Forever Young

Biologists use the term “neoteny” to describe the retention of juvenile characteristics in an organism’s adult form. Humans exhibit neoteny in many of the morphological features that distinguish us from our primate cousins: our big heads, big brains, small jaws, thin skulls, small teeth, and lack of body hair.

Thinking back the other day on my recent visit to Google, it occurred to me that the place is a hotbed of neoteny. There are toys and playrooms everywhere, and beds for taking naps. On every floor there are little snack-bars decorated in various happy themes. Working hours are unstructured. Everybody eats together, and nobody pays for food. Everybody’s dressed in T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, and they even push themselves around the building on little scooters.

Once I got to thinking about it, I realized our whole culture has become more and more neotenous. If you look at photos and movies from the mid-twentieth century, it’s striking how grown-up everybody seemed — the men in their suits and hats, the women in their smart dresses. Children knew their place, and adults had serious work to do. Grown-ups smoked, and drank, and ate grown-up food. When they went out at night, they dressed up. They learned penmanship in school, and wrote letters. Popular music was written by people like Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, and the songs had witty, printable lyrics. Tough men vied for beautiful women.

And today? Comic books as literature. “Business casual.” Ill-mannered children in expensive restaurants. Britney Spears. Kanye West. Grown men wearing little safety helmets to ride their bicycles to work. Unfettered impulsiveness as regards almost everything. An infantilizing obsession, in all aspects of public life, with never hurting anyone’s feelings. Unisex everything, just like in kindergarten.

It’s cultural neoteny.

To illustrate the point, I have prepared (with apologies to Fran Lebowitz) a helpful chart.

Then Now
World warWorld of Warcraft
On The WaterfrontJersey Shore
D-DayGreen Day
Martin BuberJustin Beiber
Nick and NoraNick at Nite
Harry's BarGranola bars
The Berlin AirliftCargo shorts
Gary CooperGary Coleman
RealityReality TV
J.P. MorganTracy Morgan
Paris ReviewParis Hilton


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  1. JK says

    So many too quickly considered then tossed comparisons to HL. And of course this settled one isn’t likely to resonate for too many folks.

    But he is sorta “baby-faced.”

    Mike Huckabee.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Nope. Incomparable.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  3. sex | sexting

    ponytails on young girls | ponytails on hippie geezers

    romance | hook-up

    girlfriend | ho

    schmaltz | bacon bits

    knickers | commando

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink
  4. JK says

    Well. All I was looking at was for instance, you’ve listed “Reality” then directly across, “Reality TV.”

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Yup. Then and now.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink
  6. hbd chick says

    heh. great post! sad, but true — sadly.

    (omg — i love nick & nora!)

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Thanks, hbd.

    (Me too. Especially Nora.)

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    By the way: great blog, hbd. I’ve added it to the sidebar.

    Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  9. Evolution is infantilizing us . . .

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted May 19, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  10. the one eyed man says

    I don’t see what’s wrong with “grown men wearing little safety helmets to ride their bicycles to work.” My friend Jud was riding his bike in Palo Alto when some idiot opened his car door in front of him, sending him to Stanford hospital. Had he not been wearing his little safety helmet, he would have had a concussion in addition to everything else.

    When we were growing up in the age of Donna Reed, seat belts were optional and baby car seats were unheard of. Due to (among other things) government mandated seat belt and car seat laws, traffic deaths are at a 61 year low. So I’ll opt for things like seat belts and silly looking helmets, as well as – gasp! – a government which requires people to use them.

    And while it is true that we went from Nick and Nora to Nick at Night, we also went from Mr. Ed and My Mother the Car to the Sopranos and Mad Men. You would be hard-pressed to make a case that popular culture today is any more stupid today than it was in the putatively halcyon days.

    I think that humanity is in a better place than it has ever been before, Snooki and Justin Bieber notwithstanding.

    Posted May 19, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    If he’d been driving a car, like grown men used to, he’d have been just fine.

    Posted May 19, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Permalink
  12. the one eyed man says

    Jud is the iron man triathlon type. Not me. I get most of my exercise from jumping to conclusions. I also find myself running late quite often. All this jumping and running is all I can handle.

    Posted May 20, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  13. Michele says

    And what about Halloween? It’s been taken over by adults. Instead of ghosts and goblins, we now have hos and pimps… even scarier!

    Posted June 17, 2011 at 1:13 am | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    I’ve wondered lately what slutty nurses dress up as for Hallowe’en.

    Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  15. Nurse Ratched

    Posted June 17, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  16. pa says

    HL Mencken >>> Mark Steyn

    Posted August 26, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    H.L. Mencken > just about everybody.

    Posted August 26, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink