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.