Have you ever asked yourself the question “What makes certain animals like babies and puppies ‘cute’ and others ‘not-so cute’?” the answer to this question is rooted in a bias perception that has been shaped via evolution. Yep. Evolution often dictates your emotions.
Konrad Lorenz (when he wasn’t working as a Nazi psychologist) found that many of mammalian infant species share similar physical characteristics with human babies. Interestingly enough, these are many of the features that we as humans find cute. These features include: a large rounded head relative to body size, large protruding forehead, large eyes located below mid-line of head, rounded protruding cheeks, rounded body shape and soft elastic surfaces.
A better question to ask would be “Why do we find these features ‘cute’?” It is believed by Konrad Lorenz that when we find something cute we have a protective, non-sexual attraction to that particular animal. Scientists believe that cuteness is evolutions ‘little trick’ to get you to care for your young. This fondness adults have allows infants the opportunity to be cared for by human adults. The demands of a human baby are very different to that of other animals like reptiles; human babies need continual attention, feeding, protection and physical contact.This is also one of the reasons why we don’t find certain animals, such as a baby Naked Mole Rat, generally not very cute. From our bias human perspective its characteristics do not constitute a healthy human baby.
However, this does not provide an appropriate explanation as to why there is a preference amongst most parents to care for their own children more than another parent’s youngster. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’ states that “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” Dawkins is describing the reason as to why our maternal instinct enables us to protect, love and look after our young; it is to preserve our genes.
Much of our perception of what constitutes an attractive mate to has to do with ‘fitness. Fitness is the ability of an animal to survive to a reproductive age. This means that you are more fit, from a biological perspective, if you have more children. So naturally someone who appears to be healthy, happy and physically fit would be the best candidate.
Conservation favouring the cute and cuddly
Conservation efforts have been found to gain more funding when trying to save ‘cute and fluffy’ creatures compared to other species that aren’t viewed as fury and fluffy in the eyes of humans. A study conducted by researched at the Zoological Society of London found, that of the 700 threatened mammals and 100 critically endangered amphibians, the most endangered species received little to no funding, and the small number receiving attention is extremely bias. The study states that there is a clear bias in the global conservation attention.
Businesses also can contribute by trying to ‘greenwash’ their public perception by donating to ‘cute and cuddly’ species, for example Coca Cola has pledged 2 million dollars to the World Wildlife Fund to help save the Polar Bears. The principal difficulty with regards to corporate funding is that it is self-directed funding that may not always be in the best interests of biodiversity.
I think in closing its important to highlight that fact that we realise that every animal, plant and protist have gone through an array of selective pressures, just like our biological ancestors, to end up where it is today and has no more biological right to be here than any other species.