We take it for granted, but a long childhood is what makes us Earth’s most complex animal | Brenna Hassett – Rights History
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We take it for granted, but a long childhood is what makes us Earth’s most complex animal | Brenna Hassett

Children spend the same amount of time growing up as bowhead whales – yet they live for hundreds of years

One of the things that makes Homo sapiens so unique as a species seems so mundane, so everyday, that we rarely stop to question it. But seen from the perspective of every other animal on the planet, our long childhood is an extreme outlier. We remain children longer than any of them. To put us in perspective, we spend about the same time growing up as bowhead whales – perhaps 25-odd years. However, bowhead whales are many times our size and can live for hundreds of years; we’re not taking between five and 10% of our lives out to be children, but almost a quarter.

Over time, our species has evolved to move the markers of what biologists call “life history” – milestones like birth, growth, maturity, death – into a radically different arrangement to other species. We do not live for ever, but comparatively we are for ever young. So much about our bodies, minds and the way we build our social and physical worlds is arranged to accommodate this long, bright teatime of growing up. And if we trace the evolutionary choices our species has made, we can see we have repeatedly chosen to invest in the slow growth of the next generation in ways no other animal has managed.

Brenna Hassett is a bioarchaeologist and the author of Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death

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