Babies and Bunnies: A Caution About Evo-Psych

by Alicorn2 min read22nd Feb 2010844 comments


Evolutionary PsychologyInner AlignmentComplexity of ValueSuperstimuli

Daniel Dennett has advanced the opinion that the evolutionary purpose of the cuteness response in humans is to make us respond positively to babies.  This does seem plausible.  Babies are pretty cute, after all.  It's a tempting explanation.

Here is one of the cutest baby pictures I found on a Google search.

And this is a bunny.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the bunny is about 75,119 times cuter than the baby.

Now, bunnies are not evolutionarily important for humans to like and want to nurture.  In fact, bunnies are edible.  By rights, my evolutionary response to the bunny should be "mmm, needs a sprig of rosemary and thirty minutes on a spit".  But instead, that bunny - and not the baby or any other baby I've seen - strikes the epicenter of my cuteness response, and being more baby-like along any dimension would not improve the bunny.  It would not look better bald.  It would not be improved with little round humanlike ears.  It would not be more precious with thumbs, easier to love if it had no tail, more adorable if it were enlarged to weigh about seven pounds.

If "awwww" is a response designed to make me love human babies and everything else that makes me go "awwww" is a mere side effect of that engineered reaction, it is drastically misaimed.  Other responses for which we have similar evolutionary psychology explanations don't seem badly targeted in this way.  If they miss their supposed objects at all, at least it's not in most people.  (Furries, for instance, exist, but they're not a common variation on human sexual interest - the most generally applicable superstimuli for sexiness look like at-least-superficially healthy, mature humans with prominent human sexual characteristics.)  We've invested enough energy into transforming our food landscape that we can happily eat virtual poison, but that's a departure from the ancestral environment - bunnies?  All natural, every whisker.1

It is embarrassingly easy to come up with evolutionary psychology stories to explain little segments of data and have it sound good to a surface understanding of how evolution works.  Why are babies cute?  They have to be, so we'll take care of them.  And then someone with a slightly better cause and effect understanding turns it right-side-up, as Dennett has, and then it sounds really clever.  You can have this entire conversation without mentioning bunnies (or kittens or jerboas or any other adorable thing).  But by excluding those items from a discussion that is, ostensibly, about cuteness, you do not have a hypothesis that actually fits all of the data - only the data that seems relevant to the answer that presents itself immediately.

Evo-psych explanations are tempting even when they're cheaply wrong, because the knowledge you need to construct ones that sound good to the educated is itself not cheap at all. You have to know lots of stuff about what "motivates" evolutionary changes, reject group selection, understand that the brain is just an organ, dispel the illusion of little XML tags attached to objects in the world calling them "cute" or "pretty" or anything else - but you also have to account for a decent proportion of the facts to not be steering completely left of reality.

Humans are frickin' complicated beasties.  It's a hard, hard job to model us in a way that says anything useful without contradicting information we have about ourselves.  But that's no excuse for abandoning the task.  What causes the cuteness response?  Why is that bunny so outrageously adorable?  Why are babies, well, pretty cute?  I don't know - but I'm pretty sure it's not the cheap reason, because evolution doesn't want me to nurture bunnies.  Inasmuch as it wants me to react to bunnies, it wants me to eat them, or at least be motivated to keep them away from my salad fixings.


1It is possible that the bunny depicted is a domestic specimen, but it doesn't look like it to me.  In any event, I chose it for being a really great example; there are many decidedly wild animals that are also cuter than cute human babies.


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I would find this argument much more convincing if it were supported by people who actually have children. My mother goes beserk over a smiling infant in a way I cannot begin to comprehend (I am usually afraid I will accidentally hurt them). My husband, likewise, has an instant affinity for babies and always tries to communicate and play with them. He was raised Jewish with the idea that it is unclean to have animals in the home and does not find animals particularly adorable. In our culture we are inundated with anthropomorphised images of animals in television and given stuffed toys and pets that we take care of like children. It's not that surprising that we find animals cute when we focus so much attention on them as if they were little people. I do not know that such evaluations of 'cuteness' would hold cross-culturally, especially in cultures where people do kill and eat 'cute' animals on a regular basis.

4inklesspen11yOther hominids have been known to keep pets []. I would not be surprised if cetaceans were capable of this as well, though it would obviously be more difficult to demonstrate.

"Drastically misaimed" really says nothing about whether or not a cuteness instinct would be a good adaptation, though. A counterexample: it's a fact that our visual systems are acutely sensitive to rapidly-moving things. The evo-bio hypothesis is that this is predator detection. Does the fact that 99.999999% of the rapidly-moving things I notice aren't predators negate this hypothesis as well?

I can't think of very many cases in which people endanger themselves or their reproductive chances for the sake of cute animals. I'm sure it's happened once or twice, but using this argument means demonstrating that the number of potential children lost due to finding bunnies cute is greater than the number of actual children attended to due to finding them cute.

