Neoteny: The Art of Being Young at Heart

There’s a program on the web that invites people during the month of November to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Well, I’ve been working on an 88,000-word novel for the past thirty years (yes, really!), and now I’m happy to say that it’s done! (Cue the audience for loud cheering!). The novel is called Childless. It’s the story of a childless child psychologist who tries to foil a U.S. government plot to declare childhood as a medical disorder and then to eliminate it from the human genome. As I wrote the book, I called upon a lot of knowledge that I’d acquired from my work as a psychologist involved with the issue of human development (note that I’ve previously written an article for Arts of Thought, about my book The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life). One of the ideas in that domain that struck me from the very first time I read about it in Princeton anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s book Growing Young, is the concept of neoteny. That’s what I’d like to focus on in this article.

The protagonist of the novel, the childless child psychologist Dr. Harvey Sumner, actually introduces the concept of neoteny in Chapter One of the book while giving a talk to a group of parents at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. He says to them, and I quote from the novel:

‘’Einstein said he never grew up,’’ declared Harvey . . . ‘’He retained his childlike curiosity, his wonder, and his imagination into his maturity. Biologists have a word for that. They call it neoteny. That’s Latin for ‘holding youth.’ Einstein held on to his youthful traits of creativity, playfulness, and humor as an adult. It was precisely those qualities that helped him transform the way we look at the universe today. And you know what?’’

He stopped for a moment to listen to his words echo through the hall before continuing.

‘’Your child has these same qualities. If you remember nothing else from this lecture tonight, remember to value this genius in your child. Cherish it. Cultivate it so that it doesn’t disappear as your child grows up.’’ (pp. 3-4).

Neoteny is the retardation (or slowing down) of maturity. Scientists have called this one of the central evolutionary features of being human. Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once suggested that humans are neotenous apes. If you look at the baby ape, you’ll see how human-like its features are–the gentle curving of forehead and chin, the big eyes—it almost looks as if it could be a baby human, except for all that hair! As the ape grows up, those traits disappear. Youth is not ‘’held’’ into adulthood, at least with respect to these specific physical features. The adult ape’s chin juts out, the forehead recedes, and many other traits resembling homo sapiens vanish. Human beings, on the other hand, have those traits ‘’held’’ all through their lives. The forehead and chin, for example, retain the smooth curves they had as babies (jowels, notwithstanding!).

While this happens to all human beings, we can see in some adult human beings more neotenous characteristics than others who are the same age. For some reason, one person I think of is 67-year old Lindsay Graham, the senator from South Carolina. I don’t share Senator Graham’s political viewpoints, but when I look at him, I seem to see a boy in short pants. Other people who have managed to retain youthful features (without plastic surgery) include: Winston Churchill (who always seemed to have kept that sullen chubby look of a rebellious child), Pablo Picasso, and Gloria Steinem. I’m sure you can think of many more.

I’ve been talking here about physical traits of youth, but it’s actually in the psychological traits where neoteny really becomes interesting and particularly significant to human evolution. As we evolved from earlier species, our brain structure became more and more complex. This was a good thing because it extended our ability to cope with ever-changing environments. But eventually the brain got so big and complex that there was a danger of it not being able to pass through the mother’s womb at birth. That’s when nature evolved two ‘’fixes’’ or adaptations for the situation: 1. It used some of that human brain power to bring together individuals who had the requisite skills to help women give birth, 2. It delayed some of that brain growth until after the child was born.

This is where neoteny comes in. Nature delayed a good bit of maturation to after birth in order to give the child a chance to wire its neuroplastic brain to whatever environment it happened to find itself in: arctic tundra, tropical rainforest, Central Asian steppes, Mongolian desert, you name it. In fact, it’s this neotenous feature of flexibility that may be the single most important aspect of being human. Flexibility allows us a far wider range of adaptations than the narrowly programmed instincts of more primitive species. And, of course, we know from Darwin’s concept of natural selection that those organisms who adapt best to their surroundings survive and pass their genes along to future generations. I have often said to my audiences ‘’if we’d been programmed to respond to the environment with a fixed repertoire of behaviors, we’d be fossils in an antediluvial lakebed somewhere.’’

Neoteny is all about flexibility, adaptability, and according to Ashley Montagu many of the more pleasant and heralded aspects of being a child including: playfulness, creativity, sensitivity, wonder, inventiveness, curiosity, and imagination to name just a few. These are the traits that we most often associate to an optimal manifestation in children. To go back to Dr. Sumner’s speech that opens my novel Childless, it’s the true geniuses of society, the artists, scientists, musicians, philosophers, and other brilliant minds who have somehow managed to retain those neotenous qualities as they grow up. I’ve got a whole collection of quotes from eminent people who compare what they do professionally to child’s play. Here are three of them:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me

Isaac Newton

“There are children playing in the street who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.”

– J. Robert Oppenheimer

”I play with microbes,” [Fleming] once said of his work. ”It is very pleasant to break the rules.”

Alexander Fleming

These neotenous creators make up the vanguard of our evolving human species. We need more people like that—lots of them—to keep us from destroying ourselves along with every other species on the planet.

But let me get back to my novel. In the novel there are actually two forces at work in opposition to each other as the narrative proceeds. There’s the U.S. government working on a genetic engineering project to accelerate aging. That’s the opposite of neoteny, and in my novel I made up a new word to describe it since I couldn’t find an equivalent anywhere on the web or in the OED: senteny (from sen – a proto-Indo- European root meaning “old.” and ten– “to stretch” ). If neoteny is the extension of childhood into old age, then senteny is its opposite, the stretching backwards of aging down to the earliest moments of life.

In my novel, people who have undergone genetic engineering (which I explain in detail in the novel) are born, and then within a minute or so, they literally ‘’pop’’ into adulthood. I call these individuals Popcorn Adults (keep in mind that this book is a dark satiric comedy). One of the unspoken lessons of the novel is that our culture is promoting senteny already when we force preschoolers to do academic work, when we make up toddlers into swimsuit beauty queens, when we assault kids with social networking peer pressures that squeeze all the wonder out of them. It’s essentially a battle between good and evil.

My protagonist Dr. Harvey Sumner, of course, is on the side of the good and he gets help from a schizophrenic Nobel-prize winning geneticist, Dr. Jonathan Greenluck who is trying to genetically engineer a ‘’fix’’ that promotes neoteny (viz. extends childhood into old age). At any rate, each side plans on putting their retrovirus into the water supply (just like the polio virus infected swimming pools in the late ‘40’s and early 50’s). A showdown takes place between the good and evil geneticists at Lake Itaska in northern Minnesota because that’s the source of the Mississippi River which reaches 45% of the nation’s water table. People who drink the infected water will have the retroviruses taken into their germ cells either to either accelerate (senteny) or retard (neoteny)

development in their progeny. Which side will win? Well, for that, you have to read the novel!

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thomas armstrong
Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is an educator, psychologist, and the author of 19 books that have over 1.4 million copies in print in English and that are available in over 100 foreign editions in 30 languages. His debut novel—Childless--is available as ebook, paperback, or hardcover on Amazon.

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is an educator, psychologist, and the author of 19 books that have over 1.4 million copies in print in English and that are available in over 100 foreign editions in 30 languages. His debut novel—Childless--is available as ebook, paperback, or hardcover on Amazon.

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