I wrote this for Seth's new book.

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Neoteny is the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. Human beings are younger longer than any other creature on earth, taking almost twenty years until we become adults. While we retain many our childlike attributes into adulthood most of us stop playing when we become adults and focus on work.

When we are young, we learn, we socialize, we play, we experiment, we are curious, we feel wonder, we feel joy, we change, we grow, we imagine, we hope.

In adulthood, we are serious, we produce, we focus, we fight, we protect and we believe in things strongly.

The future of the planet is becoming less about being efficient, producing more stuff and protecting our turf and more about working together, embracing change and being creative.

We live in an age where people are starving in the midst of abundance and our greatest enemy is our own testosterone driven urge to control our territory and our environments.

It's time we listen to children and allow neoteny to guide us beyond the rigid frameworks and dogma created by adults.

20 Comments

Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this wonderful thought Joi.

Yes, I always take it as a compliment, when people tell me that I am like a kid. Even if most of the time they are not saying it like one. :)

I didn't know the word though, so I will be glad to adopt it from now on!

I love this, especially the second last paragraph.

:)

When we were kids, we explored because we could. We played hard to achieve something, and we played clever to win. We changed the play when it got predictable. And we broke the rules because we just weren't sure. We created chaos because we were exploring. And we made a mess to get attention.

In today’s time stealing world, we just don’t seem to let space in. And on a planet obsessed with rules, we’ve forgotten how to think. And in times driven by formula, we’ve neglected to remind ourselves that humanity by nature copes with disorder. Fear is what holds us back!

One of the most hopeful human constants is our inherent need for inquiry and dialog - because to know is to keep asking.

Nice message, Joi.

In Silicon Valley, all the great ventures have been launched by young people (19 to 26) because they imagine, dream, play and experiment with new ideas instead of defending the tried-and-true and old. Plus, they don't have kids, mortgages and corporate jobs yet to tie them down.

The challenge is to allow kids and youth to maintain their youthful, "child-like" awe and thinking as they mature. Easier said than done during a global recession. But perhaps this downturn will force young people to innovate since many lack jobs that will never return.

Keep leading the charge of entrepreneurs, especially in the Mideast. We need millions of new entrepreneurs, ventures and jobs for the billions of young people coming. I consider that challenge equal to climate change for without jobs, vision and hope, there is no future for these young people. We parents all need to do whatever we can help inspire, guide and help them.

"When we are young, we learn, we socialize, we play, we experiment, we are curious, we feel wonder, we feel joy, we change, we grow, we imagine, we hope."

Why do you define such attributes as "childlike"?

If your answer is "because adults don't do them", then your argument is circular. And you must be meeting the wrong adults :-)

Also, I think you are setting up false dichotomies between your first and second list of attributes, and your "less about" and "more about" statements. "Producing more stuff" and "working together" are not opposites; in fact, they are complementary.

People are starving in the midst of abundance because humans are sinful, selfish and prideful (including some of those starving, and their countrymen). Humility, generosity and other-centredness are adult attributes - you learn them as you get older, ideally by example. Humanity doesn't need to be more childlike, it needs to be more truly adult.

Gerv: There is actually a lot of evolutionary biology/science behind Neoteny and Childlike. There is a theory that social behavior is an extension of child-like behavior. Juvenile animals smile and socialize to prompt adults to protect them play instead of compete. Social behavior is often classified as defensive and child-like. Learning is also a child-like behavior.

Wikipedia is one place to start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoteny

But there's some good stuff here: http://www.neoteny.org/

One of my favorite articles which was the inspiration for this post: (which I can't find a link for)

NEOTENY, AND THE FUTURE OF HOMO SAPIENS A short contribution from Victor Serebriakoff

Neoteny describes the fact of evolution, that the new species emerge from the form of the young of the evolving species. The hominids arose from the Bonono or chimpanzee stage because their young stayed young longer, they remained experimental, playful whimsical longer and longer. There is, with homo sapiens, a developmental pause at the age of three which continues until the sudden changes of puberty. Homo has the longest period of immaturity of any creature on Earth. It is almost two decades from the stage of an almost helpless, senseless and completely dependent baby until the fully developed adult.

