Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Julie's New and Hot (Week 4) and Book Review

"The Cute Factor" by Natalie Angier from New York Times
January 3, 2006

In this article, the definition of cute and its evolutionary significance is explored. According to scientists who specialize in the evolution of visual signaling, there are a few common characteristics of being cute:

"bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others"

These cuteness factors "makes good Darwinian sense" in that those who are cute -- namely babies and other youngsters -- are young and vulnerable and need the assistance of adults. By being cute, babies appeal to an adult's interest and care and are thus more likely to survive.

Researchers do make the point that babies did not evolve to be cute.
Instead, physical anatomy, such as the brain size and the course of development, determined the appearance which then appealed to the adults. In other words, the cuteness detector is what evolved and not cuteness itself.

Advertisers have picked up on this cuteness tendency and thus aim for the cute look. Think of Furbies, Hello Kitty, and the Volkswagen Beetle. If you stop to think about these objects, they are actually pretty oddly shaped. Yet people generally still think they are cute and endearing.

I found this article to be interesting because I had never thought about why I think somethings are cute and why others are not. Breaking down something simple like cuteness into its even more basic parts seems like something Darwin would have done...

The article also used some interesting terms: "Darwinian sense" and "Darwinian aesthetics." This was the first time I had seen "Darwin" used in these ways. However, this usage brings up an interesting point of how Darwin's name is frequently thrown around as a label. Now that we are learning more about Darwin and his life, this term seems more ambiguous now than in the past. While I would assume that they are refering to his most popular ideas on evolution, there is much more depth that the name can suggest.

Here are some images that contrast cute versus not-so-cute:

Click here to read my book review on John Darton's The Darwin Conspiracy.

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