By Serafin Dinges

According to psychologist Annie Wertz, children are armed against the dangers posed by plants. (imago / Westend61 / Angel Santana Garcia)

Small children are reluctant to touch plants – much longer than other objects. They are not at all afraid of dummy knives. This is genetically predisposed, researchers have shown. But their discoveries go much further.

The noise of our daily life is gray: cities, streets and asphalt shape our environment. Today, nature plays a role, especially in our free time. This is a new development in human history: our ancestors took their first steps on two legs about two million years ago, at least not on asphalt.

The place where man became man was where nature had power over us. And it shaped us. Because the first land plants can be detected on earth around 450 million years ago.

“So you’ve been here much, much longer than we have. According to current estimates, plants make up about 80 percent of the biomass on earth. They are therefore everywhere. “

This is Annie Wertz from the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development. The psychologist is looking for the traces that millions of years of coexistence with plants have left in human nature.

And she suspects that the greatest evidence of these traces can be found in the behavior of small children.

Ava has just discovered exploration on her own. This opens up a whole new horizon for them. And with it new risks. The next danger is never far away – maybe an electrical outlet today. A poisonous berry for Ava’s ancestor in a prehistoric settlement.

Children are armed against the dangers of plants

It is generally assumed that children touch everything and put everything in their mouths. Annie Wertz contradicts this hypothesis. Children are armed against the danger of plants.

“The assumption is this: you’re a baby and you hit a plant. The first thing you do is take a break. Then you see if there are any adults around. Then you stop and see this. that you should do. If no one intervenes, then maybe you are touching the plant. “

Small children are reluctant to touch plants – much longer than other objects. Annie Wertz and her team were able to show this in a series of experiments.

They showed subjects aged 8-18 months, in random order, small potted plants and a number of other harmless objects. The researchers measured the babies’ reluctance until they touched the object.

In the case of plants, it took an average of almost seven seconds. Twice as long as when a baby grabbed a wooden spoon. Even dangerous objects quickly aroused curiosity – like the dummy of a sharp knife. Babies weren’t afraid of that at all.

“Babies grab our fake knife very quickly. And the videos are really a spectacle in themselves because we have all these recordings of babies waving a sharp knife.”

Innate care for plants

Annie Wertz’s research findings are more fundamental than they first appear. Because he couldn’t only show that humans apparently have an innate precautionary attitude towards plants. But also that babies look at their parents much more often than usual when they have plants in front of them.

Thus, babies are not only naturally more careful, but instinctively seek advice from their model. So, when it comes to the danger of plants, we naturally tend to learn from the elderly.

“This means that our learning mechanisms are geared towards learning certain content,” explains Annie Wertz.

“The bigger theory is that our brains are designed to look for certain traits because we share such a long evolutionary history with plants. So kids are ready to go out into the world and see, ‘Hey, there’s a plant. on front of me . And there is an adult. What does he do and what can I learn from the way he treats the plant. ‘”

Knowledge and instinct are interdependent

In the classic explanation of human behavior, a distinction has long been made between what we have learned and what is innate – between knowledge and instinct. To date, the role of our genes and our environment in learning has not been clearly established. Annie Wertz’s research shows, however, that the two factors do not exist side by side, but are interdependent. Our evolution made our culture possible in the first place, and our culture influenced our evolution.

“One of the biggest lessons we can learn from this idea is that large parts of our culture are related to plants. The way we prepare plants for food, for example, is incredibly complex.”

Our genetic predisposition to learn to manipulate plants is just the beginning. Our ability to learn from each other in social contexts is a prerequisite for everything that makes us human: language, tools, traditions. All of this is made possible by a brain that has specialized in learning for millions of years: a central trait that sets us apart from all other living things – makes us special.

“There is no doubt that human culture is completely different from anything we know in the animal world. We have evolved to learn. We have evolved into a cultural species. We have evolved into a social species And all of these building blocks are interconnected, and ultimately that’s what makes us humans. “