13 June 2009

The Curse and Blessing of Neoteny

Earlier this year, Cinder Ella posted about having been raised by cats. It's an experience I share with her; for all intents and purposes, my real mother was a brown Abyssinian, and I was lucky to have her.

I've paid that blessing forward all my adult life, taking in kitties or otherwise helping them whenever possible. And I've noticed, as many others have noticed, a rather interesting thing: the number of mean, bullying, seriously screwed up toxic cats is rather small. Much, much smaller than the relative number of mean, bullying, seriously screwed up toxic hominids in any sample I've ever observed.

Dogs, poor loves, have the deck stacked against them far more often, since many [not most, but many] dog owners buy specific breeds that are bred to be aggressive, then actively work to make the dogs vicious. This is rarely ever true of cat owners - I can't think of a single instance in over 50 years of conscious observation. And, by the way, I love Pits and Rottweilers and Pinschers. Lovingly raised, they are wonderful.

It occurred to me - over coffee, as usual - that the induction of meanness in dogs, which is so often deliberately human-induced, is largely possible because dogs are pack animals; they have an inborn socialization to 'look up to' their Pack Leader, and dogs living with people generally adopt the dominant human as their Alpha. Dogs are quite dependent on their Pack, and exert real effort to conform to the expectations of the Alpha. [Yes, I believe animals think. Correction: I know they do. When your mother is a ten pound furball who loves you dearly, walks you to the school bus, meets you at the bus stop, and yells at you if you aren't in bed on time, you get a good education in ethology and interspecies communication, very young.]

Cats, on the other hand, are pride animals; they affiliate, and there are alphas in prides, but the affiliation tends to be looser, and the dependence on alphas less strong overall. But very, very strong bonds of affection are possible within both pack and pride, and, thank God, those bonds aren't species-specific.

I'm going to annoy ethologists and anthropologists now by appropriating a term from developmental biology and psychology: neoteny. It means: the adult form of a species [or strain] retains traits that are normally seen only in immature animals; or, the process of development and maturation is extremely prolonged in a particular species or strain, so that the individual remains 'plastic', developmentally, much longer than would normally be seen in closely related animals. Compared to mountain gorillas, for example, humans are extremely neotenous; chimpanzees are also neotenous compared to gorillas, but far less so than humans. And compared to cats, we are out of the ballpark.

The Wikipedia article I've linked to has a nifty phrase for exactly what I'm trying to address: "a dilation of biological time". And neoteny is, when it serves its normal purpose, a very nifty thing. By keeping us 'immature' for twenty years or more [there are strong arguments that human brain development is not complete until the early twenties] neoteny allows us much more time to learn - but there is a price to pay: our prolonged childhood keeps us dependent on our parents - or their equivalents - far, far longer than most other species.

Now let's jump back to Fido. The 'pack mentality' that allows human beasts to corrupt their dogs into vicious fighters and killers can be seen as a form of psychological neoteny. Cats' 'pride mentality' [pun not intended, but I'll take it] involves less dependence and is thus less neotenous in this sense. Humans, though -

- we remain neotenous all our lives. Not merely physically [although we never grow our full coat of fur]. Far more important, we remain neotenous emotionally and psychologically. And this neoteny can be deliberately prolonged and intensified.

You probably see where I'm heading now. Circumstances that promote or intensify dependence, in child or adult, are circumstances that prolong neoteny, at least psychosocially. And such circumstances are common in highly controlling environments - cults, extremely conformist cultures and workplaces, and families headed by alcoholic, drug-addicted, or otherwise abusive parents [and their enablers].

Moving along this thought line, we'd expect that the extended psychological plasticity ['formability' or 'impressionability', if you prefer] that accompanies neoteny would also be intensified in this type of dependence-fostering, controlling environment.

And there you are. Want to know why there are so many jerky humans on the planet, compared to jerky dogs and cats? Because our species remains 'plastic', developmentally vulnerable, dependent on others for our nurture and training, and thus susceptible to profound emotional and psychological damage from those others, far longer than any other animal with whom we share our world.

And, God help us, we have a long, neotenous lifespan. So once we're badly damaged, we have much more time in which to damage other vulnerable members of our own species. Not to mention the poor pit bulls.

A rather cheerless thought for a Saturday afternoon... but let's complete it, now. Because there is a blessing to accompany the curse. The problem of neoteny contains its own solution. For which, again, thank God.

Because that psychosocial plasticity can be used to heal. The same pliability that makes us so damageable can, in the right circumstances, allow us to learn, allow us to see the damage and its source, allow us to find our footing in safer places, with safer people. This is what makes 'deprogramming' possible.

It may be true that 'you can't go home again'; but fortunately, in many cases, we can, because of our neoteny, go back to school.


Blogger CZBZ said...

Whoah...thank you. What an interesting post!


p.s. I'll be back after giving your post some serious thought-time.

14 June, 2009 15:30  
Blogger Catherine said...

One thing that I noticed over the years is how much dogs reflect their owner's true personalities. For example, my mother could take the sweetest, most docile breed out there and turn it into a misbehaving, snarling, biting menace in less than a year. She presented herself to everyone (on the outside) as sweetness and light personified. But her dogs would try to bite anyone who came within range, which actually was a good representation of her real personality. I learned over the years to pay attention to a person's dogs; if the person was oh, so nice, and their dog was trying to eat you for lunch, I made tracks as fast as I could (from them, as well as from the dog). If the person came across not so well, but their dog was a true sweetheart, to them and to you, they usually (not always, but close enough) were OK people and I took the chance to get to know them a bit better.

15 June, 2009 07:50  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Hi CZ - thanks! :-) I'm going to do the math tonight, just to demonstrate what neoteny means in terms of lifespan... it's a shocker when you see the numbers. We really are incredibly vulnerable. We don't see it, because fish don't feel wet...

Catherine, you are so right. I've seen the same thing, time after time. Funny how the truth is right there and yet so often people fail to see it, in cases like your mother. Or they don't 'get' what it means.

I also pay very close attention to how the owner treats the dog even when the dog is a total sweetie. Owners who clearly get some kind of profound satisfaction from ordering their animal around, even if the dog is very sweet-natured and well-behaved, don't make the cut.

I'm not talking about a well-trained working dog, now. The teamwork between a good working dog and his or her handler is an absolute delight to see. I'm talking about the kind of person who gets a mean, tight little smile when they're barking out orders and their dog obeys.

You've seen them. Tinpot dictators of the animal kingdom. Ugh.

15 June, 2009 21:02  

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