What follows is an excerpt from Gould’s work. (Gould, S.J. (1977) Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge: Belknap Press pp. 356-58).

“To support the argument that we evolved by retaining juvenile features of our ancestors, Bolk provided lists of similarities between adult humans and juvenile apes: “Our essential somatic properties, i.e. Those which distinguish the human body form from that of other Primates, have all one feature in common, viz. they are fetal conditions that have become permanent. What is a transitional stage in the ontogenesis of other Primates has become a terminal stage in man” (1926a, p. 468). In his most extensive work, Bolk (1926c, p. 6) provided an abbreviated list in the following order:

1. Our “flat faced” orthognathy (a phenomenon of complex cause related both to facial reduction and to the retention of juvenile flexure, reflected, for example, in the failure of the sphenoethmoidal angle to open out during ontogeny).
2. Reduction or lack of body hair.
3. Loss of pigmentation in skin, eyes, and hair (Bolk argues that black peoples are born with relatively light skin, while ancestral primates are as dark at birth as ever).
4. The form of the external ear.
5. The epicanthic (or Mongolian) eye fold.
6. The central position of the foramen magnum (it migrates backward during the ontogeny of primates).
7. High relative brain weight.
8. Persistence of the cranial sutures to an advanced age.
9. The labia majora of women.
10. The structure of the hand and foot.
11. The form of the pelvis.
12. The ventrally directed position of the sexual canal in women.
13. Certain variations of the tooth row and cranial sutures.
To this basic list, Bolk added many additional features; other compendia are presented by Montagu (1962), de Beer (1948, 1958), and Keith (1949). The following items follow Montagu’s order (pp. 326-327) with some deletions and additions:
14. Absence of brow ridges.
15. Absence of cranial crests.
16. Thinness of skull bones.
17. Position of orbits under cranial cavity.
18. Brachycephaly.
19. Small teeth.
20. Late eruption of teeth.
21. No rotation of the big toe.
22. Prolonged period of infantile dependency.
23. Prolonged period of growth.
24. Long life span.
25. Large body size (related by Bolk, 1926c, p. 39, to retardation of ossification and retention of fetal growth rates).

These lists from Bolk and Montagu display the extreme variation in type and importance of the basic data presented by leading supporters of human neoteny.”


Stephen J. Gould reintroduced the power of neoteny as an explanatory principle early in his career. Neoteny is one of the processes of heterochrony, where changes in the rates and/or timing of maturation influence the evolution of species. Tom Robbins best communicates neoteny’s meaning from a literary perspective when he focuses on the behavioral repercussions of manifesting certain features of infants into the behaviors of adults. Specifically, Robbins describes wild-eyed creativity, boundary busting, wonder, sensuality, curiosity and a compulsion to be close to creative sources.

Gould explores neoteny from biological and ontological perspectives. Robbins gives it a personal approach. It is not uncommon to explore society ontologically, comparing the unfolding of societal stages with the stages of human development. I am not aware of any explorations of society using neoteny as a frame of reference. I believe a reason is that the young, the disenfranchised, the poor, aboriginals and the Left would be invested with positive attributes having to do with progress contrary to an established paradigm that emphasizes that progress comes from the efforts of the powerful, the corporations, the government, the experienced and technological innovations discovered during war.

The ubiquity of Darwin’s theory of natural selection as THE theory of evolution has obfuscated evidence that suggests that natural selection is but the foundation theory, not the cathedral-like manifestation of how evolutionary theory actually unfolds. Fundamentalists continue to inflict damage on this society’s ability to understand the nuances of evolutionary process by attacking the foundation. Social conservatives provide scientific fundamentalists, theorists that believe exclusively in natural selection, platforms to defend natural selection by focusing only on that specific evolutionary theory. Media stoke the battle. Polemists like Richard Dawkins get a platform. All nuance, all theories complementary to natural selection are ignored. The cathedral is left empty while the foundation is explored for cracks. When Stephen J. Gould was alive and was lead defender of his discipline against creationist offenses, even he was so lowered by the debate that this master of nuance was left defending natural selection, ignoring the rest of evolution’s processes. Neoteny was never mentioned in these media exchanges.

Chris Knight, in his Blood Relations, notes how deeply science is affected by politics and societal beliefs. Gould wrote extensively on the same subject. Knight is an anthropologist. Gould was an evolutionary biologist. Less discussed is the frequency that medicine is affected by the constraints of our societal presuppositions. For example, autism, an evolutionary condition, is rarely discussed in an evolutionary context. They say all politics is local. Indeed, politics reaches down to our very genes.

This work seeks to demonstrate connections. The relationship between evolutionary biology and politics is multileveled with no discernable floor. Regardless, while looking down and exploring the causative relationship between biology and politics, we can still move the other direction, upward, observing the interdependence of theory. Let the media direct attention to the foundation. I’m headed to the cathedral bell tower where the music is being made.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 at 7:38 am and is filed under Autism & Society, Biology, Neoteny, Ontogeny, Society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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  2. Physics, Biology and Society | Neoteny, sexual selection, cause of autism, human evolution, social transformation, left organizing and internet activism - how they all connect on September 21, 2009 8:34 am

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