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Jan 07 2014

It explains so much

This is a beautiful explanation of a key property of human evolution: we evolved to be catapulted as infants.

I can tell, though, that Weinersmith has not had direct experience with raising babies, at least not yet, or he would have cited another significant factor: instinctive parental urges to place small children in catapults. Our first child was one of those colicky babies, and I can tell you that there were many late nights when I was trying to comfort the squalling infant that I would be bouncing him on the balcony of our apartment, and thinking that a good powerful trebuchet to launch him out over the Willamette River towards Springfield would be a good thing.

The lack of handy siege instruments was the only thing that saved him, but clearly that would not have been a problem in more primitive cultures.

45 comments

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  1. 1
    Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts

    I’m starting to watch now. I don’t see how being aerodynamic would have helped a space-ape anyways.

  2. 2
    richardelguru

    We always found that driving the little buggers around worked—and that’s sort of like the motion imparted by a trebuchet (at least the way I drive it is).

  3. 3
    DonDueed

    For those who don’t know, Zach is the artist/writer of the online comic “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal”. He recently used the crowdfunding arts-patron site Patreon to fund his endeavors. It seems to have been quite a success. I wonder if other artists will follow suit.

  4. 4
    Trebuchet

    You had me, of course, at “catapult”!

    Two thoughts:
    1) One of the illustrations shows a baby superimposed on the standard wing shape you see in textbooks. However, the wing is rounded on top while the baby is rounded on the ventral surface and flat on the dorsal. Modern airplane wings, however, don’t look like the textbook illustration. Look up supercritical airfoils and you’ll see that they are actually rounded on the bottom and flat on top, just like the baby.

    2) That’s not the real Zach Weinersmith. I’ve seen many of his self-portraits at SMBC and this imposter is wearing a shirt.

  5. 5
    opposablethumbs

    I’m not sure about catapults, but we’ve been reminding people for years that the reason babies learn to smile at the crucial stage of however-many-weeks-it-is-I-can’t-remember-now-it’s-been-a-while is because that’s juuuust about when the parents are ready to crack and throw them/themselves/everything in the flat/all of the above out the window. Then they smile and you find new reserves of ability to stand the strain/do without sleep/invent better earplugs …

    They’re young adults now. Before, I merely loved the little buggers; now, I also actually like ‘em as well. Not every parent is a kiddie-person, not by a very long chalk.

  6. 6
    cartomancer

    Trebuchets are somewhat awkward to keep around the house, as the counterweight and throwing arm take up an awful lot of space. I would suggest a compact torsion-powered mangonel instead – much more convenient.

  7. 7
    busterggi

    Yeah, my son has no idea how lucky he is that he wasn’t shot into a river when he was a baby. First night home – slept great, every other night for the next ten months he screamed (I would have been thrilled had he only cried) from ~6:00 PM until ~ 12:00 midnight. We wore out two wind-up swings into complete uselessness despite one of us carrying him much of the time. If only those swings had wound up enough…

  8. 8
    NitricAcid

    I remember taking an eighteen-month-old on a transatlantic flight once, and being terribly grateful that the windows to the plane didn’t open.

  9. 9
    twas brillig (stevem)

    Having not yet watched the video (sorry), I assume (hope) that it is just satire; an extremely ridiculous extrapolation of most parents desire to kick their kid over the moon. I just can’t conceive of anyone presenting this kind of nonsense for reals. I’m just too optimistic to see such evil in others. This kind of nonsense is just too much for me to imagine is actually real. I truly hope the “weirdness” tag is true beyond belief.

  10. 10
    Jim Martin

    I feel like I need to share a tale related to trebuchets and not parenting. A good friend of mine has a trebuchet that he built himself out on a tract of land in this small town, and that small town is full of assholes. They have tried many times to run him out of town, and they have failed miserably at all attempts. When he built the trebuchet, they decided to pass an ordinance without telling him (he lives in another city) that would ban all medieval siege weapons. He then received a very formal letter informing him that his trebuchet was illegal and he would be forced to destroy it or move it by a certain date, or they would do it for him. He contacted a lawyer, who laughed heartily. Because of the way the situation all went down, his trebuchet is protected because it was constructed prior to the passing of the law, and as such is grandfathered into legality. So instead of having to dismantle it, he is now the proud owner of the only legal trebuchet in town, and the only trebuchet that can be erected within the town limits. This story heartens me greatly. When I think about all the injustice in the world, it’s great to see when justice is served.