As an aside, I think that Google in this case is adding to the confusion. The evo-bio cuteness theory is generally stated as being about a system that detects facial markers that strongly differentiate babies from adults - the key ones being eyes large relative to head size, pursed mouths, round cheeks, and round chins. Some baby animals, when viewed up close in Google, display some of these characteristics. In the wild, however, baby animals are almost never seen up close, and even when they are, they trigger the facial recognition systems only in dribs and drabs, like bad CG.

mattalyst said:

A counterexample: it's a fact that our visual systems are acutely sensitive to rapidly-moving things. The evo-bio hypothesis is that this is predator detection. Does the fact that 99.999999% of the rapidly-moving things I notice aren't predators negate this hypothesis as well?

Nope, because the rapidly-moving things that are predators matter way more. False negatives in predator-detection are more costly than false positives by orders of magnitude.

I can't think of very many cases in which people endanger themselves or their reproductive chances for the sake of cute animals. I'm sure it's happened once or twice, but using this argument means demonstrating that the number of potential children lost due to finding bunnies cute is greater than the number of actual children attended to due to finding them cute.

Excellent observation. Perhaps some people find baby animals of other species cuter due to evolutionary baggage from common ancestors, which has never needed to go away because it didn't hurt our reproductive success.

n the wild, however, baby animals are almost never seen up close, and even when they are, they trigger the facial recognition systems only in dribs and drabs, like bad CG.

That's my intuition, also.

6George11y"I can't think of very many cases in which people endanger themselves or their reproductive chances for the sake of cute animals." A) Drivers swerving to avoid cats and bunnies etc. B) All the warnings about leaving bear cubs alone. I can think of non-cuteness explanations that probably cover some part of each but it seems idle to reject any role for cuteness in those survivability risks.
7iii8yI think that any situation that could not have occurred prior to the 20. century can be discarded out of hand when discussing the evolutionary roots of human behavior.
2[anonymous]8yIn English it's not idiomatic to write ordinal numbers by adding a full stop after the cardinal, as it is in German. Normally one writes “20th” (with the “th” optionally superscripted).

I agree that evolutionary psychology is very prone to abuse and should probably usually be avoided, but this seems like a terrible example to me. The hypothesis that cuteness is our evolved response to baby-like features does NOT predict that babies will be the cutest thing.

5Eliezer Yudkowsky11yVery compactly put. The data simply do not contradict the theory in the first place.
2toonalfrink22dIt does not, but consider 2 adaptations: A: responds to babies and more strongly to bunnies B: responds to babies only B would seem more adaptive. Why didn't humans evolve it? Plausible explanation: A is more simple and therefore more likely to result from a random DNA fluctuation. Is anyone doing research into which kinds of adaptations are more likely to appear like this?

How come everyone is missing the obvious answer? The human ancestor that first developed attachment to babies may be an ancestor we share with rabbits.

(Edit, Also: Human babies may have evolved to be uglier for other reasons -less hair, bigger heads- and those features may have been selected for more than cuteness.)

Edit 2: Metaphorically, our cuteness program is like running Netscape Navigator 1.0 or something. It sort of does the trick but isn't exactly adapted for modern uses

I agree with Jack: large eyes embedded in a small puffy face are general mammalian triggers for cuteness. Humans thinking that kittens are cute is just an accident.

Though 'accident' isn't the right word. Mammalian mechanisms are simply very general among mammals and robust. I read this somewhere and assimilated it as obviously true. And then I experienced how true it was when I had kids.

We're always 'being mammals' but I guess we're somewhat desensitized to the mammalian things we do every day. During pregnancy, childbirth and raising a child, a whole slew of new behaviors are activated and it's just amazing to realize the extent to which behaviors are instinctual and rely on physical mechanisms like tactile stimulation, visual cues and internal timers.

Breast-feeding of course. Did you know that breast-feeding is an interactive activity, where the baby has to suck of course, but also the mother needs to 'let down' the milk supply? Tactile stimulation (like sucking or kneading) will trigger 'let down', but also it can be triggered if the mother just thinks about her baby being cute. Women often have a lot of trouble 'pumping' milk for later use because the apparatus doesn't mimic hu... (read more)

