Since form is a consequence of differential growth of tissues, and since different tissues grow at different rates, one of the ways evolution can shape morphology is through changes in growth rate, so changes in timing can produce very different forms. There are genes that affect specific tissues discretely; for instance, the gene ASPM regulates mitotic activity in regions of the brain, so mutations in it can produce smaller brains, or microcephaly. There are also global regulators of growth, and just changing the rate of maturation of the organism can produce changes in the proportion of different tissues, because of allometric variation in different regions.
So, for instance, if developmental maturation of the somatic tissues is slowed, while sexual maturation is maintained at the standard rate, individuals retain juvenile characters at reproductive age, a process called neoteny (similarly, you can get a similar effect by maintaining a standard rate of somatic growth, but accelerating the rate of sexual maturation, a process called progenesis.) Note that what’s key here is that different tissues are regulated differently; if you just slow the rate of development of both somatic and reproductive organs, you get individuals with the standard morphology, it just takes longer for them to get there. Everyone who knows anything about development and evolution understands that neoteny/progenesis requires independent regulation of different tissues.
One of the factors thought to play a role in human evolution is neoteny. Compared to other primates, adult humans retain a juvenile morphology: heads large in proportion to our bodies, larger eyes, smaller jaws, etc. This is not particularly controversial, although I’d really like to see more specific identification of the genes involved. Our shape could, after all, alternatively be explained by character by character changes in gene expression. The neoteny hypothesis implies that a large cranium and small jaw are correlated, that is, by changing one regulator of growth you get both effects. It would also be possible that they’re uncorrelated, that (as a simplified example) one gene that generates larger brains evolved, and that a second gene for reduced jaws evolved completely independently.
Neoteny can also be a mosaic process. Big head and small jaws are a retention of a juvenile character, but other features, like our bigger noses and ears as adults compared to babies (creepy visualization: imagine a baby with a nose as big in proportion to its head as an adult’s; all cuteness disappears). Even if the neoteny hypothesis is generally valid, it can’t explain all the features of an adult human, and does not imply that humans are all big babies in every respect. Donald Trump excepted.
That’s the background. Now for the pseudoscientific appropriation of a concept from development and evolution.
Over on the odious Red Pill subreddit, where having a tiny bit of knowledge is considered a virtue over having enough depth of understanding to reject their malignant philosophy, someone has declared that neoteny is the reason women are literally more like children. The author has apparently never actually talked to an adult woman to learn that they aren’t children. Instead, he has a preconception that women are like children; he has heard about this thing called “neoteny” (his source is a wikipedia article!) which, he thinks, makes people more like babies; therefore, his two assumptions magically fuel each other in a perfect perpetuum mobile, and in a rapid flurry of circular logic and vigorous hand motions, he declares victory.
In short, neoteny is the persistence of juvenile traits in adult individuals of a species. Amongst primates, humans exhibit a high degree of neoteny. Many stereotypical human traits – such as less body hair, higher foreheads, more delicate jawlines, and smaller brows are in fact neotenous traits. Neotenous traits have been selected for in human evolution, particularly in regards to sexual preferences of men. This includes the evolutionary psychology aspects of neoteny in humans (i.e. why women resemble children). More neotenous women are rated more attractive across all cultures.
He starts with a germ of truth and follows it into nonsense. Some human characters may be explained by the process of neoteny, but obviously not all. We are not all overgrown baby apes (again, Trump excepted), but also have unique characters that are not explained by retention of juvenile properties. It’s more complicated than that. It may also be the case that some human female characters — such as, on average, even smaller jaws and more diffuse subcutaneous body fact — are correlated products of changes in the pattern of expression of a small number of genes, but at this point I’d be reluctant to call it neoteny. Too many other features of men and women, such as body proportions, are too similar. It’s clearly not a global difference, but then, I suspect that neoteny is an oversold hypothesis that needs more specific details of correlated gene expression to be useful.
There are hypotheses floating around that one of the causes of overall human morphology was sexual selection for neotenic traits. I don’t know, though, that I buy this idea that it was all men doing the selecting for more child-like women (which is kind of creepy, actually; I personally don’t equate “child-like” with “sexy”, although the inhabitants of The Red Pill subreddit seem to have a different view), and it also seems to be an obliviously one-sided idea. Isn’t it just as likely that women were selecting for less brutish partners?
His claim that
neotenous women are rated more attractive across all cultures is also his only claim backed up by a source other than wikipedia. It is your typical evo-psych wankerism: take 100 college students (the only unusual nod to breaking the standard pattern is that half the subjects are Japanese, half American), show them pictures of people that have been digitally altered by combining male and female faces to produce different gradations of feminization/masculinization, and then ask them which photos they like better. They tend to like more feminized faces. Therefore,
The preferences found here indicate a selection pressure on the evolution of face shape that acts against pronounced differences between males and females and, as more-feminine face shapes are perceived as younger, the preferences would encourage a youthful, neotonous appearance in the species generally.
