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A Harvard psychologist explains how our once-helpful instincts get hijacked in our garish modern world.

Our instincts―for food, sex, or territorial protection― evolved for life on the savannahs 10,000 years ago, not in today’s world of densely populated cities, technological innovations, and pollution. We now have access to a glut of larger-than-life objects, from candy to pornography to atomic weapons―that gratify these gut instincts with often-dangerous results. Animal biologists coined the term “supernormal stimuli” to describe imitations that appeal to primitive instincts and exert a stronger pull than real things, such as soccer balls that geese prefer over eggs. Evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett applies this concept to the alarming disconnect between human instinct and our created environment, demonstrating how supernormal stimuli are a major cause of today’s most pressing problems, including obesity and war. However, Barrett does more than show how unfettered instincts fuel dangerous excesses. She also reminds us that by exercising self-control we can rein them in, potentially saving ourselves and civilization. 55 illustrations
Year:
2010
Edition:
First Edition
Publisher:
W. W. Norton & Company
Language:
english
Pages:
224
ISBN 10:
039306848X
ISBN 13:
9780393068481
File:
PDF, 10.55 MB
Download (pdf, 10.55 MB)

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Also by Deirdre Barrett:
Waistland
Trauma and Dreams

The Pregnant Man and Other Cases
from a Hypnotherapist’s Couch
The Committee of Sleep
The New Science of Dreaming

Supernormal
Stimuli
H ow P rim a l U rges O verran
T h e ir E v o lu tio n a ry P u rp o s e

Deirdre Barrett

W . W . N o rto n & C o m p a n y
N e w Y o rk

*

Lond on

Copyright © 2010 by Deirdre Barrett

All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
First Edition
For information about permission to reproduce
selections from this book, write to Permissions,
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110
For information about special discounts for bulk
purchases, please contact W. W. Norton Special Sales at
specialsales@wwnorton.com or 800-233-4830
Manufacturing by The Courier Companies, Inc.
Book design by Judith Stagnitto Abbate / Abbate Design
Production manager: Andrew Marasia
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Barrett, Deirdre.
Supernormal stim uli: how primal urges overran their
evolutionary purpose / Deirdre Barrett. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-393-06848-1 (hbk.)
1. Evolutionary psychology. 2. Behavior evolution. I. Title.
BF698.95.B36 2010
155.7—dc22
2009037078

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110
www.wwnorton.com
W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W lT 3QT
1 234 56 78 90

■ ■/

//,

■ ' ' ■ S '

Chapter 1 • W hat Are Supernormal Stim uli?

1

Chapter 2 • Making the Ordinary Seem Strange

6

Chapter 3

• Sex for Dummies

29

Chapter 4

* Too Cute

52

Chapter 5

• Foraging in Food Courts

75

Chapter 6

♦ Defending Home, Hearth, and Hedge Fund

105

Chapter 7

» Vicarious Social Settings from Shakespeare
to Survivor

132

• Intellectual Pursuits as Supernormal Stim uli

159

Chapter 8

Conclusion: Get Off the Plaster Egg

176

Acknowledgments
Notes
Illustration Credits
Index

179
181
199
201

What Are Supernormal
Stimuli?

“ he European C; uckoo, whose distinctive call issues from

1

bur cuckoo clocks, seems more goofy than sinister. How­

ever, this creature is the leading example of a brood para­

site. A female cuckoo will sneak into the nest of another species
when the parent bird is away and lay an egg, shoving a rightful
one out so the count will be correct. She flies away to repeat
this in other nests, leaving the care of her progeny to the unsus­
pecting adoptive parents.
The cuckoo egg resembles those of the host but it’s often a
hit larger or brighter. The nest’s owner sits on the cuckoo eggs
preferentially if there are too many to keep warm. When the
baby cuckoo hatches, its beak is wider and redder than the
other chicks’. If there are any other chicks. The mother cuckoo
has already dumped one egg, and the baby cuckoo tries to push
remaining eggs or newly hatched siblings to their death. The

2 * Supernormal Stimuli

Baby cuckoo fed by foster parent.

cuckoo enacts the Cinderella story in reverse: the stepmother
gives Cinderella all the attention while her ugly stepsisters go
wanting.1
Tragicomic dramas play out in every arena of animal life.
Put a mirror on the side of a beta fighting fish’s aquarium and
the gaudy iridescent male will beat himself against the glass
attacking a perceived intruder. A hen lays eggs day after day
as a farmer removes them for human breakfasts— 30,000 in a
lifetime. Not a single chick hatches but she never gives up try-

W hat Are Supernormal Stimuli? * 3
ing. Male barn swallows have light brown chests and females
ch oose the ones with the most intense color as an indication of
Illness. Scientists with a $5.99 felt-tip marker can darken the
chest of a previously scorned male, and suddenly females line
up to mate with him.2
These animal behaviors look funny to us . . . or sad . . . the
reflexive instincts of dumb animals. But then there’s a jolt of
recognition: just how different are our endless wars, our mod­
ern health woes, our romantic and sexual posturing?
Human instincts were designed for hunting and gather­
ing on the savannahs of Africa 10,000 years ago. Our present
world is incompatible with these instincts because of radical
increases in population densities, technological inventions,
and pollution. Evolution’s inability to keep pace with such
rapid. change plays a role in most modern problems.
Animal biology developed a concept that is crucial to
understanding the problems instincts create when discon­
nected from their natural environment—that of the supernor­

mal stimulus. Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen coined this term
idler his animal research revealed that experimenters could
create phony targets that appealed to instincts more than the
original objects for which they’d evolved. He studied birds
that lay small, pale blue eggs speckled with gray and found
they preferred to sit on giant, bright blue ones with black polka
dels. The essence of the supernormal stimulus is that the exaggerrated imitation can exert a stronger pull than the real thing.
Supernormal stimuli explain why other birds give the baby
cuckoo more attention than their own young; why the unyield­
ing, invulnerable fish in the mirror provokes such a violent
attack; why the faux-feathered lothario gets all the girls.

4 • Supernormal Stimuli

Many evolutionary concepts have been applied to human
behavior by biologists. Some have crossed over into popular
conversation. However, the importance of supernormal stim­
uli has not yet been fully appreciated in either arena—until
now. In the pages that follow, I appropriate the term to explain
a broad array of human folly.
Animals encounter supernormal stimuli mostly when
experimenters build them. We humans can produce our own:
candy sweeter than any fruit, stuffed animals with eyes wider
than any baby, pornography, propaganda about menacing
enemies. Instincts arose to call attention to rare necessities;
now we let them dictate the manufacture of useless attentiongrabbers. My last book, Waistland, explored how supernormal
food stimuli have produced our obesity crisis. The present
book applies the concept to sex, health, international relations,
and media. I also draw on other ideas from animal ethology

W hat Are Supernormal Stimuli? * 5
a d evolutionary psychology that further illuminate the dis­
connection of instincts from their natural environment.
It’s not all bad news. Once we recognize how supernor­
mal stimuli operate, we can craft new approaches to modern
predicaments. Humans have one stupendous advantage over
other animals—a giant brain capable of overriding simpler
instincts when they lead us astray. This book emphasizes the
importance of recognizing when we need to push the override
button.
Chapters 3 through 8 each examine a particular modern
problem. But first, Chapter 2 describes how Tinbergen dis­
covered supernormal stimuli and related concepts. I devote
significant space to this man’s quirky life story because his dis­
tinctive personality, his extraordinary family, and the events of
World War II all contributed to why he was able to step outside
the perspective of his culture—and at times his species—to
examine human instincts and behaviors with such remarkable
objectivity. Chapter 2 concludes with a summary of how etholi>gy, evolutionary anthropology, and psychology have built on
Tinbergen’s insights in the years since.

Making the Ordinary
Seem Strange

P \ orn in 1907 in The Hague, Niko Tinbergen grew up as the
l“N second of five in a family that would produce what none
\—J other has before or since: two Nobel Prize-winning sib­
lings. Tinbergen’s parents were both schoolteachers. They
showered praise on studious oldest brother Jan, while Niko
considered his youngest brother, Luuk, the brightest in the
family. As a middle child, Niko “only just scraped through,
with as little effort as I judged possible without failing.”1
The main biography of Tinbergen, written by his former
graduate student, Hans Krunk, is strongest in describing how
his scientific theories developed.2 Krunk takes Tinbergen at his
word in portraying the family as “happy and harmonious,” his
father as “a hard worker and intellectually stimulating,” and
his mother as “warm and impulsive.” There is frustratingly
little information to explain how the family developed rifts

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange * 7
ho

profound that some didn’t speak to others for decades or

why they ignored major depressions among their members and
oven the eventual suicide of one.
More is known about Tinbergen’s early passion for watching fish and fowl. In a pond in the Tinbergen backyard, Niko
could observe stickleback fish, frogs, and waterbirds. He
roamed nearby woods and beaches, sometimes with little
brother Luuk in tow, finding more exotic wildlife.
Niko joined the Nederlandse Jeugdbod voor Natuurstudie
(N) 1ST; roughly translated as the Dutch Youth for Nature Stud­
ios).This club organized hikes and summer camps—like the
Hoy Scouts, except members were of both genders aged 12-23,
mid there was no adult supervision. “Boys and girls mixed
h'ooly—highly unusual, even as late as the 1950’s, but any­
thing sexual was frowned upon,” a fellow NJNer recalls. “We
were very chaste, and established couples were not expected
to even hold hands in company.”3
Dutch society of this era opposed hunting; wildlife had
boon decimated by early settlers and was only just recover­
ing. Niko embraced this policy in his youth. He stalked animills only to photograph, draw, or simply observe them, but he
would later come to describe this as an offshoot of the natural
Instinct for hunting.
Niko’s images of birds appeared in NJN’s annual calendars
and be wrote for their magazine, The Amoeba. One early artif In anticipated his focus on the relevance of animal behavior
loi humans: “With careful observation of the intimate life of
tlm birds, you recognize yourself in all their expressions, and
that is the value of birding. However strange it may sound,
nvnryone best recognizes his own faults when he sees them

8 * Supernormal Stimuli
made by someone else.”4 Luuk followed Niko’s lead, joining
the NJN and beginning to draw for The Amoeba.
Upon graduation from high school, oldest brother Jan
enrolled at the University of Leiden, the best school in the
Netherlands. He commuted from home as he studied physics.
Niko was initially unsure whether he wanted to attend college.
He considered becoming a professional photographer or forest
ranger. These nonacademic possibilities alarmed his parents,
and they persuaded a biologist friend to employ him at a birding reserve after graduation. Two months there convinced Niko
that he could pursue his fascination with wild animals while
earning a degree in biology, so he enrolled at Leiden halfway
through the fall semester. He remained a lackluster student but
continued in the biology doctoral program.
Toward the end of graduate school, Niko discovered one
of the largest known colonies of bee-wolves, a type of digger
wasp. Named for their prey, they intrigued him with their
skillful hunting of other stinging insects. Niko wondered how
the wasps could fly so far afield and yet unerringly locate their
tiny burrow upon returning. Darwin’s writings of fifty years
before were well accepted by Dutch biologists, but most had
focused on his ideas about the evolution of structures. The
conventional approach to assessing what animals could see or
smell was to dissect nostrils and eyes. Tinbergen focused on
Darwin’s assertion that behavior had evolved intricacies equal
to those of structure and much could he learned by observing
animals in action.
Niko placed pinecones around the wasp nests, leaving
them for a few hours of training. Then, while the wasps were
out, he moved the cones to a new mound. A wasp would

