October 24, 2008 | 4 Comments
For over 120 years, theorists have been aware of heterochronic principles in evolution. Stephen J. Gould has almost single-handedly kept the flame alive. Gould is dead. Evolutionists specializing in this area are relatively rare. As the bonfire of Neo-Darwinism continues to die down, perhaps we’ll see renewed attention offered to these alternative views. Evolutionary developmental biology is opening doors in this direction.
Humans have evolved as a result of neoteny. Neoteny is one of several heterochronic processes. Neoteny is that process by which the features of infants appear over time in the adults of descendants. Physical, behavioral and neurological features “prolong” over generations, manifesting later and later in ontogeny until specific characteristics of embryos, babies and toddlers emerge as full-blown adult characteristics.
Books discussing neoteny in detail, such as Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny, concentrate on the physical features that transform when impacted by neoteny. Wesley Montague explored some of the emotional repercussions of bridging the child to the adult. Specifically, Montague noted the profound effect of carrying creativity and curiosity into the adult of our species, with the resulting societal repercussions.
Two additional features of the very young have been somehow absent from discussions of the influence of neoteny on the human species. Perhaps this absence is because it is mostly males writing on the subject. Maybe it is because these two features are obfuscated by the way we humans view ourselves in contemporary society. Nevertheless, observing closely the behavior and experience of babies, extrapolating these observations to a tentative hypothesis of the behavior and experience of our chimp-like ancestors, we might conclude that contemporary humans and contemporary human society may have no small amount to do with the dynamic of heart-felt affection and dependency.
In other words, the affection experienced by the young for other humans in their life is an integral experience, usually ignored as a governing principle, yet it is an experience having massive impact upon our society. The young feel affection and they experience a compulsion to connect, what we call dependency. Being small is to experience a nonstop attraction to other humans, animals, things and situations while at the same time experiencing the constant buffeting that comes with exposure to the barriers that prevent a reciprocation of that attraction. Human babies and toddlers are extremely dependent relative to the young of other species. As this dependency paradigm manifests in the adult of our species, the relative importance of affection and connection will grow as adults acquire these aspects of the infant.
The massive, multiscale interconnection of contemporary society, with exponential increases in connection characterized by at first email, then the web, then texting and now social networking, are manifestations of infant dependency proclivities prolonging into older states of ontogeny, driving society into a whole.
We are in the midst of as profound an acceleration of our society and our species as can be imagined. Differentiating between societal and biological evolution in humans is no longer possible.
We can understand the neotenous engine behind our biological evolution and observe the manifestations of neoteny in society as earlier and earlier stages of an individual’s ontogeny emerge in adults. We observe biology’s transformations manifest in culture, almost before our eyes. We are left reeling.
We are also left feeling. Affection and dependency are in our societal future and our ontological past. Neoteny is not particularly discriminating in what infant features are carried forward to adulthood. Love is inevitable. So is vulnerability. The future could not be brighter.