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Being Human: From Helpless Babies to World Domination

Being Human: From Helpless Babies to World Domination

Upon becoming a parent I was struck by two very distinct, and somewhat oppositional, emotional responses to parenthood. The first was this overwhelming sense that all of humanity was linked in a tangled weave of enfolding lives that provided unseen and unknowable connections to everyone who ever lived. The second distinct response was an acute sense of panic that was informed by the realization that I had just brought a very defenseless and vulnerable being into this fairly insane social order, and it was my responsibility to keep the mischief and malfeasance at bay.

In retrospect, I think I would have been better off had I focused less on the latter issue and more on the sunshiny interconnectedness of all of humanity aspect, especially in light of doctor and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s forthcoming book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.

As profiled in a recent New York Times article, Dr. Hrdy sees the inherent vulnerability of babies as just the thing that provides the societal glue that keeps us a relatively sane and cooperative human culture. In her view, the natural helplessness of human babies along with their dependency on parents and elders to provide care and protection, is in fact one of the key elements that provided the break between us and the great ape societies, and was just the thing that perpetuated the survival of humanity. In addition, it is Dr. Hrdy’s opinion that the extraordinary social skills of an infant, their ability to unwittingly pull our heartstrings and elicit tender and sympathetic responses, are at the heart of what makes us human.

This may have strengthened our capacity as humans to work together in group settings, as well as develop the more empathetic and sympathetic parts of our brains, thus making us more trusting and reliant upon one another.

So, is our innate vulnerability (as is evidenced by so many hours of nature show viewings that plainly illustrate how far better equipped a baby gazelle is, rather than an infant, to deal with the hostile world around) the very thing that makes us human, and in turn has paved the way for our social and intellectual evolution and utter dominion over the planet, for better or for worse? Is it our vulnerability and compassion, not our aggression and ambition, the very thing that make us such enthralling and magnificent creatures?

Feel free to submit your human opinions below.

Read more: Babies, Children, News & Issues, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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12:46PM PDT on Jul 13, 2012


8:28PM PDT on May 13, 2012

I don not think parental instincts are the source of humane impulses.

7:01AM PDT on Mar 10, 2009

Your post reminds me of a movie I saw a couple of years ago . . . Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (2006) which was a frightening sci-fi tale set in a future devoid of babies. Humans had become infertile and therefore had lost all hope -- in survival, but also in humanity. The film was a not-so-gentle wake-up call that we rely on our parental instincts not just to care for our young and propagate our species but to BE human and humane to all living things. Thanks for your more gentle reminder. I look forward to checking our Hrdy's book as well.

4:24PM PST on Mar 7, 2009

I believe in this day and age, that we all need that "vulnerability" as a natural "human tool" to prepare the way to compassion, and love to springboard us into the "true humaness" in our nature. I cannot think of a baby that I didn't love when I worked in the "newborn" nursery, it was something (maternal as well) that was just in me as a mother myself, but our new parents were sometimes often frightened of taking that "tiny little being" into their arms to hold them. They were so afraid of harming the infant, and that is where good skilled nurses come in handy, to assist with the bonding process that takes place if not immediately, then almost. I'm happy to see today how both parents and the entire familial unit participates in this precious bonding. It is a process that improves over time with parents, and others that are interconnected to the familial unit help to disfuse the "fear", vulnerabilities, and "oh migosh" what will I do next!! It comes along with the territory. One learns these things by doing.
Jeanne D.

9:37AM PST on Mar 6, 2009

I think that it is definitely one aspect of our "humanity", and certainly on of the most beautiful. Hopefully, though, we do not need an actual baby in front of us to access it. After all, don't we all, at any age, have tenderness and vulnerability inside us, and need and enjoy those same qualities in others? I think, absolutely.

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