Why are animals cute?

August 11, 2010 • 7:06 am

If, like me, you’re one of those softies who likes cute animals—especially baby animals—and visits places like The Daily Squee, Zooborns, or Acting Like Animals, and if you’re also a tad reflective, you may have asked yourself, “Why do I find these things so god-damned adorable?”

There are, of course, two ways to answer that question.  The proximate answer requires that you single out those features of animals that make them cute versus ugly, and perhaps amalgamate them into some general explanation.  Why are baby ducks so cute, and baby parrots so ugly?  Why are baby chimps so much more appealing than adult ones?  Why are hairless cats uglier than normal ones?  Why are human babies so irresistible compared to teenagers?  General answers to these questions might involve fur, relative size of the head or of the eyes, length of the limbs, and so on.

Then there’s the ultimate answer: the evolutionary one.  Is there an evolutionary reason why I find some features attractive and others repugnant? Would such preferences have been adaptive in our ancestors?  Those questions are the bailiwick of evolutionary psychology. And although answers are elusive—and indeed, may be forever beyond our grasp—it’s fun to think about these things.

Although Steve Gould was an implacable enemy of sociobiology, he sometimes indulged in evolutionary psychologizing.  In one of his more famous essays, “A biological homage to Mickey Mouse” (free online), Gould noted that over the fifty years since his creation, the image of Mickey had evolved from a rather etiolated rodential form into a squat creature with a big head, big eyes, and short limbs, which were made to seem even shorter but putting them in clothes.  Here’s a figure from Gould’s essay (do read it: it’s blessedly free of the cant and pomposity that plagued his later efforts):

The evolution of Mickey over half a century: neoteny rules!

Gould even plotted some of these morphological changes (relative head, eye, and cranial vault size), demonstrating that Mickey was undergoing gradual change (I gleefully add that it wasn’t punctuated!) towards the appearance of a juvenile mouse: bigger head, bigger eyes, and larger cranial vault, and that this juvenilization was driven by viewers ‘ preference for a cuter, more anthropomorphic mouse. Mickey was undergoing neoteny: the evolutionary process whereby juvenile features in an ancestor are retained into adulthood in a descendant.  (We humans are supposedly neotenic, resembling a juvenile chimp or gorilla far more than we resemble their adults.)

Gould also argued that the baby animals we love so much (he shows figures of a rabbit, bird and dog) have relatively bigger and rounder heads, and bigger eyes, than do adults—as, of course, do human babies.  He speculates, following Konrad Lorenz, that we have an innate tendency to lavish attention and affection on mammals with these juvenile features, and that this aesthetic preference is adaptive:  those of our ancestors who fixated on the big heads and eyes of babies would leave more offspring than those who weren’t as turned on by the sight of their infants.  Importantly, Gould showed that if natural selection had favored this preference, it could have done so in two ways: a) evolving a hard-wired preference for juvenile morphological traits: we are born with this aesthetic sense, or b) evolving a somewhat flexible “learning module”: we have genes that tell us to favor whatever features appear in our offspring.  The latter explanation is a form of imprinting: presumably if your and everyone else’s baby were suddenly born with small heads and eyes, and long legs and noses, we’d instantly find those features cute.

These questions came to mind again when I read Natalie Angier’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times science section, “Masterpiece of nature? Yuck!” Accompanied by a slide show of butt-ugly animals, Angier briefly touches on evolutionary psychologists’ explanations for why we’re repulsed by some animals.  Her poster child for Animal Ugly is the star-nosed mole.  With her usual panache, she describes getting a photo of one in her email: “A head-on shot of a star-nosed mole, its ‘Dawn of the Dead’ digging claws in full view and its hallmark nasal boutonniere of 22 highly sensitive feelers looking like fresh bits of sirloin being extruded through a meat grinder.” Now that’s a great word picture of this:

Star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata); photo by Gary Meszaros/Photo Researchers

Angier gives the speculations of some evolutionary psychologists, including Denis Dutton (author of The Art Instinct), David Perrett, and Geoffrey Miller; she also cites a recent paper by Trimble and van Aarde showing that, among endangered species in southern Africa, large mammals are way overstudied compared to smaller mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

The message of her piece is this: the reason we find animals cute or ugly is that we’re using criteria that have evolved to help us evaluate members of our own species.  Baby animals are cute because natural selection has, for obvious reasons, made us go all mooshy when we see the big, round head of a human infant.  We don’t like the star-nosed mole because its naked nasal protuberances might, if seen in a human, indicate bad health or bad genes.  (As Dutton says, probably correctly, “No one would find the star-nosed mole ugly if its star were iridescent blue.”).  Likewise for other animal traits that, if seen in humans, would make us avoid them: “We distinguish between the signs of an acquired illness and those of an innate abnormality. Splotches, bumps and greasy verdigris skin mean ‘possibly infectious illness,’ while asymmetry and exaggerated stunted, or incomplete features hint of a congenital problem.”