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange - 9
return with a bee, land amid the cones, and search in vain for
the hole. Niko found that placing inconspicuous pine-soaked
cardboard by the entrance and moving that did not result in
Ilie wasps following it to a new location, proving smell was not
a factor. Brightly colored paper moved around did not influ­
ence them either—their cues were visual but they only noticed
lliree-dimensional objects and not color.
This systematic method of intervening one stimulus at a
lime, without otherwise disrupting the lifestyle of wild spe­
cies, would revolutionize what could be learned by biologists.
When it came time for Niko to write a dissertation, however,
lie summed up the bee-wolf results simply, underplaying the
novelty of his approach. His dissertation was 29 pages long. “It
must have been one of the shortest theses in the history of biol­
ogy,” observes biographer Krunk. “Several hundred pages then
was the norm.”5 Tinbergen was barely awarded his PhD after
much debate among his professors, but he gained something
academic honors could not have given him. Krunk wrote, “If
Niko had been taken on for a PhD in some strong research
group, he would not have developed the idea for field experinitml the way he did. He followed his own lead, set his own
■|Uostions, and used his own arguments. The Leiden professors
tolarated, but hardly guided him.”6
I

Ipon graduating, Tinbergen obtained a fellowship to take

Imi t in an expedition to study wildlife in Greenland. He mar■luiI a young woman he’d met in the NJN, Lies Rutten, who
lot towed him northward. Niko and Lies soon left the rest of the
=i imilists and traveled up a small fiord to an area inhabited by
limit, then referred to by westerners as “Eskimos,” and lived
ihum lor the year.

10 * Supernormal Stimuli
Most Dutch would have been lost on the dazzling bluewhite tundra. Hunting and fishing were the main source of
food, dogsleds and kayaks the only transportation. But Niko
and Lies thrived. The Inuit taught Tinbergen to paddle a kayak
and right an overturned one in icy water. He became a skilled
marksman, using a traditional Inuit white screen to stalk seals,
returning upstream with the carcasses on the back of his kayak.
When the Inuit killed many more birds or seals than they both­
ered to retrieve, Tinbergen recorded this matter-of-factly, never
criticizing their practices even in his private diary. Despite his
interest in animals, he wasn’t inclined to make friends, much
less pets, of them. The Inuit attitude toward sled dogs as cap­
tive work animals, beating them and killing them once they’d
outlived their usefulness, never disturbed him.
Some of Tinbergen’s habits appeared eccentric to the Inuit,
however. He spent hours recording the movements of birds—
which were no more special to the Inuit than rocks or blades
of grass. The Inuit view of animals as intricate but soulless
machines may have influenced Tinbergen’s later science—it
certainly dovetailed with the approach he was developing. His
budding field of ethology simply described behavior, never
speculating on internal states.
Tinbergen’s grant was to study snow buntings. Other closely
related buntings were known to be highly territorial, but a pre­
vious biologist visiting Greenland had reported that the snow
bunting did not defend territory. It soon became apparent that
this predecessor was wrong: he'd been there only part of one
year. Tinbergen discovered that territorial behavior was tied
to reproductive season: it mattered to the males when court­
ing mates and to both genders when feeding their young. This

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange * 11
association of territoriality to resources was a theme to which
Tinbergen would return with other species. We revisit it later
in this book in light of how humans—originally nomadic—
liave become so territorial.
Tinbergen also observed ground-nesting terns and became
interested in the fact that, if an egg was dislodged from the
nest, the terns rolled it back into place. This seemed an opportunity to test how terns recognized their own eggs much as
lin’d experimented with how wasps recognize their burrow.
Tinbergen placed eggs of other birds near the terns’ nests,
finding they would retrieve a variety of colors and sizes. This
model eventually led to the discovery of supernormal stimuli,
I>ni Tinbergen played with it only briefly that year, realizing
lliis research could be continued with gulls back home.
When Tinbergen returned to Holland, his brothers were
a Iready excelling in academic pursuits. Jan had written a disorlalion (a lengthy one) on the application of certain prini Iplos from physics to economics and was established as an
economics professor in Amsterdam.7 Luuk, as a 19-year-old
undergraduate in biology at Leiden, published a book on identilying birds, illustrated with his own drawings.
Niko became an instructor in Leiden’s biology department
hiuI ill

this point he began to come into his own. He published

In . observations on the birds of Greenland for both scientific
|imimils and popular magazines. Laden with Inuit artifacts and
ini'

of life on the tundra, he and Lies were exotic and sought-

sHm among the academics of Leiden. Tinbergen developed a
“ iiiso for undergraduates on animal behavior and led a field
imu lieu in for graduate students, who rushed to work with
Mm I In set one group to observing the colony of wasps from

12 * Supernormal Stimuli
his dissertation, another to continuing egg-rolling experiments
with geese.
Tinbergen and his students also studied the stickleback—
the most common freshwater fish in Holland. The male has a
brightly colored red underbelly; it vigorously defends a terri­
tory and builds a nest in the center. Other males who enter the
territory are attacked, but females are guided toward the nest
to lay eggs. Sticklebacks continue these rituals when scooped
out of ponds and installed in aquariums.
Tinbergen and his students constructed model fish and
spent hours leaning over the tanks, “swimming” the dummies
around. At first these were just dead fish on wires, but later
they carved and painted wooden ones. Systematically varying
the wooden models, they established that it was redness of the
underbelly that signaled “male to attack.” Sticklebacks didn’t
attack a realistically shaped model if its belly wasn’t red, but
violently pursued very unfishlike shapes with red undersides.
Males in aquariums by the window went into attack mode
when a red postal van drove by.
Color wasn’t the determinant for detecting females; males
escorted carved wooden models to the nest if they had the
curved belly of an egg-bearing female. They preferred the
model with the roundest stomach.
The most interesting of Tinbergen’s discoveries was that
dummies could surpass the power of any natural stimuli. Male
sticklebacks ignored a real male to fight a dummy brighter red
than any natural fish. They’d choose to escort an exaggeratedly
round-bellied model over a real egg-bearing female. Simulta­
neously, Tinbergen and other students studied geese and found
similar patterns. The characteristic that determined which egg

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange * 1 3
a goose would roll back into
11io nest—color, size, mark­
ings—could be exaggerated
in dummy eggs. The graylag
goose ignored its own egg
wIdle making a heroic attempt
to retrieve a volleyball.
Luuk

joined

Niko

in

experimenting with a variety
til birds. Song birds aban­
doned their pale blue eggs
dappled with gray to hop on

Niko Tinbergen painting dum m y eggs.

black polka-dot Day-Glo blue dummies so large that the birds
i onstantly slid off and had to climb back on. Once a chick
halched, parents preferred to feed a fake baby bird beak on a
dick if the dummy beak was wider and redder than the real
•ii ink’s. Hatchlings begged a fake beak for food if it had more
dramatic markings than their parents’.
Tinbergen named the phenomena of his exaggerated dum­
mies “supernormal stimuli.” He published papers outlining the
i micept that instincts were coded for a few traits and amplifii alien of these traits could easily fool animals. While he was
working on supernormal stimuli, Tinbergen read a theoretical
article, “On Instinct,” by a young German biologist, Konrad
l.omnz. Intrigued by this broader framework for his experi­
ments, Tinbergen persuaded the department to invite Lorenz
in lecture.
I,orenz was “a large man in every sense,” according to biogmpher and former student Krunk, “with a shock of hair and
been I—an ebullient extrovert, always the soul of the party who

14 • Supernormal Stimuli
needed to impress.”8 His style was as flamboyant as Tinbergen’s
was understated. Lorenz was “unashamedly anecdotal, living
proof that eccentric inspired guesses are frequently the basis of
scientific progress,” recalls another former student, Desmond
Morris. “His whole life-style seemed to be an animal-infested
chaos.”9 Unlike Tinbergen, Lorenz kept pets—and not just
standard ones like dogs. Goats and geese overran his house.
Different as the two men were, they shared an endless fascina­
tion with animal behavior and bonded immediately.
Lorenz invited Tinbergen and his family to visit him out­
side Vienna. They stayed four months. “Whenever they were
together in the same room, the air would be full of their tales
and roars of laughter,” recalled Krunk. They studied geese and
discovered what they termed “an instinct-releaser”: when they
rolled an egg out of a goose nest, the mother began motions to
retrieve it. These continued even if someone took the egg away
while she was halfway through the process. They discovered
“imprinting”—a few hours early in the life of goslings when
whatever is in front of them becomes what they will follow
throughout their youth. Usually this is the mother goose, but
broods imprinted on Lorenz’s wading boots and followed him
in single file just as other broods did their mothers.
Ethology texts to this day feature photos and sketches of
Lorenz with the ducklings trailing him, wild birds perching
on him, small mammals draped around him as he clowns and
experiments. These exist only because, for those four months,
the flamboyant Lorenz was constantly in the company of the
quiet photographer and illustrator Tinbergen—and Tinber­
gen was generating half the ideas for the antics. “This sum­
mer with Niko Tinbergen was the most beautiful of my life,”

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange * 1 5

Knmad Lorenz with his imprinted geese in a photo [left] and in his whimsical self-portrait [right).

Lorenz later wrote. “What we did scientifically had the charnelor of play and, as Fredrich Schiller says, ‘Man is only then
complexly human when he is at play.’ Niko and I were the
perfect team.”10
Back in Leiden, Tinbergen continued these explorations,
now grounded in Lorenz’s theoretical concepts. He studied
hill lerflies and found that marks on the torso of the female and
its vibratory movements were the sole mating releasers—he
i mild construct dummy butterfly torsos with brighter stripes
mid more regular movements. Males would ignore a live,
inceptive female to mount cardboard cylinders that didn’t
even need wings!
The friends’ careers and the new field of ethology seemed
hiimehed on a glorious trajectory. But it was not to be that
Min pie. While Tinbergen and Lorenz had spent the summer
•'I 11)37 outside Vienna observing territoriality and aggression
in geese, Adolf Hitler was building up Germany’s military and
eyeing the rest of Europe.

