Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Adventures In Daddyblogging, part 3: Why Animals Are Cute

I've got a new baby boy on the way that we're going to call Langston. Langston's impending birth being the case, I've been thinking a lot about what makes a good parent, what makes a bad parent, and what exactly a parent is. Jerry Coyne has a nice little piece over at Why Evolution Is True that fits well into this general mulling over.


"Although Steve Gould was an implacable enemy of sociobiology, he sometimes indulged in evolutionary psychologizing. In one of his more famous essays, “A biological homage to Mickey Mouse” (free online), Gould noted that over the fifty years since his creation, the image of Mickey had evolved from a rather etiolated rodential form into a squat creature with a big head, big eyes, and short limbs, which were made to seem even shorter but putting them in clothes. Here’s a figure from Gould’s essay (do read it: it’s blessedly free of the cant and pomposity that plagued his later efforts):

Gould even plotted some of these morphological changes (relative head, eye, and cranial vault size), and showed that Mickey was undergoing gradual change (let me point out that this was not punctuated!) towards the appearance of a juvenile mouse: bigger head, bigger eyes, and larger cranial vault, and that this juvenilization was driven by viewers ‘ preference for a cuter, more anthropomorphic mouse. Mickey was undergoing neoteny: the evolutionary process whereby juvenile features in an ancestor are retained into adulthood in a descendant. (We humans are supposedly neotenic, resembling a juvenile chimp or gorilla far more than we resemble their adults.)

Gould also showed that the baby animals we love so much (he shows figures of a rabbit, bird and dog) have relatively bigger and rounder heads, and bigger eyes, than do adults—as, of course, do human babies. He speculates, following Konrad Lorenz, that we have an innate tendency to lavish attention and affection on mammals with these juvenile features, and that this aesthetic preference is adaptive: those of our ancestors who fixated on the big heads and eyes of babies would leave more offspring than those who weren’t as turned on by the sight of their infants. Importantly, Gould showed that if this preference were evolved, it could have done so in two ways: a) a hard-wired preference for juvenile morphological traits: we are born with this aesthetic sense, or b) through an evolved but flexible “learning module”: we have genes that tell us to favor whatever features appear in our offspring. The latter explanation is a form of imprinting: presumably if your and everyone else’s baby were suddenly born with small heads and eyes, and long legs and noses, we’d instantly find those features cute."

As David Sloan Wilson noted in the introduction to his awesome book Evolution For Everyone, it's not obvious for everyone to understand how widely evolutionary principles apply to our lives. Most of get the connection between dinosaurs and evolution, and human ancestry and evolution, but we're often very willing to overlook the clarity an evolutionary lens can cast on psychological, sociological, and yes, even parenting issues.

And anything that shits,throws up, and cries as much as babies do should thank merciful Zeus that parents like myself have been programmed to appreciate--in spite of all the soiled diapers, expensive baby clothes, and lost sleep--how damned cute the little buggers are, and how the littlest grin and giggle can be enough to brush layers of cynicism off of the most embittered shoulders.


Lodo Grdzak said...

The softness of a puppy makes you want to stroke its face, which helps create a bond of unconditional love for the dog's entire life.

Spencer Troxell said...

Unless you're Lenny from 'Of Mice and Men'.

Lodo Grdzak said...

Ha! You'd have to be a retard to hurt a pup, no?