3DanArmak11yThen I repeat my question: please give examples of non-primate mammalian behaviors that indicate the animal found an animal of a different species "cute". A second question: does your theory allows distinguishing between "cuteness" reaction and nurturing/baby-raising protective behavior?
4byrnema11yMine doesn't. I think that instinctual mechanisms for "nurturing/baby-raising protective behavior" is a really big deal for mammals, so much so that the mechanisms have a tendency to be overly robust. (E.g., some men lactate.) However, I would defer to an expert on this, and would ask one (read a book) if something rested upon the question. I look forward to the day when we can scan an animal brain and see what they think and feel. Till then, I can't comment on whether animals think their babies are 'cute'. There's no doubt though that nurturing/baby-raising protective behavior is triggered across species. However it seems context-dependent: the parenting animal must have reason to consider the baby part of the family. So domesticated animals are likely to show this behavior to other pets and babies. (My cat tried to teach my first baby how to hunt when she started crawling, but didn't bother with the second.) Birds will take care of other birds if they're in the nest, etc. And of course there's Tarzan, which might have been based on some kind of observation of this kind.
9Psy-Kosh11yThat would explain how it is we can find rabbits cute at all. But to find them equally or more cute than human babies would seem to not be explained by your answer.
5wedrifid11yBecause I don't consider it plausible. The 'cuteness' response is just far more malleable than the, you know, bit where you aren't a rabbit. See, for example, all the other sensory preferences that are are finely honed per species. EDIT: I will add that it is slightly more plausible to me that rabbits are cute because they look more like baby ancestral primates than baby humans do on some key features (little and fury). Even so I would be reluctant to assign too much confidence to such a theory.
4djcb11yI'm not sure the answer is so obvious. For example, baby pinguins and other birds can be very cute; baby lizards usually aren't. I think the theory goes that we've evolved from something that looks somewhat lizardy, but definitely not like a bird.
6mattnewport11yI rest my case.
4Unnamed11yDo we know whether adult rabbits find baby rabbits cute? If not, that would count against the common ancestor hypothesis.
2wedrifid11yGood question. It didn't appear until here []. The obvious answer is that cuteness does in fact serve purposes distinct from making people nurture every baby they come across.
2byrnema11yI don't get it. This other purpose is nutritive?
2Psy-Kosh11yHrm... with regards to your edit, wouldn't there still then be the pressures for our "cuteness criteria" to evolve to prefer the new look of babies?
2RobinZ11y"An". "An" obvious answer. There's at least one other which has been proposed in other replies to this post: social conditioning. I have to say that yours is quite interesting, however. What else does it predict?
9wedrifid11yThat instincts are orders of magnitude slower to evolve than physical attributes at the scale of 'people and bunnies'.
3DanArmak11yThe instincts have to reference physical attributes to identify cute things. If physical appearance evolves so quickly, how can the instinct continue to apply to it? IOW, to accept this theory, it is necessary to believe that the things we find cute are all similar to that shared ancestor (or shared-ancestral juvenile). Does anyone know if this actually makes sense within what we know of ur-Mammalian creatures?
4soreff11yIf attraction instincts (cuteness or sexual) evolve much more slowly than physical attributes, then shouldn't supermodels be chimpier than they are?
6mattnewport11yIs 'supermodels' supposed to be shorthand for 'highly sexually attractive'? Supermodels are not generally the women who are the most sexually attractive to heterosexual males but are selected for a variety of other attributes such as a 'striking' appearance, height and extreme slenderness. That said, women who are considered very sexually attractive are not particularly chimpy either. They do share other traits that are not as common amongst supermodels however.
4ideclarecrockerrules11yThis pretty much convinced me that the fine variances of sexiness have much more to do with memes than genes. It shouldn't be hard to test if it is the case with cuteness as well: just find a culture that hasn't been exposed to Disney/Pixar films.
4bogdanb11yNot that hard to do. Look at woman representations in art. Until the last century, they were quite different from current photo-models. (I tend to think of most of them as “fat”, despite the fact that I know they’ve better reproductive characteristics.)
9komponisto11yThat lots of other animals should share our opinions about cuteness.

Don't any of you have children?? Newborn babies are one thing, but there's a cuteness of seeing small, perfect little versions of yourself or your mate... I don't think a bunny could really compete.

No, other people's babies aren't that cute, but mine sure as hell are.

And in any case, I don't really see how this relates to... whatever it is you are saying about ev-psych (or the deeper mystery of cuteness). Why would you expect evolution to make us only find human babies cute? Evolution only has to work hard enough to keep us from abandoning our babies, and to hell with the (bunny-related) side-effects. Why would evolution care how cute you think bunnies are, as long as it's not so much that you start eating your babies and raising rabbits?

2brazil8411yThat thought occurred to me too. Evolutionarily, if our sexual instincts are very strong and well aimed, the cuteness instinct arguably doesn't need to be so precise.

I wanted to say this for a long time: human babies aren't cute. Certainly not newborns. If I didn't know better, and saw a newborn, I would perform an exorcism. They look like creatures from the Uncanny Valley.

Edit: Seventeen points? Maybe I should make this a top-level post. Opinions?

First I lose about that many from a very thoughtful post because of my unusual sense of humor. Then I gain them back on... this? People, start making sense.

1 year ago, I would have completely agreed.

