Surrounded by juveniles, that’s what we are. Whether it’s the ruffled chickadee balancing on the railing or the catbird that can’t stop singing. One of the thrilling things at this time of year is all the fledgling birds. We know baby birds show up to us just about full-sized, so it’s mostly their behavior that gives the youngsters away.
Even the crows arrive in the yard at a young age, wondering if this source of fish skin and dried, crusty baguette is reliable. I hear them cawing in a demanding way very early in the morning.
OK, some of this is anthropomorphism. Some is simply my imagination. It is easy to forgive inconvenient behavior by attributing it to youthful innocence.
For our sort of ape, the dependency of the young is particularly lengthy, calling for years of vigilant care and provisioning. While baby chickadees must be fed a caterpillar every 3 minutes for their first 16 days, we Homo sapiens are also commanding in our need for food and care. It takes around 13 million calories to rear a modern human from birth to maturity. Anthropologists tell us it is those big brains of ours that are so calorically demanding. This is why single parents must depend on extended family, caring communities, and a supportive society.
The sequential Hallmark holidays of Mother’s and Father’s Day remind us of the many ways humans have evolved to nurture one another. In 1975, evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the term alloparent to describe those who support mothers and fathers in the provisioning of the young of any species. Anthropologist-primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has linked the concept of alloparenting, or cooperative breeding, to the evolving of anatomically and emotionally modern humans. Portions of our brains grew at an astoundingly fast pace in evolutionary terms while we differentiated ourselves from those other great apes by excelling at collaboration.
“It takes a village” appears to be an evolutionary reality. Blaffer Hrdy thinks cooperative caregiving that includes accurately reading the intentions and concerns of others is something distinct to humans. As much as we love videos of cross-species mammalian care, it was we who developed the complex collaborative living arrangements that we call human civilization.
This matters now as we look at our civilization trembling on the brink of ecological, political, and social unsustainability. We can benefit from coming to recognize the stories that have led us astray — away from the survival of our own and many other species. The sense that we are able to go it alone and don’t need a compassionate surround, that we must dominate rather than cooperate with nature and each other — maybe this is part of the faulty thinking that got us where we are.
Meanwhile, summer marches in, baby birds seek caterpillars and other delicious edibles, native plants compete with invasive exotics, and we humans at the top of the food chain figure out how to navigate our crowded roads, markets, and restaurants.
It is a moment to reflect on our evolutionary trajectory, and on how to live together here on our sandy spit and home planet. And it is a time to create new collaborations, among our own species, to build a world we want to live in as part of the human race — the one race we all belong to.