The following year, the Nazis gained influence in Austria
and Lorenz was pressured to join the party to keep his job; he
lid With the “Anschluss” German annexation of Austria, the

16 * Supernormal Stimuli
Catholic influence on the government crumbled and barriers
to Darwinism disappeared with it. Lorenz found it easier to
get funding under the new regime. He published papers on
the effects of domestication on animals and men with some
overtones that probably appealed to Nazi views on race though
there was nothing patently offensive or scientifically wrong
in the papers. He hoped this was as far as the Nazi jugger­
naut would impact him. But a year later, he was drafted. On
a form asking what special skills he had, he listed motorcycle
mechanics: that would have kept him away from the battle­
field. Instead, the Nazis decided he’d studied enough anatomy
and psychology to be a medic and sent him to the front lines.
Meanwhile in Holland, only the eldest son of each family
was subject to the draft. Jan declared himself a conscientious
objector. This was not complacency about the Nazis nor was it
cowardice. (Lorenz’s behavior may have been either or both.)
Jan advocated the economic principle that violent confron­
tation was always destructive for both sides, that there were
always two losers. He proposed radical economic sanctions as
the only way to stop Hitler; at this point, the U.S. and many
other countries were still trading with Germany. Niko, immune
from the draft once Jan’s C.O. status was approved, continued
teaching until the Nazis invaded Holland. Leiden University
was first to clash with them over attempts to fire all Jewish fac­
ulty. Niko was at the front of the protests. The Nazis closed the
university; Niko and twelve other faculty members were sent
to Beekvliet, which history has referred to as a “hostage camp”
rather than a prison camp.
Beekvliet was a surreal place: a converted Catholic semi­
nary. It was elegant in its common areas but men slept in mod-

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange * 1 7
iiHt dormitory-style housing, six to a room. Before Niko arrived,
IItree men had been taken from their beds and shot in retalinlion for railway sabotage by the Dutch resistance. One more
prison inmate was executed after Niko arrived but then the killings stopped. The Nazis were holding powerful Dutch there as
hostages to intimidate the country, but they were treated better
Ilian most “free” Dutch. After those first killings, the threat of
execution faded into the background. Hot meals were served—
continuing even into Holland’s “winter of starvation,” when
lim rest of the country was lucky to find stale bread. There was
In il running water for daily baths.
Hostages were allowed to engage in whatever pursuits they
liked. The camp owned a Steinway piano and several worldi less musicians imprisoned there gave regular concerts. A
Imnous hostage artist offered a class in portrait drawing which
III ko attended. Inmates organized lectures on electromagnetism,
I >iit cl 1 history, Sophocles, and hieroglyphics. Niko lectured on
Iits findings in animal behavior. “If you did not know that you
Bin a hostage, you would think yourself at some interesting
1 1 inference,”11

Niko wrote in one letter home. He completed

two hooks there: one a children’s version of the stickleback
Mery, illustrated with his drawings and written largely for his
a children—though it was eventually published. The other
‘viifi an academic work on instinctual releasers and supernor­
mal stimuli. He met a publisher imprisoned at Beekvliet who
mi i opted

it, so publication was underway by the time he was

iolnilNud.
When Lorenz heard that Niko was in a hostage camp he
into to Lies, offering to intercede with the Nazis. She wrote
i>ai 1 icily that they wanted no Nazi help. Lorenz was not in

18 • Supernormal Stimuli
a position to help anyone for long. He was captured by the
Russians.
Unlike Beekvliet, Lorenz’s camp did not allow letters in or
out, so most of his family and colleagues, including Tinbergen,
thought him dead for three years. But Lorenz survived toler­
ably. “I was never in a really bad camp,” he later wrote. “If
the prisoner kapo was an honest man and the Russian officer
too you could live in perfect health.”12 Lorenz was well-liked
by fellow prisoners and guards—though he intimidated a few.
One exploit in particular added to his reputation. Seeing him
about to catch a large tarantula, a Russian guard warned him of
the danger, saying that it was very poisonous. Lorenz promptly
picked up the spider and, safely gripping the head and thorax,
bit off and consumed the fleshy abdomen. This sent the guard
“running and screaming into the steppes of Kazakhstan,”
according to Lorenz. Spider eating was not all display; Lorenz
believed the extra protein was a good addition to the prison
diet. He was already in the habit of tasting whatever bugs were
eaten by the birds he studied. He derided western scientific
expeditions which sometimes starved after losing their sup­
plies—there was actually food all around them.
There was no paper at Lorenz’s camp—that was one of the
reasons there were no letters out. But he was as determined
as Tinbergen to continue his work and he wrote on emptied
dark flour sacks with a pen filled with bleach. There was not
much wildlife to observe, but he applied his scientific method
to whatever appeared. All of the prisoners were infested with
fleas. Lorenz noticed that some of his fleas occasionally began
pirouetting, unlike any of their other movements. Consistent
observation established that it was male fleas that did this and

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange * 1 9
it ml a female had always just landed on that area of his skin. It
was a flea courting dance. He wrote a paper about this that was
lalor published. (It’s a phenomenon that “trained” flea circuses
pul to good use.) But mainly Lorenz wrote a book reflecting on
llio research he and Tinbergen had done together. When the
war finally ended and German prisoners were released, Allied
gatekeepers along the road home noticed his contraband sackmanuscript. One made him sign an oath swearing they were
indeed scientific papers, but he persuaded all to allow the Ger­
m a n document to pass.

Tinbergen was released from Beekvliet shortly before the
end of war. He joined Lies and the children in the country­
side where they were living with her sister’s family. Before
Ilm invasion, Luuk had married a young Jewish woman. The
•«tuple was in hiding, eventually occupying Niko’s house in
(lie cily. Luuk and his wife were in grave danger, and many
people Tinbergen knew died in the war. One of his old prolf on>rs perished in the famine and the graduate student who
spearheaded the stickleback research was killed in a battle
<villi die Germans. However, everyone in the Tinbergen family
survived until the Nazis retreated.
Leiden University reopened and science resumed. Tinber■n heard that Lorenz was alive, but the two made no attempt to
ouliiit each other, even as books based on their joint research
ame out and they continued their related careers. In 1945,
linhergen wrote to a Dutch colleague with uncharacteristic
emotion:
li is impossible for me to resume contact with him
Ii.orenz] or his fellow-countrymen, I mean it is psycho­

20 * Supernormal Stimuli
logically impossible. The wounds of our soul must heal,
and that will take tim e... .This is not a result of a desire
for revenge, but we simply cannot bear to see them.13
Lorenz wanted out of Austria-Germany. It was occupied
by Allied forces, and devastated from years of bombing. The
two countries were dividing again—and Germany was divid­
ing further into East and West. Universities were in chaos. The
multilingual Lorenz applied to jobs around Europe and the
U.S. However, Tinbergen wasn’t alone in his sentiments about
Nazi academics. They were boycotted everywhere—except
for rocket scientists or nuclear physicists who were snatched
up, no questions asked. The upbeat Lorenz was unfazed and
worked full-force as few German scientists did through this
time. He published King Solomon’s Ring,14 whose title alluded
to the legendary ring that gave King Solomon the power to
understand animals. Lorenz claimed, metaphorically, that this
was what ethological research achieved. Some of his opin­
ions—such as his enthusiasm for pets—would have dismayed
Tinbergen, but mostly the book stayed close to their mutual
work and conclusions.
Niko and Luuk began to suffer depressions—periods of
dark despair and suicidal thoughts that lasted at first for days,
later for months at a time. But their careers thrived. Luuk
became known for applying statistics to ethology. Meanwhile,
Jan’s highly statistical economics, called econometrics, rock­
eted him to international prominence; he consulted to the
League of Nations. Luuk conferred with Jan and adapted some
of his concepts to biology. Biographer Krunk hypothesized that
Niko’s blatant disregard for mathematical methods resulted

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange * 2 1
In mi sibling rivalry with Jan and saw it as the only shortcom­
ing in bis ambitious expansion of ethology.
Tinbergen explored every other aspect of the field. He
ail lip elaborate wildlife observation sites, modeled on his
beloved NJN camps, for students. When Tinbergen was prestml, lire experiments with animals occupied every waking hour
find Ilie students acted as if they were in a remote wilderness.
When he left, the students enjoyed nightly parties and trips to
Imis near the camps. They chafed at Tinbergen’s restrictions
bill nevertheless enjoyed his presence because of his devoted
innnloring. “More than one of Niko’s children said to me later
IIml Niko was more interested in his students than in his fam­
ily." reports Krunk.15 “He found it difficult to do father-like
tilings with us children,” recalled one child. Said another, “He
n ils so interested in his work that he regarded us as a nui­
sance.” Even when Niko was at home, his presence focused on
i’ll in logy. “I certainly had the feeling that [father was] observ­
ing me as an animal going through the courting-mating phase,
and il wasn’t a very comfortable feeling to have,” said one of
bin daughters.16 Luuk was the one family member with whom
t-llko was close—because of their shared research and perhaps
■bo because of the shared depressions.
A year after the war ended, Niko was promoted to full
inulossor; he was only 39. His award lecture for the occasion,
i Jalure Is Stronger than Nurture,” warned against religion:
Hie emphasis by Christianity on our responsibility for our
behavior has had the consequence that the differences between
mini and animal are perceived as too prominent.”17 Tinbergen
bull never been a religious man. Wartime atrocities, however,
bail highlighted the absence of a deity for him while both sides

l»

22 • Supernormal Stimuli
invoked one aligned with themselves, and this turned him into
a militant atheist. When nine-year-old-daughter Toos wanted
to go to church with a friend, the answer was an emphatic
“No!” Krunk recalls Tinbergen being furious when he insisted
on taking off an hour from field observation on Christmas Day
to attend mass.
Niko began to find Holland too small academically. He was
more successful than Lorenz in his job search, fielding offers
from around the U.S. and Europe before settling on Oxford.
Luuk visited him in England for months at a time, but Niko
didn’t bother to stay in touch with the rest of the family after
his parents passed away. At Oxford, he taught dozens of the
next generation of evolutionary biologists including two who
became household names because of their popular writing:
Desmond Morris who wrote The Naked Ape18 and Richard
Dawkins, noted for biology books beginning with The Selfish
Gene19 and for militant atheism similar to his mentor’s. Tinber­
gen established new wildlife camps—some in England, others
as far afield as Africa.
Shortly after the move to Oxford, Tinbergen attended a
conference that Lorenz also attended. They saw each other
across the room at a party the first night and immediately
reunited. Tinbergen announced publicly to Lorenz, “We’ve
won!”—meaning their friendship and work relationship had
survived the war. A lively correspondence resumed and Tin­
bergen’s support helped influence other biologists to disregard
Lorenz’s Nazi past.
In 1955, Luuk had achieved international prominence in
ethology but his depressions worsened. At age 39, he took his
own life. Niko didn’t write of this in his journals or speak to

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange * 2 3
•inyone who passed along his reaction to biographers. Lorenz’s
response is recorded. He heard that the famous ethologist Prolessor Tinbergen had died by his own hand and was stricken,
thin king this meant Niko. Hours later, he was relieved to learn
II was Luuk, whom he knew only in passing. Later, when Luuk’s
•mu Joost came to Oxford for a Master’s degree in biology under
Niko, they barely mentioned Luuk. “The Tinbergen’s are just
like that,” observed Joost, “very bottled up.”20
Niko’s own depressions worsened. “I was so far in Naimbi," he wrote after one field trip, “that four times I awoke at
eight and found myself with enough poison in my hand and a
glass of water, to finish myself off completely.”21
hi 1969, at the age of 66, Jan Tinbergen received the Nobel
I’li/.o in Economics. Niko didn’t break his silence to send conIIt al ulations. Four years later, at exactly the same age—66—Niko
was awarded the Nobel Prize in Biology with Konrad Lorenz
i1111a 11other academic. Reporters swarmed around the Tinbergen
l>iiil liars, wanting interviews with the laureate siblings. Photogi|iliars asked how they could get a photo of them together. Niko
la el;Iiiled this would never happen as neither was going to travel
in iha oilier. Jan sent a warm letter of congratulations, however,
i h?‘iI been reading Niko’s books and praised them. Niko never
Imihered to look at Jan’s work but he did write back.
Thu photographers actually got their photo when Niko was
In Amsterdam to receive the leading Dutch science prize en
11 mto

to Geneva for the Nobel. Jan attended and the two chat-

: 1 1<niil posed together. The Nobel ceremony was more compliiiIi i1 Some scientists balked at including Lorenz in the prize
!-.mhum! of his wartime involvement. Tinbergen suggested to
iiU h lond that he apologize for his Nazi affiliation in his Nobel

