Babies and Bunnies: A Caution About Evo-Psych

Daniel Den­nett has ad­vanced the opinion that the evolu­tion­ary pur­pose of the cute­ness re­sponse in hu­mans is to make us re­spond pos­i­tively to ba­bies. This does seem plau­si­ble. Ba­bies are pretty cute, af­ter all. It’s a tempt­ing ex­pla­na­tion.

Here is one of the cutest baby pic­tures I found on a Google search.

And this is a bunny.

Cor­rect me if I’m wrong, but the bunny is about 75,119 times cuter than the baby.

Now, bun­nies are not evolu­tion­ar­ily im­por­tant for hu­mans to like and want to nur­ture. In fact, bun­nies are ed­ible. By rights, my evolu­tion­ary re­sponse to the bunny should be “mmm, needs a sprig of rose­mary and thirty min­utes on a spit”. But in­stead, that bunny—and not the baby or any other baby I’ve seen—strikes the epi­cen­ter of my cute­ness re­sponse, and be­ing more baby-like along any di­men­sion would not im­prove the bunny. It would not look bet­ter bald. It would not be im­proved with lit­tle round hu­man­like ears. It would not be more pre­cious with thumbs, eas­ier to love if it had no tail, more adorable if it were en­larged to weigh about seven pounds.

If “awwww” is a re­sponse de­signed to make me love hu­man ba­bies and ev­ery­thing else that makes me go “awwww” is a mere side effect of that en­g­ineered re­ac­tion, it is dras­ti­cally mi­s­aimed. Other re­sponses for which we have similar evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy ex­pla­na­tions don’t seem badly tar­geted in this way. If they miss their sup­posed ob­jects at all, at least it’s not in most peo­ple. (Fur­ries, for in­stance, ex­ist, but they’re not a com­mon vari­a­tion on hu­man sex­ual in­ter­est—the most gen­er­ally ap­pli­ca­ble su­per­stim­uli for sex­i­ness look like at-least-su­perfi­cially healthy, ma­ture hu­mans with promi­nent hu­man sex­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics.) We’ve in­vested enough en­ergy into trans­form­ing our food land­scape that we can hap­pily eat vir­tual poi­son, but that’s a de­par­ture from the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment—bun­nies? All nat­u­ral, ev­ery whisker.1

It is em­bar­rass­ingly easy to come up with evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy sto­ries to ex­plain lit­tle seg­ments of data and have it sound good to a sur­face un­der­stand­ing of how evolu­tion works. Why are ba­bies cute? They have to be, so we’ll take care of them. And then some­one with a slightly bet­ter cause and effect un­der­stand­ing turns it right-side-up, as Den­nett has, and then it sounds re­ally clever. You can have this en­tire con­ver­sa­tion with­out men­tion­ing bun­nies (or kit­tens or jer­boas or any other adorable thing). But by ex­clud­ing those items from a dis­cus­sion that is, os­ten­si­bly, about cute­ness, you do not have a hy­poth­e­sis that ac­tu­ally fits all of the data—only the data that seems rele­vant to the an­swer that pre­sents it­self im­me­di­ately.

Evo-psych ex­pla­na­tions are tempt­ing even when they’re cheaply wrong, be­cause the knowl­edge you need to con­struct ones that sound good to the ed­u­cated is it­self not cheap at all. You have to know lots of stuff about what “mo­ti­vates” evolu­tion­ary changes, re­ject group se­lec­tion, un­der­stand that the brain is just an or­gan, dis­pel the illu­sion of lit­tle XML tags at­tached to ob­jects in the world call­ing them “cute” or “pretty” or any­thing else—but you also have to ac­count for a de­cent pro­por­tion of the facts to not be steer­ing com­pletely left of re­al­ity.

Hu­mans are frickin’ com­pli­cated beast­ies. It’s a hard, hard job to model us in a way that says any­thing use­ful with­out con­tra­dict­ing in­for­ma­tion we have about our­selves. But that’s no ex­cuse for aban­don­ing the task. What causes the cute­ness re­sponse? Why is that bunny so out­ra­geously adorable? Why are ba­bies, well, pretty cute? I don’t know—but I’m pretty sure it’s not the cheap rea­son, be­cause evolu­tion doesn’t want me to nur­ture bun­nies. Inas­much as it wants me to re­act to bun­nies, it wants me to eat them, or at least be mo­ti­vated to keep them away from my salad fix­ings.

1It is pos­si­ble that the bunny de­picted is a do­mes­tic spec­i­men, but it doesn’t look like it to me. In any event, I chose it for be­ing a re­ally great ex­am­ple; there are many de­cid­edly wild an­i­mals that are also cuter than cute hu­man ba­bies.