Casaubon's Book

Why Bunnies are Cuter than Babies

Not as off-topic for this blog as it might seem, I thought this (which I found through Gene Expression, one of my new favorite reads) essay on the merits of evolutionary psychology to be a very good and clear way of expressing my doubts on the subject.

He writes:

Daniel Dennett has advanced the opinion that the evolutionary purpose of the cuteness response in humans is to make us respond positively to babies. This does seem plausible. Babies are pretty cute, after all. It’s a tempting explanation.

Here is one of the cutest baby pictures I found on a Google search.

And this is a bunny.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the bunny is about 75,119 times cuter than the baby.

Now, bunnies are not evolutionarily important for humans to like and want to nurture. In fact, bunnies are edible. By rights, my evolutionary response to the bunny should be “mmm, needs a sprig of rosemary and thirty minutes on a spit”. But instead, that bunny – and not the baby or any other baby I’ve seen – strikes the epicenter of my cuteness response, and being more baby-like along any dimension would not improve the bunny. It would not look better bald. It would not be improved with little round humanlike ears. It would not be more precious with thumbs, easier to love if it had no tail, more adorable if it were enlarged to weigh about seven pounds.

If “awwww” is a response designed to make me love human babies and everything else that makes me go “awwww” is a mere side effect of that engineered reaction, it is drastically misaimed. Other responses for which we have similar evolutionary psychology explanations don’t seem badly targeted in this way. If they miss their supposed objects at all, at least it’s not in most people. (Furries, for instance, exist, but they’re not a common variation on human sexual interest – the most generally applicable superstimuli for sexiness look like at-least-superficially healthy, mature humans with prominent human sexual characteristics.) We’ve invested enough energy into transforming our food landscape that we can happily eat virtual poison, but that’s a departure from the ancestral environment – bunnies? All natural, every whisker.1

Why pick on evolutionary psychology? Well, because I think it gets used to justify a lot of human actions. We are told regularly that humans do X because of Y bit of evolutionary psychology, and thus, we cannot expect them to change. We tend to enjoy the process of reading backwards, but it is appropriate to be critical of how much we can know about ourselves this way. Plus, I liked the article.

Definitely read the whole thing! Does it make me a bad Mom to think that little bunnies were cuter than even my adorable children?

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 curiousalexa
    February 24, 2010

    I also found the bunny cuter, but I noticed a very distinct difference between the two – the baby was smiling, but otherwise passive. The bunny appeared to be actively investigating its surroundings.

    How much of the aww is admiration of the sense of wonder and exploration?

  2. #2 Ketil Tveiten
    February 24, 2010

    I liked the article, but found it telling that all the comments basically said ‘uh, you’re wrong and here’s why’.

  3. #3 cornish_k8
    February 24, 2010

    The baby is pretty cute but that bunny picture is awesome.

    We have lots of wild rabbits here and they give me a lot of grief. Despite that this picture made me smile. Very Beatrix Potter!

  4. #4 Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife
    February 24, 2010

    Maybe the bunny is cute because the “awww” response was selected for way back in mammalian evolution. Most mammals need to care for their offspring to some degree. The appearances of most very young mammals are cute to humans, and I think that the young of most species are immediately recognizable as young, as distinct from adults. On the other hand, I suspect that the “awww” response falls off dramatically as we look outside the mammalia. Baby turtles – a little cute. Baby chicks – cute in a certain way, but not in the visceral cute baby bunny way. Baby frogs, snakes, crabs, insects – not really very cute at all. Maybe mammals evolved such that the appearance of the young appeals to some aesthetic center of the brain. And maybe the characteristic marks of youth in many mammalian species overlap sufficiently so that they appeal to humans too.

    Or, it could be to our advantage to find the young of other species very cute if it leads to us caring for them, domesticating them, and eventually eating them or using their pelts, milk, etc. I wonder if any cuteness reaction has been measured in other apes, who to my knowledge have never domesticated another species.

  5. #5 Paul S.
    February 24, 2010

    I wonder if some of the cuteness of animals is a product of a more modern cultural sensibility that seems more likely to regard animals as companions/pets rather than food sources or threats. On the other hand, maybe it isn’t – everything from artwork to legends shows that people have been fascinated by animals for as long as there have been people, and that we (humans) often tend to attribute human-like qualities to animals throughout history. I have no idea whether this is directly tied with finding animals as cute or more cute than human infants, though.

  6. #6 Greenpa
    February 24, 2010

    Yike. I find this Daniel Dennet’s “theory” to be embarrassing beyond belief, for science in general. A major marker of the growing incompetence of our scientists.

    This whole thing was studied, experimented on, decades ago, in the discipline known as “Ethology”. (which I minored in.

    It was studied and discussed all over the place, and put into textbooks, as well as coffee table books.

    The “infant face” is a basic mammalian shared characteristic; along with stuff like males have higher testosterone, which makes their skin thicker. For ALL mammals, nearly.

