Growing Up Human: The Evolution of Childhood

Review by Eugenia Ellanskaya

Why do we spend what makes up almost 20 per cent of our life being children? What is the purpose of our incredibly drawn-out pregnancies and post-birth investment into our offspring? These are just some of the questions addressed by the biological anthropologist Brenna Hassett in her second book, Growing Up Human, a scrupulous and entertaining dive into the unique evolution of human childhood.

Humans’ peculiar Neverland-like life plan is summarised by the author early on: ‘We, alone among the animals, have decided that not only do we want to live forever, we want to be forever young.’ Hassett lays out the wider evolutionary context for this by looking at the way other animals gestate and care for the next generation with striking examples, from a common rat to an orangutan, that are incomparable to the immense amounts of time, energy and resources humans invest into producing their incredibly demanding and helpless infants. The book proceeds to shed light on such aspects of our evolution as the development of pair bonds and monogamy, notions that are otherwise rare in the rest of the animal kingdom. It all circles back to how needy and helpless human babies are.

The obstetric dilemma at the heart of all this – essentially that upright walking (bipedalism) comes at a cost, as a smaller pelvis creates far from ideal conditions for giving birth to an increasingly larger brain – might not be new. But the book’s eye-opening contribution comes in its focus on the way we as humans have manipulated such given biological parameters and tweaked the basic aspect of our life-history strategy.

Also drawing on material relating to childhood from the archaeological record, Growing Up Human is packed with fascinating studies, such as the positive relationship between body fat and reproduction, and illustrative historic examples, such as Henry VIII’s obsession with the transmission of genetic material from generation to generation that fuelled his relentless marital quest. The chapter on the evolution of fathers is particularly fascinating in highlighting our species’ ability to embrace fatherhood in ways that can only compare to such famous animal parents as the male seahorse or wandering albatross.

The book is as scientifically sound as it is incredibly human, truly exuding the passion and personality of its author. It succeeds in breaking down the often impenetrable ‘anthro-speak’ as perhaps one of the most accessible books on human evolution and biological anthropology out there. But do brace yourself for copious amounts of footnotes, albeit mostly humorous ones.

Growing Up Human: The Evolution of Childhood
Brenna Hassett
Bloomsbury Sigma, hardback, £17.99
ISBN 978-1472975751