It’s remarkable how much a baby ape resembles a small human. The similarity decreases quickly with age, but it does help explain how we can share so much DNA with them. In many ways we’re just slowed down versions of them. We carry that flat forehead and big brain cavity (relative to skull size) right into adulthood. I’ve often thought that chimps must look at us and shake their heads at how absurdly childish we look. Geez! These researchers, I swear they get younger every year.
In biological terms, this physical retardation goes by the name pedomorphosis or neoteny. And despite the insane length of time we have to spend sheltered by adults, we humans like to think that our childishness has treated us well. That big fat brain doesn’t blossom overnight, but when it finally pops, watch out!
A neuroscientist once explained to me that some fairly dramatic changes in brain physiology occur in late adolescence. Regions that were more plastic become more hardwired, or “burned in”. This is a reasonable biological response — your brain is saying “Hey, now that you know how things work, I can save us both a lot of time and energy by just looking up the answer on these note cards.” It’s also obvious: anyone can see that learning changes as you age, the best example of this being language acquisition. When you come to be old person, you canna learn to speaka da language… but never like a native.
On the other hand, maybe it’s time for us to let that brain be plastic a little longer. Call it Pedomorphism 2.0. After all, there’s a lot to learn these days, and it’s changing all the time. And right on cue, there is a rise in pedomorphic behavior. The average age of entry into adulthood is rising. Living at home as long as you can is a pretty sound strategy. And those extra graduate degrees may well come in handy some day.
That 28 year-old slob who plays video games all day in the basement of his parents’ house (a.k.a. Area Man)? He may well represent the future of the species. But only if he can be induced to get a girlfriend.