The Theory of Neotenic Beauty


A very weird understanding of beauty (as applied to girls/women).

Some of you may know that I used to collect definitions of beauty. I have mostly given it up because they never actually enabled to me tell beautiful girls/women from ugly ones. However, I recently came across a really strange one: A beautiful woman is one who exhibits neoteny.

For those of you who don't know the term, neoteny refers to adults in a species possessing traits that previously only occurred in the young. Humans have a number of these, although the details can be a bit hazy as we have no pre-neotenic humans to study. A good example is probably lactose tolerance (the ability to drink milk without becoming sick) in adults. Milk, of course, is a form of semi-digested food intended for infants (who lack a fully-developed digestive process), but was co-opted by a number of ancient tribes who found cow's milk a good nutrient source. This trait has now spread to a good fraction of the world population, especially in Europe and North America. Other possible neotenic traits in humans include creativity/learning, flat faces, and lack of fur.

The Theory of Neotenic Beauty (yes, I just made that name up) is that women who display neotenic traits will attract mates who, mistaking them for children, protect them, thus increasing their expected lifespan and allowing them to have more offspring. The men, in turn, get a mate with a higher life expectancy (she is being protected), which gets him more offspring. By evolutionary biology, this is a win for everyone, women will become increasing neotenic, and what we call "beauty" is the male instinctive desire for a neotenic mate. In contrast, the males have an evolutionary incentive away from neoteny, as a child would make a lousy protector.

In my judgement, this theory has a number of flaws:
  1. The theory works just as well without the neoteny. In this case, the males prefer (and protect) mates who will stick around to be protected. The females have to do this anyway to get the benefit, so this isn't a major addition.
  2. Children - especially babies - have traits that are not considered beautify in women. An good example would be baldness and/or short hair, which I have never heard called beautiful.
  3. Grown women do not look much like babies. Today, I was in a conversation with a young man about my age, his wife and infant daughter, and his sister. (All right, all right, I mostly just looked at the baby instead of... um... conversing, but that is not the point.) The two women looked the most alike, followed by the man and his sister. I would have put the mother and daughter next, but only because society has trained me to ignore size in these comparisons. That difference is very hard to miss.
  4. If a man mistakes his wife for his daughter, this will not result in them having more descendants. It seems to me that, unless she can convince him otherwise, they won't have any. Luckily, I don't think this is a common problem.
Overall, I don't find the theory at all compelling. The previous theory (beautiful/handsome features are the secondary effects of inherently-desirable traits such as intelligence) seems much more believable. It was an interesting thought, though.

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