Who’s your favorite Jesus?
Maybe you’re like Will Ferrell’s character, Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights: your favorite image is the eight-pound, six-ounce baby Jesus. After all, the idea that eternal God would descend not only to the form of a creature, but a vulnerable baby, in order to save the world is awesome. Maybe you also find yourself sometimes imagining that baby Jesus who “don’t even know any words yet” but is “still omnipotent.”
But unlike Ricky Bobby, maybe you feel some uncomfortable dissonance in that image. How can utter perfection and power become incarnate in utter dependence, vulnerability, and—dare we consider—ignorance?
Part of the dissonance, I suspect, comes from sense that human infancy is a period of embarrassing weakness in our species. We tend to think that childhood is really just a warmup act before the real performance of adult life. We ask, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” as if childhood is of little consequence other than preparation for who they will become. But what if this picture of infancy and childhood misses the mark? What if being a baby is part of what makes us great?
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:52).
The gift of a long childhood
In many ways, humans are born premature. Most placental mammals can walk within days (if not minutes) after birth. They can successfully procure their own food within months, and they can start having babies within a couple of years. Most mammals can be parents or grandparents before humans have even started school!
Even more extreme than other great apes, humans have a lengthy infancy. A chimpanzee’s brain reaches 90 percent of its adult size when it is two years old, but that doesn’t happen for humans until they are eight. This protracted immaturity leaves us vulnerable to predation and dependent upon others for food and protection, which is costly for adults in terms of opportunities for feeding and caring for themselves. Given these sizable costs, there must be some compensating benefits, or we would not expect humanity to have become the dominant species it is. What, then, are the benefits of being a baby?
Culture plays a key role in answering this question, especially through an area of science where we have seen some exciting progress—namely, cultural evolution. This moniker covers at least three overlapping research areas.
- Which psychological capacities are needed for acquiring culture, how have those capacities have evolved, and how did they develop in humans?
- How do cultural contexts impact human evolution and psychological development? Perhaps cultural environments have selected for certain thought and behavior tendencies over others.
- How do cultural systems themselves “evolve” over time in response to pressures imposed by both environments and human minds?
Given this breadth, cultural evolution features contributions from biologists, evolutionary anthropologists, and psychologists of various types.
A recurrent theme in cultural evolution research is that our slow cognitive development has helped us become cultural animals. Our long infancy leaves us vulnerable and desperately dependent upon others for a long time, but in so doing, it enables us to acquire knowledge, insights, relationships, and proficiencies that make humans truly exceptional.
At one point, our ancestors started down a path of living in large social groups, depending upon accumulated information about how to solve survival problems. Incrementally, selection pressures for being increasingly better at acquiring information from others shaped human development. This trend may have given us some special cognitive tools, such as an enhanced ability to track what others are paying attention to, and whether we are both attending to the same thing (joint attention).
An especially important cognitive inheritance from being cultural animals may have been our unparalleled ability to think about the thoughts others might have about our thoughts, or think about our own thoughts from another perspective (metarepresentation). These conceptual abilities play a key role in language, communication, cooperation, and building cumulative culture. But aside from these special cognitive gadgets, it may be that the most important change in our species, driven by our increasing dependence on shared (and sharing) information, was slowing down our development and spending more time as a baby.
An increasingly common hypothesis is that becoming a cultural animal resulted in us growing up slowly so that we could be subjected to intensive teaching, imitation of our elders, and jointly exploring the local world with our peers. This intensive learning results in culturally-specific knowledge, including language that scaffolds still more teaching and learning. The accumulated result is what we see today—humans as the dominant animal species, successfully invading the broadest range of ecological niches. In a real sense, humans have “subdued” the earth, thanks to becoming a cultural animal heavily dependent upon each other and those who have come before. Thus, our prolonged “weakness” may actually be our strength as a species.
What child is this?
Jesus, by becoming a slow-developing, dependent little baby, was able to take the time to become fully human. He joined the flow of accumulated cultural insights that would be important to his local situation, his life, and his teaching. His learning, from language and customs to the laws of Moses, was facilitated by a slow maturation.
Likewise, it may be that being more like Jesus is helpfully understood as a long and slow maturation process. We come to a relationship with him like a child, ready to form an enduring relationship, and let what we learn through it grow us up in the ways that are particular to ourselves and situation. Slow maturation may be a gift.
And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:3).
Justin L Barrett is professor of psychology at Fuller Seminary. This is one of several essays in an Advent series from our friends at Science for the Church. Used with permission.