What’s Neoteny? And Why We’re Driven to Dwarf our Cats
Did you ever wonder why humans are attracted to small, cute things? It’s because small, cute things are baby-like. And baby-like things make humans want to take care of them. Yes, people are drawn to neoteny with an innate, irresistible urge.
So what’s that word? If I learned this one in vet school I promptly forgot it. According to Mr. Webster, here’s what it means:
ne·o·te·ny noun \nē-ˈä-tə-nē\
1: retention of some larval or immature characters in adulthood
2: attainment of sexual maturity during the larval stage
Let us stick to definition 1, shall we? And while we’re at it, let’s forget any mention of larvae. Larvae are decidedly un-cute and absolutely not what we’re talking about here today.
Neoteny looks rather more like a Shar-pei puppy’s adorably wrinkled face, a Cavalier’s big doe eyes, a Bassett’s chunky legs and floppy ears or even like one of those depressingly dwarfed cats (aside: IMO, it’s a travesty to breed a cat that can’t make it to the kitchen counter).
I got to hearing about this term while reading that National Geographic article on animal domestication. The Taming of the Wild, it was called. It treated the issue of canid domestication in some detail, describing the physical traits that were propagated along with the genes for tameness in silver foxes.
After selecting for tameness for six generations, the foxes began to look more baby-like. Most notably, their ears flopped, giving them a puppy-like look throughout their lives.
Though some breeds retained erect ears, the same thing happened with our domesticated dogs as they traveled down the path from the wolf. Clearly, the evolution of floppy ears in tame canids helped strengthen the dog-human bond. This transparent biological ploy for our attention improved their species' survival as more humans were drawn in by the "awwww" factor.
Along the way, we humans also came to think we liked our dogs smaller and cuter, even, so we made them dwarfed and smushy-faced, and teensy, too. Hence, the popularity of the dwarfed and toy breeds from the beginning of lavish pet-keeping (pugs and Cavaliers, for example, have been royal lapdogs for centuries now).
So why is it that we humans like our pets so distorted? Why this neotenous drive?
Well, most of it is simple biology. It’s hard-wired into our DNA, this need to keep our babies safe, so we’re drawn to want to protect things that look baby-like. It’s our species’ survival instinct at work. Problem is, we distort our pets because we can. Human fancy is what’s behind lots of it. Hence, the Paris Hilton effect on purse pooches and stubby-legged cats who can’t jump, among other examples of humans-gone-wrong.
The good news is that an increased understanding of what drives humanity is the first step towards fixing societal ills like Paris’s effect on animal life (sorry, I can’t help it). Recognizing that it’s our lowly caveman brain at work and not our inner Dr. Evil can’t help but improve our relationship with the animals we love.
Sure, we can still love our neotenous pets, as our brains are wired to do. But maybe we’ll be less disposed to push it too far if we recognize these impulses for what they are: manifestations of our basest biology.
Dr. Patty Khuly