And this tendency appears to continue. We may notice that while most of humanity stop play and begin to work most of the daytime in their early twenties and play only in their spare time, there is a significant minority who continue to play all the time. They are usually the most gifted and talented, they become scholars, students and artists and occupy themselves with tasks for which their is no immediate substantial gain for themselves, intellectual tasks in fact. This is a continuation of childish behaviour and that minority contains all the intelligentsia. With the development of automation, the increase of prosperity and the availability of unlimited energy - see later contribution - the proportion of the neotenous minority will increase until it become a majority, I believe.
Victor Serebriakoff.

An article called "Awakening genius in the classroom"

I'm afraid that, to me, that short article seems full of unprovable assumptions and faulty logic :-(

"The hominids arose from the Bonono or chimpanzee stage because their young stayed young longer, they remained experimental, playful whimsical longer and longer."

Even accepting, for the sake of argument, the truth of the idea that humans evolved from chimps, what evidence is there for this assertion?

"There is, with homo sapiens, a developmental pause at the age of three which continues until the sudden changes of puberty."

Comparing this to the chimp behaviour is a case of "post hoc, ergo propter hoc".

"We may notice that while most of humanity stop play and begin to work most of the daytime in their early twenties and play only in their spare time"

Perhaps because not many people are fortunate enough to get paid to "play"?

Where does this split between "work" and "play" come from anyway? If you accept the tenets of evolutionary biology, then such a distinction is pretty arbitrary. I guess you could define play as "things which the animal experiences as enjoyable", but then the fact that many humans don't "play" is just a consequence of the fact that there are some tasks required for life which are not enjoyable.

"They are usually the most gifted and talented, they become scholars, students and artists and occupy themselves with tasks for which their is no immediate substantial gain for themselves, intellectual tasks in fact."

This seems to falsely equate "play" with "tasks for which their is no immediate substantial gain for themselves". Looking after your aged grandmother with dementia is certainly not the former, but it is the latter. Is the hope of the author that such "work" can eventually be eliminated in favour of more enjoyable "play"? Could it be that what seems in the above paragraph as selflessness is actually selfishness in disguise?

Gerv: I think there is a lot of physical evidence in evolutionary biology that points to chimps as "more neotenous", more upright, less hair, etc. There is also a lot of biological evidence relating to sexuality and neoteny. I think that the psychological elements of neoteny and how this would relate to things society and learning are a bit more theoretical, but they are based on biology and chemistry and not just casual observation. I'm not sure how much of a rigorous scientific discussion you're looking for and not being an evolutionary biologist, I'd have to dig up citations, although I'd be happy to if you were interested. I hate slapping links into threads without giving a thoughtful response, but have you read some of the more scientific articles about neoteny? I think there is definitely room for disagreement, but words like "play" are pretty specifically defined.

When we are kids - we play because it is expected, there is some structure or framework around our play and the development of our creativity and social skills. Yet somehow as adults that expectation is gone.......I want it back.

"It is almost two decades from the stage of an almost helpless, senseless and completely dependent baby until the fully developed adult."
And what is "fully developed"?
It is true our society infantalizes teenagers, but biologically, most 13-year-olds are fully developed adults. If you argue on the basis of mental maturity, 20 is too young...

I think it's a fairly common understanding that adulthood starts at around 20 with adolescence being the long transition phase.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puberty

I would also suggest that there is a close connection betwen neoteny and the Creative Commons. The neotenic impulse is a social impulse, a drive to experience interconnection. That which characterizes infant or embryo features as they prolong to appear in adults is also closely associated with early aspects of early ontogeny that take into consideration the environment as we unfold.

The Creative Commons features an aesthetic driven by interconnection. Neoteny, earliest embryo play, is deeply influenced by the environment, by definition.

Great post/contribution. Might we (as adults) be playing or experimenting less because of the way our cities are planned? Think back to the era before the car, young and old people all lived much, much closer together. Today, our cities are more spread out, separated and compartmentalized for different uses. Old people live in retirement centers, young people go to schools, adults go to office parks. We barely ever see other humans from other life stages (except for our own children or parents). You're right, we need to "listen to children and allow neoteny to guide us beyond the rigid frameworks and dogma created by adults." Yet, it is quite hard to do that because schools and office parks aren't typically neighbors. Perhaps we nee to think of a better way to plan our cities and integrate our communities.

