May 20, 2003

Cuteness Will Rule

Robert Wright has a theory that evolution is driving animals toward greater and greater intelligence. The first order effect is that evolution creates diversity. The second order effect is that a diverse and complicated world is hard to make sense of, hence there is a "fitness" advantage to having sense organs to figure out what's going on around you, and a brain to process your sense data so that you can figure out what to do.

Now the Poor Man has an alternative theory: evolutionary pressures are driving animals (especially those that hang around humans) not toward greater and greater intelligence but toward greater and greater cuteness:

Cuteness: an alternate theory, which posits that the major evolutionary pressure is pushing creatures towards greater and greater cuteness. Cuteness can be used to make other creatures do things for you, as well as for disarming and mesmorizing prey. Cuteness is already the most important trait of many animals we share our lives with, animals who humans feed and care for but who give nothing back to us in return except the occassional mess on the rug - animals such as puppies, kittens, and babies. I envision the future as a never-ending evolutionary race to appear more and more cuddly and adorable, while at the same time become more and more impervious to displays of cuteness by your rivals, which just serves to drive the cuteness standards even higher. The Earth of the far, far future will appear from the outside to be a paradise of playful, doe-eyed innocents, all frolicking and posing for your pleasure, but, in fact, it will all be a ruse...

Posted by DeLong at May 20, 2003 04:56 PM | TrackBack


'The first order effect is that evolution creates diversity. The second order effect is that a diverse and complicated world is hard to make sense of, hence there is a "fitness" advantage to having sense organs to figure out what's going on around you, and a brain to process your sense data so that you can figure out what to do.'

Or, there is an incentive to control the environment and adapt it to you - the principle of the ground cover plant, which drives out the diversity. To keep people out of the kitchen indefinitely, turn up the heat - it's controlled from there.

Similarities to areas of modern life other than US policies are left for readers to point out.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on May 20, 2003 05:22 PM

The evolution of Mickey Mouse is a good case study to prove this theory (See Steven J. Gould's article "A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse"). Through the life of the mouse his features have grown more juvenile. His eyes have grown in proportion to his head, and his head has grown in proportion to his body making him appear more juvenile (read: cute). Thus Mickey's appearance has approximated that of a human baby, and made him all the more adorable to us.

Posted by: ehavoc on May 20, 2003 06:43 PM

Curse you, Ehavoc. What I was going to say.

Posted by: zizka on May 20, 2003 06:47 PM

Cuteness is not always an advantage, though: the Philippine tarsier, for example, is incredibly cute, but this has lead to its becoming an endangered species, because many of them are captured and enpetted (yes, that's a word. Accept it!), threatening the species overall. (Full disclosure: a picture of a tarsier is my current desktop's background)

So, to be successful, you need to be good at reproducing in artificial circumstances AND cute, I suppose.

Posted by: Julian Elson on May 20, 2003 07:19 PM

Well, there might be some merit to this idea. Brigit Bardot wouldn't kiss a cod, but seal pups were a different story.

Today, the Grand Banks cod are almost gone (now, that is one sorted story) and there are zillions of seals on the Labrador ice flows. ;)

Posted by: Stephane on May 20, 2003 07:39 PM

The last time I checked, there were more insects than any other multicellular life form on the planet. Cockroaches and mosqutios and Japanese beetles are not at all cute but they are the dominant life forms on our planet. The theory is too eogcentric to have much predictive value.

Posted by: bakho on May 20, 2003 09:56 PM

The fact that we tend to neuter our cats and dogs would seem to raise a fairly strenuous objection to this one.

Posted by: dsquared on May 20, 2003 11:06 PM


Posted by: Delphina on May 20, 2003 11:07 PM

Time to send the neuroeconomists on this one...hmm fMRI studies with dolls...there gotta be money in there somewhere.

Posted by: Zack Lynch on May 21, 2003 02:05 AM

The cuteness thesis is simply a variation on the parasitic idea. Parasites attach themselves to hosts and live off us/bigger animals - so do dogs, cats and the occasional barracuda. Cuteness will confer an evolutionary advantage if the dominant species selects the cute macro-parasites.

Posted by: Bash on May 21, 2003 02:26 AM

Last I heard, bacteria and viruses were in little danger of extinction. I think that Wright had a few too many when he wrote that.

