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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

The Cherishing of Childhood Excursion

In this excursion we can look more closely at why childhood is so cherished and plays such a major role at Disneyland.  We will do that by looking at neoteny, the retaining of juvenile traits into adulthood.  First, we will look at neoteny as a cosmological calling to childhood, as what “the Universe is asking of us” to paraphrase Brian Swimme (1995, cassette).  We can then take a brief tangent or mini- excursion into the history of neoteny. Finally, we will look at the face of neoteny, which not surprisingly looks like Mickey Mouse!  Remember, as Walt said, "It all began with a mouse."

J. C. Wolf (1979) argues that the desire for eternal childhood “may be the cornerstone of the American concept of utopia” (p. 75).  Although J. C. Wolf views this pathologically, there is another way to view the desire for eternal childhood, in a depth psychological way, and ask: What is so important about childhood that we would erect places like Disneyland and essentially make pilgrimages there?  I can answer this in one word: "Neoteny," but perhaps I need to say more.

In the movie The Graduate (Nichols, 1967), Mr. McGuire, a friend of the family, gives Ben (Dustin Hoffman) a tip for his future.  Mr. McGuire takes Ben outside by the pool and says  “I just want to say one word to you . . . . Plastics . . . there’s a great future in plastics.”  Well I would say "neoteny, there’s a great future in neoteny." Tom Robbins (1990), my favorite author, writes about neoteny in Still Life With Woodpecker, because his typewriter, the Remington SL3, so enjoys the word:

Neoteny is “remaining young,” and it may be ironic that it is so little known, because human evolution has been dominated by it.  Humans have evolved to their relatively high state by retaining the immature characteristics of their ancestors.  Humans are the most advanced of mammals—although a case could be made for the dolphins—because they seldom grow up.  Behavioral traits such as curiosity about the world, flexibility of response, and playfulness are common to practically all young mammals but are usually rapidly lost with the onset of maturity in all but humans.  Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.  (pp. 18-19)

Neoteny, the carrying juvenile traits into adulthood, is one of the things our species is most famous for, and neoteny and plastics it turns out, have a lot in common.  Our neotenous heritage allows our behavior to be flexible, and adaptive; allows for many different things to occur and increases our options. Thus, I feel there is a great future in neoteny.

Montagu (1983), who wrote the book on neoteny, appropriately titled Growing Young says that plasticity of traits and educability is “beyond all other traits, the most neotenous” (p. 74).  Montagu then describes why neoteny is so important:

Success of individuals in most societies has depended and continues to depend upon the ability speedily to evolve behavior patterns that fit them to the kaleidoscope of conditions encountered.  One is best off submitting to some, resisting others, compromising with some and escaping from still other situations.  Individuals who display a relatively greater fixity of response than their fellows suffer . . . and tend to fall by the way.  Suppleness, plasticity, and—most important of all—ability to profit from experience and education are required.  No other species is comparable to the human in its ability to acquire new behavior patterns and discard old ones. (p. 74) 

The fact that we can learn, and have plasticity of mental traits makes us unique as a species and has freed us from “the constraint of a limited range of biologically predetermined responses” (Montagu, 1983, p. 77). So, neoteny it is!

Neoteny—Cosmological Calling to Childhood

Disneyland is a very nostalgic, utopian place.  [Learn more about this on the "Looking-Back, Looking-Forward" excursion located in Tomorrowland]. Maybe this back and forth between nostalgia and utopia that is evident at Disneyland is the secret to our future as well.  Wakefield (1990) points out that “it is the imagination of the child that is conceived as the past and future utopia of the adult” at Disneyland, where adult attendance in the initial decades outnumbered children by four to one. Wakefield further notes that:

The child is seen to represent a state of nature forfeited by the complexity of adult life.  The omnipresence of animals within the Disney world also helps to reinforce the suggestion that it is nature itself that pervades and determines the whole complex of social relations.  (p. 107)

Indeed, neoteny and the return to childhood are intrinsic to our nature as Brown (2002, unpublished manuscript; 2003 unpublished chapter) and Swimme (1995, cassette), both of whom are very neoteneous, share.

Mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme, in Canticle to the Cosmos (1995, casstte) notes that “if you go back to the beginnings, that’s where all the creativity is.”  Whether the beginning of a person, a species or even the universe itself, the core of creativity exists in this childhood state.  Why is this true? Because Swimme explains, as time goes on in development, specialization occurs and this limits the possibilities of creativity.  As a species, we do not have as many “fixed action patterns” or instincts—we have consciousness (sometimes at least) and that provides us a pause to be able to choose different possibilities.  We are designed to be able to choose different possibilities and to more easily do things differently than other species whose behavior is more instinctual.  Swimme points out that biologists discovered that creativity takes place under stress and that new species are created when a species is under tremendous stress:

It is then that the great return takes place, there’s this eternal return that takes place within life, it’s the return to the origins, the return to creativity, so that is a return to novelty, something new under stress, something new is tried and if what comes forth out of the origin of creativity is effective, it's allowed to go forth.  Hominid types came about in this way.

Swimme (1995, cassette) remarks that all creativity is similar to the dynamic tension of the earth, in the balance of tensions between the electromagnetic and gravitational forces.  Quoting the anthropologist Krober, Swimme argues “the proper condition of the human is not bovine placidity, it is in fact the highest degree of tension that can be creatively born.”  Well, it is nice to know that stress is good for something! 

The great apes were under stress and fragmented into gorillas, chimps, and humans, Swimme remarks,  “a very strange creature that never leaves by very much the origin of creativity.” At the beginning of every species, Swimme recounts, and also in the young of every species, there is tremendous activity to create, but then specialization steps in and creative capacity is not as present as before: “all this groping” and exploration take place.  Humans, Swimme (1995, cassette) maintains are born perpetually young in that our adult characteristics are similar to the juveniles of other species.  They grow out of these characteristics, we do not:

Deep within genetic structure of mammals is the opening of creativity, called youth and then a closing down called adulthood. What life does with the creation of humans: is to say we’ll just take infancy and stretch it out and call it a species.  We’re constantly in the creative motion and movement and exploration of a mammalian infant or juvenile. 

In many other species, creativity closes down, and they do not play as much, but human beings are designed by evolution to be perpetual players.  This is where we are "blowing it big time" and what Disneyland is possibly seeking to compensate for.  However, by beginning to specialize earlier and earlier, we are closing down play, our evolutionary gift and heritage. By not giving play the time and space it both needs and deserves, we may be in great danger as a species.  Swimme (1995, cassette) continues that when we opt for a closing down of creativity, “a kind of death takes place within the human—a fossilization takes place that isn’t in our genes, actually a different destiny is called for by the human.”  In the "Mary Poppins" chapter, we will further explore neoteny and play in action, as Mary works her magic on George Banks to reverse this closing down of creativity.

Stuart Brown, a friend and colleague of Swimme’s concurs, and actually introduced Swimme to the concept of neoteny.  In the 1960s, Brown (1969) became aware of the dangers of play deprivation in his research with the “Texas Tower Shooter.” Brown (2003, unpublished chapter) says that the neotenous play state of being is our evolutionary design, and notes that Konrad Lorenz found that neoteny also calls forth tenderness, a nurturing response and invites play in others.  Witness our reactions to children and puppies.  Montagu (1983) explicates quoting philosopher Mary Midgley:

“Creatures that have to deal with helpless and demanding young must be capable of genuine kindness and tolerance. This makes it possible for fellow adults to tap these resources if they behave in a childlike way.”  Mutual relations, she points to can be formed in which both parties can on occasion play both roles.  “It is at the point,” she adds, “long before the emergence of the primates—that nature ceases to be Hobbesian.  Friendship becomes possible.  And it is on such a foundation (however unsuited to human dignity) that the serious business of social life is actually grounded.”  (p. 108)

Disneyland taps into these resources in precisely this way.  [Explore these ideas more in the "Art of the Show" excursion located in Fantasyland.] Through domestication, dogs have been bred for neotenous traits and so retain juvenile features and immaturity into adulthood.  We humans are the dogs of the ape world, and we have the honor of being the least specialized, most designed to play of all species, including the dolphin, according to Brown (2002, unpublished manuscript; 2003, unpublished chapter), because our brains hold onto the flexibility, adaptability, and non-specialization our whole life cycle.  Brown states: “the defining characteristic of our species is this capacity for, (and need of play).” The bottom line from Brown is: "we only have play: we risk it at our peril" (personal communication February 2005).

