Thinking Unconstrained

Examining the world with a critical eye. Topics span a wide range including but not limited to, observations, insights, problems, solutions, proposals, and hypothetical scenarios.
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By Candideto
Neoteny is the "retention of juvenile features into adulthood", meaning that characteristics that should only be observable in children are seen in adults. The term has been applied to humans in a theoretical sense, to explain our various distinguishing physical and behavioral attributes that differ from the great apes. The hypothesis is that humans have retained much of the juvenile characteristics common to infants of primates and hence states that we exhibit their neonenous features. The idea is plausible as the phenomena has also been observed in other species of flora and fauna. In this discussion, let us accept the theory as a baseline assumption and ask the following question. What would be the modern day impetus and environmental factors that might activate or encourage further neoteny in the humans of this age? Can we observe if humans are becoming more child-like with each generation and which of those child-like tendencies are we retaining?

There are several indications that the younger generations of humans (at least in the industrialized nations) socially mature later, many of whom never mature into social adulthood at all. When observing multimedia records of previous generations, the people of the last 50 years (from baby boomers onward) progressively show indications that the need for adult independence is delayed to a later stage. This may be largely due to a cultural emphasis of attaining a higher education to have a better quality of life. For the latter half of the 20th century, many were expected to need to finish high school in order to succeed. In the early 21st century, the emphasis stretched into third level education, and today it is expected of many "white collar" workers to have a college degree for even entry-level positions. Taking the cultural differences into account, comparing the two in terms of absolute years of schooling as a measure of "adult readiness" is not accurate, as a man graduating with a high-school diploma at age 18 in the year 1969 cannot be directly compared to an 18 year old man graduating in 2019, who is then expected to spend at least another 4 years of college education before being given an opportunity to start a career. For an apples to apples comparison, it is necessary to account for the extra years of education required for taking on the yoke of adult responsibilities. A closer approximate equivalent of a young adult of 1969 would be a man graduating college with either a bachelors degree at age 21 or even a masters degree at age 23. In other words, the minds of the men living in these two times are at similar maturation levels when looking at them from a social perspective. But does that necessarily mean that these men at their "adult readiness" age have an equal chance at succeeding in the social expectations of adulthood? Likely not. The world of 1969 is vastly different from the world of 2019, and there's little overlap in the types of skills that would be useful to men of either eras. In addition, neither of these two adults would have an equal chance at prospering in each other's times, as is true when comparing people of any era. Therefore the measure of "adult readiness" is more abstract and difficult to grasp. But I will try to expand on some of the commonalities that can be used to make the comparison easier.

In 1969, a high-school graduate was deemed an adult capable of taking on "adult responsibilities", by getting a job and start pulling his own weight in society. The occupations available to him were primarily local, provided that the economy of that region was in good condition. In general, the types of work available to him with this level of education was quite broad and he only needed to appropriately apply himself to fit the mold. If the man was fortunate enough to be able to go to third level education, then he would have specialized accordingly and looked for work based on that education. This is quite standard and it's the model that's been applied to the western masses at least for the last 100 years. Let us now examine the young man of 2019. When this person graduates from high school, there is a social expectation for him to further specialize in something/anything to be able to sufficiently compete in the job market. This can be an apprenticeship for skilled work or he can continue on to third level education. The duration of this post-high-school learning can typically range from one to six years. So far there's nothing significantly different from the situation that the 1969 man faced, aside from the greater incentive for the extra schooling. But indeed that is the crux of the matter. For those going to college, many often take on large loans to pay their tuition fees, which itself can delay the ability of graduates in being able to be financially independent. Upon graduating from third level institutions, our would-be-employee of 2019 is at least 21 years of age with a student loan debt and likely an auto loan debt. He has yet to begin his adult life and he is already shackled with sizable debt which will need to compete with savings for a down payment for a mortgage (because apparently home ownership is another badge of adult success). If he's from a well-off family then perhaps he might ask for assistance with the down payment, but that only reinforces the argument for juvenile dependency. The net effect of this system is that the 2019 man is not given an opportunity to be in a good financial situation until much later in life. Since financial independence in our society is equivalent to adulthood, delaying it has the same effect as stymieing the transition to adulthood.

