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What is the more knowledgeable: Crows, chickens or human babies?

I couldn’t help laughing, when I was listening to the incredibly inspiring and energetic TED talk of University of California Berkley Professor, Alison Gopnik. As a specialist in the area of child development, she reveals how quickly children learn, how it depends on their childhood and how the best computer in the world does not compare to a child’s brain.

If you look at babies superficially, she claims, they seem pretty useless. We, adults, put in so much time, effort and energy just to keep them alive!

Humans are the only species in the world that require the upbringing time of so many years! Evolution does however provide an answer to the puzzling question as to why we spend so much time in rearing our offspring. And it all boils down to one thing: the brain.

There is a correlation between how long a childhood a species has, how big their brains are compared to their bodies and how smart and flexible they are.

A study was carried out on two types of birds: the New Caledonian crow and the chicken. The crow is deemed to be a very smart creature: in some respects it is as smart as the chimpanzee (!) and in experiments was even able to learn how a machine works to get food. A chicken, by contrast, is great at one thing: pecking for grain.

That’s it.

Scientists examined how long it takes these two birds to reach adulthood.

A crow baby depended on the mother to drop worms into its mouth for as long as two years (!). A chick however, was independently pecking away already after a couple of months. What does this mean? The length of a childhood directly impacts how knowledgeable and prone to learning a creature will be.

How does this relate to humans, you may ask. It turns out that it is during the childhood period that the most important and accelerated learning takes place for us. Until it does humans are helpless. This is why evolution has introduced a type of labour division:

Babies are the research and development team of the human race. They are shielded, protected and don’t have to worry about anything. The only thing they need to do is learn, learn, learn. And learn they do, thanks to their super-computer-brains, which are said to be more powerful than any man-made technology (for more on this check out Alison's talk below).

Adults, on the other hand are the production and marketing center: as mature creatures they can then put into practice everything they have learnt in their childhood. This knowledge is then passed on to their offspring. And so the the cycle continues.

I strongly encourage you to check out the rest of Alison Gopnik’s talk here. She sheds light on groundbreaking studies and explains how wonderfully complex kids’ minds are! Wow!

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