Neoteny and the status of humanity

Sometimes a single word can spark a whole new set of thoughts. That is what the term neoteny did to me in the beginning of the summer.

So, you don't know what neoteny is? Neither did I until an acquaintance explained the term to me when talking about dogs and how they have evolved in relation to humans.

En Wikipedia you can read this:

Neoteny (pronounced /niːˈɒtɨniː/), also called juvenilization, is the retention, by adults in a species, of traits previously seen only in juveniles (a kind of pedomorphosis), and is a subject studied in the field ofdevelopmental biology. In neoteny, the physiological (or somatic) development of an animal or organism is slowed or delayed (alternatively, seen as a dilation of biological time). Ultimately this process results in the retention, in the adults of a species, of juvenile physical characteristics well into maturity. The Englishword neoteny is borrowed from the German Neotenie, the latter constructed from the Greek νέος (young) and τείνειν (tend to). The standard adjectival form is "neotenous"[2], although "neotenic" is often used.

In short: Neoteny is an evolutionary phenomenon describing when adults are showing juvenile properties, usually physical changes due to natural selection, where juvenile properties is showing up in adults and seems to give an evolutionary advantage of some kind. Traditional examples are hairlessness, cuteness and some other pedomorphic properties which seems to be regarded as attractive and either increase sexual reproduction or reduce risk to be killed.

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Domesticated dogs, and especially small lapdogs, are the standard examples of this phenomenon. Probably because it is obvious that many lapdogs more resembles eternal puppies, but also because their behavioral development seems to be stopped in a juvenile state by us humans who act as their eternal parents.

Humans show these kind of changes as well and biologists use to refer to our hairlessness and the now almost general lactose intolerance neotenous changes.

In recent years it is also suggested that behavioral and other psychological changes, like e g delayed maturity, might basically be aspects of the same phenomenon. This is called psychological neoteny and is discussed by Bruce Charlton, a british psychologist. He argues that the phenomenon of delayed maturity (psychological neoteny) is helping people with maintaining the childish naiveté and creativity longer in a world that keeps changing and defies planning. This is however a teleological explanation which if it is right (if he succeed in getting his causal chain right...) just explain things at a micro level. An argument against Bruce Charlton is of course, that this can't be a evolutionary phenomenon since it doesn't follow as a consequence of natural selection.

Why does this strange phenomenon of neoteny occur here and there in nature? Some theories suggests that it is a way for nature to back about of a evolutionary path. Maybe it is some kind of backtracking in order to try to fix some design flaws with this particular branch, assuming it to have the general properties right? Just some kind of minor adjustment - a scrambling some of the minor properties. Maybe it is one of evolutions economic principles, which is tried first, before some more brutal fitness test is forced to cut off the whole branch as failed?

Regardless it seems to be signaling a mismatch between a species and it's environment.

What is so interesting about this phenomenon of neoteny when we talk about the future of humanity?

Basically two things:

  1. Neoteny might be interpreted as a way for nature to back out of an evolutionary path
  2. Humans is showing clear signs of an accelerating neoteny when it comes to psychological behavior - if we grow up at all, we do it much later than we did just 50 years ago

Could it be the case that the general psychological behavioral trend of resistance to leave adolescence we see in the Western world, and which is rapidly spreading across the globe, is a neotenous phenomenon with far reaching evolutionary consequences?

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If it really is a deeply rooted and evolution based reaction, which is triggered by the situation we experience around us, it will most likely continue for some time and will have consequences. What is even more interesting for me as a futurist is that it might also be a prodrome for some other larger evolutionary effects which awaits around the corner.

Is the delayed maturity of humans telling us something really important about the evolutionary status of humanity?

When searching for others who have written about neoteny I of course found a blog post by David Brin, who seemed to have been interested in the concept some time in 1995, maybe as research for a book...

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