There are few quicker ways to get under a person's skin than to call them childish. And there aren't many things you can do to annoy strangers more than whining, or throwing tantrums, or wearing nothing but a comically oversized diaper.
But, once again, refusing to grow up turns out to be another cornerstone of human evolution. Take that, Dad!
Human childhoods are unique in that we're born with a massive brain (just ask any woman who's had to birth one of 'em) and wriggling vestigial bodies, that grow slowly and don't really change significantly until puberty. While most animals put all their energy towards quickly growing adult-like bodies, humans instead spend our early years strengthening the pathways in our brains and absorbing information.
Our species' unique ability to pass information and knowledge from one generation to the next is due to the fact that humans essentially spend 20 years (or more) in the nest before being asked to function as an adult--an absurdly long time in the animal kingdom. And even then there is college tuition, weddings and their old room again after the divorce.
That reluctance to go out into the world you see in so many 20-somethings is left over from an instinct that has served us very well. Cracked.com: Validating man-children using science since 2006.
We're there for ya, man...
If you could find the guy who invented gossipy office politics, and get him in the same room with the guy who invented celebrity gossip magazines, which one would you shoot first?
Of course, both of those inventions come from the same cause: our terrible, terrible desire to know every awful detail of the people around us. All of us say we hate gossip, but man the moment somebody offers to tell us about how the girl in the next cubicle used to be a dude, we are all ears. And so were our ancestors.
It's a good thing, too. What we now consider the nastiest use of language may be the very thing that caused it to evolve. And here's where it gets weird:
To survive, primates had to form groups (to keep away predators, obviously). Most primate societies today top out at around 50 members, and they have a strict social structure that isn't found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Humans rose above and beyond those small groups to the point that we can keep track of up to 150 other humans before our brains get overloaded (you may have heard this theory referred to as Dunbar's Number, though Cracked likes to refer to as The Monkeysphere). It was the forming of these bigger groups that set us apart.
How did we manage it? By inventing gossip. The first uses of our more complex language (originally probably developed to coordinate hunting) was to sit around the campfire and exchange information about the ones who weren't there, behind their backs.
That use of language--that sharing of juicy secrets about who was sick, or dying, or who was mating with who--let us gather information about other members of the group who don't happen to be present. This is what the other animals could not do, and it let us create the kind of complex societies other species can barely understand.
Wait, it gets weirder.
Ever wonder why women seem to talk--and gossip--more than men? Some think it's because while the males were out hunting, it was the females who did the gossiping around the campfire.
The Flinstones had it right, AGAIN.
And of course, all of that gossiping leads to...
At the beginning of this article we said obesity was the plague of modern man. But it seems to be neck and neck with depression. But you know by now that it's going to turn out even the sulking goth cavemen served a purpose.
Illustration, constructed from fossil evidence.
The deal is, our brains are about six times too big for an animal our size. Did mankind develop this massive amount of grey matter to help us in our long-standing mission to make mother nature our bitch? Not directly; even animals that aren't particularly brainy still make out OK in the wild.
No, it has to do with all of that "talking around the campfire" stuff we mentioned above. The real purpose of our huge leap in intelligence was to help us figure out those increasingly large, complex social groups. In other words, trying to navigate the perils of the lunchroom at school probably stimulates your mind more than any of your classes ever will.
Studying the skulls of our ancestors, scientists have found disproportionate growth in the parts of our brains used to construct mental simulations. Being able to play out different situations in your mind and predict possible outcomes is not just essential to surviving the social jungle, it's also the basis of all problem solving. Basically every scientific or creative breakthrough in human history can trace its roots to some sweaty palmed caveman sitting alone in his hut fretting about whether the other cavemen think he's cool.
So what does have to do with depression?
Well, some speculate that depression evolved as a way to cope, to make people separate themselves from the group in times of stress, so they could try to simulate a solution to their problems in peace. When all those connections to other members of the tribe overloaded the brain, the brain would shut them off until we could get our act together, while sulking in the corner of the hut.
So yeah, if your teenager's being an angsty little punk, don't worry, they're actually contributing the betterment of the human race. And if he's filthy, drunk and eating an entire bucket of fried chicken, holy shit. He's about to evolve into a new species.
Nathan Birch contributes to the development of the human culture with his webcomic Zoology.
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And check out how science will make us even better in the future, in 5 Superpowers Science Will Give Us in Our Lifetime. Or find out about some animals that were screwed by evolution, in 6 Formerly Kickass Creatures Ruined by Evolution.
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 2.12.2010) to see our tribute to America's sexiest presidents (Woodrow Wilson is number one).