U ■ Supernormal Stimuli
speech. Lorenz reportedly agreed, but he never made such an
apology in any context. Tinbergen chose to organize his own
speech around his recent interest in the disorder of autism.
This was received poorly, lying quite outside his expertise. It’s
interesting he focused on autism in later years. Tinbergen obvi­
ously suffered from depression, but descriptions of him also
have hints of Asperger’s syndrome, the mildest form of autism,
in which a person’s capacity for empathy and socialization is
diminished. It’s probably no coincidence that such a cool per­
sonality was able to discover mechanistic principles governing
instinctive behavior. Someone empathizing more with birds
caring about their young might not have thought to check out
whether parent birds would feed a fake beak.
Most of the scientific community disregarded both the
Nazi history and the autism speech and focused on the con­
tent of the award. A Science editorial observed that the prize
decision “might be taken . . . as an appreciation of the need
to review the picture that we often seem to have of human
behavior as something quite outside nature, hardly subject to
the principles that mold the biology, adaptability, and survival
of other organisms. ”22

Biologists on Mankind
Addressing the question, “What is Man?,” biologist Richard
Dawkins wrote: “There is such a thing as being just plain wrong
and that is what before 1859 all answers were,”23 referring, of
course, to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin wrote
about humans mostly in terms of their expression of emotion

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange « 25
anil its commonalities with the rest of the animal kingdom’s.24
Tinbergen clearly thought ethological principles applied to
uinn but devoted the occasional sentence or two to him while
waxing eloquently for pages about wasps and sticklebacks.
Lorenz wrote more specifically of human dilemmas in his last
books. On Aggression expanded his ideas about territoriality
ami dominance hierarchies of animals to explain human wars.
ilte Eight Deadly Sins of Civilized Man25 described how man’s
ability to manipulate his environment in ways no other animal
i tin wreaked havoc.
In 1975, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson’s landmark SocioInology: The New Synthesis,26 used that term rather than
nlliology” to describe how social behavior arose from evolulion, He incorporated Tinbergen and Lorenz’s work and added
now observations from his own studies of ants. In On Human
■Jotiire, Wilson explored more explicitly what ants and other
o: .cmIs had to tell us about ourselves. Ants may seem strange
l in with their simple brains and nervous systems but they live
in highly complex social groups. The sterility of certain classes
. 1 workers and “armies” willing to sacrifice themselves to pro­
test i the nest led Wilson to theories of altruism applicable to
i. mion i behavior. He was one of the first to suggest that homo.. - 11.11ity in certain circumstances conferred survival value
tilldm an “uncle effect.”
Sim inbiology as it applied to animals was immediately
till accepted; it was the inclusion of human beings that was
niili'ovorsial. The greatest furor was over Wilson’s assertions
•i, a s.oiim of the individual variation on traits such as intellitjancc, creativity, and introversion versus extraversion is
mill

I le believed men and women had biologically based

U • Supernormal Stimuli
differences in behavior, and at least raised the question of
whether there might also be ethnically based ones. Feminists,
minorities, and other critics from the “nurture” end of the
nature/nurture debate argued that Wilson was too biologically
deterministic and that he slighted the contributions of learning
and socialization to human behavior.
Psychologists were slower yet than biologists to see the
potential of evolutionary theory for understanding human
behavior. The sole early exception was William James who
wrote of instincts as the primary building block of human,
as well as animal, behavior. While James believed we could
spot animal instincts easily, he said we are nearly blind to our
own. Common men, and most academics, were unable to ask:
“Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl?” “Why are
we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend?”
or “Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upsidedown?” We don’t stop to imagine that things could be oth­
erwise. James advocated that psychologists train themselves
to “make the ordinary seem strange” and ask the why of any
instinctive human act. This phrase perfectly sums up the dis­
tinctive perspective that seems to have come naturally to Niko
Tinbergen.

Evolutionary Psychology
Each of our ancestors was, in effect, on a camping
trip that lasted an entire lifetime, and this way of life
endured for most of the last 10 million years.
- l e d a Cosm ides and John Tooby in Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer

Making the Ordinary Seem Strange * 11
I lm major push to incorporate Darwin into psychology has
i omo under the term “evolutionary psychology.” In their
primer, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby are fond of saying,
( )ur modern skulls house a stone age mind.” Evolutionary
Psychologists view the brain as a biological computer with

i in a its that evolved to solve problems faced by humans and
pinliuman ancestors. Cosmides and Tooby point out that consi Imisness is a small portion of the contents and processes of
!in’ mind. They describe how conscious experience can mis­
lediI individuals to believe that their thoughts are simpler than
Ihoy actually are. Most problems experienced as easy to solve
am actually very complex and are driven and supported by
elaborate brain circuitry.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that this is not just
another swing of the nature/nurture pendulum. They are not
plating as boldly as Tinbergen did in his landmark talk that
|latum Is Stronger than Nurture.” Their position instead is
dial it is a false dichotomy: more nature allows more nurture.
in m oIntionary psychology, “learning” is not an explanation—
P h« a phenomenon that requires explanation. They use the
ample of a larger brained elephant not being able to learn
i Midi all, not because its brain is less complicated nor even
i

. teaming-disposed: elephants have many aspects of membetlor than ours. Rather we have evolved specific neural

•to nils that enable certain types of communication that the
c I'limit lias not evolved. Cosmides and Tooby defined evolu............ psychology to exclude the study of individual differ■ia n't, relegating that to behavioral genetics.
I hough sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists
: • • im orporated many of Tinbergen and Lorenz’s ideas, they

28 * Supernormal Stimuli
have not used the concept of supernormal stimuli. Yet I believe
it is the single most valuable way that ethology can help us
understand the problems of modern civilization. Thus this
hook examines a range of human dilemmas from the stand­
point of supernormal stimuli, interweaving other relevant con­
cepts from evolutionary disciplines to point a path out of our
modern dilemmas.

Sex for Dummies

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Fred
Rosewater, a mild-mannered accountant, longs for approval
IVom Harry, a fisherman and a man’s man:
[Harry] scowled at a picture of a French girl in a bikini.
Fred, understanding that he seemed a bleak, sexless
person to Harry, tried to prove that Harry had him
wrong. He nudged Harry, man-to-man. “Like that,
Harry?” he asked.
“Like what?”
“The girl there.”
“That’s not a girl. That’s a piece of paper.”
“Looks like a girl to m e.” Fred Rosewater leered.
“Then you’re easily fooled,” said Harry. “It’s done
with ink on a piece of paper. That girl isn’t lying there

30 * Supernormal Stimuli
on the counter. She’s thousands of miles away, doesn’t
even know we’re alive. If this were a real girl, all I’d
have to do for a living would be to stay home and cut
out pictures of big fish.”1
Sex is an obvious target for supernormal stimuli. Harry’s
unusually aware of artifice; most creatures are “easily fooled”
as we’ve seen with Tinbergen’s wingless cardboard butterflies
and round-bellied wooden fish. Sex shop inflatable dolls—the
butt of innumerable jokes and almost as many purchases—are
the most literal human equivalents. However, everything from
pornography to advertising models, from plastic surgery to
old-fashioned cosmetics, cinched waists, and padded bras can
be seen as people amplifying nature’s signaling. The supernor­
mal stimuli we create tell us much about underlying sexual
instincts. They’re often designed for one gender, so they high­
light differing instincts for men versus women more starkly
than do real-world interactions. For that reason, the issues in
this chapter apply most directly to heterosexuals, but I also
examine what ethology may have to say about homosexuality.

Wanker Nation
Saying that pornography creates a desire for . . . trashy
sex is like saying McDonald’s creates a desire for salty,
greasy meat. Hugh Hefner did not invent the Ameri­
can fetish for women with large breasts; his Playmate
of the month merely exploited a taste already wellestablished.
-J o s e p h Slade, Pornography in America

Sex for Dummies • 31
When virtual reality appeared, pundits warned of the dangers
of its sexual applications. One book argued that men—long the
gender reputed to be more driven about sex—would no lon­
ger require the participation of women. They would soon find
their instincts better gratified by computerized virtual worlds.
Women, with their need for interpersonal contact, would be
loft in the cold.
This hasn’t come to pass so far. Existing “virtual worlds”
ere hardly full-fledged multisensory simulations. Rather, they
lire chat rooms with “avatars” moving around in visual scen­
ery. People have tested the sexual applications of these setlings, but they prove cartoonish. As one reporter wrote about
llie two major competitors: “While scrappy Sims players can
Ihi iId, share and apply homemade nude ‘skins’ to characters
end have them rub together like kids play with Barbie and
k e n , Second Life . . . allows players to endow avatars with

genitals—I found mine good mostly for laughs in the office.”2
The Internet has made porn easier to obtain in staggering
■.ii iety, but it has stuck with tried-and-true formats—still photos
find videos. Lower prices for telephone technology have mod­
i' illy increased commercial phone sex. The occasional efforts at
..... . puterized hand-jobs or scratch-and-sniff pornography barely
nilo mention as a novelty. Humans are overwhelmingly visual,
■i . opposed to many scent-driven animals, and tactile stimulai i on

can be efficiently generated by oneself. (The vibrator is the

11mili

technological advance there.) There’s not been much effort

to combine modalities—no full-fledged supernormal sexual
§l Imidi that is consistently chosen over the real thing.
( )f course, old-fashioned porn already has many elements
o! a supernormal stimulus. At least occasionally, probably

32 - Supernormal Stimuli
much more than occasionally, men choose to masturbate to
porn when a real-life partner is available. Proponents say it’s
“normal for men to look at pornography.” If “normal” means
average behavior for people in our time, it is—only 11 percent
of American men deny ever looking at porn.3 But if it refers to
what the instinct developed for, then it’s “normal” to look with
interest at an attractive person of the opposite sex, but not, as
Harry observes in the Vonnegut novel, to stare at ink on paper.
Does pornography do any harm? At the very least, it’s worth

Sex for Dummies ♦ 33
noting that our words for the response to porn—“masturbating,”
“wanking,” “jerking off”—all have the additional metaphoric
moaning of wasting time or energy. Masturbation and pornogiaphy are not synonymous, of course— most women and some
men report that they masturbate with fantasy rather than por­
nography. But men who describe masturbation as a problem—
loo frequent, indulged in at inappropriate times, interfering
wilh work or relationships—nearly all report compulsively
viewing pornography. A growing percentage of people attend­
ing “sexual addiction” programs seek help with pornography
miller than problem behavior with real partners.
Other alleged harmful effects of pornography are not sup­
ported by evidence. Opponents argue that by objectifying
women or by overt representation of rape, pornography pro­
motes sexual violence. However, numerous studies compar­
ing cultures with more or less porn, and tracking ours as porn
became more available, fail to find a relationship.4 In Japan,
pornography was decriminalized and became increasingly
widespread from 1972 to 1995. The incidence of rape pro­
gressively declined from 4677 reported cases in 1972 to the
1995 incidence of 1500 cases; a reduction of two-thirds.5 At
llie start of that time many of the rapes in Japan were gang
rapes but this has become much rarer so that the number of
rapists has dropped even more than the number of rapes. In
most of Europe, pornography increased and rapes declined or
remained the same through the same period.6
Even in countries where violent pornography is allowed,
II doesn’t seem to increase real sexual violence: Japan has the
highest rate of depiction of rape in porn but less actual rape
than most of the West.7 Pornography is also not as violent as