Then we had a baby, and now I see cuteness in babies all over the place. None as cute as my baby, though.

8RichardKennaway11yI note that [] has no babies on it, as far as I can tell. Cats, dogs, and little balls of feathery fuzz, but no babies.
2prase11yUpvoted because of the edit. But don't make this a top-level post, please.

Maybe the bunny has evolutionarily converged on the mammal shared cuteness pattern, but the baby has been forced to diverge by other pressures? Human babies are born very underdeveloped relative to other species. I've read speculation that this is due to the upright walking, hip shape, head size, brain size compromise, and that seems sensible to me. Cuteness optimization may have been shoved aside as lower priority.

If anyone is curious about my stance on this now that I have reproduced:

  • My baby is cuter than most babies. Some people who are not related to him have agreed with me on this but there is probably still bias in the sample. He does have traits I have always considered advantageous in babies generally or desirable in mine specifically though.

  • He is very difficult to photograph well. He gets distracted by the camera and moves at inopportune times. Wildlife photographers probably have solutions to similar wildlife-related issues and maybe pro baby photographers do too. I don't know how this affects image quality ratios in Google results.

  • My baby is much more appealing as a process than a snapshot. He is soft and squishy and warm in addition to being nice to stare at, and has learned to smile and laugh in response to things we do, and he is endearingly incompetent at many tasks he attempts. Some animals can do that sort of thing too though.

I still think it's suspect that the cuteness response fires strongly in response to bunnies etc., but I may have stacked the deck more than I would have if I had known more at the time.

A cognitive module for cuteness only needs to make us find babies a nice thing and enhance the probability of parental care. It simply doesn’t matter if, besides doing that, the same cognitive module make us find bunnies or orthorhombic sulfur crystals at low temperature cute, so long this doesn’t have any deleterious effects. Probably a cognitive module that can find cute only human babies and not bunnies is more evolutionary improbable and developmental costly having the same relevant behavioral results of a more cheap and universal cognitive module for cuteness. Evolution only needs to shape cognition in order to generate, more or less, the right type of behavior. It DOESN’T have to, and in most cases it doesn’t, shape cognition nicely, in a way we would look at it and say “nice work”.

3johnsonmx8yYes, and I would say finding bunnies cuter than human babies isn't a strong argument against Dennett's hypothesis. Supernormal Stimuli [] are quite common in humans and non-humans. I think this argument could be analogously phrased: "The reason why exercise makes us feel good can't be to get us to exercise more, because cocaine feels even better than exercise." Seems wrong when we put it that way.
1adamisom9yUpvoted for a better understanding of ev psych. That's kind of the whole point of ev psych, at least for me: our minds are kluges, and side effects hardly factor in if they have little survival disadvantage.

Why do people take more videos of babies than bunnies? Could it be because babies are cuter?

Everyone I know who has ever given birth to a bunny has taken thousands of video clips of their interspecies spawn.

Selection bias. Those of us (including myself) who agreed with Alicorn probably didn't feel a need to reply just to signal their agreement.

I think we should steer a lot further from high-school tropes. Right now you seem a whisker away from grabbing her stuff, offering it back to her, then throwing it to a mate when she reaches for it. I don't think that's exactly the atmosphere we're aiming for, do you?

4SilasBarta11yAgreed, and voted up. With that said, note that the scienceblogs author and most of the commenters were female, and didn't make the inference, "alicorn = unicorn-related = probably female".

It seems very oversimplified to say, "We think babies are cute because we have to." "Cuteness" casts a pretty wide net when you start thinking of all the things we say are "cute." A sample list of things I've heard described as cute:

  • Babies
  • Bunnies
  • Targets of sexual attraction
  • Small consumer goods, such as tiny containers of shampoo, small forks, etc.
  • Some old men
  • Targets of sarcastic comments ("That's real cute, but .. ")

It seems like we reserve the word for "things that are vulnerable/harmless/ineffective and don't realize it, which then triggers an urge to keep the thing's inaccurate self-perceptions about its own effectiveness intact."