So, for example, something like the African wart hog, which surely qualifies as an ugly animal, is doubly cursed.  It has not only those wartlike growths on its face, but also patchy hair, both of which remind us of disease.  (Who wants a diseased mate?)  And it has a long, protruding snout—and tusks!  (The alopecia that comes with disease may also explain why many of us are repelled by hairless cats.)

Phacochoerus africanus

Now it’s fun to ponder these issues, and some of these ideas can even be tested.  We could determine, for instance, whether there is a commonality to the features people see as ugly or repulsive in animals, and compare those with similar features in our own species.  Testing ultimate, evolutionary explanations is of course much harder—or impossible.  Nevertheless, in our ignorance it’s still salutary to remember that things are not innately ugly or beautiful.  A warthog is not innately uglier than a panda.  Presumably, a female warthog finds a male warthog the epitome of hotness, and would find a panda noisome. Some of our visual preferences, like our gustatory ones, must reflect the action of natural selection, and be in that way adaptive.  We find a plate of rotten meat repulsive, but to a vulture it’s the equivalent of an ice cream sundae.  As Darwin recognized, our tastes may be no less evolved than our brains or our bodies.

The other day a female friend mentioned that she could never be attracted to Hugh Hefner, despite his wealth: he was simply too old and wrinkled to be sexy.  Female actresses have trouble getting work beyond the age of 40, presumably because males don’t find them attractive.  But there’s no reason why the signs of age—the wrinkles, the gray hair, and so on—are innately less attractive than the dewy freshness of youth.  Could it be that our standards of beauty, or attractiveness, have evolved to fit adaptive ends?  Could we find older people less attractive simply because, being near or past the cessation of reproduction, they’re not good candidates for mates, and that this preference could have been instilled in our ancestors by natural selection?

Do let us remember that beauty in nature is not innate but evolved, and truly in the eye—and brain—of the beholder. Our biology precedes our tastes, or rather, co-evolves with them.  In only one way is the situation reversed: animal breeding*.  There, in the big eyes of the Chihuahua, the short snout of the fluffy Pomeranian, in the round face and small ears of the Scottish fold cat (e.g., Maru, who won), in all the features of animals bred for appearance rather than work, we find our desires, evolved and otherwise, sculpting the beasts in our environment.

Ugly? Moi?

Photo of Sphinx cat by Patrick Matte



*It’s also true of plant breeding, of course.  It’s the (undoubtedly correct) thesis of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire that things like domesticated potatoes, tulips, and apples are simply vegetal embodiments of human taste.

43 thoughts on “Why are animals cute?

  1. Over at PZ-land a few days ago, a female expressed “disgust” at the fact that women try to make themselves look physically attractive in order to find a partner.

    I wondered what she would propose as an alternative…should we start sniffing each others’ butts to see who is an appropriate mate? Require that the losing football team hand over all of its cheerleaders to the winners (a la bighorn sheep)? Go back to arranged marriages?

    1. Kevin August 11, 2010 at 7:51 am:

      Over at PZ-land a few days ago, a female expressed “disgust” at the fact that women try to make themselves look physically attractive in order to find a partner.

      I wondered what she would propose as an alternative … should we start sniffing each others’ butts to see who is an appropriate mate? Require that the losing football team hand over all of its cheerleaders to the winners (a la bighorn sheep)? Go back to arranged marriages?

      There are plenty of other alternatives. (a) Men invest the time and energy necessary to look physically attractive, and women do the choosing. (b) Women invest time and energy in being mentally attractive, and men choose based on mental rather than physical characteristics. And so on.
      It’s also worth pointing out that women are strongly pressured to look physically attractive even when they are not looking for a mate. No-one should be surprised they find this upsetting; it forces them to waste lots of time and energy. Men are not pressured in this way, and that unfairness is the real root of such complaints.

      1. Yes, because men never have any sort of pressure to look good thrust upon them by society.

        Look at your man. Now look at me. Now back at your man. Now back at me…

      2. a) Is already taking place…women REALLY do the choosing, in case you haven’t noticed. Men propose, women dispose. And by and large, they choose on the basis of looks. (They couch it in more-socially acceptable terms…”He has nice eyes”…bullshit; he has a nice ass.)

        Men who want to meet a partner have to pay as much attention to their appearance as women. The “Just for Men” hair-coloring commercials are laughably moronic; but accurate as all get-out.

        b) On what planet would this be occurring? And how would you go about imposing this standard on our species? Even in the Star Trek universe, the men are studly and all of the women look GREAT in tights.

        In the online dating world, there is an exponential increase in responses when the profile is accompanied by a photo. And the more attractive the photo, the greater the response. And male profiles with a photo of a hot guy with his shirt off — off the charts.

        The reality is this: It’s our biological nature to use our visual sense to detect subjective “attractiveness” in a potential mate. This happens with both sexes. In situations of equivalent power/status, people of equivalent attractiveness will gravitate to one another. (Where there is inequivalent power/status, the more-powerful higher-status person will generally be less attractive. I point to Larry King and each one of his many wives and rest my case.)

        We select our mates by sight preferentially over other methods. You might wish this were otherwise, but you might as well wish humans were blue with long tails for all the good it will do you.

      3. My wife points out to me that as men get older, they need to put more attention into their appearance, since the over 55s usually can’t get away with the dero look. (aussie for ‘derelict’). I find this very annoying.

  2. This is a fascinating topic/post… What always puzzled me was that it seems that ‘ugly’ animals appear to be particularly prevalent (I have no data to back this up) in lightless environments, think deep-sea fish, naked mole-rats or said star-nosed mole. Could it be that this has to do with the fact that there is no visually based sexual selection operating in these environments? If that was so, wouldn’t that hint at at least some aesthetic criteria being evolutionarily conserved between humans and the species in which the pretty traits evolved?

    1. An alternative hypothesis would be that humans have already driven the ugly inhabitants of well-lighted environments extinct.
      But, insects are prevalent in well-lighted environments, and most people think they are ugly.

  3. Joseph Campbell talked about our response to “cute” baby mammals in the first chapter of his “Masks of God” series, with a reference to some psychological studies. I’ll see if I can find the reference.

  4. I enjoyed this post more than Angier’s NY times piece. I find her writing at times to be a bit overly clever or cute. Anyways, great post!

  5. Has anyone else noticed that the same features we value in children and pets are also the marks of beauty in grown women? (big eyes, small chin, etc.) However, we tend to judge a man more handsome if he is just the opposite (large jaw, squinty eyes, jutting chin – picture Harrison Ford, John Wayne or Clint Eastwood). Nice-looking men who lack some of those features are generally call “boyishly” handsome, which is a bit of a back-handed compliment – we know who’s more likely to get the girl.

    1. Interestingly, you’ve listed actors that most men think women would find attractive. But ask a selection of young women who’s “hot” in a magazine, and they’ll as often show you pictures of male models with full lips, long eyelashes, hairless chests, hyperdeveloped pecs compared with the other muscular development, slender wrists, weak chins. In short, men who look like women.

      Can’t put my finger on the article to link it, but I seem to recall research that indicated women’s ratings of what features are attractive (masculine vs. feminine) in males is highly variable depending on what phase of the monthly cycle they’re in — I swear I’m not making that up.

      1. That was fascinating! I am a woman like that. I notice that guys sometimes look similar in certain TV shows. They are the ruggedly handsome type. The one example I know by name is the actor, David Boreanaz. Such men set the standard of good looks. However my standards are different. I find the cute type more attractive. Such men look less manly, and they do look more like women. The main difference is cuter facial features. What also helps is long hair. I know women are supposed to have longer hair. But I still think it makes a man look better. Nice long hair is likely sign of great health and hygiene.

        I can find good looking guys in the oldies bands. They were attractive back in the 60s and 70s, even though they would be elderly now. The Beatles were full of cute guys, and girls went crazy over them. The cuter ones are Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. The cutest famous man I have seen is David Jones from the Monkees. It is quite hard to believe that he is an adult, and not a little boy. Even Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones looked great back in the day. I’m not kidding.

        I like Shane Dawson too. He is not a rock star, but a currently popular YouTube guy. I think he looks very nice. My favorite video of his, shows him doing his “emo hair”.

