DISCLAIMER: No racism involved.
Aren’t they cute??? ^_^ Yay, my fave characters, Pokemon. So cute…
Anyway, I’m sure everyone’s dazzled by cute characters, right? From animals to children, they seem adorable. But what if those childlike characteristics, i.e. young-looking, cute, naive, playful, curious, and honest, retain into adulthood?
I do not mean by this. The Gyaru (ギャル) or gal type of Japanese fashion.
Except if you are from Northeast Asia, the rest of the world seems to be repulsive to retention of childlike features and characteristics in adulthood. Being childlike could mean ridicule, laughing stock, or being last to finish at romance and work. Promise, I did experience that. I am described as a very childlike person with baby face, cute perky voice, and also have a childlike personality (playful, curious, blunt, and loves cartoons and anime more than chick flicks) that I usually end up being laughed at by my peers and also constantly layed off by employers. But do you know that all humans have a characteristic called neoteny?
What is Neoteny?
Neoteny (also called juvenilization or paedomorphism/paedomorphosis) is the retention by adults of traits previously seen only in the young. Ultimately this process results in the retention, in the adults of a species, of juvenile physical characteristics well into maturity and pedogenesis (paedogenesis), the reproduction in a neotenized state. Here, a specie’s physical characteristics as a larva retain into adulthood. This means in humans, you still look like 12 even when you’re already 30.
That’s not all. Humans (homo sapiens) are the neotenized apes. How? Let’s take a look at this picture:
Modern humans retain the youthful characteristics of a juvenile ape.
What are the characteristics of neoteny in humans?
The following are the neotenic features in humans:
Various sources identify the following:
- Glabrousness (hairless body)
- absence of baculum (penis bone)
- presence of hymen
- forward-facing vagina
- limbs proportionately short compared to torso length
- longer leg than arm length
- structure of the foot
- upright stance
That’s the comparison of the homo sapiens against other hominids (prehistoric man). You can see that the modern human retained the juvenile feature of a prehistoric man.
Nevermind with these folks. To better illustrate neotenous features in humans, let’s use Betty Boop:
Not that in physical aspects that humans retained their juvenile ape features, but also in neurological/psychological/mental aspects too.
Also called “psychological neoteny,” this retention of human brain in childhood seems to be an upward trend as society progresses. According to Bruce Charlton, a doctor and psychology professor at Newcastle University in Britain, what looks like immaturity — or in Charlton’s kinder terms, the “retention of youthful attitudes and behaviors into later adulthood” — is actually a valuable developmental characteristic, which he calls psychological neoteny.
How is psychological neoteny described?
Here’s an explanation from Charlton in New York Times regarding psychological neoteny:
In a recent issue of Medical Hypotheses, a journal he edits, Charlton argues that unlike previous, more settled societies that could afford to honor a narrow and well-defined worldview (that is, a “mature” one), modern life is tumultuous and ever-changing. Accordingly, it rewards those who retain a certain plasticity of mind and personality. “In a psychological sense, some contemporary individuals never actually become adults,” he writes.
Charlton’s argument is still just a hypothesis, but it makes intuitive sense. For one thing, he notes, education in the modern era — which now routinely extends into an individual’s 20s — rewards a mental openness that could once be safely discarded in the midteens. As he explained in a recent e-mail message, a “likely cause” of the widespread delay in the onset of maturity today was “more prolonged higher education for ever more people, leading to an increase in the ‘unfinished’ personalities that are adaptive to learning.”
“In a psychological sense, some contemporary individuals never actually become adults,”
Charlton further added:
Furthermore, he argues, social roles have become less fixed in modern society. We are expected to adapt to change throughout our lives, both in our personal relationships and in our careers, and immaturity, as Charlton added, is “especially helpful in making the best out of enforced job changes, the need for geographic mobility and the requirement to make new social networks.” In fact, he speculates, the ability to retain youthful qualities, now often seen as folly, may someday be recognized as a prized trait.
“…the ability to retain youthful qualities, now often seen as folly, may someday be recognized as a prized trait.”
I agree with him though. The childlike trait of playfulness also has a connection in learning new things even as an adult, thus being more flexible and adaptable.
Another application of psychological neoteny is found in the Japanese kawaii (かわいい) culture where anything cute, sweet, and babylike is preferred over the mature things. Kawaii can go from fashion, construction objects, to makeup and even transport and people’s behavior.
Here’s another example:
Okay, remember the gyaru girls in the previous picture above? In kawaii culture, women even up to 30s prefer the adorable, cute look over the mature, sexy look.
To see the difference, let’s compare Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Lady Gaga:
They’re both very loud in fashion, but Kyary’s kawaii fashion sharply contrasts with Gaga’s sexier burlesque-like, psychedelic fashion.
Before you give your racist comments, let me inject the reason for the psychological neoteny in Japanese pop culture.
