Two days ago I met an old friend. A stag beetle. A mighty unpredictable stag it was, clambering drunkenly up the brick wall of a primary school in High Wycombe.
At this point I’d like to say I’d found it myself. But I didn’t. As I was packing up my car I had noticed some children surrounding it; touching it with sticks, commentating on its hobbling climb, daring one another to touch it, or to hold it. Wide-eyes, bobbing heads, these kids were anxious yet totally enthralled and excited, like a group of meerkats surrounding a big scorpion.
A throng of parents called them on their way, and when they left I made my move, enjoying a few quiet moments with this clunky robotic beast from my past.
Meerkats, chimps, otters, seals, cats, dogs. Our mammalian cousins all show infant behaviour like that which I saw that day: those kids investigating, poking, watching, learning – and for obvious reasons: animals with the genetic predisposition for such behaviours would undoubtedly have had more success finding food, surviving and reproducing. Evolutionarily, we mammals are all the offspring of survivors.
It should be no surprise then that it’s the same with humans. No-one would disagree that our brains are hard-wired for seeing patterns, spotting fruits, calculating rewards and being curious. In the modern world the rules have changed, yet we are stuck with the same ancestral aptitude – the curious brains of our forebears.
There is a lovely book called The Evolution of Childhood, which among other things, gathers research on current hunter-gatherer societies, and details the human childhood as if through a primatologist’s eyes. Referring to the Walbiri of Australia there is the following line, which I rather like:
“After the boy is aged five or six, he roams the bush with other lads…They now learn which flora and smaller fauna provide the best foods, they develop their tracking skills and acquire an intimate knowledge of the bush for ten miles or so around the camp.”
That was akin to what I saw two days ago – an embryo moment, a glimpse into our ancestral past. That stag beetle wasn’t ignored – rather, it was instinctively approached and investigated. Pure, unadulterated learning, for learning’s sake.
I treated that moment as a victory, of sorts, for all of us involved in this campaign and the wider issue of how we make childhoods better.
The good news is that the wind is at our backs. Evolution is on our side. We just have to be better at letting children do what they do best.
Jules Howard is a freelance zoologist, nature-writer and educator who works with hundreds of schools in England each year, helping raise their standard of environmental education. You can follow him on Twitter: @JulesLHoward