We’ve got a lot of 30-something males still living at home with mommy and daddy today. They don’t work and aren’t married and basically all they do is sit in the basement playing video games endlessly or engaging in some other recreational activity that one would expect to see a teenage boy doing. It’s as if these young men aren’t really men at all. Well….that is…mentally. They have the bodies of grown men but they have the minds of teenage boys and although they are sexually and physically mature they seem to still act like teen boys depending on their parents or grandparents (or someone else) to pay all of the bills, provide a roof over their heads, and supply massive amounts of food. This is a growing problem in America today especially among white males and although most are in their late 20s or early 30s there are growing numbers that are in their early to mid-40s!
There is a word for this “phenomena” and it is “Neoteny.” Neoteny refers to individual organisms who remain child-like even after they’ve reached sexual maturity. Although physically adults, mentally they retain their child-like mentality. These guys have the bodies of men but the minds and emotions of adolescents. “Children in adult bodies” is a good basic definition of Neoteny.
Biologically, an organism becomes sexually mature and an adult when it is capable of reproducing. When it enters into adulthood, then, the organism becomes physically mature. Human evolution has produced a variety of genetic changes in our species and one of the MOST IMPORTANT is neoteny. Humans are the most neotenic of all primates, in fact! Some have even gone so far as to characterize humans as “sexually mature fetuses.” And there are some reasons for this. For example, in most quadrupedal fetal animals the foramen magnum (where the spinal column connects to the brain) is near the center of the base of the skull as it is in modern humans. BUT, as that animal matures the foramen magnum moves to the rear of the skull. However, this doesn’t happen in modern humans! Our foramen magnum stays in the center….in the INFANT position!! Even in apes the young lose their neotenic features as they grow up and there are big changes in the way they look physically and act mentally. This is obvious in chimps, for example, as infants and the young look far different from adults. And they act far different from adults too. But, the position of the foramen magnum is not the only feature seen in modern humans that causes some researchers to characterize modern humans as “sexually mature fetuses.”
Researchers have noted some of the “neotenic traits” seen in modern humans. They include such things as a more gracile skeleton (lean rather than robust) and a larger skull in relation to overall body size. Rounder or more spherical and thinner bones are seen in modern humans more so than in our ancestors such as H. Australopithecus. We mods have flatter faces with a less protruding jaw (prognathism), smaller teeth, and less body hair than our predecessors. We have smaller legs, fingers, and feet. And we have more fat under our skin like one would expect to see in infants not adults! Ironically, or maybe not, these are all ALSO traits seen in modern INFANT APES! So what is the cause of all of this? From an evolutionary standpoint we might conclude that in remote times those individuals with greater neotenic traits had better success at breeding and producing surviving offspring.
Something else to note is that infant primates typically have larger brains than adults in relation to body size. Not only could more neotenic individuals have had more breeding success but environmental changes could have selected for more intelligence and more neotenic individuals who were better adapted to survive the environmental changes. The brain requires more energy than any other organ in the body so it is the most “costly” organ. In humans the brain makes up 2% to 3% of our body weight BUT it uses an astounding 20% (average) of our body energy!! It, therefore, appears that in comparison to our ancient human ancestors who had smaller brains that our big modern brains come with a price!
Some researchers have also noted that the most neotenic modern humans are East Asians and among them the most neotenic are Koreans (consider the current leader of North Korea for instance). Little to no body hair, flat chubby faces, round heads, short limbs, and body fat among other traits are neotenic features (childlike). In contrast, Europeans tend to have longer skulls, more body hair, and longer limbs. They (Europeans) also have more under-the-skin-fat that tends to accumulate around the abdomen, thighs, and hips. I also want to note that overall in comparison Africans are the least neotenic. So what does this all mean in terms of today and our apparently growing problem of neoteny?
When it comes to the teenage boy-men living in our basements today some have explained it as a cultural phenomena but I think there is also an EVOLUTIONARY component involved! The body continues to mature in these males but the mind seems to have slowed down in its maturity as it retains its neotenic traits well into physical and sexual adulthood (25-45 years old)!! Could this have something to do with are increasing life expectancy? Last week I was reading about the Roman emperor Vespasian and how some of his contemporaries were amazed that he was “still fit and active” at the ripe old age of SIXTY! Today, age 60 is becoming considered as middle age but back in Vespasian’s days a 60 year old was “elderly and even ancient.” If we go even further back than A.D. 69 which is when Vespasian became emperor of the Roman Empire we become even more intrigued with age. For example, many Homo erectus likely lived no longer than 30 years of LESS and even those that hit age 30 likely were regarded as “ancient ones” by their contemporaries. And if we go further back, still, to Homo habilis it’s likely those who survived to between the age of 20-25 were regarded as “elders.”
My point is this….our modern life expectancy is increasing (and has been for a while now). In the male basement dwellers we see mature bodies but childlike minds which tells me the mind’s rate of maturing has dramatically slowed in comparison to the bodily rate of maturing. Is this evolution telling us to get ready for even longer life expectancies than we have today? In considering this I considered the ages given in the Bible’s Old Testament which record some people living 400, 600, or even 1000 years! Those ages are incredible to say the least and some have tried to marginalize them by claiming physical ages weren’t recorded but, instead, the number of seasons these people lived. But is that so? Fact is WE DON’T KNOW! So is evolution preparing us for our next stage which involves MUCH longer life expectancy than even today, say, 400, 600, or even 1000 years? And if so and if the ages the Bible records are so then is it “evolution” at all? OR is it more of a “devolution”…a going back?
As stated earlier, I think what we are seeing with our young men still living at home and shunning adult responsibility is not solely a “cultural phenomena” but it’s also an EVOLUTIONARY PHENOMENA! But here’s something else to consider……….
How come this “phenomena” isn’t going on with our young women of the same ages????? In fact, girls are physically maturing today faster than in the past. Some are maturing at age 10 or even younger! And it also appears to be the case that mentally and emotionally they are maturing much faster than males. Could this mean that females are not going to live as long as males in our upcoming next stage of evolution?
If you look at our ancient human ancestors and compare them to modern humans you can see how we have become more neotenic (childlike) in our physical features BUT in terms of our mental maturity we’ve gone far beyond our ancestors in terms of technology and culture. I can’t help but also wonder if this “fake” environment we call “modern society” is now influencing our evolution. Another case of environment shaping neoteny?
Neoteny is a very interesting phenomena especially in the study of Homo sapiens of ALL races. SOMETHING is going on in modern humans that seems to have never happened before and neoteny is playing a BIG role in it along with environment I think! It is a phenomena worthy of more study and I think the prime subjects for study are those growing number of basement dwelling males!