In addition to the plasticity of mental traits-- being more flexible in habitat, and less specialized in habits, neoteny is expressed in physical characteristics which include a smooth flat face, wide-set eyes, a short nose, non-jutting and smaller jaw, large size of brain, lack of heavy brow ridge, and round-headedness. Montagu (1983), in addition to setting forth these physical characteristics, lists the neotenous drives of the child and devotes almost a quarter of the book to a discussion of these traits in turn.  These traits are are: the need for love, friendship, sensitivity, to think soundly, to know, to learn, to work, to organize, curiosity, the sense of wonder, playfulness, imagination, creativity, openmindedness, flexibility, experimental-mindedness, resiliency, the sense of humor, joyfulness, laughter and tears, optimism, honesty, trust, compassionate intelligence, dance, and song (p. 131).

Brown (2002, unpublished chapter) relates the benefits that neoteny can confer on us if we allow play into our lives and cultivate a playful way of being:

Our “immaturity” helps us handle paradox, allows us to live with inevitable disorder and chaos, keeps us enjoying repetitious variations on a theme--those qualities we most honor as human.   It even insures, if we keep playful, a wide, wide range of non-specialized behaviors, including the capacity for telling humorous stories to our great-great grandchildren. Not bad.

Mencius, the Chinese sage, writes: "the wise man retains his childhood habit of mind” (Montagu, 1983, p. 127).  Swimme (1995, cassette) maintains that the deep dynamic of the child is what our species is all about:  “We’re to be at the core of creativity, to recapture the mind of a child, we find it flooding us, it’s a movement of the cosmos.”  Unfortunately, many adults are not so wise, as Montagu notes:

Adults fail to understand that those childlike qualities constitute the most valuable possession of our species, to be cherished, nurtured and cultivated [all the days of ours lives].  They fail to realize that the child surpasses the adult by the wealth of his possibilities.  In a very real sense infants and children implicitly know a great deal more concerning many aspects of growing than adults; adults, therefore, have more to learn from them about such matters than the later have to learn from adults. (Mendizza and Chilton Pearce, 2003, p. 127)

Much of Montagu’s work on neoteny, along with that of Konrad Lorenz took place in the 1950s, as we will see in the upcoming mini-excursion, which is precisely when Disneyland opened.  Part of the financing for Disneyland was provided by the ABC television network, and as a condition for financing, Disney supplied two television series, Disneyland and the Mickey Mouse Club.  Ten days before the debut of the Mickey Mouse Club in October 1955, Walt summarized his thinking behind the show: 

At our studio, we regard the child as a highly intelligent human being.  He is characteristically sensitive, humorous, open-minded, eager to learn, and has a strong sense of excitement, energy, and a healthy curiosity about the world in which he lives.  Lucky indeed is the grownup who manages to carry these same characteristics over into his adult life.  It usually makes for a happy and successful individual.  Essentially, the real difference between a child and adult is experience.  We conceive it to be our job on the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ Show to provide some of that experience . . . happy, factual, constructive experience whenever possible. (Watts, 1997, p. 340)

Disney intuitively knew the importance of neoteny.  He built Disneyland to capture this spirit and keep it alive. I believe neoteny is what we are truly yearning for, but we settle for the pale copy, the corrupted form which mimics the outward appearance of Disneyland but has lost its true essence, which is neoteny. 

Bryman (1995) discusses the criticisms surrounding the Disney enterprise and Bryman's (2004) most recent book, The Disneyization of Society,  discusses the tremendous impact Disney and Disneyland have had on the world.  Bryman (2004) notes that many have copied Walt’s genius of theming, his ability to use different media to cross market his products, and his creation of the park’s performative culture taught at “Disneyland University.” Society has been not only Disneyfied, which other authors discuss, but Bryman argues, that society has also been “Disneyized,” through through theming, hybrid consumption, performative labor, merchandising, and control and surveillance.  Walt Disney was a master and pioneer in almost all of these areas, they all are a part of the magic that makes Disneyland successful. From shopping malls to urban restoration to Las Vegas, others have sought to incorporate some of this Disney magic, however, there are also large shadows associated with these different things, and Bryman discusses them extensively.  Disneyland works because of these things, but Disneyland is not these things.  Without neoteny, our cosmological calling, they are empty and do not really satisfy, however we think that Disneyizing will be satisfying so we continue to replicate the form without the neotenous substance that is the true magic of Disneyland.

Mini-Excursion--The Roots and History of Neoteny

In this mini-excursion, we can look at neoteny’s roots and its beginnings at the turn of the Twentieth Century, quickly touching on some of the major works concerning neoteny and noting the different names by which this concept has been called, including in the 1950s when De Beer coined the phrase “the Peter Pan Effect.”

