Neoteny suggests we’d be better off if we didn’t take our childhood habits into adulthood

Everywhere we turn nowadays we see mass culture infantilizing adults.

Here are some other examples of infantilization of American adults, by which I mean adults in late 20th century and early 21st century America behaving like children and enjoying the entertainments of their childhood:

  • Disney’s EPCOT Center, a theme park for adults, opened in 1982 and since then the growth in popularity of all theme parks among adults has skyrocketed.  It is absolutely amazing how many adults now go to theme parks for vacation.
  • Around the mid-70s, there began a wave of children’s movies for adults, starting with the “Star Wars” and the Indiana Jones series.  Other children’s movies for adults are the movie versions of situation comedies for children such as “The Brady Bunch.” (But I’m not talking about “The Simpsons,” which like “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Huckleberry Finn,” is an adult entertainment that children can also enjoy.)
  • The hundreds of computer games for adults.
  • Glorified fast-food chains serving alcohol with video and other games for adults, such as Dave & Busters.

Instead of graduating to something more sophisticated, adults seem to be keeping their childhood and childish entertainments and hobbies, such as video games, comic books and amusement parks. Mass media is spewing out ever more juvenile entertainment targeted for adults such as the recent wave of superhero movies. Adults are showing a much greater interest in juvenilia such as the Harry Potter and the Hunger Games novels. Campus recruiters compare their campuses to Harry Potter’s imaginary school. Advertisers are also appealing to the child within all of us, as we can see from a recent Oreo Cookie commercial with Sesame Street graphics that appeared in the New York Times, a publication read almost exclusively by adults.

I would submit that from the hellish Little League parent to the helicopter parent, the greater intrusion of parents into the lives of their children nowadays is a related phenomenon—in a sense instead of adult pursuits, many parents relive their childhoods through their children.

One of the most subtle forms of infantilization of Americans is the “buy now, pay later” mentality that makes people use high-interest credit cards or take loans on their houses to buy something now instead of saving up the money and not having to pay interest later.  Let’s amend the phrase and call it what it really is: “buy now and pay more later” because of what are sometimes exorbitant interest charges.

Infants and children can’t wait.  One of the signs of adulthood is being able to delay gratification.  Buy now, pay more later is about instant gratification.  It’s about behaving just like a child.

I kept thinking about the infantilization of American adults while recently reading a popular book of natural history (AKA evolution) recently, titled Last Ape Standing by journalist Chip Walter. Walter uses the most recent scientific discoveries to trace the rise and fall of the 26 other versions of the human species who inhabited the Earth from about 7 million to about 100,000-10,000 years ago. Why did our species make it and the other 26, including the Neanderthals, did not?

Walter attributes the success of human beings to the fact that our birth canal is so small that we do not come out fully formed, so that we keep growing after birth long after any other species. This concept of slowing down development is called neoteny and it leads to the retention of juvenile characteristics. That’s why, for example, compared to apes and the 26 other human species, we have flatter, broader faces, a larger brain, hairless bodies and face, thin skull bones, legs longer than arms and larger eyes. These are juvenile or prenatal traits in our near relatives, but we retain them into adulthood.

In fact, humans are so undeveloped at birth that they are dependent on their parents far longer than any other species, a force that many believe naturally leads to the formation of societies of humans.

According to Walter, the big payoff of neoteny and the big key to the development of humans is, of course, the bigger brain. Humans are able to keep learning new things—new languages, games, bodies of knowledge—until pretty much the day they die. I’ve read elsewhere that we now recognize that the brain of male human beings keeps growing into his twenties.

On a superficial basis, one could claim that the concept of neoteny demonstrates that adult infantilization is a good thing for our species. After all, it’s retaining our youthfulness that gave us an advantage over our 26 closest competitors.

But quite the contrary—neoteny explains why infantilization is a dangerous trend that threatens our survival. Neoteny offers the possibility of continued learning and continued expansion, constant adaptation to changing conditions. Infantilization means keeping the predilections of childhood. Staying the same is the very opposite of growth. It shows a rigidity of thought process that can be quite dangerous when faced with new and very complex dangers such as global warming and resource shortages.

Infantilization thus takes away the edge that neoteny has given to human beings, because it sets our thought processes in stone at a young age. The infantilized adult is the adult stuck in his or her own past, the adult who has ceased to learn, and having ceased to learn, has less flexibility of mind and thought. Easier to manipulate, to be sure, easier to convince of the need to buy something. But much less adaptable to change.

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