  6. I was under the impression that as women age and as proportions of hormones change there are actual physical changes that make her appearance more male – both in the face (squarer jaw, heavier brow) and body (blurring of ‘female’ curves) – all advertising lowered youth and fertility. If such changes are also associated with signs such as greying hair and wrinkles, those signs themselves become ‘unattractive’. Of course the same applies to men – as they age they tend to lose muscle mass, weight tends to gather round their middle – at the same time as they also become greyer and more wrinkly. Maybe this is simplistic, but things that are not innately unattractive then become associated with signs that one might expect selection to recognise as signs of a less than perfect potential mate.

  7. Great post.

    Some points or possible nitpicks that this layman found curious:

    We humans are supposedly neotenic

    If it can be shown that this is how the desired function evolves, I can accept the rationale behind that description. But being a visitor of WEIT and other biology sites I have gotten the impression most of those functions (large head, large eyes, flat face, small nose, small chin, hairless) have developed for good reasons of their own instead of as beauty measures.

    [IIRC: Large head – large brain; large eyes, flat face – visual communication; small nose, hairless – climate; small chin – verbal communication. Probably many misunderstood by me.]

    cute or ugly

    That would be conflating several different potential functions, wouldn’t it? We would assess others for parenthood purposes (parent-child bonding and health), but also for sexual purposes (mating), social ranking (leadership potential) and social interaction (competition, cooperation).

    It’s a mess, at a guess. And it’s not beautiful.

    Presumably, a female warthog finds a male warthog the epitome of hotness.

    Or she doesn’t care but obeys other imperatives (many partners, hormones, what not; female water striders are blackmailed into having sex by males, presumably to get around the females “chastity locks”). I doubt we can expect species to have the same drive to single out visual (or comparable) characters in partners.

    But on a relative scale among other alternatives, that may still be true in many cases. [“Show me some bacon!”]

  8. Star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata); photo by Gary Meszaros/Photo Researchers

    No you lie! I can recognize a brain mole anywhere! Those goddamn things have wiped out my psions more times than I can count!

  9. The ethologist Niko Tinbergen noted long ago that juvenile vertebrate characteristics–big head, big eyes, etc.– are attractive to, and can release behaviors in, a variety of adult vertebrates. He called this suite of characteristics das Kinderschema, or, as I’ve heard it partially translated, “das baby schema”. Some years ago, my colleague Frank Ross and I developed a “crocodilian cuteness index”, base upon a few head measurements, which seemed to be a good measure of subjective impressions of cuteness of crocodilians, or, to put it another way, why baby crocodilians are cute, but adults not so much.

  10. Related, by slightly OT, to selected cuteness is brain size in domesticated animals. I read that brain mass relative to BMI is significantly less in domestics as compared to their wild counterparts (e.g., the dog versus the wolf). It is argued that domestic animals do not need to be as smart as their wild brethren because we take care of their needs, so their costly mental apparatus has shrunk.

    There is even a claim in a recent pop science magazine (Discover, I think) that human brain size has be falling for the same reason.

  11. I’ve always found attraction interesting. The info in this post raises a lot of interesting questions…

    As morphological changes occur in a species over evolutionary time, does natural selection keep “updating” what members of that species should find attractive? As two populations of the same species evolve in different directions, is the development of reproductive barriers between them due in part to not finding members of the other population as attractive any more?

    I read an article on (human) attraction in Discover many years ago, in which they said (but didn’t explain very well) that “averaging” was somehow involved in our determination of who is attractive – as in, if you take many faces and average them together, the resulting features will be more attractive in general than what you started with (and it’s true, too – they had some pretty hot averages). But I wonder where the averaging stops and the innate preferences (say, for a small waist-to-hip ratio) begin. And which one applies to the human preference for a muscular body? Could evolution really have programmed that certain shapes for a leg look more attractive (as well as certain shapes for an arm, a chest, a back, etc)? It seems like a lot to select for. Or is there more averaging involved in this one?

    1. Good questions, and there are others. Do human females prefer different kinds of animals than do human males, or prefer them with different strengths? One might expect that human females, who were largely the infant caregivers in our ancestors, would be more fixated than males on morphologies like those seen in human babies.

      1. Yes, women do prefer different animals compared to men. Snakes, spiders, and insects are anathema to most of us. Men are more likely to be interested in them.

      2. Most of the women I know are interested in horses for some reason. I know not what. And cats too – for some unknown reason.

        I’m (probably) on dangerous ground here, but I can’t stand cats – the domestic kind I mean, I love the big ones in the wild – and much prefer dogs – at least the “proper” dogs above “lap dog” size.

