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Science Behind the Fiction: Baby Yoda can use the Force. How do baby animals compare?
If there was any doubt that we're living in the heyday of Star Wars fandom, we need look no further than the emergence of the recent live-action television series, The Mandalorian, streaming on Disney+.
Created by Jon Favreau, the series follow the adventures of an anonymous bounty hunter, played by Pedro Pascal. It has everything we've come to expect from Star Wars, including cool costumes, incredible set pieces, and characters so adorable you can't help but love them and other characters can't help but murder for them.
The series begins with the titular bounty hunter chasing down wanted persons faster than they can pop up. This leads his source (Carl Weathers) to send him on a strictly off-the-books job. He's meant to capture a 50-year-old target and has to blast his way through countless nameless cronies to do it.
The episode takes a turn when the target is finally acquired and is revealed to be an infant of the same species as Yoda. Infant is, of course, a relative term considering it's old enough to have seen the original Star Wars in theaters. We know that members of Yoda's species can live for centuries so it might not be all that surprising that Baby Yoda, as it's been dubbed by the internet hive mind, is a decades-old child. One thing is for certain, when 50 years old, you reach; look as adorable, you will not.
What is surprising, perhaps, is how deft the child is at wielding the Force.
It isn't always the best idea to pick apart fiction, looking for realism. Especially fiction that leans so heavily on fantasy, as Star Wars does, but we're going to do it anyway, because it's fun.
Humans are self-centered. We try not to be. We try to think of others, try to imagine what it's like in their shoes, but we're bad at it. We look at the world and assume that our experience is the only experience. We operate as though whatever life is for us, so too it is for everyone, and everything, else.
We're born. We age rather slowly, taking a while to get our feet under us, literally and figuratively. We mature. Then we grow old.
So it's something of a surprise when we learn that other animals don't experience life in the same way we do. In fact, when it comes to development in early life, we're the proverbial odd ducks, even among members of our own biological extended family.
When compared against other primates, including our genetic siblings the chimpanzees, humans take roughly twice as long to mature out of childhood. Anyone who's ever had a child, or been around young children, knows babies are mostly useless blobs of fat, snot, and screaming.
That might sound insulting, and maybe it is, if any babies want to take it up with me, they're free to do so. But first they'll have to hold their head up straight, something most babies can't do for the first two months of their lives. Then they'll have to walk over here, eight to ten months later when they get a handle on it, and give me a stern talking to, whenever the figure out what words are.
As it stands, babies need a couple of years before they resemble anything like an individual capable of living in the world. It seems normal, something we're all accustomed to, but it really isn't.
Early development is as varied throughout species as it possibly could be. Some animals start out in similar states as us. Many birds animals begin their lives naked (without feather or fur) and blind, wholly dependent on parental care to survive. But none take as long to reach independence as we.
Others are more independent right from the start. Animals like horses and giraffes (which are just long horses) can walk almost immediately. They're still dependent on parental care for sustenance and protection, but they certainly don't look like they aren't done cooking yet. So, what gives?
There are a lot of considerations, the behavior of our species plays a part. But mostly it's biology. More specifically, it's our brains.
Relative to our bodies, the human brain is ridiculously big. Our heads are so big, in fact, that if they were allowed to grow any larger, while in the womb, they couldn't fit through the pelvis. Babies are evicted from the womb because they've outgrown the space. Evolution is a game of compromise and being useless wins out over being dead.
By comparison, horses enter the world with more initial capability because adult females are built in such a way that they can carry their offspring longer. More development happens in-utero. Humans don't have that luxury.
Dolphins, another species which is often held up in comparison to humans, can swim almost immediately once born. This hearkens back to the biological needs. Since dolphins are mammals, they have to reach the surface to breathe. A baby dolphin which couldn't swim, wouldn't last long.
The gestation period of dolphins can last anywhere between 10 and 17 months, and they reach full maturity in only a handful of years. Their environment requires a quicker turnaround than we enjoy. It's a matte of survival. Evolution both demands and provides.
Lions start out in a state more recognizable to humans.
Newborn cubs are born blind and helpless. But they begin walking, albeit poorly, within a week and can follow their mothers in a matter of months. Before their first year is out they're participating in hunts. By two years old, they're independent and can take over a pride at age five. Just about the time human children are learning to tie their shoes.
In short, we come out half-baked.
Researchers believe our slow development is the result of what's called the expensive tissue hypothesis. Not only do we arrive early, as compared to other species, but our brains suck up all the energy, leaving little for the development of our bodies.
Studies have shown the brain uses between 44% and 87% of total energy during early development. We've evolved in such a way that we sacrifice early development in order to gain more robust thinking in later life. It's the old adage, you can do it fast or you can do it right. We can't do both.
How Yoda's species stacks up
We have every reason to believe that Yoda's species is of comparable intelligence to humans. In fact, given the high regard of Yoda's wisdom, it's entirely likely they are even more intelligent.
They also share a very similar body plan to humans, although much smaller, relatively speaking. So it stands to reason they would have similar biological constraints in childbirth. To that end, it shouldn't be a shock to see baby Yoda in an infantile state. What is astounding is how long it remains that way.
Even in earthly species which enjoy long life, you don't see this prolonged state of childhood. Such an extended period of helplessness would likely result in a very high mortality rate. Perhaps an explanation for why so few members of the species have ever been seen in the galaxy. Or maybe they simply don't reproduce very often. After all, they've got centuries to pass on their genes, what's the hurry?
All of that said, what we know about Yoda's species does not support the idea that an individual at such early stages of development would be so talented in the Force.
As previously stated, when it comes to biology, you either get a quick jump out of the gate, or complex intelligence, but not both.
The only real conclusion, from a biological standpoint, is that Yoda's species has inherent Force talents. To them, use of the Force is tantamount to breathing. Something they just now how to do. They are capable of arresting the movements of rampaging beasts at a developmental stage when we would be aiming spoonfuls of mush at our mouths, and missing.
Perhaps the conclusion is even more fundamental. Use of the Force is a matter of will. Maybe learning to hone the Force is a process which eats up most of the babies of Yoda's species' energies in early development. It could be they've traded a quick start in exchange for winning the long game. They stay children much longer, helpless, dependent on the care of parental figures or bounty hunters, so that they can be the wise Jedi Masters of a future age.
In any event, it's lucky the child is so damned cute, lucky for them, and lucky for us.