  11. 11
    carlie

    We always found that driving the little buggers around worked

    Yeah, and then for the REST OF THEIR LIVES they have to fight off the learned behavior of falling asleep when in a car, which is problematic when one is driving, not to mention an endless source of hilarity for others when you’re the only one in the van who fell asleep and everyone makes fun of you for snoring with your mouth open and dribbling a bit. NOT THAT I’M BITTER OR ANYTHING. Hmpf.

    Child 1 had pediatric reflux, caused by the esophageal sphincter not being fully functional at birth, which from what I understand is the explanation behind some colic issues. He was three months old before he went from sleeping an hour and a half at a time to… two and a half hours at a time. He didn’t get a full night’s sleep until he was 3, which was overlapped by Child 2, so I think once I calculated that if you take initial pregnancy discomfort into consideration, I went almost 6 years straight without sleeping a full night. Good thing the little buggers are so cute.

  12. 12
    carlie

    stevem – it’s satire of ideas like the one where supposedly humans evolved in an aquatic environment because babies can swim for a few seconds at birth.

  13. 13
    twas brillig (stevem)

    re 10:

    Isn’t there something in The Constitution about ex post facto laws? That the government is not allowed to pass a law forbidding something that has already been done. I suppose I’m just expanding the concept of “grandfathering” existing things after a new law forbidding them comes into effect. Maybe so, but didn’t you also say something about him being in a different town than the law was enacted in. How does it apply at all? Did I miss something?

  14. 14
    Callinectes

    My own paper, On the physical adaptations for landing and their effects on infant flight, my team and I determined that the high surface concentrations of fatty tissue act as shock absorbers, and that the protruding bottom serves not only as ballast during flight (as so eloquently described by our colleague Doctor Weinersmith) but as primary landing gear also. In addition, we proposed that the cranium does not harden completely for some weeks after birth in order to safely distribute the shock waves of any awkward landing. It so happens that my head has a flat edge to it as a result of such an impact as a child.

  15. 15
    Jim Martin

    re 13:

    First off, I should have mentioned, but this tale all takes place in Canada. Next, I should have been clear. My friend lives in the same city as I live, but has property that he uses for storage and whatnot in a small town nearby. The small town are the people who passed the law because the trebuchet is on property within their town limits.

  16. 16
    Trebuchet

    @6:

    Trebuchets are somewhat awkward to keep around the house, as the counterweight and throwing arm take up an awful lot of space. I would suggest a compact torsion-powered mangonel instead – much more convenient.

    Yeah, when I had a large treb storage was always a problem. Now I just have small ones. I do have under construction a mangonel/onager large enough for an eight-ten pound payload, which if all goes well will make its debut this fall. Now if someone would loan me one of those lifelike dolls they use for “training” high schoolers, we could do some experiments!

  17. 17
    Rich Woods

    @cartomancer #6:

    I would suggest a compact torsion-powered mangonel instead – much more convenient.

    Indeed so. But that leaves open the obvious question: is a horse-hair torsion chucker better than a human-hair torsion chucker? Enquiring minds want to know.

  18. 18
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    What about an aquatic-ape-hair torsion chucker?

    That’s the real evolution-busting question. Where’s James Kohl got to, anyway?

  19. 19
    Storms

    @cartomancer #6 and Rich Woods #17
    Personally I prefer a Ballista for my seige-weapon needs. It’s a nice compromise between the Trebuchet and Mangonel: easier to aim, more acurate, and can be quickly refitted for multiple amunition types from babies and rocks to 4 foot iron javlins. Historically, some designs even featured auto-loaders. In addition, dual-arm design suffers far less energy waste from recoil than the Mangonel and offers smoother acceleration.

    As for torsion winding, as humans outnumber horses by several orders of magnitude, I find this material far more economical to obtain. Also horse owners are commonly more prone to carrying firearms and seem a bit touchy about shaving tails and manes. Given the shedding habits of my dog; however, I’ve been tempted to experiment with that alternative.

  20. 20
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    You all are welcome to try to load DarkToddler into a catapult, but I warn you, she’s learned to run.

  21. 21
    Sastra

    I watched the video and discovered within myself a dark desire to send the link to Answers in Genesis with a note: “EVOLTUTION AND MORALS!!!111! THeir throwi ng BABIES! MUST WATCH!!11!1″

    I’d like to see if Ham uses it.

  22. 22
    cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming)

    Isn’t there something in The Constitution about ex post facto laws?

    Not sure about the constitutions of the US and Canada, but there’s the UN Declaration of Human Rights; Article 11 (2).

  23. 23
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    PZ

    instinctive parental urges to place small children in catapults

    You’re forgetting one crucial thing:
    The others are hurling their screaming rugrats right back at you.

    Oh, oh, oh, and I have an additional hypothesis:
    The more annoying the infant the greater the evolutionary fitness. Babies who let you sleep for a few hours a night only go as far as the next village. But if you’re the baby from hell you might get shot off as far as six or seven villages away in successive flights.

