Monday, January 02, 2006

on cuteness



That's from the painfully cute web site Cute Overload!, which features equally adorable pictures every day. Why is this little kitten so cute? Natalie Angiers has an article in the Times this week about the scientific reasons why people like cute things, and what makes something cute.
Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look 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, of course, are the characteristics of baby humans. Angiers goes on to explain that babies are the way they are because of their big brain, small body, and immature motor skills. And it's not that babies are cute to get attention, it's that what we think of as cute are simply those properties that babies have.

Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.
Some animals, the ones that the World Wildlife Fund uses in their advertisements, lucked out, and trigger the same cues as human babies. Their logo is a panda for a reason -- pandas are chubby, have big heads, forward-facing eyes, and move slowly, just like (big) babies. There are lots of other endangered species that aren't so cute, like the Gulf sturgeon, but they're not the type of things that are going to bring in lots of tax-deductable contributions. And that's because our brains are wired in such a way that we think that strange six-fingered vegetarian bears are more worthy of our attention than a sucker-mouthed river fish. Which explains why the Cute Overload blog has thousands and thousands of regular readers...

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