8Blueberry11yThis is confusing the map with the territory. We use the word "cute" for all those things, but we don't feel the same way about them all, and we don't mean the same thing by that word in most of those cases.
5Blueberry11yI was asked to clarify and expand this comment, so: The original post was about a particular feeling that humans often have in certain situations, a feeling that is often triggered by looking at young animals. This feeling is something that exists in the real world (the territory). We use the word "cute" (among others) to describe something triggering this experience. This is part of our map of the world. However, no word unambiguously refers to just one thing in the real world. That's just not how language works. As it happens, the word "cute" is commonly used to refer to lots of other things as well. Targets of sexual attraction may be said to be "cute", but in a different way than bunnies or kitties, though these may be related. Using the word "cute" sarcastically is a very different use of the word with a completely different meaning. My original point was that if something is described as "cute", that may be a similarity on the map but not the territory. I may use the same word for a sexually attractive human, a kitten, a small fork, an old man, and a sarcastic comment (map similarity). But for each one, I may mean something completely different, and I may have a completely different response with a separate type of explanation (territory difference).
5bgrah44911ytl;dr: Cuteness is the word that we use when we want something to experience a feeling of safety or otherwise be more confident than we think they would feel without special effort to make them feel that way. Thanks for expanding. I want to throw out a warning that we're treading dangerously close to the foul line [], but I think we're still in-bounds. I understand the general point that words can have different meanings, and I'm open to the possibility that I'm falling victim to the typical mind fallacy. I don't have any alternate meanings suggested yet, so I'm going to try to preemptively defend my definition below. I want to test this hypothesis with a visualization experiment. I don't expect it will take longer than about 2 minutes to do all of the visualizations. This is the scene I want you to imagine: the person, animal, or object is standing or sitting, whichever can be expected of it. If it's a person, he or she has a blank, unsmiling, neutral, unaggressive facial expression. If it's an animal, its face is similarly at rest. It's facing either Data or Spock (take your pick). Imagine Data or Spock saying the sentence out loud to the person, animal, or object. * 52" plasma television set - It's flipping through many channels, previewing each one for about a second; someone is channel-surfing. "You will be replaced by better, cheaper technology in less than a year." * Baby - "You would test very low on an IQ test. You will continue to be a net resource drain for several years." * Sexiest person alive - Doesn't matter who or what gender - this person is desired greatly, and desired primarily for their ability to satisfy you, personally, sexually. Take a minute and picture this person facing Data or Spock. "Your opinion isn't respected in virtually any matter; people agree with it out of hope they'll be able to sleep with you." * Bunny - "In a year's time, y
4[anonymous]8yInteresting. My empathy seems to be working in a weird way. * TV set: it doesn't sound mean at all -- it's an inanimate fucking object []. (I'm assuming the old TV set will be sold or given away, rather than disposed of or destroyed, otherwise it would sound somewhat mean -- towards the hypothetical person who could otherwise use the TV set, not towards the TV set itself. * Baby: not mean at all if the baby is too young to understand, very mean otherwise. By this point, I was thinking that “can they understand?” must be it. * Sexy person: somewhat mean. So far, so good; but... * Bunny: okay, this does sound kind-of mean, and the bunny most definitely doesn't understand English, so my heuristic was broken. (I'm not sure whether me feeling empathy for a bunny is a bug or a feature.) Next: * Cute girl: slightly mean. * Cute boy: not mean at all. (But the fact that in certain ways I'm probably more feminine than usual for males might have something to do with that.) * Hyena: wow, that does sound somewhat mean (more than for the bunny). WTH? Some part of me must be an Azathoth worshipper. * Shampoo bottle: not mean at all. Can't feel empathy for a bottle even if I try to force myself to. (And, as I once already mentioned, I do feel a sliver of empathy for the molecules in this picture [] when they're hit particularly hard. What's the difference? The fact that I've done moshing [] which is analogous to thermal collisions but I've never done anything remotely analogous to being a shampoo bottle about to be thrown away? * Old man: OMG, telling him that in front of his wife? 'The hell is wrong with you, Mr Spock? * Creepy old man: the “You give women the creeps” part doesn't sound mean at all, the “you won't have sex again between now and when you die” sounds extremely me
1[anonymous]8yI still don't know, but the fact that I can feel sorry for someone talking to it is definitely a bug. I don't think words should have any non-zero terminal value, they only matter insofar as they have an effect in the listener (and if Omega told me that there's an M-Disc with $literary_work somewhere in intergalactic space where no-one could read it, and offered to give me $10 and destroy the disc, I would totally accept); and (pace certain new-agey bollocks) telling a bunny “In a year's time, you will be harvested and your muscles will be cooked in a soup” won't hurt it any more than telling it anything else.
2Blueberry11yIt strikes me that tabooing "cute" might be useful here. Regardless of how we use the word, going back to the OP, what is it we mean when we talk about our reaction to say, a picture of a bunny or a kitty or a baby? For me, it's an "awww" response, coupled with a smile and an urge to hold or pet or protect the animal. I don't feel that way about a miniature object, exactly, or an old man, or a sexually attractive person. At best it's a very muted version of the feeling.
1ikrase8yLet me break that down Targets of sexual attraction: I think that most people (Moderate confidence) see different targets of sexual attraction with wildly varying levels of cuteness, and I know that for myself, cuteness is inversely correlated with how directly, physically sexual my attraction is. Furthermore, after I inadvertently modified myself to be attracted to power, cuteness became a bit of horns rather than a halo. Targets of sarcastic comments: I think that is clear and simple insulting for childishness. Inanimate objects: I tend to feel protective of quaint equipment, even if it is unlikely to be a valuable historical artifact in the future, but it doesn't seem related to the cuteness response to those objects. I think that the most important distinction in your list is between cute adult humans and all the others except for sarcasm, which doesn't belong with the rest of them.


