Jenny Diski: On Babyface

Jenny Diski—

The great advantage over real live creatures that my Three Bears had in common with Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, aside from not needing to be fed or produce droppings, was neoteny. Mickey and my ursine family looked only glancingly like a mouse or brown bears, and much more like babies. Not even so much baby mice or baby bears, but human babies. And according to Konrad Lorenz, there are certain qualities of newborn human babies that cause human adults to respond (as a result of hormone surges, he suggests) with affection and therefore bond with them, rather than carelessly leave them lying around the house or cave. These qualities are evolutionarily necessary because, after all, babies are quite hard work.

Infants and toddlers, you will have noticed, are not just smaller than adults, but proportionally different. They have an exceptionally large head in relation to their body, and exceptionally shorter legs and smaller feet, compared to adults, who become the opposite: small heads on a sizeable torso and long legs with relatively large feet. Babies also have a rounded cranium, bulging forehead and high, prominent cheekbones above a diminishing lower face and receding chin, rather than the slanting, lower brows and longer face with jutting jaws of adults. Babies’ and toddlers’ eyes, which hardly grow and so, as it were, are already adult-sized, appear very large in the still expanding face. Think Mickey Mouse without the ears, or your child’s favorite soft toy. Think of that terrible cooing noise people make over strange (and not especially beautiful) infants in their prams, or the fact that the vast majority of us do not shake our babies till their brains turn to butter when they cry so hard that it actually causes us pain in the solar plexus. There may be other reasons why we don’t kill our babies (though, of course, some do) but simply the sight of them goes some way to quelling or at least helping us to control our helpless rage at their helpless rage.

Why human babies look like that is the result of neoteny: the retention of fetal characteristics after they have emerged from the womb. It was an evolutionary master-stroke. Get the babies born before they’re fully developed and two good things result. First, and rather importantly, babies do get born more often, instead of stuck on their way out, and as a bonus less frequently kill their mothers whose small pelvic girdles have not kept pace with the increased brain and therefore cranium size of human primates. (There was a theory that one reason the Neanderthals died out was not their stupidity, but on the contrary their brains, bigger than those of Homo sapiens, which caused far more of them to fail to be born.) Second, being born too soon and retaining fetal characteristics after birth means, quite by happy chance, that human babies remain, of necessity, helpless for much longer than other animal species. They can’t feed themselves or get around on their own, or communicate as the adults (or other infant non-human animals) do, for an exceptionally long time. Parents have to carry their offspring around and attend to its needs, while it watches the world and has nothing to do but eat, develop and learn. The still unsolidified skull of the human infant continues to grow long after it is born. A human brain is only about 25 percent of its full size at birth, while a monkey is born with 70 percent of its brain developed. For another six years the child’s brain continues to grow while it lives and experiences in the outside world. What can’t be passed on genetically has until puberty to be learned in the developing brain, from the surrounding culture and from the necessary closeness of one or two parents, their kin and the local community. We must suppose that a few premature infants, with their smaller head size, happened to survive, and those survivors passed on their tendency to early birth and robustness, and their prolonged neediness, which, by the wonderful happenstance that evolution is, enabled the cultural revolution that is human society. The neotenous baby face is the result of the fact that human babies really ought to be in the womb for another ten months. And something about that conformation makes them irresistible (or it signs their extreme helplessness combined with that kin-related tendency to altruism, which gets our hormonal juices going) so that we mostly want to cherish our offspring enough to put up with them for the years and years it takes them to become independent. Neonate chimpanzees are also generally cherished by their kin, but baby chimps stay babies (and cherished) for a far shorter period and progress to adulthood in both ability and appearance very much faster. Neoteny –our slowed-down development – ensures that even as adults we look more like our babies than adult chimps look like their infants. And we emphasize that when we want to influence others to care by often making big eyes and lowering our heads to make ourselves more childlike (think of that look of Princess Diana). We are creatures who are always becoming.

