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Friday, February 11, 2011

Neoteny in literature

I'm trying something new: recreational reading, non-academic literature to get my mind of work at the end of the day. My Platonic soulmate recommended, almost a decade ago now, Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins. I was very surprised, then, to run into this passage:
"Neoteny" is "remaining young," and it may be ironic that it is so little known, because human evolution has been dominated by it. Humans have evolved to their relatively high state by retaining the immature characteristics of their ancestors. Humans are the most advanced of mammals - although a case could be made for the dolphins - because they seldom grow up. Behavioral traits such as curiosity about the world, flexibility of response, and playfulness are common to practically all young mammals but are usually rapidly lost with the onset of maturity in all but humans. Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.

4 comments:

Richard L. said...

I honestly wouldn't have thought of those traits as having an evolutionary advantage. Very interesting.

Of course, my interest in your post is entirely based on an evolutionary bias I have towards information that is novel, and so should be taken with a grain of salt. Or something to a similar, witty effect. :)

zacharoo said...

I often go back-n-forth on whether neoteny or paedomorphosis are even realities, let alone whether or how they characterize human evolution. But the idea that humans evolved by retaining juvenile characteristics is old, at least as old as Bolk in the early 20th century. Maybe he's just the one that really made the idea take off. Either way, Gould's Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977) discusses the history of the idea almost too thoroughly.

Eric said...

There is a nice review about Bolk's fertilazation hypothesis and the question whether or not you could apply it to human evolution in the third chapter of the "Handbook of Paleoanthropology" (1st. volume), so it might be worth to check this out.

zacharoo said...

Thanks, Eric, I'll check it out!