Neoteny is a concept in biology that means that animals become sexually mature before they are fully grown. In another way, it can be said that the traits of the youth remain with older individuals.
There are plenty of examples of this in nature. There is, for example, a Mexican salamander, called axolotl, that never really transitions to what we would normally call full grown. It retains its gills on the outside of the body but gets functioning lungs that a full-grown salamander would get. Like a hybrid of a child and an adult.
To undergo full metamorphosis, and become fully grown, is energy-intensive. If the environment does not give a clear advantage to mature individuals, those who are more youthful will have an advantage. Over time, it drives the whole species to become youthful.
The dog, the childish wolf
Somewhat more understandable to most of us is our dear pet, the dog. Or the animal it was from the beginning, the wolf. It can be seen with the naked eye that relatively large dogs such as shepherds look like puppies in comparison to a wolf. But that's not the point. Unlike the natural environment of the axolotl, we humans have been the influencing environment for the selection of dogs for thousands of years. And we have focused on the dog's personality. It should be obedient, loyal, and easy-to-teach. These characteristics are strongest in the young wolf, which has led us to choose the most youthful specimens to breed from. Over time, this has resulted in the modern dog never really becoming an adult.
Now it's starting to get interesting. Imagine that you see a picture with skulls from us humans and our closest relative, the chimpanzee, side by side. The skulls are lined up according to age, where each species has a specimen from a small child, a puberty number, and an adult. What you will see is that the skull of both species is the same in the little child. But then something happens. The chimpanzee develops a clear jaw with sharp canines and a hard skull. But our human cranium looks more or less the same as it did as a child, only that it is bigger. The jaw barely grows, no canines grow out, and the skull is large and delicate, just as it was as a child.
It turns out that we humans are yet another of nature's cases of neoteny, and that is not just our skull. Our whole body is built like a chimpanzee child. We are hairless, have a flat face, big eyes, small nose, small teeth, short arms, and long legs and that we have an upright position, just like chimpanzees when they are small.
You could say that we have had a similar evolutionary trajectory as the dog and the axolotl together. There has been a natural and social selection pressure where more youthful mental abilities have been an advantage. Childish traits such as creativity, playfulness, the ability to learn new things, and fantasies have driven the selection of human race over millions of years. The effect is that we are a very intelligent and adaptable being, but physically incredibly weak and to some extent mentally unstable.
But what makes us unique as human beings are unfortunately the traits that we today still consider to be childish. To dare to fantasize, to invent things without necessarily leading to financial gain, and to participate in play (when adults do it is called sports or games). And above all, learn new things.
What I'm thinking about is the balance of the childish traits vs. the adult ones. And after finding out about neoteny I'm not even sure of what traits are really adult anymore... (as I'm mostly experienced in what human adulthood is, not the chimpanzee version). What is a good balance? What traits should be encouraged and what traits to dampen?
And what implications does this have for our understanding of society and business?
Articles to read for reference: