The evolution of cuteness

Dec20 JDN 2459204

I thought I’d go for something a little more light-hearted for this week’s post. It’s been a very difficult year for a lot of people, though with Biden winning the election and the recent FDA approval of a COVID vaccine for emergency use, the light at the end of the tunnel is now visible. I’ve also had some relatively good news in my job search; I now have a couple of job interviews lined up for tenure-track assistant professor positions.

So rather than the usual economic and political topics, I thought I would focus today on cuteness. First of all, this allows me the opportunity to present you with a bunch of photos of cute animals (free stock photos brought to you by pexels.com):

Beyond the joy I hope this brings you in a dark time, I have a genuine educational purpose here, which is to delve into the surprisingly deep evolutionary question: Why does cuteness exist?

Well, first of all, what is cuteness? We evaluate a person or animal (or robot, or alien) as cute based on certain characteristics like wide eyes, a large head, a posture or expression that evokes innocence. We feel positive feelings toward that which we identify as cute, and we want to help them rather than harm them. We often feel protective toward them.

It’s not too hard to provide an evolutionary rationale for why we would find our own offspring cute: We have good reasons to want to protect and support our own offspring, and given the substantial amounts of effort involved in doing so, it behooves us to have a strong motivation for committing to doing so.

But it’s less obvious why we would feel this way about so many other things that are not human. Dogs and cats have co-evolved along with us as they became domesticated, dogs starting about 40,000 years ago and cats starting around 8,000 years ago. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that we find them cute as well: Becoming domesticated is, in many ways, simply the process of maximizing your level of cuteness so that humans will continue to feed and protect you.

But why are non-domesticated animals also often quite cute? That red panda, penguin, owl, and hedgehog are not domesticated; this is what they look like in the wild. And yet I personally find the red panda to be probably the cutest among an already very cute collection.

Some animals we do not find cute, or at least most people don’t. Here’s a collection of “cute snakes” that I honestly am not getting much cuteness reaction from. These “cute snails” work a little better, but they’re assuredly not as cute as kittens or red pandas. But honestly these “cute spiders” are doing a remarkably good job of it, despite the general sense I have (and I think I share with most people) that spiders are not generally cute. And while tentacles are literally the stuff of Lovecraftian nightmares, this “adorable octopus” lives up to the moniker.

The standard theory is that animals that we find cute are simply those that most closely resemble our own babies, but I don’t really buy it. Naked mole rats have their moments, but they are certainly not as cute as puppies or kittens, despite clearly bearing a closer resemblance to the naked wrinkly blob that most human infants look like. Indeed, I think it’s quite striking that babies aren’t really that cute; yes, some are, but many are not, and even the cutest babies are rarely as cute as the average kitten or red panda.

It actually seems to me more that we have some idealized concept of what a cute creature should look like, and maybe it evolved to reflect some kind of “optimal baby” of perfect health and vigor—but most of our babies don’t quite manage to meet that standard. Perhaps the cuteness of penguins or red pandas is sheer coincidence; out of the millions of animal species out there, some of them were bound to send our cuteness-detectors into overdrive. Dogs and cats, then, started as such coincidence—and then through domestication they evolved to fit our cuteness standard better and better, because this was in fact the primary determinant of their survival. That’s how you can get the adorable abomination that is a pug:

Such a creature would never survive in the wild, but we created it because we liked it (or enough of us did, anyway).

There are actually important reasons why having such a strong cuteness response could be maladaptive—we’re apex predators, after all. If finding animals cute prevents us from killing and eating them, that’s an important source of nutrition we are passing up. So whatever evolutionary pressure molded our cuteness response, it must be strong enough to overcome that risk.

Indeed, perhaps the cuteness of cats and dogs goes beyond not only coincidence but also the co-opting of an impulse to protect our offspring. Perhaps it is something that co-evolved in us for the direct purpose of incentivizing us to care for cats and dogs. It has been long enough for that kind of effect—we evolved our ability to digest wheat and milk in roughly the same time period. Indeed, perhaps the very cuteness response that makes us hesitant to kill a rabbit ourselves actually made us better at hunting rabbits, by making us care for dogs who could do the hunting even better than we could. Perhaps the cuteness of a mouse is less relevant to how we relate to mice than the cuteness of the cat who will have that mouse for dinner.

This theory is much more speculative, and I admit I don’t have very clear evidence of it; but let me at least say this: A kitten wouldn’t get cuter by looking more like a human baby. The kitten already seems quite well optimized for us to see it as cute, and any deviation from that optimum is going to be downward, not upward. Any truly satisfying theory of cuteness needs to account for that.

I also think it’s worth noting that behavior is an important element of cuteness; while a kitten will pretty much look cute no matter what it’s doing, where or not a snail or a bird looks cute often depends on the pose it is in.


There is an elegance and majesty to the tiger below, but I wouldn’t call them cute; indeed, should you encounter either one in the wild, the correct response is for you to run for your life.

Cuteness is playful, innocent, or passive; aggressive and powerful postures rapidly undermine cuteness. A lion make look cute as it rubs against a tree—but not once it turns to you and roars.

The truth is, I’m not sure we fully grasp what is going on in our brains when we identify something as cute. But it does seem to brighten our days.

2 thoughts on “The evolution of cuteness

  1. Evolution has made all of our ancestors produce offspring that were cute. Most of our ancestral history our offspring were furrier than they now are.
    Cuteness also indicates a level of safety. We could find animals like rabbits cute as a way of hardwiring us to appreciate animals that wont kill us (the main exception being cute hippos. Both looks and actions can indicate helplessness, which we often find adorable.
    Also, some animals are better at looking as if they are expressing an emotion than some babies are, and the social aspect of our evolution kicks in.

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  2. The instinct to respond to babies’ requests to be picked up is probably rooted in primate ancestors. Check out how a jumping spider moves its forelimbs. https://youtu.be/acV441Rdlhk
    I saw a comment referring to this spider as a “baby”.

    Like

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