Thursday, 3 June 2010

Why we love baby moose, and our relation to baby chimps

Puppies. Who the heck doesn't like one? I tend to view dogs as animals that should do something for you, and even I think some of them are kinda cute. Juvenile dogs are wolves that are highly evolved to highjack the brain of humans in a very specific way, making us gooey and weak in the knees with glee. You can squash mosquitos all day and not feel even the faintest twinge, and it's hard to feel sympathy for the captured crab. Most fish look somewhat alien to us gas breathing terrestrial mammals, and few people have second thoughts about killing them; even PETA tends to approach the well being of fish as a more intellectual exercise. What is it about puppies that renders all but the sociopath subject to their charms? In a word, neoteny.

Neoteny is a concept in developmental biology, whereby the development of an organism is delayed, maybe indefinitely. It will continue to progress into a reproducing individual, however. Where before, a wolf would have progressed through its youth and grown up into a proper bitch or dog (allegedly, dog is the term for a male hound or wolf. You learn something new every day!), the selective pressures put on the proto-domesticated wolf lead to animals of increasingly delayed development, in all but reproduction. The maturation of a wolf leads to a closed social circle; some breed owners are familiar with this, where some animals such as many Karelian Bear dogs are eternally suspicious of outsiders. A domesticated animal should, in general, be flexible as to its social environment, and should have a much longer learning and socialization period than their wild counterparts.

Additionally, the proportions these baby animals hijack our human brains as I'd previously mentioned. The reason is simple - neotenic animals have the same sort of exaggerated features, generally, and humans need to look after their babies. Therefore, the same traits that make humans fawn over babies, and give them the attention those human babies need, lead to us fawning over fawns, kittens, puppies, and so forth. They highjack a vital mental pathway required for our own care of our young, in a very inadvertent way. Even many hunters who intellectually prefer the taste of calf meat have a hard time shooting calf caribou or moose. One person described a recent photo as `somehow being cute, and making him be hungry all at once.` What phenomenally contradictory thoughts! On one side, they adore the helpless reindeer calf, but simultaneously existing with his view of reindeer as something intrinsically food. This isn't merely the luxury of softhearted modern humans, as the impulse has been around for probably as long as there has been humans, if not a little before.

The actual evolutionary mechanism is fairly simple. Delay, delay, delay. It's apparently easy to move the date of maturation back almost indefinitely, as it's happened so many times, and in so many species. Humans are incredibly neotenic apes - if you compare our facial dimensions to that of a foetal chimpanzee, you'll find the comparison more than somewhat disquieting. A favourite professor of mine once stated that humans are just extra-uteral foetuses, lumbering about on our way. The reason why this is in humans is similar why hounds have had their development pushed back - learning and socialization. Humans are some of the most intensely social primates, with general monogamy (although genetic monogamy is another issue, as Jerry Springer is a testament to), and we're intensely intelligent primates... well, Jerry Fallwell aside.

In order to accommodate this brainy super-sociality, we've needed to extend our brain developmental period for nearly two decades, and after two decades our brains are constantly breaking down and forming new connections as we learn. Apparently, one of the easiest ways to this state was to push back our total maturation, making our adults more and more like large versions of chimpanzee foetus. In fact, our development in the womb is so long that a large chunk of it needs to be done outside the womb. It's all human babies who are born premature (although some more than others).

It's not just mammals that use neoteny as a trick to jump on new and clever evolutionary trajectories. Some amphibians are permanently juvenile, never losing their gills, or developing lungs. Instead, the species retains a permanent presence in the water as a new young would have. Large flightless birds have been noted have many of the portions of a chick of flighted species. And domestication and neoteny seemed to be tightly coupled, as the tame silverfox experiment resulted in rather neotenic foxes. Neoteny is a powerful evolutionary too, employed time and time again when the Peter Pan approach appears the wisest - sometime it's best never to really "grow up."

The photo of the Chimpanzee is from 1926 study by Adolf Naef.


Arvay said...

Aw! Fuzzy wuzzy ickle behbeh reindeer calf!

flying fish said...

Yup. I used to tell my puppy "if you weren't so damn cute, I'd kill you"...she's a 14 year old bitchy bitch now. She wins every battle.

Heresiarch said...

As popular culture becomes increasingly juvenilized, it looks like neoteny is spreading from morphology to psychology. The neotenous driver is technology, which steers human evolution toward theCyberfetus.