    Short nose, big eyes, etc; hits not the primate hindbrain, but the mammalian hindbrain, and says “INFANT” – handle with care.

    Old, old, information. So- we’ve already forgotten more than current workers know.

  7. #7 Erin
    February 24, 2010

    I’m sure this is the wrong place to post this, especially since I’ve not yet even read this entry! LOL. I’m so new at all of this sustainable living stuff. I have your book, A Nation of Farmers from the library and am reading it with mighty speed (for me) and LOVING every word! I’m doing the best I can to keep up with this blog. I haven’t ventured over to the other one yet. I have your other 2 books coming from a hold list at the library at some point and some other related books I found that sounded interesting. I watched Food, Inc. yesterday. I’m trying to squeeze in the Mother Earth News articles in between. I should mention I’m a homeschooling mom of 3 boys ages 9, 10 & 11 — so yeah, it’s a busy, busy home. Soon to become a farm. I’ve been madly posting about it and all my plans and progress and excitement in my own Live Journal (some of my friends have asked me to start blogging about it all, but I have declined for now thinking I’d really only end up linking to you 90% of the time). I literally just put a check in the mail to the local farmer for a CSA farm share. I am committed to doing all our meat shopping only from the local, small, organic meat farmer – which will mean a major life-style change for us. I already make everything from scratch (bread, jams, you name it). Sorry this got so long-winded, I’m so excited and have so much to convey — but really I’m posting because I don’t know where to go with my questions! I probably have really basic ones … like what about bananas? I live in Connecticut, I’m not going to find local bananas. Or citrus fruits. But anyway, is there somewhere to post questions??

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for all of your work – and for inspiring me to change our family’s life – for the better.

  8. #8 Laura in So Cal
    February 24, 2010

    A Couple of Comments:

    1. We traveled to New Zealand about 10 years ago and sent home a postcard which showed beautiful lambs in a meadow. My husband’s comment on the back to our friends…”TASTY!”

    2. I never really thought that human babies were cute until I had my own…I even admit that until he was @ 3 months old, my baby wasn’t cute at all..resembling a spider monkey with a swollen purple head at birth. He was all arms and legs with no baby fat and a head coned and purpled from a vaginal birth. I passionately loved him anyway!

    Laura in So Cal

  9. #9 lix
    February 24, 2010

    There’s no reason for humans to think human babies are cute in general. They should only like babies that are close relatives. In fact, they should actively dislike other babies because they are competing. Men in particular have a strong genetic incentive to murder unrelated offspring of their partner – and this is actually the most common form of murder.

    Also, cuteness and tastiness are not incompatible. Country kids love raising cute little bunnies, chicks, piglets and lambs – then they happily eat them once they get bored.

  10. #10 Scott
    February 24, 2010

    “Why pick on evolutionary psychology? Well, because I think it gets used to justify a lot of human actions. We are told regularly that humans do X because of Y bit of evolutionary psychology, and thus, we cannot expect them to change.”

    Just because some people use a theory in a way you don’t like doesn’t make said theory invalid. Physics is still valid despite it being used to make atomic bombs, for instance.

    I don’t think you will find any published Ev Psych that says “humans do X because of Y bit of evolutionary psychology, and thus, we cannot expect them to change.” Finding a genetic biochemical basis for depression hasn’t resulted in throwing our hands up and accepting it. It’s resulted in approached from Prozac to findings that St. Johns Wort has an appreciable effect on depression. We have more options, not less. Understanding why depression might also have evolutionary benefits might open up even more approaches.

  11. #11 Brad K.
    February 24, 2010

    That bunny picture is shameless and malicious. Comparing the rabbit youth, active in it’s world, fully formed and past infancy, yet without the strategy and experience, without the tools of an adult, well. This rabbit and scene are terminally adorable. Thanks for sharing that bit of beauty.

    A better human comparison would be about 8-10, athletically active and engaged in exploring nature and working toward adult maturity.

    Or use a newborn rabbit image.

    The comparison is an apples and oranges comparison. Fruity, that is. Or is it fruitcake? Dunno.

    Could it be that the cuteness response is actually a hormonal reaction to security and affluence, to encourage growth of the group in times of plenty and to limit resources expended on the young in tough times? There must be some way to relate why some babies are cherished, and others abused. ‘Cause having served as substitute school teacher in special ed classes, and as a foster parent, the “cuteness” response doesn’t seem all that universal to me.

  12. #12 Sharon Astyk
    February 25, 2010

    Brad, you are right on both counts, although I wouldn’t call it malicious. But it isn’t a fair comparison – and really young baby bunnies are a little weird looking ;-).

    Scott, no offense, but physics meets criteria of falsifiability that evo psych doesn’t even come close to achieving. Evo psych is about as much a science as economics is – that is, not at all, but with the veneer of science pasted over it. So yes, how it is used matters.

