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.
|World war||World of Warcraft|
|On The Waterfront||Jersey Shore|
|Martin Buber||Justin Beiber|
|Nick and Nora||Nick at Nite|
|Harry's Bar||Granola bars|
|The Berlin Airlift||Cargo shorts|
|Gary Cooper||Gary Coleman|
|J.P. Morgan||Tracy Morgan|
|Paris Review||Paris Hilton|