I am 26 years old. I have 2 college degrees and have set my sights on a third. I have worked in some of the most remote places in the US. I have built trails, used chainsaws, written scientific articles, fought wildland fires, and lived (usually) on my own since moving out at 18. I do my own laundry, generally cook my own food and choose my own reading material. I live 11 hours away from my parents. And yes, they still call me their little girl. *facepalm*
Human parents are actually pretty incredible. They provide parental care for longer than any other species that I know of. They provide us with food, advice, direction and love long after the time when we are able to walk and gather food for ourselves. Maybe it can be a little much at times, but parents (the good ones, like mine and most peoples) really do a lot for us. I really am grateful to my parents for all they have done for me. But why do they do it? Talk about social pressures and love all you want, there had to be a starting place, a reason for this particular trait to evolve.
Most organisms are trying to give their genes the best chance of success when they reproduce. Many organisms do this by simply making lots and lots of babies, with the expectation that some of them won’t make it and the hope that at least a few will. If you need an example, think of bunnies. There’s a reason people say, “breeding like rabbits”. Ecologists call these species r-adapted, because r is the variable in population growth equations that stands for reproduction. Highly variable habitats are the dwelling place of r-adapted species because even if a few of the offspring are wiped out by a hurricane or something, it’s unlikely all of them would be.
On the other end of the spectrum are us, elephants and a few others. We are what ecologists call K-adapted. K is the variable for competition in population growth equations. Animals that are K-adapted occur in stable but highly competitive environments (think rainforest without the deforestation) and have relatively few babies but high rates of parental care. K-adapted animals are attempting to give their young the most advantages they can so their babies can outcompete everybody else.
The discerning reader then asks, “Why are we K-adapted? What was so competitive about Africa?” For the most part, I don’t think it was Africa that made us so very K-adapted (aside from the diversity of primates living there). I think we did it to ourselves. Everywhere we go we create cities, villages, towns, in other words communities of people. These communities are highly competitive and have complex, confusing(!), vague, ever-evolving rules of behavior and even more importantly, language. (Check out this TED talk for why language was important to our evolution and this TED talk for how we start learning our language even in the womb. Also this TED talk for how babies learn language and what an exceptionally complex task it is! I love TED talks don’t you? Here’s another one about SETI, just because!)
It takes us 18 years just to learn to communicate clearly, find a role in society, and act appropriately towards others. (Actually, I’m still learning that last bit.) Elephants, crows and jackdaws, dolphins, certain whales, horses, and primates all show extended parental care, have relatively complex social systems and display some characteristics of intelligence. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that we increased our intelligence to deal with our increasingly complex societies.
Of course there is one relatively intelligent animal that does not show much parental care or a complex social system. We come back to the octopus. What the hell octopus? Why do you have to be the exception that makes my theory weak? I really, really like you. I think we could be friends if you weren’t so busy making my theories fall apart. Reader, I am going to go think about the Betrayal of Octopus and how octopi could be intelligent without having a social system. Until next time. 🙂