Humans’ Inherent Curiosity Stems From A Long, Protracted Childhood

Curiosity is one of our most basic traits and we have a lot to thank for it. Without the primal urge to always want to see what lies over the next hill, or the other the ocean, or beyond the confines of our atmosphere, humans would still be living — quite literally — in the stone age. In Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, author Ian Leslie (@mrianleslie) explains how and why our need to discover really is second nature. The following is an excerpt from the book.

Imagine a group of parents from different species getting together for coffee and discussing the progress of their offspring. The foal’s father would be boasting that his son virtually walked out of the womb; the sheep’s mother would be complaining about her young daughter’s choice of sexual partner. Everyone would feel sorry for the human parents. Three years old and barely able to feed itself.

As a species, we are embarrassingly slow to mature. Foals are tottering around the paddock within a half hour of leaving the maternal womb; babies aren’t toddling until they are about eighteen months old. Birds are evicted from the nest by their mothers within a couple of months; humans move back into the parental home after college. Chimps go straight from weaning to puberty, while humans take another decade or so. Alison Gopnik points out, “No creature spends more time dependent on others for its very existence than a human baby, and no creature takes on the burden of that dependence so long and so readily as a human adult.” We call this protracted period of dependence on adults “childhood.”

Our extended infancy has a hidden upside — it bequeaths the mature human a child’s capacity to love, learn, and wonder why. Childhood means not having to commit to particular courses of action, because adults are taking care of our survival. We can hang back, watch, question, and learn what works best for us before deciding which paths to take. Ultimately, it’s this that makes Homo sapiens so adaptable and inventive (no wonder we find the fable of the tortoise and the hare so appealing). Without the necessity to fend for ourselves in those first ten or twenty years, we can focus on learning about the niche into which we have been born and form our own ideas about it.

That involves getting to know our physical environment, whether it be an igloo on the ice or a house in Islington. It also means learning to navigate our cultural environment — the world of gesture, symbol, and technology in which we find ourselves. John Locke, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, famously conceived of the infant mind as a tabula rasa, or blank slate. We now know that this is not literally true; scientists believe that babies are born with certain fundamental abilities: to imitate, to recognise faces, to discern basic causal relationships. But Locke’s insight, born from his revulsion at the violent intolerance that had seen England degenerate into a civil war between Catholics and Protestants, endures.

Nobody is born Catholic or Protestant, Eskimo or Bedouin. Your sense of identity, of being a person, is formed by the cultural knowledge you learn, first from your parents and then from others. If culture is the citadel that keeps us safe and allows us to thrive (or sets us against one another), babies use curiosity like a rope to pull themselves over its battlements — and adults throw the rope down to them.

Children are agents of their own learning. Rather than simply taking in information from their environment or following genetic instructions, babies make it their own business to find out about the world. Put a baby down anywhere, and it will start stroking, licking, picking things up and putting them in its mouth, and, later, crawling, walking, and running.

Scientists at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Maryland recently discovered something extraordinary — the more actively a baby explores his or her environment, the more likely it is that he or she will go on to achieve academic success as an adolescent. The researchers measured the propensity of 374 five-month-old babies to crawl and probe and fiddle, and then tracked their progress over the following fourteen years. They found that the ones doing best at school aged fourteen were the ones who had been the most energetically exploratory babies.

But it is in the social world, and the cultures in which our social worlds exist, that babies and toddlers really exert and build their cognitive muscles. Any parent of a young child knows that small children love to run psychological tests on adults, testing their limits. The naughtiness of infants is experimental, a method of data collection. When a mother tells her son not to eat dirt, he immediately wonders what will happen if he does and how his mother will react. The child who pushes over his elder sister’s carefully constructed tower of play blocks is doing so not just to watch the structure collapse, but to see his sister explode.

At first, children hypothesize that there is no difference between what others are thinking and what they are thinking, that everyone is thinking the same thing. Then they notice that the theory doesn’t hold — different people seem to say and want different things, becoming upset when they don’t get them or happy when they do. That’s when children become interested in what’s going on in those other minds — when empathic curiosity begins. Before even this stage, children are sophisticated mimics, imitating adult behaviour even when they don’t know why they’re doing so, yet quite capable of discriminating between the adults worth imitating and those best ignored.

All this time, they are gathering cultural information — learning how to express themselves, about right and wrong, about what’s considered acceptable behaviour and unacceptable behaviour. One of the most important things they learn about is whether it’s good to learn.

Right from the beginning, curiosity is a joint venture.

Excerpted from Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It by Ian Leslie. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.

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