Who knows whether it is really innate (chemical, hard-wired), our bonding with our round-headed, big-eyed babies? Certainly, the combination of features has a virtually physical effect on our responses, but cultural and innate responses long ago mingled inextricably in our species. Whatever makes our juices flow, the process works so well that any creatures, even non-human ones, even stuffed ones, which conform to the neotenous criteria of our babies, get our automatic approval, and conversely, those that don’t have a much harder time from us.

In one of his wonderful essays, the biologist Stephen Jay Gould traced Mickey Mouse’s canny fifty-year reverse journey into neoteny. The original Mouse of the cartoon Steamboat Willie in 1928 is a very different-looking creature from the one that appeared in his final seven-minute film, The Simple Things, in 1953. The physical changes are tracked also by a change of character, from quite wild, and even unpleasant, “a rambunctious, even slightly sadistic fellow,” to the much blander and inoffensive creature that Christopher Finch, in his history of the Mouse, describes as “…virtually a national symbol, and as such he was expected to behave properly at all times.” Mickey’s physical features kept pace with his altered behavior and he became progressively more desirably juvenile, as Gould describes:

To give him the shorter and pudgier legs of youth, they lowered his pants line and covered his spindly legs with a baggy outfit. (His arms and legs also thickened substantially and acquired joints for a floppier appearance.) His head grew relatively larger and its features more youthful … Mickey’s eye has grown in two modes: first, by a major, discontinuous evolutionary shift as the entire eye of ancestral Mickey became the pupil of his descendants, and second, by gradual increase thereafter … Mickey’s improvement in cranial bulging followed an interesting path since his evolution has always been constrained by the unaltered convention of representing his head as a circle with appended ears and an oblong snout. The circle’s form could not be altered to provide a bulging cranium directly. Instead, Mickey’s ears moved back, increasing the distance between nose and ears, and giving him a rounded, rather than a sloping forehead.

Gould explains his biologist’s interest in Mickey Mouse’s reverse development:

National symbols are not altered capriciously and market researchers (for the doll industry in particular) have spent a good deal of time and practical effort learning what features appeal to people as cute and friendly. Biologists also have spent a great deal of time studying a similar subject in a wide range of animals.

When we give soft, cuddly toy animals with short legs, big eyes and rounded heads to our babies, we are training them, or reinforcing a natural tendency, to feel comfort and tenderness at baby-like features, even if concealed in other forms. We give them a metonymy of themselves, showing them how lovable they are, also training them in how to find their own babies lovable, and that the whole damn thing of being here is about reproducing the species, which includes caring for what is smaller and more vulnerable than you. Of course, we put it differently to ourselves, being also the products of socialization.

Perhaps, also, we are reinforcing our own tenderness for our babies by doubling them with soft toys. Perhaps the plush teddies and bunnies might even be more like aides memoire for us than for the little ones. While we melt over neotenised features, infants recognize individual characteristics in a face rather than the whole gestalt. Until they begin to focus more efficiently, two circles on the same latitude of a larger oval with a single circle beneath will do to get their attention while they are so young they hardly exist. Ducks and geese do it too, and will follow two large spots on a stick to the ends of the earth (or failing that, Konrad Lorenz). We fix on what we must follow for our survival, and evolution seems to bet that what we do fix on initially will be the form of an adult face. Nevertheless, we present newborns with simplified but still elaborate faces in soft comforting fabrics that are both human and animal. The animals invariably look more like human babies in their essence than they do their real animal models, but as a by-product of our gifts of cuddly neotenous animals to babies, the animals (as well as the humans they represent) themselves become loved. The heart-melting alien E.T. (huge eyes, round head, small legs) belongs to another planet only by convention. The whole story could have been redone using a stray puppy or a baby brother. It remains an essential lesson in human love and loss.

