are done breast-feeding, they are soon prepared to fend for themselves. For mice the process is even more compressed. The result is that mothers bear more children with every birth, do it more often, and those off spring are quickly ready to mate and repeat the cycle. All of this accelerates the proliferation of the species and improves its chances of survival.
We humans, however, wait an average of nineteen years before bearing our first child. Why? If shortening the time between being born and bearing as many offspring as often as possible works so well for other mammals, for what reasons would evolution twist itself backward with Africa’s struggling troops of savanna apes? Why bring increasingly defenseless infants into the world? Why expose their parents to greater danger to feed and protect them? Why insert this extra, unprecedented cycle of growth, this thing we call childhood, into a life—a time when we rely utterly on other adults to take care of us? And what advantage is there in taking nearly two decades to bring the first of the next generation into the fold? …
We do know this: around a million years ago or so—early November in the Human Evolutionary Calendar—the robust primates had met their end, and so had many gracile species, but a handful continued and even flourished. Already some had departed Africa and had begun fanning out east to Asia and the far Pacific. The cerebral Rubicon had been crossed and there was no going back.
This meant that evolution’s forces had opted, in the case of our direct ancestors, for bigger and better brains rather than more sex and more off spring as a survival strategy. And, against all odds, it was working—a profound evolutionary shift. Over time, in the crucible of the hot African savanna, far away in time from the Eden of rain forests, an exchange was made—reproductive agility for mental agility. If bringing a child into the world “younger” was what it took, fine. If expending more time and energy on being a parent was necessary to ensure that a creature with a bigger, sharper brain would survive, then so be it. If evolving an entirely new phase of life that created the planet’s first children was required, then it had to happen. The imponderable forces of evolution had made a bet that delivered not greater speed or ferocity, not greater endurance or strength, but greater intelligence, or put in flat Darwinian terms, greater adaptability. Because that is what larger, more complex brains deliver—a cerebral suppleness that makes it possible to adjust to circumstances on the fly, a reliance not so much on genes as on cleverness. ] It is strange to think that events could well have gone another way. Earth might today be a planet of seven continents and seven seas and not a single city. A place where bison and elephants and tigers roam unheeded and unharmed, and troops of bright, robust primates live throughout Africa, maybe even as far away as Europe and Asia, with not a single car or skyscraper or spaceship to be found. Not even fire or clothing. Who can say? But as it happened, childhood evolved, and despite some very long odds, our species found its way into the present.