Neoteny has an interesting history, which Montagu (1983) extensively chronicles in an appendix, and whose synchronisitic highlights will be noted here.  The term “neoteny” was coined in 1884 by Kollman, to indicate “sexual maturity while in larval or embryonic form,”  although a German embryologist in 1866, used the term paedo (child) genesis (generation) to indicate the same idea.   Montague explicates that Kollman took the Greek neos (youth) and teino, meaning Kollman thought,“to retain or delay.”  Montague argues that the Latin tenere means hold, while teino, means stretch or extend forward.  Either way, both have the same indo-european root, ten I, which encompasses holding and stretching and from which the word entertainment comes as well (Shipley 1984), which Victor Turner (1988) explains is liminal and means “to hold between”  (p. 41). 

Montagu (1983) explains that the word neoteny made its first appearance in English in 1901 in Gadow’s work on Amphibia and Reptiles.  Havelock Ellis, in 1896, in his book Man and Woman clearly described and recognized the importance of neoteny, but did not use that word: “the progress of our race has been a progress of youthfulness” (Montagu, p. 230).  The idea of neoteny was also recognized by various biologists at the turn of the century: Boaz in 1896, and Jackel and Giard both in 1901.  So, we can again see that this period around the turn of the Twentieth Century, yielded yet another important concept that is integral to understanding play.  We will also look at other time periods that are considered in this dissertation, and see what was happening in regard to neoteny at those times.

Ganstang in 1922 called this phenomena paedomorphosis (paedo—child, and morphosis—body formation) “formed like a child”, while Bolk in 1925 called it "fetalization" and recognized that it was primarily a matter of development rather than adaptive change. “He saw anthropogenesis—evolution of man, as the effect of a single functional process, the retention in adult of prehuman fetal or infantile traits” (Montagu, 1983, p. 236). 

Gavin de Beer wrote about neoteny in his 1948 book, Embryology and Evolution of Man and in a 1950 BBC broadcast entitled Peter Pan Evolution called the delaying process of neoteny the “Peter Pan Effect”:

Evolution by neoteny or paedomorphosis may be likened to a rejuvenating effect.  And that, indeed, is what its effect is.  Evolving by neoteny and having moved into a new zone of adaptation, namely the human-made environment or culture, it has become essential to maintain and progressively reinforce this paedomorphic effect.  (Montagu, 1983, p. 246)

Later in 1964, de Beer published The Atlas of Evolution, which discussed and illustrated the workings of paedomorphosis as a factor in evolution.  Meanwhile Konrad Lorenz published Part and Parcel in Animal and Human Studies in 1950:

the constitutive character of man—the maintenance of active, creative interaction with the environment—is a neotenous environment. Gehlen’s recognition of the unique human trait of always remaining in a state of development, Lorenz remarks, “is quite certainly a gift which we owe to the neotenous nature of mankind.” [emphasis in original] (Montagu, p. 249)

Lastly, Montagu himself, in 1955 and 1956 wore two papers, “Time Morphology And Neoteny In The Evolution Of Man and Neoteny” and “The Evolution Of The Human Mind.”  Montagu argues that the transition of ape to man happened through the retention of juvenile brain growth trends and the potential for learning into the adolescent and adult phases of development.

While neoteny has gone by many names over the years, what remains the same is its evolutionary importance, especially to our species.  Montagu, as previouslly mentioned, clearly explains that “the goal of development is to retain these childlike qualities into adulthood, not to abandon them as so many of us have done” (Mendizza & Chilton Pearce, 2003, p. 127).

The Face of Neoteny

You will be able to answer the following question correctly if you read the question to the tune of the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme song: Who’s the best exemplar of the word neoteny? Answer: M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E!  That’s right! Biologist Steven Jay Gould, uses Mickey Mouse as a model for neoteny, and he applies Lorenz’s schema to Mickey’s evolution.  Mickey was not always the adorable creature he has become; like Merlin, he has “youthened,” and has been increasingly neotenized over time in both appearance and demeanor: “Gould demonstrates that the cartoon mouse came to life in 1928 as a somewhat nasty, rambunctious character, but became more loveable as he became a national symbol” (Lawrence, 1986, p.68).  Gould believes that intuitively Disney artists understood what changes would make him cuter and more appealing, though they did not consciously realize the biology behind it.  Lawrence points out that “in his progressive acquisition of youthful features, Gould suggests Mickey Mouses’s evolution mirrors our own” (p. 68).