  24. 24
    gijoel

    A therapist once told me that every parent knows the desire to strangle their own children. The comments here have proven that.

  25. 25
    felidae

    Our reaction to babies as cute is an evolutionary adaptation that prevents them from cooked and eaten

  26. 26
    FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!)

    I had thought that most infant’s propensity to be sticky all the time was an adaptive feature that helped the parents hang on to them when fleeing a saber-toothed tiger or the like. How wrong I was, such hubris, such ignorance. Of course that tackiness is to facilitate the catching of an incoming baby. Why didn’t I see that before?!

  27. 27
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Dual value, FossilFishy. Also keeps the baby from being cast away easily.

    When I became a mom, my kids were 7 and 10 (someone else bore them; I don’t like the term ‘step-’, I’m just their othermother). Not so bad.

    When the first one hit 13, and my mother showed up in my inbox (about seven years after she’d given me the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” speech when I told her about transitioning), I apologized to her. Unreservedly. For every single day between the time I hit about 9* and when I left home eight years later, I apologized. I was wrong about every single thing, she’d been right, and I was sorry.

    It was about this time that I spent some effort on calculating the Trouble Index, an assessment of how many Ohbothers a given arrangement of kids would be.

    As I recall, it started with the basic arithmetic: the number of kids. Then took the absolute value of the difference from the “sweet spot” (semi-arbitrarily/semi-empirically chosen as “the ages mine were when I met them: 7-10) age of each kid, divided arbitrarily by 5, and added it to the index.

    Then raise that initial value to the power of the number of kids. That’s your TI.

    So, you’ve got three: one is 4, one is 8, one is 13. You’ve got 3, for the number; +0.6 for Youngest, and +0.6 for Eldest. SweetSpot kid adds no bonus.

    3.6, then, to the third: 74.06 Ohb of trouble, that setup. That’s pretty troublicious. A set like I had when I arrived would have been all of 4 Ohb, which is hardly any tribble at all.

    You’re welcome. Working that out got me through a whole tantrum once: while she was shouting and banging things on the walls, I was scribbling at some graph paper, happily geeking out over stupid nothings.

    * I was precociously obnoxious and awful: a teen level of horrible long before puberty.

  28. 28
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Oh, poop: 4.2 ^3. 74.06 is right, I just typed it wrong.

  29. 29
    Rich Woods

    @Storms #19:

    But assuming you have the space, indirect rather than direct baby-chuckers are far more spectacular:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warwolf

  30. 30
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Yes, Rich Woods, but then you need a Forward Observation Officer, and a good landline for secure comms, and you have to geographically fix the launcher to be able to adjust properly…it’s a big pain.

    Open-sights applications are clearly superior for the single parent.

  31. 31
    Ryan Cunningham

    Intentionally or not, this is the greatest send up of evolutionary psychology ever created. Posting or referencing this video is now the official response to any dumb evopsych you may encounter.

  32. 32
    Onamission5

    Oddly enough, the child I most wanted to launch out a window when she was a wee babe just built herself a trebuchet at school last year. Coincidence? I thinks not!

  33. 33
    stripeycat

    Rich Woods

    But that leaves open the obvious question: is a horse-hair torsion chucker better than a human-hair torsion chucker? Enquiring minds want to know

    I’m sure Classical torsion artillery used tendon springs, and that sourcing such (from the troops rations?) was a significant logistics constraint on sieges. Teenagers seem like an excellent source of suitable materials. Solve two problems at one stroke.

  34. 34
    Gordon Davisson

    For those who haven’t seen the original, here’s the SMBC comic this was based on: Event Idea: Festival of Ad Hoc Adaptation Hypotheses.

  35. 35
    chigau (違う)

    Gordon Davisson #34
    I’m cross-posting that link to the crank thread.
    Thank you!

  36. 36
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Caitie
    The most annoying thing about teenagers is that you really can’t help them
    I remember some years ago I was on a forum in a “subcommunity” that consisted mainly out of adults who had been wondering whether they were the only adults hanging around in a forum mostly populated by teenagers (what can I say, I’m a fantasy-chick). Nevertheless we ended up with some teens in that group anyway and one of them was a bright young man who was so fuck annoying teenagery.
    You know, that age when you’ve figured out everything and others know nothing. It was painful. Now, at that time my own teenage years were not that far behind, so I could remember this well. I could also remember how terribly embarassed I felt now remembering some of the dumb I’d said back then. But I also remembered that if there was anything worse than adults who just told you to stop talking dumb and start doing shit were adults who were understanding and who told you that you would still grow and eventually be able to see their point of view.
    They knew NOTHING.
    So I kept my mouth shut.
    Incidentially, when I saw the young man last summer he’d managed to leave that well behind and he is now about the same age I was when he was that horrible teenager.

