Cuteness is an evolutionary adaptation

I was doing some research recently and kept on stumbling across photos of wild boar piglets. If you’ve never seen one before then google it right now because they are incredibly cute. A colleague then told me something interesting: cuteness is an evolutionary adaptation that helps offspring survive by ensuring they are taken care of by their parents.

Ducklings swimming in a pond

Ducklings swimming in a pond

This proposal was first brought forward by Konrad Lorenz, who called features that make a creature appear cute ‘Kinchenschema’. These traits tend to be infant-like physical traits like a large head, large eyes, small nose etc. This, as you probably all know from your own pets or just by looking at people’s photos on facebook, is not just restricted to humans.

Herring gull chicks certainly look cuter than their parents

Herring gull chicks certainly look cuter than their parents

Stephen Jay Gould continued Lorenz’ proposal by examining the evolution Mickey Mouse has undergone since his creators started drawing him, and concluded that he became increasingly well-behaved along with getting a larger head, larger eyes and an enlarged cranium, which all are traits of juvenility. Your bed-time buddy the teddy bear also went from having long legs and a stubby nose to even more stubby noses and higher foreheads[2].

An article in the New York Times, entitled “Masterpiece of Nature? Yuk!” [3] where the author discusses several of nature’s most ‘hideous’ animals, including the star-nosed mole and the blobfish. According to the article, the reason why we find the star-nosed mole so unappealing is that the pinky flesh colour of its star reminds us of violations to the human skin. Conservation Biology published an article looking at its own publication database and showed that there was a disproportionate amount of research being done on chimpanzees and leopards compared to the manatee[4].

Fox cubs are adorable

Fox cubs are adorable

How can anyone disagree?

How can anyone disagree?

With those big eyes...

With those big eyes…

 

Bird chicks only really become cute once they start growing hair and become fuzzy. Similarly not many people would think an adult wild boar is cute. There are lots of animals I respect because I think their adaptations are ‘cool’ though by no means cute.

Australia zoo

I don’t think lizards are cute, but they’re certainly cool

It is certainly an interesting thought and quite fun to test these theories out on yourself. But it is equally interesting to think that these are not innate preferences to a certain extent, and they can be very easily be different according to cultural or social background. I think it was when I watched Africa that I remember seeing a snake sequence and I said aloud: “look at him, he’s so cute!”. My housemate could only look at me with an expression of disbelief and exasperation.

Adult kestrels retain some of those 'classic' cute traits like big eyes and puffy feathers, making them appear cute all year round

Adult kestrels retain some of those ‘classic’ cute traits like big eyes and puffy feathers, making them appear cute all year round

[1] = Lorenz, Konrad. Studies in Animal and Human Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ Press; 1971
[2] = http://todd.jackman.villanova.edu/HumanEvol/HomageToMickey.pdf
[3] = http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/science/10ugly.html?pagewanted=1&8dpc&_r=0
[4] = http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01453.x/abstract

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