34 • Supernormal Stimuli
its critics usually claim. The largest survey to date found that
violence is rare and rape is an uncommon theme in hard-core
pornography—in fact far less prevalent than in mainstream stu­
dio films of the same periods .8 Even in eras when laws against
porn made it such that depictions of rape or child abuse did
not add to penalties, these themes were quite rare. Apparently
they’re just not instinctively appealing to many people. Despite
an interest in viewing violence, which we discuss in Chapter
5, most people do not find that violence and sex enhance each
other. In Gershorn Legman’s classic Love and Death: A Study in
Censorship,9 he found that when societies or genres censored
sexual images, violent images increased proportionately.
The urban myth of the “snuff” film is an extreme example
of this. In 1976, American filmmakers edited and dubbed an
old Argentine film that was one of the few that blended the
typical bloodfest horror film with pornography. They retitled
the film Snuff. It featured completely simulated violence—
poorly simulated by standards of Hollywood at that time—but
the grainy, incoherent film attracted the attention of feminists
who picketed its showings, which were otherwise poorly
attended. Shortly after, the urban myth bearing that film’s title
arose, claiming that films of actual murders routinely circu­
lated underground. Despite investigations into this which
unearthed absolutely no evidence that this genre ever existed,
remarkably many people still believe in “snuff” films.10
This is not to say that horrifyingly violent porn images are
not out there—of course among the billions of pornographic
images, they’re easy to find—but so is porn featuring every
kind of animal, outfit, or behavior that the average person
would find yucky, giggle-worthy, or completely mystifying as

Sex for Dummies * 35
to its sexual implications. What the evidence shows is that the
majority of pornography is like what Fred Rosewater showed
I larry: nude or scantily clad young women with exaggerated
breast size, facial prettiness, and enthusiasm for casual sex.
Al most, the harm is what we see with Harry—wasting time,
energy, potential for real relationships. This is, of course, not
insignificant in a world where time is at a premium and many
people feel a lack of social bonds.

The Fairer Sex
Two types of media for women serve as supernormal stimuli:
( l) Images and advice on becoming ideally appealing and (2)
romance novels, soap operas, and other media providing vicar­
ious relationships.
“Cosmo” models look suspiciously like male magazine
centerfolds. Here, however, they are icons not for anonymous,
t usual sex, hut instead for becoming the one irresistible date and
mate choice. We hear how magazines like “Cosmo” hurt female
self-esteem with their emphasis on beauty—as if the media had
elected this goal at random and taught it to adolescent girls,
i >r critics suggest that media is doing this to push a commeri inI, capitalist agenda—a variation on the same fallacy. What
'Mills is hardly random to biology. Anything that sells spectacu­
larly well is probably some type of supernormal stimulus. The
media commercially exploit these instincts, but they didn’t creale them. Humans have always evaluated their personal attri­
butes against those of their neighbors and, for women, physical
appearance has always been a large part of these comparisons.

36 • Supernormal Stimuli
What is different now is that the pool of people for poten­
tial comparisons has grown phenomenally—only the unusu­
ally attractive are conveyed hy media around the world. If a
Stone Age girl wasn’t the prettiest in her small tribe, the differ­
ence wasn’t likely to be dramatic. Everyone had opportunities
to see others looking their worst—tired, bedraggled, sick—as
well as on their best days. Now society culls from millions of
young women to select the best faces and bodies, and then per­
fects these with Adobe Photoshop. The difference between the
resulting magazine cover and our average modern girl is stag­
gering. There was a huge outcry when the NBC Today Show
digitally shaved a bit off Katie Couric’s waist in publicity stills
and CBS’s The View did the same with Barbara Walters. But the
industry was mystified over the flap: almost all images in our
magazines are now digitally manipulated one way or another.
Though the same critiques promote the idea that beauty is
culturally determined, the variation in ideal across time and
culture is actually modest. Researchers have found that people
from different cultures rate the same faces as most attractive.11
The ratings correlate with a few surface details like smoothness
of skin, but most are facial proportions; these follow several
general principles. To a certain extent, ironically, attractive­
ness is averageness.
This fact was stumbled upon a century ago by Francis
Galton, the eccentric cousin of Charles Darwin. Gabon super­
imposed the faces of many criminals, seeking to find the crim­
inal face “type.” Instead, he discovered that this composite
produced a face better looking than that of individual crimi­
nals—or any other individual!12 It’s partly that composites are
more symmetrical, and symmetry itself is consistently found

Sex for Dummies ♦ 37
to be attractive.13 But for many traits we like average dimen­
sions—it makes sense that health lies in the middle of outliers.
On just a few traits, exaggerations are preferred. These are
all characteristics that estrogen and testosterone influence.
In addition to health, instincts guide us toward the clearest
example of the opposite gender and the most fertile ones. In
men’s faces, this means a stronger jaw and chin. For women,
fuller lips, prominent cheekbones, and a smaller jaw. For both
groups, babyfacedness is attractive—large eyes, small nose,
nlc. One study found that the most beautiful female face was
one that averaged many women and then blended them 70
percent, with the characteristics of a child’s face making up
Iho other 30 percent of the composite.14 The only exception to
■liildlike features as attractive is where they conflict with the
gender-identified ones like a large jaw for men or prominent
cheekbones for women.
Body proportions follow similar patterns. Women with a
waist-to-hip ratio of .7 are preferred in everything from Greek
sculpture to Miss America competitions. Weight has also
ioinamed much more standard than is often claimed in modurn diatribes, basically ranging from a body mass index (BMI)
of 18.5 to 21 in most societies.15 As the average weight has
I Iiverged further and further from this

ideal, it’s become the most

likely way in which two people will vary in attractiveness.
Other traits have receded in emphasis as they became more
uniform. When smallpox and other skin infections were ram­
pant and many people were covered with sores or pocked scars,
smooth” or “unblemished” skin “like a newborn babe’s” was
11 lion

included in descriptions of beauty and “slender” was

loss common. Teeth maybe a plus now if they’re exceptionally

38 ' Supernormal Stimuli

The composite average of many students’ faces on the right was rated more beautiful than
any individual face. However, altering the upper face to be larger and the jaw sm aller—
proportions characteristic of children's faces— yielded the com posite at left, which was rated
most beautiful of all. Source: It S. Johnston and M. Franklin, "Is Beauty in the Eye of the
Beholder?" Ethology and Sociobiology 14, no. 3(1993), pp. 183-99.

straight and white, but the declaration that “I have all my own
teeth,” once a serious asset for a mate, is currently used mostly
in jest.
Before Photoshop and airbrushing, cosmetics offered sub­
tle ways to alter real faces and bodies. Even in Cleopatra’s time,
women were blushing their cheeks, reddening lips, and draw­
ing lines to mimic larger eyes. Cosmetics provide either modest
changes—women with lipstick and mascara are rated slightly
more attractive—or none: creams that claim to reduce wrinkles
or cellulite merely reduce one’s bank balance. Bodies have long
been altered by clothing such as padded bras and corsets. Now

Sex for Dummies * 39
plastic surgery offers more expensive, riskier, but also more
effective versions of these changes for face and body.
Of course women shouldn’t base their self-esteem pre­
dominantly on their looks, but the tendency to compare onerad f to others is ancient. We’ve developed the ability to make

such powerful supernormal attractiveness stimuli and flash
them around the world that we are unlikely to ever roll back
these idealized images. But it’s not useful to deny their innate
power, to claim that they are some sort of arbitrary brain­
washing. A realistic goal is to remind ourselves that they are
an ideal only. We manage to find ideals of athleticism, cour­
age, or genius to be inspirational rather than demoralizing.
We need to remember that a wide range of appearances is
already attractive to our fellow human beings. We also want
lo make ourselves aware that the ideal is artificially produced
and that advertised products don’t actually make us look
more like the digitally altered images accompanying them.
We should promote healthy ways of striving toward (not
expecting to absolutely reach) the ideal. “Beauty” advice that
actually works includes: get plenty of sleep, eat vegetables,
and exercise. The ideal after all is just our evolutionarily
imprinted “picture of health.”

Porn for Women
To encounter erotica designed to appeal to the other
sex is to gaze into the psychological abyss that sepa­
rates the sexes.
-C a t h e r in e Salm on and Don Sym ons in Warrior Lovers

40 • Supernormal Stimuli
A recent joke book titled Porn for Women consists ofpictures of
attractive fully clothed men with ingratiating smiles in domes­
tic scenes. Dialogue bubbles over their heads read: “I just vacu­
umed the whole house,” “I hope you like chicken sauteed with
tarragon and lemon,” and “Let me get up with the baby.” More
seriously, some genres not entirely unrelated to these cartoons
have been proposed by social psychologists as the most analo­
gous to “porn for women”: romance novels, soap operas, and
the romantic films often dubbed “chick flicks.”
In the romance novel, the point-of-view character is always
the heroine. The plot concerns her finding and capturing the
heart of the one right man. Sex may be explicit, implied, or not
destined to occur until after a proposal or marriage which con­
stitutes the end of the book.16 In an analysis of 45 best-selling
romance novels,17 anthropologist April Gorry found that the
hero was always older than the heroine— by an average of
seven years. (Real husbands average only 3 years older in con­
temporary America.) Heroes are tall; six-foot-two is the most
common specific and “over six feet” a popular generalization.
Adjectives used to describe Mr. Right’s appearance were, in
descending order of frequency: muscular, handsome, strong,
large, tanned, masculine, and energetic. Personality descrip­
tors were: bold, calm, confident, and intelligent. The most
common responses of the hero to the heroine were to: declare
his love, want her more than he has any other woman, sexu­
ally desire her, consider her unique, and want to protect her.
In the words of Salmon and Symons, “A porn video has almost
as many climaxes as it does scenes, but a romance novel has
only one climax, the moment when the hero and the heroine
declare their mutual love for one another.”18

Sex for Dummies * 41
The readership of romance novels is as overwhelmingly
Inmale as porn’s viewers are male. And it’s nearly as big a mar­
l-el: over 2000 English-language romance novels are published
imeh year, generating $1.2 billion in sales. That’s 55 percent of
.ill paperback books and 39 percent of all fiction.19
Of course, romance novels are not the only example of
what anthropologist Janice Radway terms “exercises in the
imaginative transformation of masculinity to conform with
Inmale standards.”20 Daytime television “soaps” are another
•mill genre. Mainstream films and popular music serve many
oilier social impulses (we discuss them in Chapter 5), but they
also prove a fertile ground for fantasy romance.
In 2008, when Washington Post columnist Liz Kelly wrote
til

tout her decades-ago infatuation with Shaun Cassidy, she

asked readers about their first celebrity crushes.21 Two hun­
dred and fifty answers poured into the Post Web site, describ­
ing, infatuations begun as young as age five, though early teens
were more common. All but 15 were from females and they
described fixations on actors, pop singers, and, with lesser fre­
quency, athletes and politicians. Good looks, especially win­
ning smiles were mentioned—and in the case of singers, nice
\dices—but most women described personalities as capturing
their hearts. They taped pictures of their beloved to their bedmom walls and spent hours fantasizing a relationship.
One Macaulay Culkin fan recalls, “I used to pause ‘Home
Alone’ and kiss the TV, believing that where ever he was, he
' mild feel it. I was 8, he was 10—an older man!” An Elton John
admirer wore gigantic glasses and wrote a love letter that was
never mailed, but instead found by a sibling and read to the
n hole family at the dinner table. These first crush objects tend