In fact, bunnies are edible.

Babies are edible too. Cannibalistic infanticide is a fairly common phenomenon throughout the animal world. It is widely practiced by chimpanzees, some of the closest evolutionary relatives of humans. (It's mostly done by male chimpanzees, but sometimes also females; see the linked paper for more details and references.)

Unless some group-selection mechanism is in operation (and such explanations are always controversial), there is no straightforward reason why one should care about unrelated babies. Killing them may well be adaptive behavior. Infanticide is thus unsurprisingly a widespread phenomenon) in nature -- and once you kill a baby, you might as well eat it too; hence cannibalistic infanticide. Even when it comes to one's own kids and relatives, there are situations where killing them may be cost-effective in selfish gene terms, and parental and kin infanticide is also far from nonexistent among animals. All these behaviors are a regular subject of study in evolutionary biology, including evolutionary psychology.

Therefore, noting that babies can look less cute than other things whose only relevant characteristics are nutritional is ... (read more)

I actually included that because of exactly that response from various girls about objects like hotel shampoo bottles, Japanese candies, a very small salt-shaker, a tiny spoon, etc. It usually goes something like, "Look at that salt shaker; it's so cute." And then I look at the salt shaker and say, "You're worthless because you're too small to be useful." And the girl will go, "Don't say that!" and then immediately grabs the salt shaker.

One time I drew pictures on a piece of scratchpaper in such a way that when a Japanese candy was placed in the middle of it, it looked like I had the candy strung up by chains and was being tortured via electric shock. My co-worker snatched the candy and still hasn't eaten it; it's still in her desk.

Actually, I find the baby about 75 000 cuter. This might have something to do with the fact that I'm a) a girl, and b) right at the age when, biologically speaking, I should be having kids. I see babies in the street and get warm fuzzy feelings. My (female) friends and I at work talk about how much we want to take home every baby in the Parent & Tot swimming classes. We show each other pictures of friends' babies and go completely gaga. Just wanted to point out that this may be something that varies with sex. (Although not for everyone, of course.)

7Alicorn10yI'm a girl too, and I'm 22 (was 21 when I wrote the article) - I'm not sure if you categorize that as the biological age where I should be having babies, but it's not just a sex thing, although that might factor in weakly somehow.
6rabidchicken10yTrying to determine what effect if any sex has is difficult, because the reaction of males / females to young children is highly influenced by exposure. Anecdotally, when families I know have had children, any girls who have some relation to the family are often encouraged to play with them / babysit them, or are given tutorials on things like changing diapers. I can only think of one guy who had the same treatment, although males may also just try to hide that they are good at dealing with babies. I have worked in a nursery with children around age 5 and up, and this is when it actually becomes possible for me to find them cute, I don't think its a coincidence. Instead of getting taught from an early age, the general trend seems to be that men are just expected to pick it up on the spot when they get married. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, and may account for the large number of guys who worry about commitment in the first place. When I hold a baby, I feel the same as i did when I first started playing an expensive instrument, or installed an OS on my computer, paranoid because I was worried I was going to break something. If it wasn't for that, then the odds of me finding babies cute would go up considerably.
1[anonymous]8yI'm trans (assigned male at birth, female now) and can say that there's not the same kind of pressure on young men to react well to babies and young children and take an interest in them. I happen to have a fairly strong caretaker/teacher/playful interaction drive where kids are concerned; it was often seen as a bit weird, although once people saw me establishing a rapport with a child, they'd usually re-sort me into the "exception" box.

This study suggests looking at kitten pictures makes you more careful, improving performance in fine-motor dexterity tasks such as mock surgery.

I wonder if this could lower the error rate of computer programmers, and whether I should buy Eliezer a kitten.

3NancyLebovitz10yYou'd have to give Eliezer a sequence of kittens unless you're hoping that the cuteness of the kitten will have an imprinting effect which will affect Eliezer's reaction to the eventual cat.
3DSimon10yIt would probably be more efficient (and less cruel to the kittens who would eventually lose importance) to just have Eliezer look at a filtered-for-cuteness lolcats picture stream each morning.
1DaFranker8yHas this been tested and/or implemented? I'd totally volunteer to do the filtering. Some unknown odds of possibly improving Eliezer's efficiency by up to 2% up to a third of the time still sounds like a hell of a lot more expected utility than other stuff I happen to be doing.
2DSimon8y []

we should stereotype people

No, all people who stereotype are evil and probably also kill puppies.

(Alternately, "I said nothing in the grandparent that advocates stereotyping of anything by anything, you are being logically rude".)