Posted by: Barry on May 21, 2003 03:41 AM

Barry, Bakho,

This isn't a general theory of how all organisms compete, it is a theory of how organisms will compete in the ever expanding suck-up-to-humans niche.

Cattle compete by gaining well-marbled body mass more quickly, and by producing milk vastly in excess of their offsprings requirements. Fowl compete by doing the same sort of things, substitute non-viable reprductive packages for milk.
Cats, dogs, and a growing list of other species, mostly mammalian, compete by triggering human family feelings. So long as we let some of the cutest reproduce, and we do, it is irrelevant that most of these species don't reproduce. Indeed that's what selective pressure is all about.

Bateria and viruses are working on completely different strategies.

Posted by: John Casey on May 21, 2003 05:39 AM

In fact, John Casey, I think you've demonstrated how human beings are disrupting natural selection in favor of multiple arbitrary artificial selections.

Natural selection channels evolution in certain circumstantial directions but it is all fundamentally non-directional. And as Backo and Barry pointed out arguing about trends in evolution based on the less than 1% of life that is multi-cellular is like basing an economy on the needs of the top 1% of wealthholders (ooops that has been done! And so successfuly too!).

Posted by: John Swift on May 21, 2003 05:53 AM

Sorry. It won't work. Standards of human taste change much more rapidly than natural selection can keep up. Dogs and cats won't do as examples. They're artificially selected, as are most of the other animals that "hang around humans."

Posted by: jam on May 21, 2003 06:21 AM

"Artificially selected", as if we aren't natural. We evolved, and everything else is adapting to that evolution. Are the aphids being raised by harvester ants "artificially selected"?

We can choose to protect species, if we want, but our "choices" or "ability to choose" don't make our actions any less natural.

Posted by: rvman on May 21, 2003 07:29 AM

no, aphids aren't being bred for particular traits so they aren't artificially selected. They are being farmed, but that isn't the same thing. Interestingly by guarding them, ants do protect them from predators, one of the common causes of natural selection.

RVMan, the problem is that most people don't understand the Darwinian evolutionary theory. When particular traits are selected and bred for that is artificial selection. Selection with a purpose.

Natural selection has no purpose. It doesn't intend for there to be taller basketball players, smarter economists, cuter coati mundis or aphids that excrete ever-sweeter wastes.

It's not that people are "unnatural" but rather that they have intension. It is the intension that distinguishes artificial selection from natural.

Posted by: John Swift on May 21, 2003 09:00 AM

"Cuteness is not always an advantage, though: the Philippine tarsier, for example, is incredibly cute, but this has lead to its becoming an endangered species, because many of them are captured and enpetted..."

I *do* like the "enpetted." I'll take your word on its authenticity. ( doesn't recognize it...but who are they, anyway?)

Yes, cuteness may be a liability. Or cutness may not be enough of an advantage to overcome other huge disadvantages.

The Giant Panda is cute enough to become the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund. But that isn't enough to overcome its near-exclusive taste for bamboo...even though those plants have almost no nutritional value for the Panda:

Posted by: Mark Bahner on May 21, 2003 09:07 AM

"This isn't a general theory of how all organisms compete, it is a theory of how organisms will compete in the ever expanding suck-up-to-humans niche."

Given the fact that entirely carbohydrate humans are likely to be replaced as the dominant species in *this century,* I don't think animals should be building any cuteness colleges. ;-) (Or even cuteness primary schools. ;-))

"So technology itself is an exponential, evolutionary process that is a continuation of the biological evolution that created humanity in the first place. Biological evolution itself evolved in an exponential manner. Each stage created more powerful tools for the next, so when biological evolution created DNA it now had a means of keeping records of its experiments so evolution could proceed more quickly. Because of this, the Cambrian explosion only lasted a few tens of millions of years, whereas the first stage of creating DNA and primitive cells took billions of years. Finally, biological evolution created a species that could manipulate its environment and had some rational faculties, and now the cutting edge of evolution actually changed from biological evolution into something carried out by one of its own creations, Homo sapiens, and is represented by technology. In the next epoch this species that ushered in its own evolutionary process — that is, its own cultural and technological evolution, as no other species has — will combine with its own creation and will merge with its technology. At some level that's already happening, even if most of us don't necessarily have them yet inside our bodies and brains, since we're very intimate with the technology—it's in our pockets. We've certainly expanded the power of the mind of the human civilization through the power of its technology."

