Wednesday 13 August 2014

How the notion of 'psychological neoteny' led me to an interest in human fertility, which led me to God

 One of the best-known ideas I came-up-with was also one of the shallowest: Psychological Neoteny.

This is the idea that in modern societies immature psychological attributes are retained into adulthood.

Psychological neoteny generated a lot of mass media interest in the UK, and ended-up featured as one of the big ideas of the year in the New York Times Magazine


The idea came from an editorial I wrote for the journal I edited: Medical Hypotheses:

You will see that - back in 2006 - I approved the trend of psychological neoteny - because I was pro-modernization, and psychological neoteny was an adaptation to the modern condition: a retention of the flexibility, adaptability and curiosity of adolescence into adulthood, leading to an economically and socially useful type of person.


I find it strange that the PN idea somehow found its way into the media. Psychological neoteny now has 8000 'hits' on Google, and somebody put it into Wikipedia - where (amazingly!) it stayed.

Yet I wrote the original article in a couple of hours and mostly as a semi-amusing curiosity - triggered by having noticed several photographs of various (adult) scientists who looked extremely boyish.


Anyway, as the year turned from 2006 towards 2007, I thought a bit harder about this idea that I had so casually thrown-off.

I discussed it a little with my e-mail pen-friend, the late Martin Trow (world expert on the sociology of higher education and a Professor at Berkeley) - who was about 80 years old at the time and full of the wisdom of experience. He made a few remarks about the experience of higher education delaying the psychological maturation process - perhaps even stopping it permanently; contrasting this with what happened early in his life (serving in the armed forces, training as an engineer etc).


I began reading around to look for a good proxy measure of psychological neoteny, and found age of marriage and age of first child (and total number of children) - which led to a follow-up editorial that shows signs of my becoming aware of the dark side of psychological neoteny, and therefore modernity itself.

My conclusion was: "At present it is unclear whether the trend for retaining youthful attitudes and behaviours is overall beneficial or harmful. There are probably social advantages from a population retaining the cognitive flexibility to cope with (or indeed enjoy) rapid change of jobs, locations and friends; and there are economic benefits from delayed parenthood in women. But there will also be social disadvantages from delayed maturity of adults, perhaps impairing social integration among men, and reducing population fertility levels. And, at the individual and personal level, the costs and benefits of PN may be different for men and women, and for people with different priorities."


But this started me thinking on the subject of marriage and families, and that the current trend was obviously unsustainable - and amounted to deliberate genetic suicide.

And about who was 'bucking the trend' for later and later marriage, later starting of families, and ever smaller families.

And this led (via, I think, the work of some 'quant bloggers' such as The Inductivist and Audacious Epigone) to Rodney Stark's research on Mormons. 


In US Mormons I found the exception to the marriage and fertility trends - but in a community that was very 'modern' in terms of many indices such as education, social class, salary, and the occupation of high status positions.

I became very interested in the matter of fertility - and later did some small scale studies of Mormon fertility in Britain:


In order to understand Mormon exceptionalism with respect to fertility, I read a lot about Mormonism. I enjoyed what I read, so I kept going. And I read Rodney Stark's book Discovering God.

I was already pretty expert on 'comparative religions' but from the perspective of New Age spirituality - and had supervised a PhD on the psychology of religiosity, which was (much later) published:

And of course I was already reading CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien...


So, all of these came together in some way and I became a theist, and then a Christian; and/ but a Christian who from the beginning regarded Mormonism as an exemplary Christian denomination of modernity; because (missing-out lots of other factors, including some very important people) it was my interest in Psychological Neoteny which led to an interest in marriage and fertility, which led to Mormonism, which led to Stark, which led to theism, which led to my conversion to Christianity.  


Anonymous said...

I love long trains of thought like this. I often say things that seem out of place in conversation and have to explain how one thing reminded me of another, which reminded me of another and so on until something reminded me of the apparently out of place comment I made.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JLC - Yes. And it isn't the half!

I have previously written other - almost completely different, almost non-overlapping - accounts of my conversion:

They are all true - but all grossly incomplete.

Adam G. said...

I've sometimes thought that the Mormon advantage might just be the early missions they send us on, since it makes you grow up in a hurry.

We were having a discussion on marriage in my Elders' Quorum yesterday. My brother-in-law was visiting. He's an adult convert. He said that the difference in attitude between most Mormons and his gentile friends and family is that most folks these days think of marriage as something that happens to you after you discover that maturity has happened to you, whereas Mormons see marriage as part of maturing. He said it was refreshing to discover that being grown-up was something you could just choose to do.

Nicholas Fulford said...

I agree that maturation in a social sense is retarded by childhood-extended.

There is a tendency to avoid manning-up if it is possible, and now it is even encouraged. Many young people do not acquire the basic skills required for life and are so sheltered from *real life* until it can no longer be avoided. Man-boys in-particular seem to be a problem with their virtual digital distractions in immersive gaming environments.

For a liberal, I am about to sound dreadfully conservative.

A stint in a paramilitary organization during or after high school and before university has something to commend it. I was in the military reserves from late high school to my second year in university. I learned that there are things that others in authority actual can do to you if you don't adapt and socialize in the ways that are expected. It forced me to get into decent physical shape, and to both rely upon and be relied upon by others to do difficult jobs that I previously did not think I could do. It forced me to learn certain real life skills, and to suppress inappropriate behaviours.

In conjunction with this, high school needs to offer some practical life skill courses, since having youth that are ill equipped to perform the daily tasks of life is a clear problem.

And people need to be allowed to fail, not coddled through the system. To fail is not the same as being a failure, and sometimes failing teaches in ways that being allowed through does not.

In the not too distant past, life was a sufficient teacher because the family had to cooperate to get through. Hardship enforced the acquisition of life skills and the need for familial and communal cooperation.

Once manned-up and socialized, there is no reason not to rediscover some of the unfettered and creative joys that we associate with youth.

Fetishizing youth - which our society does - is extremely foolish.