How these shallow and highly artificial tests of a small number of modern young adults demonstrate a “selection pressure” is a mystery to me, but heck, it got published in Nature, so it must be true. Of course, what it points out is that a hypothetical pressure for juvenilization of females will produce a population that is more juvenilized as a whole. Because everyone has a mother who contributes half their genes. And everyone’s mother is a biological female.
I know, that’s kind of obvious, but one does have to point out the obvious to MRAs.
In short, we know for a fact that human females are more neotenous than males. That is a scientifically established fact. We at TRP are simply stating the obvious corollary to that: that evolutionary selection of greater neoteny in females has affected them both physically and psychologically. Cause evolution affects the brain too. They act more like children, cause they are more like children. It’s not fucking rocket science.
No. This is not a fact. The whole idea that humans in general are neotenous apes is a hypothesis, nothing more. The morphology is compatible with the hypothesis to a large part, I’d even go so far as to say it is suggestive of neoteny, but it’s a long way from established scientific fact. Show me the underlying molecular mechanisms behind the shift in timing; show me with comparative data from other apes that these genes were modified in evolution; then we can talk. Right now, I have a tough time distinguishing modifications in timing from general modifications of interactions in coordinated gene networks.
And the idea that women are more neotenous than men is just plain weird, as well as invalid — it’s treating the whole of an individual as the product of neoteny. It’s just not that simple. Humans are the product of multiple evolutionary changes. There are broad areas of human morphology that one could imagine are produced by simple processes that generate integrated changes in a large array of patterned gene expression, but there were also other specific changes that countered that. We could hypothesize that a relatively small change in the rate of growth produced ancestors with the proportionally larger brain to body size ratio of babies, but there had to also be normal maturation of those big brains to functional adulthood. We do not have the brains of infants. Likewise, even if women were slightly more neotenous in some unspecified way than men, that does not imply that the brains of adult women are less functionally complete. This whole idea that neoteny means people are behaviorally babyish is simply wrong.
This guy doesn’t even understand the implications of what he is saying. If he believes neoteny is the simple secret to converting a hairy, low-browed ape to a human, and if he believes that women are more neotenous than men, doesn’t that imply that women have evolved farther from their ancestral form than men have? They aren’t infantile, they have transcended even more from our lowly beginnings than men have!
(No, I don’t believe that. Men and women have co-evolved, we share the same genes, it is silly to talk about one sex being more or less evolved than the other.)
But he is right about one thing. It is not fucking rocket science. It’s more complex than mere rockets, and he doesn’t understand any of it.
But beyond the assertively stupid pseudoscience of the Reddit post, there are…the comments. How they could be worse is beyond my understanding, but they are. Here’s one example, but be warned: most of the comments seem to be absorbed with arguing about how young a girl has to be before sexual attraction counts as pedophilia, because of course this is the Redpill Subreddit, one of the cesspits of the internet. But before they started salivating over nubile young children, this comment is representative:
Excellently written and I absolutely agree.
Arguing with feminists or blue pillers about evo-psych feels strangely like arguing with creationists about evolution.
Fucking this. Feminism and creationism are identical theories. They’re both creation stories and it’s not interesting to me whether the creator is God or the Patriarchy or whether the creation is how we were created or how anything interesting about us was made. Women are children. Forget red pill theory or any of that. All it takes to know that women are children is to talk to one for a few minutes outside of a formal area, including politeness among strangers. They love the little girl style smiling and to look cute. They love to play stupid little games and all that shit. They are children.
First of all, no, feminism is not a creation myth, and most of the feminists I know are more familiar with basic evolutionary theory than the maroons of this subreddit (although, admittedly, that is a very low bar to clear). That we reject their cartoon version of evolution, or the equally cartoonish nonsense of evolutionary psychology, does not imply that we are creationists.
But also, this guy does offer a practical exercise. Have a conversation with women. I’m thinking of my colleagues at work, half of whom are women, and they don’t fit his prediction at all. “Little girl smiling”? “Look cute”? “Stupid little games”? What? My colleagues are accomplished, intelligent, hard working women — they are not children at all.
I also consider my students, who are just barely beyond their childhood. There are many different personalities among them, but all of them are ambitious and intelligent. They are taking upper level science courses at a university, after all, and what’s going on behind their eyes isn’t this baby stereotype this jerk is imagining.
I’d also suggest that the women reading this right now are not the puerile caricatures reddit MRAs like to imagine, but they can speak for themselves in the comments.