Lawrence (1986) notes that Mickey Mouse is one of the most highly anthropomorphized and neotenized of all animal figures, and is viewed as a special kind of ageless youngster, whose hopeful, high pitched voice signals that he has not yet gone through puberty, and thus he serves as an escort back to the state of youth:

“Mickey reflects a wish on the part of his creator to recapture some aspect of lost childhood.”  Mickey Mouse has thus been described as “a child’s ego ideal,” who “has a capacity to play,” and “to make play of work.”  Like a child, he goes off to explore whatever strikes his curiosity: Action follows seeing without the interpostion of thinking.” (p. 66) 

Lawrence (1986) contends that our youth-oriented culture extends to the netotenization of our pets and cartoon characters, of which Mickey is the prime example and:

By making our pet and cartoon animals into perpetual children who never grow old, we undoubtedly come to identify ourselves with their juvenile state.  Thus they serve to rejuvenate us and to protect us from the reality of the old age, and the ensuing death that we deny. (p. 70)

Perhaps we might look at the increasing neotenization of our pets and cartoon characters, and the youth orientation of our culture in another way, not only as a way to deny death and old age, but also perhaps as a call to return to our true destiny, the call of the future, neoteny.

Through Mickey, we can reconnect with this part of ourselves and see the world through new eyes, the eyes of childhood, as Walt explained in a radio interviw in the late 1930s: 

Everybody in the world was once a child.  We grow up.  Our personalities change, but in every one of us something remains of our childhood . . . [this] knows nothing of sophistication and distinction.  It’s where all of us are simple and naïve without prejudice or bias.  We’re friendly and trusting and it just seems that if your picture hits that spot with one person, its going to hit that spot in almost everybody . . . that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures can help recall. (Watts, 1997, pp. 160)

Mickey after all put Disney on the map, and his statue appears next to Walt Disney’s at Disneyland’s hub.  Disneyland, also sometimes referred to as “the House of Mouse,” just celebrated its Golden Anniversary, on July 17, 2005.  Over 500 million people have come to visit Mickey at Disneyland over the years and Disneyland, like Disney’s films, were designed for only one audience, the “Mickey Mouse audience” which Walt described:

that audience is made up of parts of people; of the deathless, precious, ageless, absolutely primitive remnant of something in every world racked human being which makes us play with children’s toys and laugh without self-consciousness at silly things, and sing in bathtubs, and dreams, and believe that our babies are uniquely beautiful.  You know, the Mickey in us. (Lawrence, 1986, pp. 70-71)

Disney built Disneyland for the Mickey in us, to help us to reconnect with our neotenous nature, as Thomas (1976) quoting Walt explains:

Disneyland isn’t designed just for children.  When does a person stop being a child?  Can you say that a child is ever entirely eliminated from an adult?  I believe that the right kind of entertainment can appeal to all persons, young or old.  I want Disneyland to be a place where parents can bring their children—or come by themselves and still have a good time. (p. 11)

Waldrep (1993) notes that for children, all of history, essentially occurred in mythical time, because they did not personally live history, even the most recent past.  Waldrep explains that Disneyland may be an attempt to recreate this utopian, mythical, timeless state:

as the planners tap into something like a Jungian “collective unconscious with innate archetypes” or what Benjamin referred to as the “world of symbols.”  The “child’s reception of objects" accomplishes what adults cannot, which is to “discover the new anew.”  The Magic Kingdom is an attempt to recreate in adults at least the memory of this discovery and to fuel the original process in any child who visits the park. (p. 149)

Though Mickey is now almost 80 years old, he still retains his youthful good looks and his childlike behavior.  Mickey is timeless, like Disney’s classic films.  Although timeless, Lawrence (1986) points out that:

Mickey in a fascinating way has always been connected with the element of time, as has one nursery rhyme predecessor, who ran up the clock.  Mickey appears on watch faces all around the world and has for decades since his 1933 debut. (p. 70)

Mickey’s association with time is reminiscent of the Heraclitus fragment which Jung carved on his stone at Bollingen to commemorate his seventy-fifth birthday in 1950: “Time is a child playing like a child, playing a boardgame, the kingdom belongs to the child.”  Indeed, this kingdom, Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom, belongs to the child in all of us.

Essentially neoteny looks backward to childhood and forward to the future at the same time, and this is just what we are about to do in the next excursion where nostalgia and utopia, two sides of the paradisial coin are considered.


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