    Sharon

  13. #13 Rob Monkey
    February 25, 2010

    I think your last comment was interesting, because I realized I think the same way: economics and evo psych are very interesting, and I do think they can both be useful, but are muddled beyond recognition now. We have “qualified economists” who are nothing more than shills for each party and have lost all sense of credibility, while there are others who predicted the current economic fuckup and have been right many times before. Same with evo psych, I think it does a nice job explaining why infidelity in relationships is so different between the sexes, but it can be used to justify some pretty silly beliefs (like this bunny thing). OTOH, so can most of psych I guess, I took a few classes in college and found it interesting and very science-based, but there’s plenty of psych out there that’s quite worthy of derision, like most “soft” sciences.

    Oh, and Brad makes an excellent point about newborn babies vs. slightly older bunnies, but it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that humans in general, and babies in particular, are fucking homely. No two ways about it, we’re hairless monkeys, except less cute than actual hairless monkeys. If I ever have a kid, I’m sure I’d love him/her more than life itself, but if I had to choose what’s cuter, a sleepy puppy or a child, no contest, puppy wins. Oh, and what would tip the scales even further? If the kid was dressed in one of those ridiculous goddamn outfits parents put on children for pictures. No, it doesn’t make it cuter, it just looks ridiculous. Puppies in outfits on the other hand, are infinitely cute, just google “dog costume” the next time you’re feeling blue ;)

  14. #14 darwinsdog
    February 25, 2010

    The “cuteness factor” pertains to the continuum of brachycephalism to dolichocephalism. Mammalian infants tend towards the brachy- end of the scale, and adults toward the dolio- side. Adult humans characteristically exhibit a preference for brachycephalic morphology; i.e., find it to be “cuter.” This is a fitness enhancing adaptation that was explored ad nauseum years ago, as Greenpa has stated.

    “Men in particular have a strong genetic incentive to murder unrelated offspring of their partner – and this is actually the most common form of murder.”

    Indeed. In fact, it’s speculated that the primate menstrual cycle evolved from the estrus cycle precisely to cloak ovulation so as to reduce the incidence of male infanticide. If males can’t tell when the female is ovulating perhaps he shouldn’t kill her infant since he might be its father.

    “Just because some people use a theory in a way you don’t like doesn’t make said theory invalid.”

    The “argument from consequences.” An all too common logical mistake.

  15. #15 Andrew
    February 25, 2010

    Bunny – definitely tasty
    Baby – definitely cute
    Both support a theory that my ancestors reacted to these cues – that’s why I’m here. Is it useful as a theory? Probably over cocktails as an engaging idea. Is it a strong predictive approach to behavioral psychology that should be used to guide societal policies? Probably not, but likely is anyway. Sigh.

    Sharon – You are not a bad mom if your thoughts of cuteness favor the bunny over your children. It would be the “tastiness” characteristic that would make me worry.

  16. #16 RobinZ
    February 25, 2010

    Quick tip: Alicorn – author of the linked post – is female.

    I find darwinsdog’s remark about brachycephalism to dolichocephalism interesting, though. Are there some research citations on the subject?

  17. #17 Fan_of_Alicorn
    February 25, 2010

    He She writes:

    FTFY

  18. #18 Sharon Astyk
    February 26, 2010

    DD, this isn’t quite an argument from consequences – argument from consequences assumes that the evidence is fundamentally valuable, but being used to support an argument you find invaluable. That’s not my claim.

    Related to your other point, the philosopher Stanley Cavell makes the argument that skepticism as a phenomenon (which was not the same as modern scientific skepticism, but may or may not be related, depending on who you ask) was based in the fundamental inability of men to know whether they are the fathers of their children.

    Sharon

  19. #19 darwinsdog
    February 26, 2010

    ” – argument from consequences assumes that the evidence is fundamentally valuable, but being used to support an argument you find invaluable.”

    Not sure I follow you here, Sharon.

    It’s good for men not to be able to establish paternity since infanticide by males is a primate – and pretty much a mammalian – universal. What’s surprising, if anything is, is that cloaked ovulation hasn’t evolved in other mammalian orders. In my own case, I was pretty sure I was the father of my children because we shared a rather distinct physical characteristic. Had I been less certain I hopefully wouldn’t have killed them altho there’s no denying that I would have been statistically much more likely to have done so. When people say that you’re more likely to be killed by a family member than by a complete stranger, they are failing to distinguish between biological family members and genetically unrelated members of the family. A step-child is something like 300 times more likely to be killed or abused by a step-parent than is a child by its biological parent.

  20. #20 Sharon Astyk
    February 28, 2010

    My point is that in order for me to make an argument from consequences, I’d have to accept the idea evolutionary psychology (as opposed to biology) actually is a legitimate argument.

    Not arguing about the larger issue – although I gather that the rates are much lower for adoptive children.

    Sharon