15 June 2009

Neoteny Again: A Little Math, or The Cat's In The Cradle...

In my previous post I discussed the fact that we are neotenous, both physically and psychologically - that we have a long, long childhood, compared to most other critters on the planet. I stated that this neoteny gives us more time to learn and grow, but also makes us more vulnerable to psychosocial damage, and keeps us vulnerable much longer, than many of our animal companions.

What I need to do now is show you a little math, so you can see what neoteny 'means'.

Let's go back to cats as a model, since dogs' lifespans vary so much depending on breed size. The average well-cared-for indoor cat typically is a kitten or juvenile for about, say, 18 months. [Yes, breeding becomes possible earlier than this, but that is also true of us, and our culture no longer considers 13-year-olds to be adults - not really.] With luck and care, you can have your feline friend beside you for a long time after that. I've known a few 22 year olds, but the average indoor cat, in my experience, typically reaches 16 - 18.

To make things simple, let's take 18 years as our working figure. So kitty is a child for 18 months, and lives for a total of 18 years. [I'm not going to get into how long a kitty is young, prime, middle-aged, etc.; these periods don't match our aging process either. We'll keep it simple, and look only at the total lifespan.]

What if our biological time were similarly allocated between juvenile and adult lifespans?

Let's try this from both angles.

First, let's give ourselves the full lifespan of a cat, without reducing our kittenhood. Neurodevelopmental scientists now tend to think that the human brain isn't really 'adult' until around the age of 20... so, if we were kittens until 20, how long would we last as cats?

Eleven times longer. 18 years is 12 times 18 months; if we lived in the same biological timeframe as our cats, we would live 12 x 20 years. Not quite Methuselah, but we'd be checking out at the very respectable age of 240 - as compared to our usual 70 - 80.

And those among us who reached an age equivalent to those 22 year old kitties? We would live 14.7 times the length of our childhoods: to 294.

In other words, we'd be around from 3 to 3.7 times longer than we are now, if our adult lifespan, relative to our juvenile lifespan, matched our l'il fuzzballs'.

Now let's look at the other angle. Retaining our 80 year lifespan, but reducing our childhood so that it matches the relative duration of kittenhood in a cat's lifespan: how long would we spend as children/adolescents?

Ready? Take a deep breath...

6.7 years.

That's right. Do the math. One twelfth of 80 years... on my little iMac calculator program, it's showing as 6.666666666667.

We'd be full-grown, able to move away from home and live entirely on our own, at about the age that we now begin first grade.

Shocking, isn't it?

That's neoteny. We'd either live three times longer, or we'd reach biological and neurodevelopmental adulthood in one third the time that we do now, if our developmental timelines matched those of our kittycats.

When you realize this, you realize just how much more vulnerable we really are, because of this developmental delay.

It really does explain a lot.

Cat's in the Cradle
by Sandy & Harry Chapin

My child arrived just the other day,
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay.
He learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talking 'fore I knew it, and as he grew,
He'd say, "I'm gonna be like you, dad.
You know I'm gonna be like you."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."

My son turned ten just the other day.
He said, "Thanks for the ball, dad, come on let's play.
Can you teach me to throw?" I said, "Not today,
I got a lot to do." He said, "That's ok."
And he walked away, but his smile never dimmmed,
Said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah.
You know I'm gonna be like him."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."

Well, he came from college just the other day,
So much like a man I just had to say,
"Son, I'm proud of you. Can you sit for a while?"
He shook his head, and he said with a smile,
"What I'd really like, dad, is to borrow the car keys.
See you later. Can I have them please?"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then, dad.
You know we'll have a good time then."

I've long since retired and my son's moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind."
He said, "I'd love to, dad, if I could find the time.
You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kid's got the flu,
But it's sure nice talking to you, dad.
It's been sure nice talking to you."
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me,
He'd grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then, dad.
You know we'll have a good time then."

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