Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Here I am with my cat Star, fast asleep beside me. She is such a little cutie pie. As a black cat, though, she tries to murder me. When I walk around the house, I often don’t turn on the lights. I know the house well enough that, frankly, I don’t need them. But, when I’m walking with the lights out, she’ll run ahead of me and stand in my path. Unfortunately, as a black cat, I cannot see her when she does this. Fortunately, I’ve only stepped on her once, but believe me, she didn’t like it.
But when the lights are on, she’s enormously cute, so it’s okay. Being a black cat makes sense to me from a survival perspective. Much like a panther, she is very hard to see at night, and I’m sure that, if she were in the wild, she would be a nocturnal hunter. But what has “cute” got to do with survival?
As it turns out, a couple of years back a biologist reported the results of a study that suggested that cute is, indeed, a defense mechanism. The results seemed to indicate that predatory animals are less likely to hunt animals that can be categorized as “cute”.
Of course, human interference influences survival of the cutest. Now, when I adopted Star, yes, she was very cute, but that wasn’t the reason that I adopted her. In fact, I wanted a black cat because of the history of people hunting and killing them believing them to be evil, and I wanted to adopt and adult cat because kittens are more likely to be adopted. Lucky for me, she is very cute and very sweet when she isn’t trying to murder me by running on front of me in the dark.
Humans take in cute and docile animals and protect them and even breed them. We raise plants that produce pretty flowers and nutritional valuable products, protecting them from weeds and animals, all upsetting the normal balance of survival. Cows are nowhere near extinction because we breed and raise them for their meat, although, ironically, with global warming the cows may soon make us extinct with their flatulence. Insert your favorite fart joke here.
The thing that I can’t figure out, though, is the genetic benefit of not hunting “cute” animals. Recently the Capybara has become a popular topic on social media. These are rodents of South America, and, at least on first glance, they appear to befriend all animals, carnivore, herbivore and omnivore. They’re very friendly animals, often adopting the “runts” of other species of animals and raising them, but they often weigh about one hundred and fifty pounds. Predators won’t hunt them, but from what I have seen, they are slow, don’t run, and won’t defend themselves. They seem like the perfect prey, and yet other animals don’t appear to hunt them, at least not routinely.
This makes no sense to me. They weigh nearly as much as I do. As a human, I admit that’s not much meat, but to many predatory animals, I’d still make a good meal. And yes, Capybara’s are very cute. Apparently, being cute and friendly is a great benefit for them, but where is the benefit for the hunters?
I guess not everything can be explained by survival of the species. I know I often try to use this logic to explain a lot of phenomena, but that’s how I am. If I notice something interesting, I try to understand it. This must be why I went into science. I love figuring out mysteries of nature.
Of course, as a species, we are often drawn to “cute” for our own partners. I’ve spoken about this a few times before. In a romantic partner, attraction is often related to lack of genetic or other health issues. Many medical conditions will result in asymmetrical features which are often related to severe health issues, and symmetry is a large part of what people find attractive. Features that are considered feminine are also very attractive to men and are often related to high levels of estrogen and increased fertility. The irony is that because women that are especially effeminate also have been shown to have increasingly difficult periods because of the high levels of estrogen. Of course, higher testosterone levels make men look more manly, which women find very attractive as well. So for our own human sexuality, yes, “cute” is highly desirable in a partner.
As for the point of this blog, I don’t think there really is one. I just find “cuteness” being a natural defense mechanism to be an interesting hypothesis. I do know that animal behaviorists have discovered that elephants find humans “cute”. And who wouldn’t love a cute two or three hundred pound baby elephant roll on them as they play???