Joichi Ito recently emailed me asking if I would contribute to a comment thread regarding neoteny. The following is what I said…
Understanding neoteny as integral to human evolution and current social change is to reference evolutionary theories common in the nineteenth century (i.e., Mivart, Hyatt, Cope) that were let go when natural selection was raised to be our theory of choice. Ideas evidencing sensitivity to interconnection were abandoned in a theorizing environment that focused on theories offering the greatest number of questions being answered by the simplest hypothesis.
A reductionist milieu tends to pay less attention to solutions that suggest a connection between individuals or species across a scale or between scales. Over the last ten years, there has emerged a new evolution theory discipline called evolutionary developmental biology. In many ways, evo devo harkens back to the nineteenth-century theories that focused on the power of interconnection to both understand and predict how evolution will unfold. Central to evo devo and to the nineteenth-century theories was understanding the power of how individuals mature, and how maturity trajectories change over time when species are influenced by evolution. Central to understanding these kinds of changes, changes in maturity, is understanding how the environment directly and indirectly encourages evolutionary change. It is helpful to examine how the environment and social structure impact ontogeny, or growth.
Neoteny is one of two foundation maturity paradigms, one where the infant or embryo features of an individual in a species unfolds over generations to appear in later and later stages until manifesting in the look and behavior of adults. This is not a theory. This is a description of biological process. These processes can be studied by reading about heterochrony, described in detail in Stephen J. Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny.
Humans evidence neoteny. It can be argued whether humans do or don’t evidence neoteny, but neoteny is central to how species evolve. Infant and embryo features of our ancient forebears have emerged to appear in the physiology and behavior of contemporary adults. I would suggest that what is occurring now in modern society, with huge increases in diversity, transparency and horizontal communication, is evidence of society being impacted by neotenic tendencies. I would go so far as to closely associate neoteny and the Internet.
There is one aspect of this process which was not understood in the nineteenth century, and it is only beginning to be understood today. Neoteny is hypothetically closely associated with matrifocal social structures, societies where women share authority with men. Cooperative males are highly valued in societies that value commanding women. Modern society is evidencing profoundly matrifocal tendencies. It is possible that surges in neoteny emerging today are closely associated with female-centered social structure that respects cooperation and creativity.
To observe perhaps the greatest evidence on neoteny today you need go no further than the Creative Commons. When an aesthetic features a proliferation of borrowing, with each creative act deeply influenced by the creativity of others in the environment, you are observing a societal reproduction of what occurs in earliest embryo ontogeny. As embryos, each being is profoundly impacted by changes in the environment, with growth determined by how each cell decides to grow, impacted by the behavior of its neighbors. Earliest maturing, ontogeny, is all about responding to the environment. That exact dynamic is emerging today in the behavior of those relying upon the Creative Commons for information that influences their personal growth and creativity.
Neoteny, the prolongation of infant and embryo features into the look and behaviors of adults, is perhaps the guiding principle, the zeitgeist, of our time.