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.
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?