On the relationship front, the man of 1969 might have spent a few years "playing the field" before settling down with a missus. He would marry young, have several children, get a house and perhaps repeat the process several times throughout his life. This model cannot be applied to any responsible bachelor of 2019 until he is at least in his 30s as the financial pressure for marriage and family is just too high. If he knows this in his mind then he would delay the transition to adulthood - the kind that expects to take on the responsibility of raising the next generation of youngsters and of taking care of the elderly. The consequence is that the man spends more time doing the things that a family man would not be able to do, which does have its advantages, but they may not necessarily be the types of activities that a parent or a "responsible adult" would engage in. But aside from financial reasons, there are other cultural, social, and personal reasons for not starting a family at an early age. Indeed those factors could very well have a larger impact in the delay. However, it must be recognized that becoming a parent is a natural process for any living creature, including our very special hominid(s). Delaying it involuntarily through monetary pressure is different from choosing not to settle down. The psychological impact of this artificial hindrance must be considered and its knock-on effects examined. The process could be modeled as an environmental impact on the psychology of the individual, triggering behaviors that incur hormonal changes to accommodate for the mental shift. The argument is conjecture, but it's plausible as psychosomatic responses have been observed to impact stress and hormones. One notable example observed in nature is that of domesticated pigs. When the hogs are released out into the wild, they take on the characteristics of boars by becoming very aggressive, growing tusks and a coat of thicker, longer fur. Conversely there have been cases of domesticated foxes taking on neotenous characteristics through multiple generations of breeding in captivity. If these occurrences are readily observable, then we must consider the possibility that our psychology, driven by our environment, can impact not only our behavioral characteristics but perhaps may even incur physical changes through hormones. It is possible that we may still be undergoing our own form of domestication and neotenization within the confines of our social environments.
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By G.I. Bergstein
The pressure for survival has been greatly reduced for a large segment of the western population. When compared to previous generations, food is ample and readily available. There is no longer the need to till the fields or to perform manual labor to earn the bread. This doesn't necessarily mean that people have low stress. On the contrary, people often have plenty of stress but worry about different things than they used to. But since the body itself is no longer required to be active and there's less opportunity to utilize physical aggression, there may be an incentive for the human to take on more domesticated characteristics such as docility, playfulness, group think, etc. This is in line with the theory that humans may have domesticated themselves from their wild origins. But whether neotenization is taking place in recent history is difficult to say. What is the measure for the degree of neoteny? Do we use physiognomy, psychiatric analysis, degree of "cuteness" or femininity in adults? And how do we isolate the cause from other possible non-societal contributing factors such as diet and gene admixtures in melting pots?

If neoteny means that people look younger and behave more like children, then that's likely true. The diet of adolescents has improved (at least quantitatively) and their stress levels (due to issues such as being forced to enter the workforce caused by family hardship) are much lower. This could have had the net effect of looking younger when emerging out of those developmental years. As for behavior, aggression is no longer tolerated in society, and gone are the days where men (and boys) are expected to engage in violence to settle their disputes. You're more likely to be sued into the ground or incarcerated and become a stigma if you still behave this way. Passively watching sports or violent entertainment as a release is likely not a suitable lightening rod for aggression, as far as domestication and neotenization are concerned. Whether activities such as weight lifting, gym, or playing sports is going to stop the domestication process is not clear. However it can be safely stated that the male of today is in many ways effectively emasculated in the western society, and hence that may be contributing to the neotenization process.

The men of 2019 as you say are also shackled with debt and have lower career prospects. That certainly doesn't make it easy to attract a mate or a successful mortgage application. Not only that, the odds of successfully procreating are stacked high against them due to environmental factors outside their control. In effect, this could be keeping the boys from manning up, as being a man is much about looking after his interests and those that are under his care. If you have nothing and nobody to look after, then you cannot exercise this innate paternality. Hence your growth in masculinity may be stunted or delayed, as you've effectively neotenized yourself in your mind.
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By Sybilla
From a female perspective, neither the stated neotenization or domestication processes are observable. On the contrary, girls are maturing much faster these days than they had 50 years ago. Women are more independent and are frequentedly expected to be at least equal wage earners to males in a vast number of households. In many ways, the woman's role has broadened significantly and the men are no longer crucial in significant areas of past male dominance. If neotenization was taking place in females, it would only be in the sense of phenotypical selection during partnerships, cosmetic enhancements, improved diet, and better managed stress levels. There's nothing behaviorally induced that would account for women turning into adolescents.