42 * Supernormal Stimuli
to be young, though not as young as the admirer, and adored
for their “sweetness.” A number of women described that prepubescent crushes on nice guys were later replaced by asser­
tive “had boys.”
Despite the request for “first times,” respondents volun­
teered details about later celebrity crushes. Many of these adult
women described still spending many hours in fantasy lives
with celebrities. A few even had crushes on the same actors
from childhood. One of several admirers of the vampire Barna­
bas Collins from Dark Shadows still watched DVDs from the old
TV show. She explained how a not-conventionally-handsome,
middle-aged bloodsucker could be an adolescent crush:
He was soulful . . . a gentleman vampire, a Roman­
tic—suave, sensual, sexy, and sympathetic. He had a
wonderful speaking voice (British?), a stalking, seduc­
tive style of walking, even a swagger with that cane
he carried, beautiful eyes, hair, and hands. He looked
aristocratic: haughty, yet haunted, too. He was our
Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff, Sydney Carton, Lord Byron,
Shelley—all the wonderful literary characters and
Romantic poets rolled into one.
It’s striking that she invokes romance novels and poetry in
explaining vampire appeal. The success of Dracula and King
Kong lies in their featuring not only a supernormal alpha male
but also a supernatural one. Women ignore the wimpy nominal
heroes and respond to the antihero’s pursuit of the heroine.
Dracula and Barnabas sleep in coffins, but they’re not
truly dead as are some other romantic idols. Several of Kelly’s

Sex for Dummies • 43
ropondents’ first crushes were on someone deceased before
they discovered them. This happened with recently suicided
11 ick singers

and long-dead classic film stars—which highlights

how artificial our media has made romantic stimuli.
When the men responded to Kelly’s query, it was indeed
like looking across Salmon and Symon’s abyss. One lone male
luid a romantic reaction to Princess Leia analogous to the
women’s postings. Other male boomers had crushes on Cheryl
t ings or Olivia Newton-John because of the “hotness” of their
bodies. Younger men debated whether Britney Spears was still
nmshworthy by describing recent photos of her crotch. A gay
man chose an idol favored by many women for a different rea­
son: “David Cassidy after I saw his armpits and the top of his
pubes in Rolling Stone.” Another gay male crush was chosen
lor “parading his bulge in Speedos.” Lesbians who weighed in

discussed early Jodie Foster films with the same romanticism
other women use for celebrity guys—it’s clearly a gender difIni e'nce, not one of sexual orientation.
Most women easily identify with these crush stories—at
least by generation: for the boomers, which Beatle did you like?
For the gen Xers, which Duran Duran member? Napoleon Solo
versus Iliya Kuryakin or Han Solo versus Luke Skywalker? It
seems a normal part of growing up—for some, an ongoing part
ol life even after establishing real relationships. However, just
e lew generations ago, being in love with someone you’d never
tael, who lived thousands of miles away, or who’d died before
sou were born wasn’t normal—it wasn’t even possible: no media
twisted to support such fantasies. Crush responses were limited
le people around you—though probably always stronger for the
\mmg and unattached, for women more than for men.

44 * Supernormal Stimuli
The first large study on romantic crushes was published in
1934 after surveying 350 American high school and college stu­
dents. Many trends were similar to now. Girls reported more and
earlier crushes than boys. Boys described their crushes based
on physical characteristics or physical combined with personal­
ity while girls described being triggered mostly by personality
and intelligence. Neither gender endorsed the third alternative
offered: “admired for moral characteristics.” Boys’ crushes were
mostly on their peers; only 1 percent were on women over 25.
For girls, slightly older peers prevailed by a small majority; 22
percent had crushes on teachers, and every age was represented.
The experimenters had expected, based on existing beliefs among
parents and professionals, that many kids who later turned out
heterosexual would have had same-sex crushes, but this was not
the case. Same-sex crushes were reported mostly by those whose
ultimate sexual orientation was homosexual.
One answer from the 1934 respondents was radically dif­
ferent from those in any modern study. Only 3 percent had
crushes on “entertainers”—this category wasn’t much higher
than the number who fancied monks. Certainly there have
been celebrity crushes since there were media of any kind:
Lord Byron was a romantic image for women who knew him
only through his books and women flocked to see Valentino
films before this survey. But in 1934, film was at low resolution
and infrequently viewed, and there were no posters of stars to
be plastered on adolescents’ walls. Records existed, but not
the cult of musicians as personalities to watch on video. There
was no TV: people didn’t see politicians or athletes up close
much. Until recently, most young crushes and ongoing fanta­
sies of adults focused on flesh-and-blood people.

Sex for Dummies • 45

What Is Natural?
IVvo decades ago, it was common for historians to claim
Imight-facedly that romantic love is a modern invention. This
Idea is patently ridiculous to anyone who’s ever been in its
dimes—there’s obviously something primal and biological
nt work. Many animals have observable equivalents. Only in
mi ademia

could this have been seen as a social fashion. The

argument took off from the supposed “fact” that, until recently,
women had little say in choosing mates because of arranged
marriages. Women were bartered between families and tribes.
Ihere was pressure for “within-class marriages.” Divorce and
ml a llery were prohibited. Women were held to a very low sta­
ins—in these or any other decisions.
Actually, historical evidence suggests that most of these fac­
tors arose within the last 10,000 years—much more recently in
most parts of the world.22 More than a century ago, psychologist
1 1 1ward Westermarck’s The History of Human Marriage pointed
tail lhat in pre-agricultural tribal societies, females exercised
t onsiderable powers of mate choice.23 The economic and geo­
graphic demands of agriculture limit mate selection, because
agriculture requires long-term investment in preparing and
maintaining a plot of land, and thereby reduces the physical
ami social mobility that underlay the free choice of partners
la Imnter-gatherer tribes. Divorce became much harder in an
agricultural society. “Whoever elected to leave the marriage left
' mply—
handed,” observes anthropologist Helen Fischer. “Nei­
ll air spouse could dig up half the wheat and relocate.”24
Many sociobiologists believe that, with the rise of post­

46 * Supernormal Stimuli
agricultural and postindustrial society, we are seeing a return
to more “natural” ancestral patterns. They include in this more
sexual experimentation in adolescence; higher rates of adoles­
cent pregnancy, divorce, and infidelity; more serial monogamy;
more single mothers; and higher rates of bisexuality. “These ‘new
patterns’ probably represent the Pleistocene norm, not ‘social
problems’ due to modern atheistic decadence,” concludes psy­
chologist Geoffrey Miller. “The sexual freedom and social com­
plexity enjoyed by young people in contemporary urban North
America and Europe is probably much more representative of
ancestral tribal conditions than the cloistered, oppressive patri­
archy of medieval Europe or the lifelong monogamy of the midtwentieth-century industrial United States.”25

Clues from our Animal Relatives
Among our closest relatives, the primates, there is a wide
variety of sexual behavior. Gibbons spend their life with one
mate. Bonobos have a huge variety of sexual partners—of both
genders. Since so many human societies have laws organizing
monogamous marriages, many social commentators try to place
humans in the gibbon camp—but evolutionary psychologists
don’t. “Talk of why (or whether) humans pair-bond like gib­
bons strikes me as belonging to the same realm of discourse as
talk of why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings,”
writes Don Symons in The Evolution of Human Sexuality.26
What have evolutionary biologists learned about sexual
behavior and physical traits within a species? In species where
males have multiple sexual partners, the females in these harems

Sex for Dummies • kl

Ihis orchid mimics the crucial characteristics of the fem ale wasp's torso so w ell that the male
wasp thrusts and ejaculates on it, spreading the plant's pollen in the process. Adaptive for the
plant, but one m ight think evolution would select against an insect who wastes his ardor on
a flower. As with human males and pornography, it seem s ejaculating in response to anything
that approxim ates a fertile fem ale has been a rewarding reproductive strategy.

are always smaller than the male and dependent on them. The
almost completely monogamous gibbons average females only
li percent smaller than males,27 while polygamous gorilla males
are twice the size of females. Humans, with males usually about
20 percent larger than females, fall in the midrange.
What are the cues to a female’s roving eye? It turns out
Ihat, across the wildly different genitalia within nature, larger
lesticles in the male are a sure sign that his sperm have to
compete with those of other males. If females of a species are
only willing to mate with one male, the efficient testicle is
just large enough to supply sufficient sperm for fertilization.
When females are inclined to mate with multiple males, the
guys evolve larger testes that compete to produce the most

48 - Supernormal Stimuli
sperm. Bonobo chimpanzees which enjoy an orgiastic variety
of sexual partners have testes .3 percent of their body weight.
Gorillas, whose females mate only with the dominant “grayback” of their group, have modest testes only .02 percent of
their weight. And human males? .08 percent of body weight—
four times that of gorillas but one-fourth that of chimps—again
suggesting an intermediate pattern.
Research from early times and tribal societies indicates
that humans overwhelmingly pair-bond, but with some men
having multiple spouses. DNA studies across a wide variety
of cultures find about 10 percent of children are not biologi­
cally the offspring of their socially identified father. This also
turns out to be the case with many birds and other animals
previously assumed monogamous by observation until DNA
revealed that chicks were sometimes fathered by neighboring
males rather than by the one tending their nest.
Some people believe that everyone is naturally bisexual
and cite animal relatives such as the bonobo, but actually
human cultures across time look much like modern ones—
something like 6 percent homosexual. Because hormones in
utero play a role in later sexual development, there’s been
some speculation that hormonelike pollutants in the environ­
ment might increase the rate of homosexuality, but that rate
appears fairly steady since statistics have been kept.28

Sex in the City
Contrary to other patterns which have remained stable, pop­
ulation density is one thing that has changed radically from

Sex for Dummies » 49
Paleolithic norms. Someone living in Manhattan or Tokyo may
walk past more attractive possible mates in one city block than
Iheir ancestors saw in a lifetime of wandering the savannah.
The total number of partners for the most sexually active mod­
erns obviously exceed any in prehistoric times. This translates
mlo higher rates of everything from jealously to venereal dis­
eases. And at least one venereal disease comes from crowding
not with other humans, but with livestock. Zoo animals conlined to unnaturally crowded conditions mate with other spe­
cies, which they do not do in the wild.29 Agricultural humans
are no exception: syphilis entered the human population from
exual contact with sheep.
Another area of human sexuality about which Paleolithic
norms can be instructive is the controversy around the proper
a g e for beginning sexual activity. Within recent history, states

in the U.S. have set the “age of consent” everywhere from 12
in 2J. One group thinks it’s immoral or dangerous to have sex
before one is mature and independent. Aside from conserva­
tive groups that promote waiting until marriage, most parents
nod sex educators in America tend to favor 18 or later as the
time for beginning sexual activity. However, another contingenl thinks it’s naive, unnatural—and probably just plain
futile—to try to prevent sex once someone has developed the
hormonal drive for it. Holland has a legal code that recognizes
sexual consent from the age of 12, but has special provisions
lor children or parents to bring charges if they can prove adults
h a v e used “coercion” on those aged 12 to 16.

