Today is my birthday, so age is a bit on my mind, and so is youth. People have been looking for centuries, at least, for the Fountain of Youth. We’ve made some advances, generally no longer old at forty and ancient at sixty, but no such magical elixir has been found.
Whole species, though, have found their own permanent youth. Some species have done it on their own, while we’ve done it to other, and maybe even to ourselves as a species, though not individually.
Neoteny (also called pedomorphism) is the retention of juvenile traits in adults. Physical traits that are usually considered to be neotenous include: large eyes, wideset eyes, less hair, flat face, small nose, small jaw, and small teeth. These tend to be the physical traits that separate us from our closest ape relatives.
They are also traits that seem to be hardwired into us as cute: babies, puppies, cartoon characters (the cat from Shrek with his cute face on), even the standard depiction of “gray aliens.” Besides the traits already listed, large floppy ears and curly tails are considered to be neotenous traits in animals.
We’ve bred these traits into our companion animals too: think about toy dogs in terms of retaining juvenile features. The physical traits may have started out as coincidence. Behavioral neotenous traits include playfulness and ability to learn, key elements determining trainability. I’m certain that both intentional and unintentional selection for cute traits has also occurred in the domestic species most closely associated with people.
Then there’s the axolotl. This rare salamander is native only to two lakes in Mexico. Salamanders are amphibians, so like frogs they have a purely aquatic gilled juvenile stage, then metamorphose into an air-breathing terrestrial adult form. The axolotl never transforms, keeping the gilled aquatic form even after sexual maturity.
(Photo by Stan Shebs)
Why? One hypothesis is that the lakes were safer than the surrounding land, so there was strong evolutionary pressure to stay in the aquatic form. The neoteny is now genetic, species-wide, but once in a while an axolotl spontaneously goes through metamorphosis into a fairly normal looking adult salamander. Metamorphosis can also be triggered by treating the axolotl with hormones.
There’s the science. So where’s the science fiction?
Well, the human response to these traits really does seem to be hardwired. That suggests that when and if we meet other intelligent species, our responses to them may vary depending on how close to this expression of cuteness they are. A floppy-eared large-eyed cute alien might be more successful at interacting with us than those with the opposite traits. That idea isn’t at all far-fetched: cute wild species get a lot more money and effort for conservation than ugly ones.
We’ve bred other species, and quite possibly ourselves, for neotenous traits. What might happen if we did it on purpose, with intent? Could we increase our own peak learning age range (like the childhood years when the brain best picks up languages) by doing so, and would it come with increased physical neoteny?
And axolotls are science fictional looking all by themselves, don’t you think?
(Photo by Only Alice)