Rather than neotenization, the lack of male dominance may be empowering females to take on male roles instead. The swapping of traditional gender roles is seen in many aspects of society. Females are often preferred in the services industry, which is the dominant economic segment in western nations. This makes females in general, the dominant wage earner. The males in the meanwhile must compete by either finding male-preferred work, or by being competitive in others ways against their female counterparts in the job market. This would seem to indicate a transition from a paternalistic society to a maternalistic one, as far as the services economy is concerned.

Also thanks to medical advancements, women no longer need men to reproduce. Single parent households are no longer considered taboo and women no longer need to resign themselves to be properties of men. And if men no longer engage in possessive behavior of females as commodities, then that may be a driving force for emasculating the male chauvinistic tendencies. Could that neotenize or domesticate males? It may, but it would also have a civilizing effect on the male population. But on the flip side, no woman wants to effectively be a mother to her partner or feel as if she's pulling all the weight. So it's important to set clear gender roles within a relationship and to provide appropriate masculine and female "energies", where needed.
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By Candideto
The fact that women have largely obsoleted the roles of males in traditional households indeed may be another impetus in driving the men to act like juveniles. But being a mother figure in female dominated households cannot be said to cause a decrease in the "manliness" of the husband, as motherly activities have been well observed to occur in both male and female dominated situations. Hence one would conclude that the psychological impact of the males and their views of themselves have a larger impact than those directly contributed by the females.

As for looks, neoteny certainly insinuates that adults physically look more like children. They're "cuter" and behave as if they were younger than they actually are. Perhaps it's a consequence of the systemic cultural tendency of the latter half of the 20th century in placing an inordinate amount of importance on being perceived as a young person. The concept of a "midlife crisis" and the desperate attempts of men and women to recapture their lost youths. Or the constant barrage of media glorifying the young generations and their lifestyles, accentuating the growing rift between the "old" and the "young". These cultural outlooks must have impacted the way people perceive themselves and in turn keeping their minds fixed on the preoccupations of the young.

There are also other environmental sources we can attribute to the process of physical neotenization. Plastics contain chemicals similar to estrogen and exposure to them through multiple generations may be a contributing factor in lowering the male fertility. The sperm quality and quantity are reported to be much lower in today's male populations than they were observed in previous generations. Perhaps it's not just the sperm cells that were impacted by this pollutant. There are also large amounts of estrogen and growth hormones in animal products. Since we eat meat in far larger quantities than previous generations, it's reasonable to assume that the accumulation of those hormones in our bodies is also likely a contributing factor. One notable example is the observation that girls today are reaching puberty earlier. Perhaps this is an indication that there may be other hormonal imbalances and health issues in adolescents that can be traced back to the animal products.
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By Sybilla
It's not just meat, but also dairy and egg products. They all contain traces of various hormones and chemicals used to increase yields and to decrease instances of diseases in animals. Endocrine disruptors are prevalent not just in food sources but are also present in plastics. They're difficult to avoid in today's consumer goods as plastic packaging eventually seeps its way into the foods and drinks through natural degradation. Developing adolescents are especially sensitive to these disruptors during the time when their bodies undergo hormone-based changes into adult maturation. If this natural process is chemically and hormonally interrupted by disruptive diet or environment, then it's plausible for the child to develop abnormally or sub-optimally. Theoretically something akin to neotenization can occur in such a situation.

Fish and seafoods can also contribute to this process. A well known danger of seafoods is the concentration of mercury and heavy metals. While those may not directly affect the hormones, they do pose other health risks and can cause problems related to glands and hormone regulation in the overall endocrine system. There may be other disruptive sources in fish, especially the large apex predators that can accumulate large amounts of toxins over the years. Whether farmed fish are any safer in this regard is speculative and depends much on the quality of those farms and their operational standards.

As for females taking on male roles, it certainly is emasculating for the male identity since he is traditionally supposed to be the one who "brings home the bacon". He's physically built for this task and the higher testosterone level is certainly advantageous in activities requiring aggression. But transposing the caveman relationship to the modern world obviously has its limitations and conflicts. The bacon no longer needs to be brought home by the caveman, but the expectation of the man to bring home the proverbial bacon still remains in both the male and the female psyche. Ergo, there's a caveman and a cavewoman aspect in all people driving our primal instincts. These instincts are ancient and deeply set in our bones to guarantee the propagation of the species. And they will not be tamed easily - even by societal pressures or by hormonal disruptions.