Understanding neoteny as integral to human evolution and current social change is to reference evolutionary theories common in the nineteenth century (i. e. Mivart, Hyatt, Cope) that were let go when natural selection was raised to be our theory of choice. Theories evidencing sensitivity to interconnection were abandoned in a theory environment that focused on theories offering the greatest number of questions being answered by the simplest hypothesis.

A reductionist milieu tends to pay less attention to solutions that suggest a connection between individuals or species across a scale or between scales. Over the last ten years there has emerged a new evolution theory discipline called evolutionary developmental biology. In many ways evo devo harkens back to the nineteenth century theories that focused on the power of interconnection to both understand and predict how evolution will unfold. Central to evo devo and to the nineteenth century theories was understanding the power of how individuals mature and how maturity trajectories change over time in species influence evolution. Central to understanding these kinds of changes, changes in maturity, is understanding how the environment directly and indirectly encourages evolutionary change by examining how the environment impacts ontogeny or growth.

Neoteny is one of two foundation maturity paradigms, one where the infant or embryo features of an individual in a species unfolds over generations to appear in later and later stages until manifesting in the look and behavior of adults. This is not a theory. This is a description of biological process. These processes can be studied by reading about heterochrony, described in detail in Stephen J. Gould's, Ontogeny and Phylogeny.

Humans evidence neoteny. It can be argued whether humans do or don't evidence neoteny, but neoteny is central to how species evolve. Infant and embryo features of our ancient forebears have emerged to appear in the physiology and behavior of contemporary adults. I would suggest that what is occurring now in modern society with huge increases in diversity, transparency and horizontal communication is evidence of society being impacted by neotenic tendencies. I would go so far as closely associate neoteny and the internet.

There is one aspect of this process not understood in the nineteenth century, only beginning to be understood today. Neoteny is hypothetically closely associated with matrifocal social structures, societies where woman share authority with men. Cooperative males are highly valued in societies that value commanding women. Modern society is evidencing profoundly matrifocal tendencies. In is possible that surges in neoteny emerging today are closely associated with female centered social structure that respects cooperation and creativity.

To observe perhaps the greatest evidence on neoteny today you need go no further than the Creative Commons. When an aesthetic features a proliferation of borrowing, with each creative act deeply influenced by the creativity of others in the environment, you are observing a societal reproduction of what occurs in earliest embryo ontogeny. As embryos, each being is profoundly impacted by changes in the environment with growth determined by how each cell decides to grow, impacted by the behavior of its neighbors. Earliest maturing, ontogeny, is all about responding to the environment. That exact dynamic is emerging today in the behavior of those relying upon the Creative Commons for information that influences their personal growth and creativity.

Neoteny, the prolongation of infant and embryo features into the look and behaviors of adults, is perhaps the guiding principle or zeitgeist of our time.

Andrew: Thanks for the thoughtful contribution. I hadn't made the connection with CC/Internet and Neoteny, but it's interesting and makes sense. ;-)

Great post Joi,
I translated it to Arabic:
http://bassel.ws/2009/12/neoteny/
the text in the quote is almost literal translation of your post
Thank you :-)

「生産」と「想像(創造)」。人類が存続するためには両者が必要なのでしょうが、今の世の中(私の会社?)では、いかに効率的に生産するかという視点に価値観があまりに偏っています。しかも、上司あるいは社会にうまく説明するために、もっともらしいストーリーをつくることを求められます。正直で既成概念の少ない子供の声に耳を貸すのは重要ですね。大人でも、個人が持つありのままの特性を尊重する、毎日のありのままの行動を正直にオープンにすることが、多様な価値の尊重に繋がり、環境により適用する生き方、環境のあらゆる変化への適応性が、我々に身に付くのでは・・・と考えます。

I strongly agree with the terms Neotany ... (although the first time I heard). Reading this article, childhood is a wonderful time filled with jokes and laughter. The children are the future of our planet. Sometimes we as parents think a child does not know anything. Meanwhile, the children are actually very easy to learn something new such as technology , business and entrepreneurs. If the children are taught early on business, then he will be a businessman. If he was introduced to the art they would later become an artist. So that in the brains of children, like a sheet of white paper that is still cleans of graffiti. So as parents we must provide good education for the future of the children.

thanks for playing
I strongly agree with the terms Neotany ... (although the first time I heard). Reading this article, childhood is a wonderful time filled with jokes and laughter. The children are the

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