We find bunnies in general cute, but not humans in general -- so it makes sense that a baby bunny would be cuter than a baby human. It combines babyness and bunnyness, as compared to a human baby who only has babyness. We care about the human baby more than the bunny baby because we value humanness quite apart from cuteness.

Perhaps the cuteness response is tied to domestication - ie, evolution wants us to take the bunny with us until it gets old enough to stop being cute, and then eat it.

5JulianMorrison11yThen it fails again. People get attached to pets. They tend not to eat them, even if they're edible.
6prase11yNot during famines. We can afford to have pets, but if you are an often hungry member of a hunter-gatherer tribe, cuteness may be a good measure to compensate your desire to eat the bunny on the spot. Also, we don't eat all domestic animals. Dogs or horses are quite important examples.

We don't, for some memetic reason, I guess, but many cultures do. New evidence suggest that dogs were actually first domesticated for livestock purposes (but see also this).

Incidentally, returning from the South Pole, Amundsen and his team did slaughter their dogs one at a time, as they had planned to do from the beginning, and used them for feeding both themselves and the remaining dogs. Scott's expedition considered killing their trusty companions immoral (not to mention ungentlemanly), a stance that ultimately cost the lives of both the humans and their dogs.

2[anonymous]8yYep. Even in Europe (well, in Italy at least) eating horse meat is not something unheard-of.
2AspiringRationalist8yIs there any clear evidence for a single origin of domesticated dogs? Given that dogs can be bred with wolves, I see no reason why what we have now couldn't be a mix of the results of multiple domestication events.
3[anonymous]8yTaking a quick glance at [] , it seems that wolves were domesticated several times but all extant dogs are descended (at least matrilineally) from those domesticated around 15,000 years ago in China.
4thomblake11yhorse meat [] dog meat [] I was very grossed out by a little shop advertising "Carni Equine" in Mantova, but apparently the locals did not feel the same, as it was on several restaurants' menus.
3JohannesDahlstrom11yThin slices of Mettwurst [], made at least partially of equine meat, are quite a popular sandwich filling in most of Central and Northern Europe. It's not uncommon for adolescent boys to tease their (usually female) horse-aficionado peers with jokes built around this fact. (Incidentally, horse meat is apparently very high quality - high-protein, low-fat. And of course, equines - gazelles and others - were an important part of our ancestors' cuisine.)
9pjeby11yWhat do "low fat" and "high quality" have to do with one another?
5JohannesDahlstrom11yPoint conceded; I wrote hastily. It does seem, though, that horse meat has quite favorable cholesterol values and an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

Dost thou also find the use of "singular you" annoying?

I've gotten 'she' from 'Eliezer Yudkowsky' no less.

Interestingly, over the course of some time monitoring blog trackbacks for Overcoming Bias, I never saw Robin Hanson mistaken for a female Robin.

So... um... I realize that this isn't really what the whole point is about at all, but I didn't feel particularly insulted to be called a girl; what does it say about your opinion of men that you're insulted to be mistaken for male? :)

(And yes, I know, it probably wouldn't be annoying if it was only happening to you personally and no one else, it's the background social assumptions that are annoying.)

I automatically assumed Yvain was female for a while, because the name looks like "Yvonne".

4RichardKennaway11ySir Yvain, Knight of the Lion [].
6[anonymous]11yAm I mistaken for female on here because of my username often, I wonder. It does look like it has the word "gal" embedded in it. Darn orthography not reflecting pronunciation. (The pronunciation is /ˈwɔrɨɡl̩/ in IPA, uorygl in Lojban. Also, it took me ages to figure out a way to get the word "female" within five words of the beginning of that sentence.)
2NancyLebovitz10yIt's easy for me to see your name as Warriorgal.
4Alicorn11yIt says nothing about my opinion of men (I think) - it just signifies to me that the person so profoundly does not even care. I don't want to be talked about without being considered. This is probably more of a pet peeve for me than for others. It would still be annoying even if it never happened to anyone else.

What did the person who mistook me for a woman not care about with respect to me? What were they not considering about me that constitutes disrespect to me? If it's not an annoying social background assumption then I genuinely don't understand what's so terrible about this.

5RobinZ11yDo you remember whoever-it-was that was talking about not having the kind of attachment to sexual identity that other people claimed? (She - I believe it was she - mentioned that she would be more likely to report but not as emotionally traumatized by rape.) I think this is an inverse of this. Some people - me, for example - are unperturbed by being assigned the wrong gender. Not everyone.
3arundelo11y []

It says nothing about my opinion of men (I think) - it just signifies to me that the person so profoundly does not even care.

It also signifies that you care a lot, more than is normally expected, and so more than people normally adjust their behavior to accommodate.