  37. 37
    Don Quijote

    “…bouncing him on the balcony…” What, like a basket ball?

  38. 38
    ledasmom

    richardelguru@2:

    We always found that driving the little buggers around worked—and that’s sort of like the motion imparted by a trebuchet (at least the way I drive it is).

    Indeed; therefore the old joke:
    How do you get a young baby to sleep through the night?
    Drive in shifts.

    Don Quijote@37:

    “…bouncing him on the balcony…” What, like a basket ball?

    Don’t be silly. Even the roundest baby will not reliably return to your hand when dropped on a flat surface. One must wrap them in string first, like yo-yos, and, as with yo-yos, if it is done properly they will sleep.
    I note that whatever it is that does the spell-check for these comments disapproves of both “yoyos” and “yo-yos”. I have run out of spelling options for the spinny return-to-your-hand thingie after “yo-yo”.
    I note now that “yo-yo”, singular, is fine. Apparently you are not allowed to have more than one.

  39. 39
    Storms

    @Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- #36

    Perhaps “Birth of adult conscienceness” + “Dunning-Kruger Effect” = “Teenage ideological self-confidence”
    Or at least a very large part of what makes teenagers this way. Unfortunately refactoring their priors requires them repeatedly running head-first into painful reality for several years, and even then, some come to value their self-confidence more then seeking the truth of reality.

  40. 40
    Artor

    Trebuchets are by far the preferred conveyance. Catapults, mangonels & onagers are nice, but they all have much higher initial acceleration, while the trebuchet has a nice, slow takeoff. They even use a comfortable sling, much like the ones mothers use to carry babies in. Surely, this was so the sling could be easily transferred to the trebuchet’s main arm, and the launching would be much like giving a child an “over-under” on a swingset.
    PZ, I’m sorry I didn’t know you during your time in Eugene. I could have set you up with a nice trebuchet with enough force to clear the Willamette easily. We could use your car as a counterweight. When were you here?

  41. 41
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    The term for what Artor is describing, as I learned recently, is “jerk”.

    That is, where acceleration is the rate of change of velocity, jerk is the rate of change of acceleration. Jerk is what throws you against the seatbelt when you slam the brakes, as opposed to when you brake smoothly to a stop. So the trebuchet, because of the damping effect on jerk provided by the sling and also the constant, gravity-driven 9.8 m/s^2 acceleration, provides a much smoother ride up to speed than does a torsion-driven machine of the other type. These release all their energy suddenly, and usually have a stiff transfer of energy to the payload (stiff arm in a catapult, or bowstring/metal under tension acting on a stiff projectile in the others), making a much “jerkier” ride.

    If the effect on the payload is to be considered, then I would have to endorse the trebuchet even more strongly, added to the FOO/comms/single parent issues noted above.

    - Report of the (Canadian) Subcommittee on Acceleration Effects in Siege-Engine-Launching of Newly-made Projectiles

  42. 42
    Trebuchet

    @40, Artor:

    Trebuchets are by far the preferred conveyance. Catapults, mangonels & onagers are nice, but they all have much higher initial acceleration, while the trebuchet has a nice, slow takeoff. They even use a comfortable sling, much like the ones mothers use to carry babies in.

    You are, of course, correct about the acceleration but onagers (aka mangonels) also use slings. At least if they’re going to work very well. The common conception of a bowl on the end of the arm was pretty much created by Hollywood and is referred to by my fellow hurlers as a “spoonapult”.

    The initial acceleration may be a concern, but it’s pretty small compared to the deceleration at the other end of the trip. Pumpkins only sometimes break up on launch, but it’s pretty much a certainty at landing!

  43. 43
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Trebuchet, you’re right about the deceleration, but that was a different subcommittee, so it’s under an SEP field for me.

  44. 44
    twas brillig (stevem)

    re 42:

    Falling is perfectly safe, it’s just that sudden stop at the end that’ll get ya.

  45. 45
    Storms

    Ah, thus we arrive at the Infantopulting-AquadicApe hybrid theory or Westenhöfer-Weinersmith hypothesis, which embraces the idea the humans founded societies along sea coasts and rivers in sub-tropical environments to facilitate water landings for their arriving infants. This can also be used to explain the rise of fountains in public places as humans adopted a more urban lifestyle.

    There is of course the competing Baited-Sling-Crane theory which posits that infants were hurtled with baited detachable slings at flocks of storks to facilitate softer landings.

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