The unfair corollary of neoteny is that the less like an infant human an animal is, the less likely it is to be loved. It’s hard to represent an insect as an infant human. It has been tried and Jiminy Cricket, the variety of movie bees and Woody Allen’s Antz testify to some success. The problem is that the real creatures being represented have very few of the cartoons’ massaged characteristics. You could, but probably wouldn’t, give a plush cricket or ant to a newborn to welcome her into the world. Desmond Morris connected his 1950s TV program Zoo Time with his later book, The Naked Ape, by giving in it the results of an animal popularity poll he had done for the TV program. In terms of types of animals, 97.14 percent of all children gave a mammal as their top favorite animal while birds swooped down to 1.6 percent, reptiles 1 percent, invertebrates 0.1 percent and amphibians (in spite of Jeremy Fisher) 0.5 percent. The “top ten animal loves” were: 1. Chimpanzee; 2. Monkey; 3. Horse; 4. Bushbaby; 5. Panda; 6. Bear; 7. Elephant; 8. Lion; 9. Dog; 10. Giraffe. I assume that meerkats would these days rate very highly. But it wouldn’t alter the general trend that the animals with more anthropomorphic characteristics were the most popular:

1. They all have hair, rather than feathers or scales. 2. They have rounded outlines (chimpanzee, monkey, bushbaby, panda, bear, elephant). 3. They have flat faces (chimpanzee, monkey, bushbaby, bear, panda, lion). 4. They have facial expressions (chimpanzee, monkey, horse, lion, dog). 5. They can ‘manipulate’ small objects (chimpanzee, monkey, bushbaby, panda, elephant). 6. Their postures are in some way or at some times, rather vertical (chimpanzee, monkey, bushbaby, panda, bear, giraffe).

The more of these points a species can score, the higher up on the top ten list it comes.

The insanely popular meerkat scores on all points.

These were the preferences of all children between four and fourteen. When split by age, Morris found that smaller children prefer bigger animals and older children smaller ones, and he suggests that the younger children saw their favorite creatures as “adult-substitutes” while the older ones chose “child-substitutes.” The key word is substitute. For children, animals stand for something, and it seems that the more they stand for humans, the better they like it, though the horse is a horse of a different color and is a special phase that preadolescent girls pass or fail to pass through.

Increasingly, as children age towards and into adulthood, some animals will be called “cute,” “sweet,” “adorable.” All words we use about small children. Playfulness (or what appears to us to be playfulness) is an important factor in finding animals adorable. Penguins, though they aren’t mammals, happen to look, to us, as if they are small, hampered versions of humans, trying very hard to maintain their dignity. When they give up their awkward-looking waddling across impossible terrain and bellyflop on to the ice to slide down an incline, we laugh, not just at the simple ergonomics of the act, but at the childlike freedom they suddenly seem to allow themselves. We admire animals that maintain what we would see as their dignity (lions, for example), but we adore animals that appear to lose their dignity (an orangutan, so somber, suddenly putting a handful of straw on her head), just as we adore those childlike dyspraxic comics who are always falling flat on their face but get back up again and carry on, just as we adore small children toddling recklessly about and suddenly collapsing on unready legs, but getting themselves upright again and continuing their progress. The chimpanzees’ tea party, only banned from the daily schedule at the London Zoo in 1972 (while the Brooke Bond chimps were still mugging their way through TV advertisements in 2002), had everything adults and children want from animals. They literally aped human behavior, but did it playfully, and waywardly, actually because they were doing something that had no meaning to them. The main thing for the audience was that they had enjoyed the “cute,” as in imitative, antics, and it seemed as if the chimps had fun too. Which perhaps they did, enjoying the attention, the relief from their cage in the open air on a patch of grass by the children’s swings; just like home but without the bars. And what is more moving and funny than a cat who fails to make a manoeuvre, missing the table she was leaping on to, falling back to the floor, and then immediately wandering casually off, gazing out of the window, carelessly washing a back leg: me, jump? No, you misunderstood, I’ve been making plans to kill that bird out there, and I’m far too busy with the washing to be jumping. These days, instead of laughing, I suppress it, and quickly look away as if I hadn’t seen, to save Bunty’s wounded pride.

What amphibian or arachnid could compete? Well, even they have their uses, because we humans have a use for everything.


From What I Don’t Know About Animals by Jenny Diski; published by Yale University Press in 2013. Reproduced by permission.

Jenny Diski was an award-winning author and regular contributor to the London Review of Books and many other papers and journals in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere.

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