        I agree with the comment on men most likely being interested in snakes, insects and spiders – I am – and lizards and amphibians too. However, my wife is also interested in those guys as well.

  12. Evolutionary Psychology gets roundly criticized for creating what are, in effect, “Just-So” stories justifying stereotypes and passing them off as science. This criticism is often well founded. Which is a shame because Evo-Psych is an approach that can offer a lot of insight when done carefully.

  13. I would be interested in knowing how blind people go about selecting, and being selected as, a mate. (I’d also observe that, if a blind person is a racist, it would seem it can’t be due to observing anothers physical appearance.)

    By the way, as you get older and occasionally have to breakfast on age-related insults from hubristic adolescents and young adults, a pretty good reply is: “Hey (punk), you do hope to live to at least my age, don’t you?”

    Whatever the reality of mate selection, one can make a rational decision – as a decent person – to refrain from making unsolicited, unprovoked critiques of the alleged chinks in others physical appearances, especially to their faces. I had a high school chum who rarely hesitated to “bless” me with his opinion regarding the physical merits of a female he might see me with.
    At the last high school reunion, he himself by that time being follicularly-challenged, was making noises to the effect that “hair is overrated!”

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  15. Please see the Rules of Cuteness, according to Cute Overload. I think some of their analyses merit further study.

    Cute characteristics associated with human babies also include:
    The stubbular stage
    Tendency to fall asleep in own food/bath
    Slight chubbiness/rounded belleh

    The Cuteologists at CO really know their stuff.

  16. Attractiveness is relative but it’s objectively relative rather than subjective. Objective relativity is like saying one thing is taller than another; a comparison. Aesthetic judgements are always that one thing is more aesthetically pleasing than another. To have ugly you have to have beautiful. To have attractive you have to have repulsive. For example, young vs. aged, fresh meat vs. spoiled, healthy vs. diseased, new vs. worn out, skilfully produced vs. unskilfully produced, expressive vs. inexpressive.

    There’s no reason to posit anything “subjective” here, in the sense of something added by the perceiver that’s not in the environment, and there’s no reason to suppose these judgments are arbitrary. Just as with “tall” or “high” the point of comparison can be oneself, which may give a sense of subjectivity (since there’s no obvious relative point of comparison in the environment). Warthogs compare warthogs to other warthogs. We compare them to other animals and, ultimately, ourselves.

  17. “We find a plate of rotten meat repulsive, but to a vulture it’s the equivalent of an ice cream sundae.”

    Has anybody studied whether vultures prefer rotten meat to fresh given the choice?

  18. I enjoy very much this kind of stories. But I’m always left with the same question. How does the “imprinting” works? Can the genes code structures in the brain? Or do we acquire the likes and dislikes observing babies? In this later case, do the genes still produce some (simpler) brain structure or is a mere question of some hormone production?

    I’ve asked this question to some friends that do know a lot more than I about biology (that’s not difficult), but there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. Is it really useful to make these speculations without knowing a little about the mechanism that supports them? I tend to distrust black box approaches.

  19. Considering how generally annoying and, frankly, pains in a butt babies are, I say Nature made them cute to prevent us from killing them. Same goes for puppies, kittens, etc, etc.

    At least that’s what I used to say after multiple diaper changes or those late night puppy walks. And I’m sure glad I let them live 😉

  20. I would like to know, also, why we want to cuddle our pets more when they’re curled up into a ball. Is that from an instinct to protect sleeping offspring from predators? Also, why do we find furry animals cuter than non-furry ones if humans aren’t furry?

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  22. This is a fascinating analysis of the evolutionary basis of animal cuteness, but it leaves several points unaddressed that, for me, are essential.

    The main theory here is that cute animals remind us of human babies, but this seems grossly oversimplified. Many researchers are too quick to jump on the “it’ because of babies” bandwagon. It’s become like a knee-jerk reaction.

    What of the people who think that “repulsive” animals are adorable, like Great White sharks, snails, worms, spiders, centipedes reptiles and yes, even warthogs? I find all of these creatures, among others, irresistibly cute. They never fail to elicit a “squee” from me.

    Meanwhile, I have always found myself repulsed by human babies. Indeed, being a mother is on my list of things to most avoid in life right after being murdered in my sleep. I also don’t care for mice, hamsters, rabbits, and most of those other animals nearly everyone else is turned to mush by.

    What is the evolutionary basis for finding “unattractive” animals cute but not so much the “cute” ones?

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