Many other European countries and Canada set 14 as the
ago of consent.30 Great Britain is presently considering low•ling its age of consent from 16 to 14. After the BBC broad­

50 » Supernormal Stimuli
cast a program: “Sex Before 16: Why the Law is Failing,”31
it conducted a phone poll of its viewers. Over 3000 people
responded and they were fairly evenly divided between four
options: that the age of consent should be reduced to 14, that
it should stay at 16, that it should be raised to 18, or that it
should be abolished.
Which side is right? Holland’s age 12 and “as soon as they
feel the urge” or 18 and “not ’til they’re truly independent
adults”? What does Paleolithic history tell us about this? From
an evolutionary perspective, both are right. In our ancestral
setting, sexual behavior would have begun soon after puberty
and not until brain development and social judgment were
complete. Through most of human history female puberty took
place at around

1 7

V2 to 18. By 1900, it had fallen to

15

V2 in

the developed world. Over the last few decades, the drop has
accelerated until 11 is now the average and many girls reach
it at 9 or 10. Early suspects for these changes were sex hor­
mones in milk and pseudo-hormone compounds in the envi­
ronment. Recent studies show that while these play a role, the
single greatest factor is the extra calories in girls’ diets and the
estrogenic effects of additional fat cells.32 Boys show a smaller
drop in the age of puberty—moving them out of synch with the
girls. In their case, growth hormones in the environment speed
puberty, but the heaviest boys, because of increased estrogen,
are the latest developers.33
Meanwhile, medical historians have found evidence that
brain maturation may be delayed, though by a more modest
one to two years. Full brain maturity that once evolved by 18
may now take until 19 or 20. This also seems to be due to
a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate, lower nutrient diet. Excess

Sex for Dummies ♦ 51
calories lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor
which is necessary for brain maturity.34
There’s no “natural” answer to the current dilemma of pre­
cociously pubertal kids. What we need to do is get growth hor­
mones, estrogens, and sheer excess calories out of our modern
ilint and environment to bring sex drive and maturity back into
synch.

Too Cute

H

ost people don’t try to parse cuteness. Like pornography,
we know it when we see it. With a bit of examination,
however, cuteness has easily quantifiable aesthetics.

Take a moment to picture whatever you find cute—puppies,
kittens, cartoon characters, or your own children. Cuteness is
the type of attractiveness associated with youth, so your “cute”
objects no doubt have many youthful traits.
Infants of most species have a small body with a dispro­
portionately large head, big eyes, small nose, chubby limbs,
and clumsy coordination. Youthful behavior includes playful­
ness, affection, helplessness, and a need to be nurtured. A few
characteristics such as dimples and baby talk are unique to
humans, but most are common across species.
Evolutionary biologists view “cuteness” as simply the
mechanism by which infantile features trigger nurturing in

Too Cute ♦ 53

Konrad Lorenz's sketch shows the consistent changes in
facial proportions from infancy to adulthood.

hi InIts—a

crucial adaptation for survival. Scientific studies

llnd that definitions of cuteness are similar across cultures. So
iim our responses.
Anyone disheartened by research demonstrating that attractive adults are better liked and better paid than their homelier
poors will be further dismayed at studies on infant cuteness.
Articles such as “The Infant’s Physical Attractiveness: Its
iTibet on Bonding and Attachment” document that stereotypi. .illy cute babies receive the most attention from both strangers
<11 it I

Iheir own parents. They run less risk of abuse or neglect,

i lute children proceed to get better treatment from teachers.1

54 * Supernormal Stimuli

“Somehow, 'Daniel\ you're not as cute a s you used to be,
a n d you're beginning to lose our atten tion."

Fortunately, most babies are cute enough to attract sufficient
nurturing from parents and the world around them. Mothers
and fathers of the “terrible twos” are often heard to remark,
“It’s lucky he/she’s so cute or I would have left him/her on
some church steps by now.” But, of course, that’s the whole
point of the features of cuteness and our instinctive reactions
to them. The decline of cuteness normally coincides with the
child’s diminished need for caretaking, which gradually shifts
toward younger siblings.
Cuteness signals often go far astray of their intended targets.
Humans find baby animals cute and perennially take in found­
lings. The animals behave sweetly at first but grow aggressive,
literally biting the hand that feeds them. Eventually, they’re

Too Cute » 55
turned out to zoos, farms, or wild settings in which they’re illfi<|uipped to survive.
Animals can also respond to cues given off by other spei ins’ offspring. Recently, a National Geographic TV crew fol­
lowed a female leopard they named Legadema. They observed
Imr kill a baboon. In the midst of dining on her kill, Legadema
■ipotted a day-old infant baboon on the ground near the carcass
ol its mother. “The little baboon called out, and we thought we
were going to hear a major crunch and the leopard smacking its
lips,” recalls the photographer. Instead the baby baboon put its
paws out and walked toward the leopard. “Legadema paused
lor a moment, apparently not knowing what to do. Then she
gently picked it up in her mouth, holding it by the scruff of its
neck and carrying the infant up a tree to keep it safe.”2
All through that night, the leopard nestled in the tree with
Ibe baby, licking it and trying to keep it warm. Several times,
the baby baboon fell from the tree. Each time, Legadema raced
down before the hyenas picking at the mother’s carcass could
gul the baby and carried it back up to safety. When the sun
i nine up, the tiny baboon was no longer moving. It had suc■limbed to either the falls or the lack of milk. Successful anecdnles invariably involve an animal who’s recently given birth
mid is lactating. Legadema was not, but she made a valiant
maternal effort.
The National Geographic crew decided to make the film
about Legadema when they were gripped by similar instincts,
they began a project on leopards. “We were filming the adult
leopardess when this adorable little cub stuck her head out of
ilio log which was their den,” their cameraman recalled. “It
was possibly the first time she had ventured into the outside

56 • Supernormal Stimuli
world, and she stumbled around in the sunlight, falling over
as if she were drunk.” The film became a three-year documen­
tary, Eye of the Leopard, following Legadema exclusively as
she grew from a cute baby into the predator with maternal
instincts toward a baboon.
Occasionally, animals have adopted humans also. Most
well-documented cases involve either wolves or wild dogs
rearing children, but there has been at least one instance each
for bears, monkeys, chimpanzees, and panthers (see Table 1).
In 1996, Bello, a two-year-old Nigerian boy, was found after
being abandoned at age six months and spending one and a
half years with chimpanzees. He walked by bending his legs
and dragging his arms on the ground and leapt about, throwing
objects. So far, he has learned some human language and social
behavior but continues to make chimpanzee-like noises amid
his speech.3
John Ssebunya was abandoned as a two-year-old in the jun­
gle of Uganda and adopted by a colony of African green ververt
monkeys for the next three years. In 1991, a tribe spotted the
naked boy. After capturing him, they took him to an orphan­
age. Ssebunya was more adept at climbing trees than walking
and he chattered like the monkeys. He picked up a halting ver­
sion of human language in subsequent years and enjoys sing­
ing in the church choir, but he still lights up most fully when
he encounters ververt monkeys. He chatters animatedly with
them, apparently understanding and communicating.4
One of the best documented early cases occurred in 1920
when Kamala, age 8, and Amala, age 18 months, were discov­
ered in a wolves’ den in India. The two girls were probably
not sisters, but rather were adopted by the wolves at different

Too Cute « 57
TABLE 1

Children F o u n d L iv in g w i t h A n i m a l s 1 9 0 0 - 2 0 0 4
N o te : C ases in b o ld fa c e d ty p e a re d e s c rib e d in th e te x t.

Age
Nam e

Sex Location

Date

(years) A nim als

Andrei Totstyk

M

Bespalovskoya. Russia

2004

7

dogs

Traian Caldarar

M

Brasov, Romania

2002

7

dogs

Axel Rivas

M

Talcahuano, Chile

2001

11

dogs

Ivan Mishukov

M

Retova, Russian Federation

1998

6

dogs

Belto

M

Nigeria

1996

2

chim ps

John Ssebunya

M

Uganda

1991

6

m onkeys

Daniel

M

Andes, Peru

1990

12

goats

Saturday Mthiyane

M

Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

1987

5

monkeys

Robert

M

Uganda

1985

6

monkeys

Sunijit Kumar

M

Fiji

1984

12

chickens

Baby Hospital

F

Sierra Leone

1984

7

monkeys

Kunu Masela

M

Machakos, Kenya

1983

6

dogs

fissa

M

Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka

1973

11

monkeys

Shamdeo

M

Musafirkhana, Sultanpur, India 1972

4

wolves

Djuma

M

Turkmenistan

1962

7

wolves

Ape-child of Teheran F

Teheran, Persia (Iran)

1961

Saharan gazelle-boy M

Rio de Oro, Mauritanie

1960

10

gazelles

Ramu

M

Balrampur, India

1954

7

wolves

apes

Syrian gazelle-boy

M

Syria

1946

15

gazelles

Sidi Mohamed

M

North Africa

1945

15

ostriches

Turkish bear-girl

F

Adana, TGrkiye

1937

9

bears

Assicia

F

Liberia

1930s

Casamance boy

M

Casamance, Guinea-Bissau

1930s

16

monkeys

Jhansi wolf-boy

M

Jhansi, India

1933

10

wolves

monkeys

/continued/

58 ♦ Supernormal Stimuli

Maiwana wolf-boy

M

Maiwana, India

1927

wolves

Jackal-girl

F

Cooch Bahar. India

1923

jackals

Kam ala

F

M idnapore, India

1920

8

w olves

A m ala

F

M idnapore, India

1920

IV 2

w olves

India

1920

panthers
wolves

Indian panther-child M
Satna wolf-boy

M

Satna,India

1916

Leopard-boy
of Dihungi

M

Dihungi. India

1915

Goongi

F

Naini Lai, Uttar Pradesh, India 1914

Mauritanian
gazelle-boy

M

Mauritanie

c. 1900

5

leopards

14

bears
gazelles

times. Both girls walked on all fours, kept nocturnal hours,
and showed an aversion to sunlight. They rejected cooked
food and would eat only raw meat. Amala died after a year,
without learning any human language or gait. Kamala lived
eight years and picked up a few individual words. She learned
to walk upright but reverted to all fours when in a hurry.5
When human children are discovered living with ani­
mals, their foster parents invariably mount a valiant fight to
prevent their removal. The green ververt monkeys harboring
John Ssebunya bombarded villagers with sticks and stones as
their charge was dragged off. The wolf pack defended Kamala
and Amala so fiercely that the adoptive mother had to be
shot. The surviving wolves approached the village repeat­
edly, howling.
When writing about Kamala and Amala, I found the
phrase “in captivity” nearly slipped into my accounts of their

Too Cute * 59
'tenths. Reading these cases, it’s not at all clear that people
Imvn done these children a favor by returning them to human
noioly to which they never adjust completely. The bond with
lint lirst animals who nurtured them is powerful. Humans do
mil imprint as rigidly as Lorenz’s goslings; we remain more
Hiixidle in our attachments. However, a crucial component
in i nrs when young children’s cuteness is at its most powerful
fi’i a “releaser” for adult nurturing and when children have the
lnmgest drive to imitate whoever’s caring for them.