Soichi Masubuchi (増淵宗一 Masubuchi Sōichi), in his work Kawaii Syndrome, claims “cute” and “neat” have taken precedence over the former Japanese aesthetics of “beautiful” and “refined”. As a cultural phenomenon, cuteness is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity. Tomoyuki Sugiyama (杉山奉文 Sugiyama Tomoyuki), author of Cool Japan, believes that “cuteness” is rooted in Japan’s harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita (栗田経惟 Kurita Nobuyoshi), a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, has stated that “cute” is a “magic term” that encompasses everything that is acceptable and desirable in Japan.
I think it has something to do with the Japanese concept of harmony, a trait found in most East Asian people (East Asian collectivism vs Western individualism vs circum-Mediterranean collectivism, which is social superiority). You may also notice that Northeast Asian people (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Mongols) are the most neotenic (babyface) race in the world. (Disclaimer: no racism here) This is due to the EDAR gene (ectodysplasin A receptor gene) responsible for increased scalp hair thickness, shovel-shaped incisors, an increase in the number of eccrine sweat glands, and smaller breasts. This traits can make a human look younger than her actual age. I do not know but maybe EDAR is also responsible for flatter faces, shorter stature (though Koreans are tall Asians and there are really tall Asians), smaller hips, and lower testosterone levels, which also explains why East Asians look younger than Caucasians or Africans.
Another reason is this: Japanese history and religion. I think Shintoism (Japanese native religion) and Buddhism combined preaches peace and harmony (Christianity does that too, but unfortunately with some battle conquest with good vs evil and also sex-related prohibitions) where everybody must cooperate despite differences (that’s a neotenic trait). What accelerated Japanese’ love for anything cute is their turn into infantilism after they were defeated and sanctioned in World War II and also were largely influenced by Disney characters and Betty Boop. It seems that they found solace in anything endearing against their helplessness during that time and it served as a therapy before they bounce back to their economic security.
Is Neoteny connected to Neurodiversity?
Yes. Psychological neoteny is apparent also in neurodiversity.
How can that be?
Hallmark traits in most neurodiverse conditions (impulsivity in ADHD and hyperfocus in ADHD and autism spectrum, etc.) are very childlike in nature. In ADHD, the blurting out of same thoughts over and over again may seem very annoying to most neurotypical people, but this is very crucial as this facilitates more learning experience thanks to their constant inquisitiveness. People with dyslexia can’t understand written language; they compensate it with verbal abilities, that’s why it’s quite common for actors or actresses to have dyslexia. As for people on the autism spectrum, their great attention for detail (toddlers also do that sometimes, i.e. observing closely how butterflies fly…) is a neotenic trait as well.
In fact, a number of neurodiversity advocates and evolutionary advocates count neurodiversity and neoteny as crucial in human evolution. Here are some:
Andrew Lehman wrote a book, Evolution, Autism & Social Change, which contains theories about autism causes, which includes neoteny as a way of evolution. Mr. Lehman constructs elaborate arguments about the origins of autism that have to do with intrauterine exposure to hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen. These hormones control a fetus’s maturational rate, which causes ASD symptoms. This is where males with ASD look younger than their actual ages whereas females may look older than they are. But he focuses on the males, who have more neotenic features than neurotypical males. Here, the cause and/or effect of ASD is the rise of agricultural, matrifocal (mother-centered) culture where females mate with the “dad-type” (hint: nice guy) of males (less masculine, neotenized, cooperative) who can take care of them and their family. This means the macho, promiscuous (bad boy) male is a turn-off for them, hereby a cause for evolution of ASD. This is unlike today that dads can still be chosen, but cads are more preferred…
Thomas Armstrong wrote The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain where he advocated that neotenic/neurodivergent traits are actually a blessing and not a burden, as most people will say. Here’s an excerpt from his book:
It could be that children labeled ADHD, with their lag in brain development, may be the leading edge in evolution, demonstrating childlike patterns of behavior, including playfulness, spontaneity, and humor, that need to be retained in adulthood if we’re going to survive and thrive as a specie. If we lose the ability to be flexible as we grow into adulthood, for example, we’d have a civilization of inflexible people, which could be disastrous in the event of a global shutdown that threatened us with nuclear war. Thus, flexibility, carefully nurtured into adulthood, provides a kind of protective influence for international stability. Many of these so-called immature qualities that shine so brightly in kids labeled ADHD have similar effects on culture. As Ashley Montagu writes, “From their ‘mature adult’ height adults only to frequently look down patronizingly upon the ‘childish’ qualities of the child, without any understanding of their real meaning. Such adults fail to understand that those ‘childish’ qualities constitute the most valuable possessions of our species, to be cherished, nurtured, and cultivated.
It could be that children labeled ADHD, with their lag in brain development, may be the leading edge in evolution, demonstrating childlike patterns of behavior, including playfulness, spontaneity, and humor, that need to be retained in adulthood if we’re going to survive and thrive as a specie.