Interesting stuff!

P.S. A later paragraph is wrong, as far as I'm aware:

"If you look at human longevity — which is another one of these exponential trends — you'll notice that we added a few days every year to the human life expectancy in the 18th century. In the 19th century we added a few weeks every year, and now we're now adding over a hundred days a year, through all of these developments, which are going to continue to accelerate. Many knowledgeable observers, including myself, feel that within ten years we'll be adding more than a year every year to life expectancy."

From what I've read, the curve is much more flat. In fact, the average *nationwide* life expectancy (the life expectancy of the nation with the highest life expectancy, switching around to find the particular nation with the best value) has increased ALMOST LINEARLY (not exponentially), at one quarter year per year, for the last 160 years.

But I *will* concede that it may have gotten slightly even a third of a year per year, in the last decades.

Still, on this, Ray Kurzweil's prediction seems almost certainly wrong. There is no way that, in 10 years, we'll be adding one year per year. But it *does* seem like it will be possible to add one year per year, sometime in the 21st century. (Especially if we consider that most human parts will be replaced by mechanical parts.)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on May 21, 2003 09:10 AM

This has more details on the research that showed that human life expectancy has increased by about a quarter of a year per year, for the last 160 years.

It was in the May 10 issue of Science (I thought I'd seen it earlier than that...could it have also been published in Nature???):

Posted by: Mark Bahner on May 21, 2003 09:20 AM

this thread reminds me of two things:

H.G. Wells's Time Machine--the cute Eloi's and the subterranean Morlocks who farmed the Eloi for food.

Gattaca--perhaps artificial selection will crowd out natural selection?

Posted by: hume on May 21, 2003 10:39 AM

"Gattaca--perhaps artificial selection will crowd out natural selection?"

Yes, it seems clear to me that "artificial" evolution will crowd out "natural" evolution. But I do *not* think it will occur (primarily) in the manner depicted in Gattaca.

For example, humans are essentially unchanged over the past several thousand years. A little less body hair, a bit taller, but still basically the same. Still a heart, two eyes, two ears...though all of those may not be working very well (and the eyes and ears might not work at all).

One other hand, a portable artificial heart wasn't even possible only 40+ years ago. No decent power source and lousy fluid mechanics (producing clotting and insufficient oxygenation).

Similarly, only 40 years ago, contact lenses were uncommon. And laser eye surgery wasn't performed at all.

And I remember a time, less than 30 years ago, when hearing aids included wires down to a wallet-sized device, that fit into the front pocket of one's shirt.

In other words, the technologies for replacing or enhancing the heart, eyes, and ears are all evolving much, much more rapidly than what is produced by "natural" evolution. This is true for virtually every part of the body; e.g., even 40 years ago, there were no artificial hips, and no artificial knees.

So it seems like humans will gradually replace more and more of their parts with human-made parts.

This seems likely, even if humans DON'T alter their DNA to produce new-and-improved humans, ala Gattaca. In fact, I'm with Ray Kurzweil on this: I think the mechanical/electrical/chemical technology is progressing, and will continue to progress, much faster than the techniques to alter DNA, to improve various body parts.

Children born in 2060 won't have their DNA altered to give them good hearing and good vision. They'll get fitted with super-ears and super-eyes. (Though it's possible that "super-eyes" might simply be laser surgery--for $100 an eye--that produces vision that's even better than what we now call 20/20.)

In fact, I have a recent personal experience along those lines. I'm having thyroid problems, and the endocrinologist I'm seeing was outlining the standard treatments. If the drugs I'm taking don't solve my problem, the standard procedure is to take radioactive tablets, that "kill the thyroid."

Whoa! Beg pardon???! I thought the radiative tablets just *hurt* the thyroid, to bring it down a few notches. (Let it know who's boss. ;-)) But no, the thyroid gets totally wiped out.

I don't want that, doc!

"Why...when you can just take daily pills to replace the thyroid?"

Well...I don't know. I guess it's just the *principal* of the thing. Humans have had thyroids for many thousands of years, and I don't like the hubris of completely killing mine, and replacing it with daily pills. But my endocrinologist doesn't seem to think it's a big deal.

It makes me worry that she'll go after my pituitary gland, next. ;-)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on May 21, 2003 02:34 PM


Posted by: kenny on May 21, 2003 02:50 PM
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