Why we all have baby faces and what this should constantly remind us of
“I’m youth. I’m joy. I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.”
If you were able to guess the source of this quote, then you must be a serious Peter Pan fan. The ‘boy who wouldn’t grow up’ is one of many cherished characters in popular fiction created by the novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie (1860–1937). Pan lived in Neverland, also known as ‘Never Never Land’; a fictional faraway location where kids don’t grow up and where childhood can last forever.
Perhaps Pan’s story represents our ambivalent yearning to become children again. Yet, as a parable, I believe it expresses something much more fundamental and enduring about the human species. What if what makes us human and what distinguishes us from all other species is the fact that our childhood can last for a very long time, if not forever? What if, as a species, we did in fact evolve to stay FOREVER YOUNG?
I believe that the answers to these questions are literately staring us in the face; at least every time we look in the mirror. Let me explain.
Have you ever wondered why some people have baby faces? Well, I would like to convince you that all human beings have baby faces. Why do I say this? For the very same reason why I believe that all humans have the ability to remain playful for life: NEOTENY. In what follows, I will show how neoteny provides us with an explanation for why childhood in humans ‘Never Never’ ends and why we, like Pan, have the ability to stay forever young.
“We are the Labradors of the primate world” (Stuart Brown)
In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play and a leading researcher on the science of play, provides an interesting comparison between Labradors and wolves. Brown observes that “as pups, wolves and dogs are like rambunctious cousins … Wolf pups and canine puppies behave so similarly that they seem virtually identical, distinguishable only by the various features we associate with a particular breed.”
Yet as these two species grow up into adulthood, their paths diverge starkly. Wolves grow up to be pack hunters and considerably territorial. In contrast, Labradors somewhat remain puppies for life; they “die of old age primarily still players and retrievers.” Brown draws on the concept of neoteny to explain why this happens.
Neoteny, from Greek meaning to ‘stretch or extend youth’, defines the process by which premature traits or features of a certain species are retained into adulthood. In other words, neoteny as a process causes the preservation or continuation in adults of traits seen only in the young.
Drawing on this idea, Brown then makes the following claim: “Like retrievers, humans are the youthful primates … Just as Labrador and wolf pups look and act alike, chimpanzee babies look very much like human babies, with high, rounded foreheads and big eyes. As chimpanzees grow older, however, they acquire a sloped forehead and heavy brow ridges, a jaw that juts forward, and look very different than when they were young.” On the other hand, human beings retain their baby faces all their lives never losing their high forehead and rounded skull including other features typical of youth.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould joins Brown in asserting that in chimps, change in form is accelerated during early development producing adults that look strikingly different compared to their young. In contrast, the process is much more slowed down for humans. As a result, we retain our juvenile features well into adulthood. Gould concludes: “To be sure, we change enough to produce a notable difference between baby and adult, but our alteration is far smaller than that experienced by chimps and other primates.”
Gould argues that what may have triggered our neoteny is this slowdown in our developmental rates. Primates, compared to other mammals, are slow developers. Our growth is marked by long periods of gestation, protracted childhoods, and the longest life span compared to all other mammals. Our enlarged brains, the result of extending prenatal growth to later stages of our development, have indeed served us well as a species.
The famous cartoon character Betty Boop is perhaps a comical illustration of our neotenous nature.
Although evolutionary biologists offer various explanations for why humans are neotenous, a very interesting one has to do with the development of a number of adaptive human capacities such as complex emotional communication made possible by our juvenile and youthful features. The latter could prove very crucial for a species that thrives in groups and depends on others for survival, safety and support. In fact, Stephen Jay Gould suggests that features of human childhood elicit powerful emotional responses in us, even when we detect them in other animals or inanimate objects.
Interestingly, Gould, in an essay titled ‘A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse’, applies the scientific tools of an evolutionary biologist to study the 50-year evolution of the iconic cartoon character and host of the Magic Kingdom, Mickey Mouse. His study reveals a steady and progressive change in Mickey’s appearance over the span of 50 years leading to more dominant juvenile features: “Measurements of three stages in his development revealed a larger relative head size, larger eyes, and an enlarged cranium — all traits of juvenility.”
Why did Mickey ‘grow up’ to be so young?
The writer Christopher Finch, in The Art of Walt Disney, provides the answer. Finch reminds us that the Mickey Mouse who debuted in the movie theaters in the late twenties was not the well-behaved mouse most of us recognize today. In contrast, Mickey was mischievous and slightly sadistic, displaying streaks of cruelty. Over the years, Disney artists worked hard to transform this character into a more affable and less offensive one. As Mickey’s personality softened over the years, his appearance gradually changed. Gould notes that his appearance in fact became more youthful.
For Gould, Mickey’s evolutionary journey to eternal youth charts our own evolutionary story. Humans are neotenous says Gould: “We have evolved by retaining to adulthood the originally juvenile features of our ancestors.”
Moreover, this prolonged prematurity seems to be one of the main defining characteristics of what makes us human. The ‘father of play advocacy’ Joe Frost asserts that early development is the time when the brain is most plastic and highly influenced by environmental stimulation. The stretching and extension of earlier stages of life well into adulthood made possible by neoteny provides humans with “extended openness to change, and sustained curiosity, as well as the ability to readily incorporate new information,” adds Stuart Brown. This, in turn, has endowed human beings with an edge over the rest of the species.
Therefore, humans are the most neotenous amongst all creatures making us the most flexible, supple and plastic. Remaining in a perpetual state of development — a feature so vital for humans — is the gift of our neotenous nature. This means we can in fact go beyond the grip of instinct by taking risks and exploring new possibilities for living in the world. Our lifelong baby face is prima facie evidence for our enduring childhood as a species.
“It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood” (Erik Erikson)
Another very important feature that gets retained and extended well into adulthood and which distinguishes human beings from all other animals is our ability to play and remain playful for life. Gould reminds us that many mammals display play and flexibility in childhood but later follow rigidly programmed patterns of behavior as adults.
Stuart Brown confirms this by observing that “As with the adult wolf, the adult chimp exhibits more compulsive, rigid, and purpose-driven behavior. Adult male chimpanzees have a strict dominance hierarchy, don’t play very much unless cajoled by a juvenile to participate, are reactive to strangers approaching their territory, and seem to like to fight more than play. Baby chimps exhibit the kind of playfulness that looks more human.”
Indeed, we as a species have been fashioned by nature to be lifelong players. If we allow this natural play drive to take its course, we can find opportunities to play everywhere in life; with friends and family, with colleagues at work, as well as with total strangers. When we play, our brains keep developing; we keep learning about the world around us and exploring new ways to enjoy it.
“We are designed to be lifelong players” (Stuart Brown)
However, if we stop playing, Brown insists, “we share the fate of all animals that grow out of play. Our behavior becomes fixed. We are not interested in new and different things. We find fewer opportunities to take pleasure in the world around us.”
In conclusion, every time we look in the mirror, the sight of our big, goofy-looking heads and our relatively flat baby faces should be a reminder of another youthful feature that we have lurking inside of us and waiting impatiently to come out and express itself at the first signal; our ability to play. Our lifelong baby faces bear testament to the Peter Pan that exists in every one of us; to our youthful and playful nature and our ability to take risks and explore new possibilities for living in the world.
“In short, we, like Mickey, never grow up although we, alas, do grow old” (Stephen Jay Gould)
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