Mr. Armstrong’s right. Sadly, our contemporary culture (Western) looks down upon people with neotenic traits especially people in neurodiversity. Thanks also to multitask economy where everybody should be jack-of-all-trades employee, the neurodivergent community suffers from prejudice, unemployment, and underachievement. That will be a burden in any country’s economy. This can hamper a country’s development because talents are not utilized well. Plus, wasted gifts of neurodivergent people turn into mental disorders that can cost a living. Intellectual life will be hampered too as there are fewer people who think out of the box for innovation. Also, our rejection of anything neotenous is a high risk for a lot of world maladies: wars, political upheaval, genocide, sexual crimes like rape and incest, misogyny (hatred of women), homophobia (fear of homosexuals), and lots of eruptive misunderstandings that can result in human extinction or civilizational downfall if not curbed (this is not exaggeration, this is realistic as evidenced by terrorist attacks, city bombings, religious persecution, and the like). And this very much evident in most parts of the world.
I observe that less neotenized societies are rather more war freak and more neotenized societies are more peaceful. Do you think (No racist comment here. Just my opinion.)
Northeast Asia has the most neotenized societies in the world. They have very high standard of living, relatively peaceful, and also high in human rights index as well as education, sciences, and mathematics. This has something to do with neoteny, though I’m not really sure. That’s why they lead the world in technology (Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Hyundai, etc.) and IQ tests (average Japanese IQ is 105, Hong Kong Chinese IQ is 107, the highest in the world, South Korean IQ is 106, Taiwan 104, Singapore 103, China 100). Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, with two cities, Tokyo and Osaka, placed 1st and 3rd in Business Insider’s top 20 safest cities in the world. Also included safest cities/states are Singapore (2nd), Hong Kong (11th), and Taipei (13th), all found in the same region, except Singapore, which is in Southeast Asia, but with large Chinese ethnicity. (NE Asia has high human development index with the exception of China PR and North Korea)
Outside Northeast Asia, the most neotenized people are of Northern European (Nordic, Celtic, Germanic) origin. Though they are not as neotenous as East Asians, Nordics do have neotenous features like blond hair and blue eyes (also red hair and green, hazel, and gray eyes), which is absent in the rest of the world population. And comparing them along with redheads and brunette Northern Europeans, they look more baby face than Mediterraneans (Southern European), who look a lot more mature. (Among Caucasoids, their infants are lighter than the adults, Northern Europeans retained their youthful features in adulthood)
Comparison of Northern and Southern European men. Both handsome, eh, but the Nordic’s light skin, hair, and eyes make him look younger than the Mediterranean.
But you can notice that Asians really are more neotenized than Europeans. Anyway…
Northern Europeans have also psychological neoteny. This is apparent by their individualistic notion of self (I am independent of my own thinking), which is absent in other races even Asians, having very high affective empathy, which is a very neotenic trait, and delayed marriage (prolonged childhood) and childbearing pattern. These traits are very helpful in establishing human rights and dignity of labor, principles found only in NW Europe. Maybe these factors made Northern Europe the most prosperous region in the world (renaissance, reformation, enlightenment, industrial revolution, etc. these novel ideas are products of extreme creativity that defies societal norms commonly found in people with ADHD and autism spectrum).
In my own opinion, neoteny isn’t something to be ashamed of especially with neurodiversity, but rather this is something to be proud of, as this actually is the by-product or vehicle of evolution. Neoteny and neurodiversity are a tandem in preserving human specie as a whole. Neotenous traits help propel human evolution further and bringing the best in us. I wish more neurotypical people will better understand and accept neurodivergent people with neotenic traits.
Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
– Matthew 18:4, NIV
The Christian Bible even recommends the childlike character of neoteny.
Why we keep on forcing the neurodivergent in keeping up with neurotypicals is absurd. Maybe I’ll write the second part of this article…
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- Bednarik, R. G. (2011). “The Human Condition”. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-9353-3. ISBN 978-1-4419-9352-6. (page 134), cited by: Achrati, Ahmed (November 2014). “Neoteny, female hominin and cognitive evolution”. Rock Art Research 31 (1): 232–238.
- Gould, S.J. (1977) Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Cambridge: Belknap Press
- Montagu, A. (1989). Growing Young. Bergin & Garvey: CT.
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- Quotes and paraphrases from: Yuri Kageyama (June 14, 2006). “Cuteness a hot-selling commodity in Japan”. Associated Press.
- Armstrong, Thomas (2010). The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain. Da Capo Press. Ebook ISBN: 978-0-3782-1553-2.
- Lehman, Andrew (2010). Evolution, Autism & Social Change. neoteny.org. ISBN: 978-0-615-36133-8.
- Armstrong, Thomas (2010). The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain. Da Capo Press. Ebook ISBN: 978-0-3782-1553-2.