Sunday, June 12, 2011
(Sleepy Baby by Mary Cassatt, 1844-1926,
American painter and printmaker)
For those so inclined, the theory of evolution offers an explanation for our affection for children.
In his book The Panda’s Thumb, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) discusses the features that make babies look “cute and friendly.” He points to the work of Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), the Austrian zoologist who studied animal behavior and its application to an understanding of human behavior.
“In one of his most famous articles,” writes Gould, “Konrad Lorenz argues that humans use the characteristic differences in form between babies and adults as important behavioral cues. He believes that features of juveniles trigger ‘innate releasing mechanisms’ for affection and nurturing in adult humans. When we see a living creature with babyish features, we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness. The adaptive value of this response can scarcely be questioned, for we must nurture our babies.”
Lorenz lists among his so-called “releasers” the following features of babyhood: “a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements.”
“Our affectionate response to babyish features,” according to Lorenz, “is truly innate and inherited directly from our ancestral primates.”
The poet, on the other hand, takes a different approach. He has been looking into what makes us love the loveable.
Whose work is the more realistic study?
A baby’s feet, like sea-shells pink,
Might tempt, should Heaven see meet,
An angel’s lips to kiss, we think,
A baby’s feet.
Like rose-hued sea-flowers toward the heat
They stretch and spread and wink
Their ten soft buds that part and meet.
No flower-bells that expand and shrink
Gleam half so heavenly sweet
As shine on life’s untrodden brink
A baby's feet.
A baby’s hands, like rosebuds furled,
Whence yet no leaf expands,
Ope if you touch, though close upcurled,
A baby’s hands.
Then, even as warriors grip their brands
When battle’s bolt is hurled,
They close, clenched hard like tightening bands.
No rosebuds yet by dawn impearled
Match, even in loveliest lands,
The sweetest flowers in all the world —
A baby's hands.
A baby’s eyes, ere speech begin,
Ere lips learn words or sighs,
Bless all things bright enough to win
A baby’s eyes.
Love, while the sweet thing laughs and lies,
And sleep flows out and in,
Sees perfect in them Paradise.
Their glance might cast out pain and sin,
Their speech make dumb the wise,
By mute glad godhead felt within
A baby’s eyes.
~ Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), English lyric poet