Cognitive Neoteny in Modern Humans

The boy-genius can be seen as a specific instance of psychological neoteny which is apparently adaptive in modernizing cultures, and it occurred early in science because science is one of the most ‘modern’ and advanced social systems [2]. ‘Neoteny’ refers to the biological phenomenon whereby development is delayed such that juvenile characteristics are retained into maturity. It represents a relatively fast and simple way of evolving adaptations – for instance modern humans in Western Europe have evolved the ability for adults to digest dairy products (which were not a part of the hunter gatherer diet) by the simple method (presumably by a single gene mutation) of neotenously perpetuating the activity of the milk sugar-digesting enzyme lactase from the breast-fed infant throughout mature life.

Probably, the main proximate cause of psychological neoteny in modernizing societies is the prolonged duration of formal education – which may be why the boy-genius arose in an American context where mass higher education and extended schooling was first established [5]. So long as a person is in formal education, or is open to the possibility of returning for more formal education, their minds are in a significant sense ‘unfinished’. Perhaps this could be one reason why scientists so often strike other people as ‘immature’ in their manners and behaviour? Scientists need to be somewhat child-like in order to keep learning and developing. As mass higher education becomes a feature of all liberal democracies, and as the average number of years spent in formal education progressively increases [6], we may expect to accumulate ever-more chronologically middle-aged and elderly people who remain youthfully-minded.

Since modern cultures favour cognitive flexibility, such people tend to thrive and succeed and now set the tone of contemporary life. The biggest praise that can be given to an elderly person is that they have retained the characteristics of youth – not just a youthful appearance, but also the youthful vitality and drive. The modern exemplary geriatric should continue to compete for high status, remain actively interested in love and sex, show themselves adaptive to change, and continually seek new experiences and challenges. Because such attributes are highly valued, they seem to have become much more common.

But of course there is a downside to psychological neoteny, in that the faults of youth are retained as well as its virtues. Modern society is characterized by a short attention span, frenetic sensation- and novelty-seeking, ever-shorter cycles of arbitrary fashion, and (so cultural intellectuals would argue) a pervasive emotional and spiritual shallowness. There are a lot of divorces and broken families. Modern people – it seems fair to say – also lack a profundity of character which seemed commoner in the past. The personality difference between Einstein and Feynman shows this clearly: Einstein had a mature and harmonious personality of great wisdom [7]; while Feynman was vital, protean, witty and life-enhancing - but he was certainly not a sage, and was quicksilver-clever rather than deeply wise [8].

I would expect that this trend to maintain flexible immaturity through adulthood will continue. Psychological neoteny will be matched by perpetuation of youthful appearance: partly natural due to improved health and social conditions, and partly artificial due to continued advance in cosmetic technologies. In future, the most successfully adapted humans may become something like the axolotl – a cave-dwelling salamander which retains its larval form through sexual maturity and until death.


Perpetual education and change has pushed humans into a perpetual state of youthful cognition. Our brains remain childlike in order to continue to learn and adapt to our ever-changing modern environment.

Folksonomies: cognition plasticity cognitive rigidity

/family and parenting/children (0.497348)
/education (0.471150)
/family and parenting (0.381803)

psychological neoteny (0.952229 (positive:0.177821)), mass higher education (0.948568 (negative:-0.294271)), formal education (0.919329 (neutral:0.000000)), Modern Humans Perpetual (0.761275 (positive:0.683805)), ever-changing modern environment (0.746093 (positive:0.750427)), instance modern humans (0.739789 (positive:0.586019)), youthful appearance (0.727080 (positive:0.700974)), sugar-digesting enzyme lactase (0.705756 (negative:-0.294674)), hunter gatherer diet (0.697203 (neutral:0.000000)), main proximate cause (0.695765 (neutral:0.000000)), Cognitive Neoteny (0.690505 (positive:0.683805)), single gene mutation (0.688060 (neutral:0.000000)), successfully adapted humans (0.672600 (positive:0.300595)), short attention span (0.658678 (negative:-0.679598)), youthful cognition (0.630529 (positive:0.683805)), youthful vitality (0.601091 (positive:0.667443)), specific instance (0.584583 (neutral:0.000000)), perpetual state (0.579094 (positive:0.683805)), modernizing societies (0.577854 (neutral:0.000000)), social systems (0.570036 (positive:0.259163)), biological phenomenon (0.568943 (negative:-0.365993)), prolonged duration (0.565276 (neutral:0.000000)), juvenile characteristics (0.564779 (negative:-0.365993)), Western Europe (0.561801 (positive:0.586019)), modern cultures (0.561194 (positive:0.533930)), boy-genius arose (0.560365 (neutral:0.000000)), simple way (0.559915 (positive:0.586019)), Modern people (0.559021 (negative:-0.646229)), simple method (0.558940 (positive:0.288794)), Modern society (0.558863 (negative:-0.679598))

Feynman:Person (0.902590 (positive:0.492824)), proximate cause:Crime (0.849579 (neutral:0.000000)), gene mutation:FieldTerminology (0.710442 (neutral:0.000000)), Einstein:Person (0.699880 (positive:0.696555)), Western Europe:Region (0.699139 (positive:0.586019))

Sociology (0.972926): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Psychology (0.882662): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Education (0.842646): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Old age (0.717279): dbpedia | freebase
Higher education (0.716102): dbpedia | freebase
Attention (0.704401): dbpedia | freebase
Liberalism (0.698444): dbpedia | freebase
Natural selection (0.685074): dbpedia | freebase

 The rise of the boy-genius: psychological-neoteny, science and modern life
Periodicals>Journal Article:  Charlton, BG (2006), The rise of the boy-genius: psychological-neoteny, science and modern life, Medical Hypotheses, 2006; 67: 679–81., Retrieved on 2013-07-02
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: evolution cognition intelligence


    18 FEB 2015

     Human Neoteny and Cognition

    Neoteny in Humans > Similarity > Cognitive Neoteny in Modern Humans
    Folksonomies: evolution cognition neoteny
    Folksonomies: evolution cognition neoteny


    30 NOV -0001

     Increase the Information Entropy in Your Life

    Increasing the options, the uncertainty, keeping things novel will preserve your brain's elasticity, make life go by more slowly, and increase the number of options for the future. tl;dr Version Intelligence makes the external world more syntropic by becoming more extropic. Information Entropy increases your potential future histories. Information Entropy keeps your brain elastic. Information Entropy makes time pass more slowly. Perceptually extending your lifespan. Some people have so ...
    17 FEB 2015

     Evolving Learners: Education as Artificial Selection

    If brains learn by pruning neurons that serve no purpose, the educators are pruners/encouragers of neurons. We should look at them as artificially selecting neurons in students.