Saturday, 21 July 2007

Psychological neoteny - defined

*Since writing this piece my understanding has changed and I now believe it contains fundamental flaws. Anyone who would like further clarification is welcome to e-mail me at hklaxnessat-*


The rise of the boy-genius: Psychological neoteny, science and modern life

Bruce G. Charlton

Medical Hypotheses. 2006; 67: 679-681


The mid-20th century saw the rise of the boy-genius, probably because a personality type characterized by prolonged youthfulness is advantageous both in science and modern life generally. This is the evolution of ‘psychological neoteny’, in which ever-more people retain for ever-longer the characteristic behaviours and attitudes of earlier developmental stages. Whereas traditional societies are characterized by initiation ceremonies marking the advent of adulthood, these have now dwindled and disappeared. In a psychological sense, some contemporary individuals never actually become adults. A child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviours and knowledge is probably adaptive in modern society because people need repeatedly to change jobs, learn new skills, move to new places and make new friends. It seems that this adaptation is achieved by the expedient of postponing cognitive maturation – a process that could be termed psychological neoteny. (‘Neoteny’ refers to the biological phenomenon whereby development is delayed such that juvenile characteristics are retained into maturity.) Psychological neoteny is probably caused by the prolonged average duration of formal education, since students’ minds are in a significant sense ‘unfinished’. Since modern cultures favour cognitive flexibility, ‘immature’ people tend to thrive and succeed, and have set the tone of contemporary life: the greatest praise of an elderly person is to state that they retain the characteristics of youth. But the faults of youth are retained with well as its virtues: short attention span, sensation- and novelty-seeking, short cycles of arbitrary fashion and a sense of cultural shallowness. Nonetheless, as health gets better and cosmetic technologies improve, future humans may become somewhat like an axolotl – the cave-dwelling salamander which retains its larval form until death.


The mid-20th century saw the rise of mathematicians and physicists who looked and behaved in a markedly youthful style, and this boy-genius stereotype spread to include most other branches of science. My suspicion is that a personality type characterized by prolonged youthfulness is advantageous not just in science, but in most areas of modern life due to its need for flexible specialization. We are witnessing the evolution of ‘psychological neoteny’, in which ever-more people retain for ever-longer the characteristic behaviours and attitudes of earlier developmental stages.

Perhaps the most famous boy-genius was James Watson around the time he co-discovered DNA. Iconic is the famous 1953 publicity photograph of a gangly, shock-haired Watson gazing-up in wide-eyed wonder as a balding, middle-aged-looking Crick points at a big molecular model [1]. But surveying photos of the discoverers of molecular biology in Judson’s The eighth day of creation [1] the reader sees a parade of youthful enthusiasts. What a contrast between the skinny, bespectacled Max Delbruck (who often wore short trousers) and Victorian images of the bearded-ancient Darwin or the mutton-chop whiskered TH Huxley.

In physics, too, there is a world of difference between the sage wisdom of Einstein and the perpetual youthfulness of his best-known successor Richard Feynman. And despite chronic illness, their popular heir Steven Hawkins even now retains a distinctly ‘schoolboyish’ quality. There are also boy-genius types among scientists like Bill Gates who have become both rich and powerful.

In science, medicine, and most of modern life there has been a powerful and progressive trend toward specialization [2]. Originally science arose by differentiating itself from philosophy, which budded-off theology. Then science broke into physics, chemistry and biology – which have super-specialized into many thousands of sub-disciplines. Consequently, the scientist stereotype has transformed from an omniscient sage, with encyclopaedic knowledge of his whole general subject area, who worked essentially alone; to the current scientific research situation comprising (mostly) teams of super-specialized whiz-kids each of whom know only what is necessary to solve the problem at hand.

It should also be noted in passing that the phrase ‘boy-genius’ must now be taken to include women – since in modern science the whiz-kids are quite frequently female.

Traditional tribal and agricultural societies are characterized by ’initiation ceremonies’ marking very clear-cut transitions between the stages of life: especially the advent of formal adulthood [3]. Indeed, some traditional societies are ‘gerontocracies’ in which age accumulates prestige. But over recent decades in liberal democracies, these transitional ceremonies have dwindled in importance, and often disappeared altogether. The ‘coming of age’ now serves only as an excuse for a party. The reason is that, in an important psychological sense, some modern people never actually become adults – or, if they do, the process is delayed into late middle age when loss of youthful appearance and vitality becomes impossible to deny.

The timing of significant marker points of maturity – such as graduation from college, marriage, first child – which used-to occur at almost fixed ages, are in modern cultures stretched across a much larger time span than in the past, mainly by increasing delays in some individuals. This has been very obvious among educated people, where both marriage and childbearing now quite commonly occur over a span of more than two decades. With such a chronological spread of events, each individual’s experience is now probably unique in its specific combination and timing of such significant events – which further erodes the predictable progress through formal stages of maturity characteristic of traditional societies.

The gradual diminution of initiation ceremonies and indefinite postponement of adopting a stable, integrated adult personality is no accident: these facts recognize that modern societies are characterized by a continual requirement, throughout life, for a child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviours and knowledge [2] and [4]. People need repeatedly to change jobs, to learn new skills and information, to move to new places and cultures, to make new friends – all of these are a cultural novelty for human animals evolved to cope with small hunter gatherer societies of just a few hundred people [1] and [4]. Since mature adults have not evolved to manage these challenges, it seems that people have adapted by postponing their psychological maturation – a process that could be termed psychological neoteny.

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.

But even as whiz-kids dominate mainstream culture, the popularity in modern societies of traditional sources of insight and integration – from Rembrandt and JS Bach to Einstein and Tolkien – implies that a niche will surely remain for the profound repositories of ancient wisdom.


Thanks to Martin Trow, of the University of California at Berkeley, whose wise and deep comments sparked-off this line of thought.


[1] H.F. Judson, The eighth day of creation: makers of the revolution in biology, Jonathan Cape, London (1979).

[2] B. Charlton and P. Andras, The modernization imperative, Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK (2003).

[3] J. Campbell, The masks of god: primitive mythology, Penguin, New York, USA (1991).

[4] B.G. Charlton and P. Andras, Universities and social progress in modernizing societies: how educational expansion has replaced socialism as an instrument of political reform, Crit Quart 47 (2005), pp. 30–39. Full Text via CrossRef

[5] M. Trow, Comparative perspectives on American higher education. In: Martin A. Trow and Thorsten Nybom, Editors, University and society: essays on the social role of research and higher education, Kingsley Publishers, London (1991).

[6] M. Trow, From mass higher education to universal access: the American advantage, Minerva 37 (2000), pp. 1–26.

[7] C.P. Snow, Variety of men, Macmillan, London, UK (1967).

[8] J. Gleick, Genius: Richard Feynman and modern physics, Abacus, London, UK (1994).