When you were a little kid as you grew up everything was new to you, and you were ready to take it all in, without any preconceptions. Neoteny is the persistence of childlike qualities in adulthood, and it is an essential behavioral adaptation in today’s rapidly changing world.
The universe is a black box to a child. A fascinating series of experiments, an unending string of questions whose answers are intriguing and mind boggling at the same time. She will absorb knowledge at high speed from her environment, the words of those around her, and through her own experiences and interactions. It doesn’t matter if the world includes trees, grass, animals, if it is made of city buildings, cars, touch tablets, or if it is a floating space colony full of intelligent robots. Each of these will be taken for granted, and decoded, becoming the basis for the set of reactions that feel natural to her.
It used to be the case that when you grew up there would be a moment in time that you could look back and say “now I am an adult”. At that point you’d be expected by society to be set in your ways, to have developed your skills and points of view, and would not have to acquire newer skills or to change your opinions until you died. Typically the point of passage would be represented by some ritual, religious or otherwise: marriage, graduation, finding a job, buying a house.
But in today’s rapidly changing world you can’t afford to stay still, and only accept to the things you grew up with. What we call digital natives can’t be just the set of people defined by generational boundaries. The human civilization has become digital, and those instincts that allow many to feel at home in it must be felt by all. And if change is accelerating, than adapting once to a new normal won’t suffice either. You have to keep changing, keep learning, keep adapting.
When someone in their fifties is laid off from his job, and struggles to keep a positive self-image, the constant struggle to regain his acquired position in society is an expression of this change and the difficulties in adapting to it. Today’s society doesn’t allow a given position to be kept and taken for granted. Are thrill-rides the modern equivalent of the ancient rite of passage of jumping off a tree with a vine tied to your ankle? Is an entertainment park a sublimated representation of the struggle that allows generations to mix and to reflect in their shared experiences on the current and future difficulties in front of them, with the support of the challenges of the next ride that are relatively easy to face?
The curiosity, predisposition for risk taking, openminded unbiased outlook and other characteristics each define kids in a way that we must strive to maintain into adulthood. That is why neoteny, the reason you must be kidding, is such an important adaptation to today’s world. Rebelliousness, questioning authority, trying what seems impossible, accepting the different, seeking new experiences and many other behaviors are not only possible, but necessary to thrive, to feel self-worth, to be recognized as an active member of a dynamic society.
3 thoughts on “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Hmmm… keeping *some* childlike qualities into adulthood is worthwhile…
However, retaining the egocentricity and lack of emotional self-control that also characterize early childhood may not be a good idea. Retaining the social-conformist brutality that characterizes so many school-age-kid interactions may not be either…
i loooove kids (and raised three of them), but let’s not idealize them … there are pluses and minuses to the childhood state of mind….
Selective neoteny, for sure 😉
You hit the nail on the head that to keep changing, keep learning, keep adapting has become necessary for virtually everyone… who wants to ‘stay afloat’ and certainly those who seek to thrive.
That’s what’s really changed. Before, once you reached and passed your society’s ‘adulthood’ markers, you could get by fairly comfortably by resting on your laurels and coasting. No more.
I’m not so sure neoteny is the best match for the new situation. Some aspects do look like a reasonably good fit. My sense is that the new mindset people need to adopt is one where there’s no more resting on one’s laurels, no place or space for ‘coasters’, for ‘slackers’. While one must rest and must recreate to stay sane and productive, a default attitude of laying back and sitting on the dock of the bay… is no longer viable.
The new mindset is one that accepts, willy nilly, the necessity of sustained, constant, indefinite personal growth, periodic self-reinvention, persistent open-mindedness and flexibility to adapt to a high frequency of numerous external changes.
This is a pretty tall order, a high bar. Way out of the comfort zone of the vast majority of humans. We humans have not (yet) evolved to do well at this. Yet adopt and adapt we must. We will. We have before.
I think the idea that we live in rapidly-changing times is an illusion created by our ignorance of history. A person from 2015 could step 40 years into the past, into 1975, and they’d have little problem adjusting. A person stepping from 1975 to 1935, or 1935 to 1895, or 1895 to 1845, or 1845 to 1805, would face much bigger changes.
If you studied history rather than assuming it was all just peasants and oxcarts, I think you’d find Americans now live in the time of slowest social and technological change since the middle ages. You think people in “the old days” could keep the same job all their lives more often than they can today? Haven’t you read about auto workers, coal miners, stablemen, gas lighters, chimney sweeps, and, oh, yes, farmers? The Highland Clearances? The Luddite revolts? This pattern is many centuries old.
Nor could any former Americans hold the same opinions all their lives. Americans had to come to terms with treaties with the natives, with incorporation into and rule by states, with no longer thinking of themselves as Englishmen, with democracy, with slavery, with letting other people have other religions, with immigrants, with evolution, with becoming entangled in world politics, with having a national bank and federally-issued money, with not having slavery any more, with income tax, with women voting, with not being allowed to lynch blacks anymore, with blacks voting, with not being allowed to lynch gays anymore…
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