Feb 22, 2010

Happy Baby Bunny Pony

At Less Wrong, Alicorn (or is it really Eliezer?) discusses how the fact that some (pictures of) baby animals are more cute than all (pictures of) human babies fits with human evolutionary psychology. We're after all supposed to find our own offspring to be the cutest of all species. According to the theory of supernormal stimuli, proposed by Konrad Lorenz in the 1940s, this is due to the bunny possessing the features that make human babies cute, like big eyes, small nose, rounded forehead, to an even greater extent than any human baby does. This is certainly true, but why isn't our perception of such features maximized for values found in actual human babies ?

I think the answer lies in what isn't there in the bunny. If we ever encountered a real, living human baby with the eye/nose proportions and forehead curvature of the bunny pictured above, we'd be grossed out. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, (not from an ethical point of view), as the carrier of such body proportions would have no real chance of survival. The "cuteness ratios" are there, but our overall gestalt perception kicks in, and adds a big "gross!" factor. So mother nature needs not bother to make our ratio- or feature-based cuteness detection the shape of an inverted U, as low-level shape and texture perception will take care of any outliers. Within the region of "normal" babies, the bigger the eyes, the better. The bunny, however, is clearly not of human gestalt, is furry, has long ears, therefore doesn't trigger any "icky" response and can make our feature-based cuteness perception go berserk.

What's true for babies, also holds true for babes. Men find slender legs, big eyes, small chin, etc., attractive in women, but there's a limit that. Manga and anime, however, feature characters with extreme body proportions that still manage to be highly attractive to some people. While Scott McCloud proposes in his book Understanding Comics that the heavily abstracted visual style of cartoon characters serves primarily to allow a broad range of readers to recognize themselves in them, I would like to add that, by introducing a clear non-humanness, it also allows to explore regions of cuteness-feature-space that are off-limits to naturalistic art forms.

You can of course combine it all into ueber-cute cartoon animal babies.

As a transhumanist, all this offers me a nice glimpse of a future where we will have reeingineered our perception (and possibly our appearance) to accomodate an affective dynamic outside the human range.