Cultural Neoteny

June 24, 2008

Neoteny is the biological retention of juvenile traits into the adult stage. Neoteny occurs in all sorts of animals. For example, some salamanders retain their juvenile gills into maturity. I think neoteny occurs in human culture as well. We have been unconsciously favoring immature behavior in adulthood.

Childhood is a recent invention. Before a certain point in history, children were depicted as miniature adults. Over the course of time, we’ve started to think of childhood as its own set of time, with its own set of needs. Childhood is manifold with activities that have become a larger percentage of the human lifespan.

The period of sexual reproduction is now in the latest period of a woman’s reproductive cycle. Accordingly, marriage has been pushed farther and farther. And it is now quite acceptable for people to forgo marriage. A person can go thirty or more years before having babies.

School has started to occupy more of a person’s life. Institutionalized education now takes sixteen years at least. And a few places of work require even more education.

The adult approval of gameplaying has extended even more with the advent of video games. Starting now, a whole generation will grow up that still expects to be playing games similar to the ones they played as children.

The period where work is expected of the young is also diminishing to foster the extension of school. It is such in Western Society, that children need special permission to work. This is something that only a century ago was totally unheard of.

Neoteny may also be an explanation for why we prevent children from swearing. The taboo on swearing operates as a differentiator between children and adults, and has little effective use beyond that.

So why keep ourselves child-like longer? There maybe something to the stories of geniuses who were brilliant in a field, but inept in their own daily personal maintenance. The absent minded professor is somewhat a child. The longer we keep people at child’s play, the greater the retention of childlike curiosity, fascination, desire to analyze and synthesize. We try to stay children to stay creative.

This allocation of resources to childishness makes sense, since adulthood is expensive. In adulthood we are dedicating the majority of time to raising children. Adults also deal with other things like finance and contracts, which children are prohibited.

So what are the consequences of an ever expanding neoteny? Neoteny will not be absolute because it prevents homeostatis. If neoteny became even more extreme than it is now, no babies would be born, and the management aspects of life would have to be handed over to machines or a managing class. That sort of system is unsustainable because even mild unchecked authority leads to tyranny that would destroy the benefit of the system. Even though that might sound sciencefictionally dystopian, I still worry that neoteny is a force in our complicity over the current resurgence of tyranny. A compromise might be to enter into fluctuating adulthood. Two years working (adulting), then four years playing (childing), and so on.

Neoteny is a difficult force to deal with. We seem to be embarking on this path quite unconsciously. I feel that it’s persistent presence in the mind is necessary to the proper crafting of human institution. Vigilance is paramount in walking the line between neoteny’s threat and benefit.

The different types of synchronous and asynchronous communication are already apparent to most people. You have voice, like phone and face-to-face, and this is synchronous communication. And you have text messaging and email, which are asynchronous.

Asynchronous context (as opposed to communication) first became apparent to me when social news sites like Digg and Reddit came out. I started offering tidbits of info from these sites, and they served as minor social capital, like all news does. But they lost their value as social capital because all of my friends started to read the same sites. RSS aggregators increased the probability that we would have all read the same stories. So it became useless to bring up info from these sites because it was too commonly met with, “Oh yeah. I read that story.” And there are more personal forms of asynchronous context building, like when you read someone’s blog or bookmarks.

In the past, before digital communication gave the impression of instantaneous communication, we still had asynchronous communication through books and letter writing. Synchronous context would have been things like regional dress and vocabulary. But where was the asynchronous context? For a moment, I was tempted to think that asynchronous context didn’t exist. But it does in social structures. For instance, a fraternity, or a teacher who teaches the same books year after year. And also in stories that others tell about you.

What the web adds is an impersonal nature to context. A stranger can experience my context. Normally this was reserved for celebrities, where an obvious return was made on distributing a person’s context. Now, obtaining a person’s context is much easier and less costly.