Neoteny
Nnoteny” is a term for preservation of infantile characteristics
luln adulthood. We find adult humans cuter if they possess
"illior childlike looks or playful, innocent behavior. Crimi­
nal defendants with youthful facial features are less likely to
im found guilty. If there is incontrovertible evidence of their
■i lines, however, they receive harsher sentences—as if juries
Im11 deceived.6
We also experience a strong pull toward species whose
inIn Its are neotenous. Animals such as polar bears are a hit
iviIII zoo visitors as cubs, but interest in them slacks off as

duty reach adulthood. Pandas and koalas continue to draw
11

owds as big-eyed, chubby-bodied adults. Seals and otters are

iiinilarly popular—in this case because their playful behavior
instimbles the young of other species rather than for any youthlul physiognomy.
The widely perceived cuteness of pets such as dogs, cats,
hamsters, and gerbils is largely due to their neotenous charac-

60 ♦ Supernormal Stimuli

“The bunny d id not get the jo b because the bunny is cute.
The bunny got thejo b because the bunny knows WordPerfect. ”

teristics including friendly, playful behavior, larger eyes, and
shorter snouts. Even barnyard animals are cuter than their wild
cousins. They’re less aggressive and sometimes have shorter
faces and/or chubbier, clumsier physiques.
Domestication has brought strikingly similar changes in
appearance and behavior to a wide range of mammals—her­
bivores and predators, large and small. Biologists assume
that friendliness and cuteness have been selectively bred for,
though not always consciously. Another set of changes are
of more practical benefit to humans, such as loss of seasonal
rhythm of reproduction. Wild animals in middle latitudes are
genetically programmed to mate once a year, during mating
seasons cued by changes in daylight. Domestic animals at the
same latitudes can mate and bear young multiple times a year
and in any season. They reach sexual maturity earlier and pro­
duce more offspring per litter than their wild counterparts.
This benefits the human owner whether the animals are being
raised for eggs, meat, or fur. These reproductive traits have
been intentionally selected by farmers.

Too Cute • 61
Another set of characteristics has less obvious causes.
Many domestic species have shorter tails or carry their tails
i urled up instead of long and straight as in the wild form.
I lomesticated animals may be spotted or piebald while others
tiro white. Hair can turn wavy or curly, as it has done in AstraI lain, sheep, poodles, domestic donkeys, horses, pigs, goats,
lal(oratory mice, and guinea pigs. Some animals’ hair became
longer as with Angora rabbits, teddy bear hamsters, and Per'•iiiii cats. Many domestic animals are miniatures of the wild
linos—though a few are larger. One of the most pervasive traits
ol domestication is that ears become floppy. Darwin noted in
( >n the Origin of Species that “not a single domestic animal
i mi he named which has not in some country drooping ears”—
n feature not found in any wild animal except the elephant.
Why did these traits change? It may simply be that animals
don’t need their camouflage coloring or keen hearing once in
•nptivity and they mutate randomly in variations that would
din off in the wild. Or it may be that floppy ears, spotted coats,
•Hid long hair are seen as cute by humans and subtly selected
tor. floppy ears and soft fur are traits of the young in most ani­
mals—though not human young. Later in the chapter, I discuss
how some researchers are trying to sort this question out, but

Hi si let’s review some data from our own doorsteps.

Man's Best Friend
1•<igs are the ultimate domestic animal. They have a unique
lelnlionship to humans. Other animals were captured and
■loclively bred, beginning with sheep about 9000 BC and

62 ♦ Supernormal Stimuli
continuing with goats (8000 BC), pigs and cattle (7000 BC),
horses (3000 BC), and poultry (1000 BC).7 These were raised
solely for meat at first, so they were bred for tameness and
tastiness. Only later did man discover riding horses, shearing
sheep, milking cows, and gathering eggs from chickens. This
resulted in breeding horses larger (their ancestors are pony
sized), sheep fleecier, and so on.
Our relationship with wolves goes back further and may
have begun in a more mutually determined way. About 20,000
BC, herds of large prey roamed the last Ice Age landscape and
the main hunters were wolves and men. Each had advantages.
Wolf packs could chase game faster, circle, and trap it better
than humans. Wolves took a bigger chance when they moved
in for the kill, however: they could be injured by their prey’s
sharp teeth and hooves. They had no chance with the largest
animals such as mammoths. Humans, with their newly minted
spears and arrows, could stand back from the game and fin­
ish off animals wolves had surrounded. There is evidence that
humans and wolf packs hunted together cooperatively across
Africa, Europe, and Asia from 20,000 to 15,000 BC. Humans
who liked wolves were likelier to live to reproduce just as
were wolves who liked humans.
By 10,000 BC, man was beginning to turn wolves into
domestic dogs. A fossil with smaller jaws than wolves’ was
found at a human archeological site in Iraq dated to that time.
This adaptation would not be helpful for hunting, but this “fer­
tile crescent” was the first place man began to settle and farm.
Humans began to use dogs to control other animals rather than
to kill them.
Several centuries later, images in Egyptian paintings,

Too Cute • 63
Assyrian sculptures, and Roman mosaics depict dogs of many
different shapes and sizes. Some emerged that were solely
pels: a dog very like the present-day Pekingese (a quintessen11.11ly unwolflike creature) existed in China by the first cen­
tury AD. At the same time, Roman ladies kept lap dogs; their
warmth was believed to be a cure for stomach aches—and they
definitely lured fleas away from people. A Roman writer of
the period gives practical reasons for selecting the color of a
ilog: shepherds’ dogs should be white to distinguish them from
wolves in the dark, but a farmyard dog should have a black
coat to frighten away thieves.
Once dogs were assigned specific tasks—retrievers, sheepherders, guards, and purely pets—breeds took on different
11 .iiIs. Retrievers love to swim while wolves abhor water. Some
Hiaird dogs are larger than wolves but lap dogs are, of course,
petite. Northern dogs have heavy coats. There are also consis­
tent traits that diverse dog breeds possess. Some are cuteness
tin tors: dogs have skulls that are broad for their length, larger
eyes, and most have floppier ears than wolves. Many behav­
ioral changes such as whining, harking, and submissiveness
bi o

neotenous characteristics that wolves show as pups but

then outgrow.
Dogs were given their own species designation (canisfamiliiims) because early biologists were influenced by their drastic
oUornal differences from wolves (canis lupus). Dogs can still
interbreed easily with wolves, however, and are essentially a
tlnolunous subspecies of wolf. The transition from wolf to dog
■i erred over a span of 12,000 years in a haphazard and only
niiii intentional manner. Recently, another species has been
Innd to deliberately re-create the process.

64 ♦ Supernormal Stimuli

Tame Foxes
In Stalin’s Russia, Darwin and his theories were disregarded
in favor of the “peasant geneticist” Trofim Lysenko, who pro­
pounded a variation on Lamarckian inheritability of acquired
characteristics. Environmental influence on traits that could
then be passed on to successive generations appealed to Marx­
ists because of the implications for human society. Lysenko
advocated techniques such as cooling seeds before planting to
ensure that they would grow in cold climes—even yield winter
harvests, he claimed. Not surprisingly, results eluded him. His
ill-informed agricultural policies damaged Soviet crop yields
such that they have only recently recovered. The University
of Moscow’s biology department was dominated by his goofy
experiments. Several opposing Darwinian geneticists were
executed while most were exiled to Siberia.
Siberia was not the uniformly bleak prison that western­
ers, or even other Russians, often imagined. It indeed was
cold, and some parts had forced labor camps, but largely
it served as an isolation chamber for the generation’s most
interesting intellectuals, artists, and liberal political activ­
ists, to protect the Russian masses from their influence. As
a friend who grew up there told me, “In Siberia, the govern­
ment didn’t try to enforce rules. There weren’t even that many
officials there. Siberia was one of the most liberal societies on
the planet.”
Siberian universities and research labs were underfunded,
but relatively free of political pressures—and well staffed with
remarkable faculty. Such was the Institute of Cytology and

loo Cute ♦ 65
( .nuetics in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Its founder, Dmitry Belyaev,
!mil a special interest in the patterns of changes observed in
(li miesticated animals. He’d been exiled from The University of
Moscow for taking a Darwinian approach to studying domestic
iMits such as appearance and mating season observed across
species. He disagreed, however, with the prevailing view among
i lurwinians that each of the traits had been selected specifically,
and separately, in each species. He hypothesized that one trait
was crucial and drove the rest.
Belyaev believed tameness and absence of aggression
toward humans determined how well animals adapted to life
among human beings. Because behavior is rooted in the sys­
tems that govern the body’s hormones and neurochemicals,
those changes, in turn, could have far-reaching effects on the
development of the animals themselves. These effects might
explain the other observed changes in appearance and repro­
ductive behavior that were consistent across domesticated
animals.
Belyaev designed a simple experiment to replay the chal­
lenge of domestication and test his hypothesis. He took a single
species of wild animal and selectively bred it for one factor:
tameness. The animal he selected was social by nature so as to
lm conducive to taming, a close relative of the wolf but never
before domesticated, and already prolific in Siberia— Vulpes
vUlpes, or the silver fox.
The experiment was audacious. Many biologists doubted
that Belyaev would get results in an observable period of
time. But he was well versed in the selective breeding of agrii ult ure and believed in the power of his one selected trait,
tameness.

66 * Supernormal Stimuli
Belyaev acquired hundreds of fox pups from a fur farm
and housed them away from human contact. Once a month,
they were tested by an experimenter offering food from his
hand while trying to stroke and handle the animals. Foxes
that fled or bit when stroked were returned to the fur farm.
Foxes that let themselves be petted and handled but showed
no emotionally friendly response to experimenters were also
dropped. Only foxes who were friendly to experimenters, wag­
ging their tails and whining, were bred for the next generation
of Belyaev’s research.
Each generation was retested and each yielded larger
proportions of friendly foxes. By the sixth generation, there
were so many friendly pups, that Belyaev added another cat­
egory: the “domesticated elite” were eager to establish human
contact, whimpered to attract attention, and licked experi­
menters. Only elite foxes were then bred. Now, 50 years and
50,000 foxes into the experiment—and 20 years after Belyaev’s
death—more than 80 percent of the pups are born with elite
tameness, as eager to please as a dog.
As Belyaev predicted, other changes appeared with the
tameness, though they hadn’t been selected for. The tame
foxes have white patches on their fur, floppy ears, rolled tails,
shorter snouts, and smaller skulls. They lost their distinctive
musky smell—unpleasant to the human nose. They mature a
month earlier than wild foxes. Their reproductive period is
somewhat more flexible, though this is the one trait that has
not yet equaled other domestic animals.8
The results appear to support Belyaev’s theory that other
traits of domestic animals are linked to tameness. His suc­
cessor, Lyudmila N. Trut, has identified a physiological basis

Too Cute

67

tor Ilie relationship.9 The domestic fox pups open their eyes
earlier, react to sounds earlier, and reach puberty earlier, but
limy display a later surge in corticosteroids—basically, stress
hormones. Because of this, their instinctive fear response
appears later and never becomes as pronounced. This combination allows them to interact with humans earlier and to
Hllach without developing fear. Pigment cells migrate so late as
In sometimes be nonfunctional. The same biological bases for
imoteny may determine why the ear cartilage doesn’t stiffen in