7wedrifid11yAbout gender pronouns, your gender, gender politics in general or something more esoteric?
3Alicorn11yAbout me. In person, I'm fairly obviously girl-shaped. No one has ever made this mistake when interacting with me in person, and I don't have to do Obvious Girl Things™ to get that accuracy - don't have to swish around in crinoline, don't have to conveniently quote third parties who refer to me as "she", don't have to carry my purse everywhere I go, or even say my name (which is a girls' name). People don't assume based on where I am or what I'm doing or how surprising it would be for me to be a girl before they figure out that I am one anyway and pronoun me accordingly. And - in person, when people can't tell what gender someone is, they don't guess, unless they feel able to rely on visual cues or maybe being married to someone of a known gender (and when they are wrong they are mortified). People will bend over backwards to avoid using the wrong pronoun for someone who's in the room with them. They'll ask third parties or construct their sentences to avoid making the assumption or learn the person's name to get a clue. It's just not socially acceptable to get it wrong. Online, people feel free to guess, and on the geeky parts of the Internet I frequent this is most likely to affect women negatively. (I also frequent various anti-prejudice parts of the Internet, but there a) I generally lurk and b) under the circumstances they take the trouble to be careful about that sort of thing!) Now, I recognize this disparity is because it's considered insulting to say that someone looks like the opposite gender, and not so with writing like the opposite gender... except that when people talk about third parties one of them knows in person and the other doesn't, the one who doesn't know doesn't casually hurl pronoun caution to the wind even though someone is right there to correct them should they be wrong without any implications about anyone's looks having been made. When there is a mechanism to find out a real person's gender, it gets taken advantage of. With real pe

It seems somewhat unreasonable to get so upset over the fact that a random person on the Internet doesn't care about you. I wonder what you think about this quote from my post The Nature of Offense:

On the other side of this interaction, we should consider the possibility that our offensiveness sense may be tuned too sensitively, perhaps for an ancestral environment where mass media didn’t exist and any offense might reasonably be considered both personal and intentional.

But I admit that I'm still quite confused about the proper relationship between rationality, values, and emotions. "Too sensitively" above makes some sense to me intuitively, but if someone asks "too sensitive compared to what?" then I can't really give an answer. I'd be interested in any insights you (or anyone else) might have.

1Alicorn11yI wouldn't mind if the person had chosen not to blog about me at all. But having made the choice to a) blog about my article and b) couch this entry in terms of what puzzles me, etc., not checking up on my gender places the entire thing in a sort of uncanny valley of care. The blogger basically tried to order up my content a la carte, and there is a limit to how modular my contents are.
7Unknowns11yI tend to agree with Wei Dai, and it seems to me that your analogy between the way people behave on the internet and the way people behave in person is flawed. To illustrate this: The internet behavior in question: the blogger didn't care enough about you to find out your gender, but did care enough about what you said to comment on it, also not realizing that you would read the blog post. Real world behavior that would be actually analogous: two men (more likely to be uncaring) are walking down a street in a large city. Two other persons pass them, walking in the other direction and speaking with one another. The two men overhear something, but it is difficult for them to be sure of the gender of the two persons. Then, one of the two men comments to the other on what they overheard. He uses whatever gender pronoun seems to him slightly more likely, even while knowing that there is a good chance he is wrong, and he doesn't care. Note the real analogy here: the two men don't care about the two persons they pass, but are interested in what they overhear, and so say something about it. They have no reason to expect that the persons will hear what they say, so, in their view, it doesn't matter whether they are right or not. Of course, people may well underestimate the probability that other people will read blog posts about them, so maybe they should be more careful.
3wedrifid11yThe other difference when calling a 'she' a he' in real life is:If you can actually see her with your eyes and you call her a 'he' then it probably means you haven't noticed her breasts, don't consider her facial features to be differentiated and don't even have a polite, respectful appreciation for her feminine form. That makes the situation extremely embarrassing for both parties.
2NancyLebovitz10yI'm pretty sure that's a function of where you hang out. My impression is that transgendered people have a hard time getting their choices taken seriously in most social circles.
2[anonymous]8yYour impression is accurate. It's frequently an issue in gatherings of trans people, let alone in mixed groups or majority-cis spaces.

That's my point. Jack's theory, which rests entirely on the fact other animals look similar to human babies, does not explain why many animals are cute while not a single animal is (widely) sexually attractive.

3taw11yWell, "catgirls" seem to have large appeal, but that's easily explained away - they're 99% human with 1% added kitten for massive cuteness signal in a way that doesn't interfere with any human sexual signals. It's a lot like 99% with 1% added flower in form of perfume being more sexually attractive than 100% natural human.

Our sense of cuteness may be tuned to respond optimally to young children, instead of newborns. (I'm guessing here based on the fact that humans look like young children for a much longer period of time than like newborns. My personal sense of cuteness is extremely insensitive for some reason.)

What causes the cuteness response? Why is that bunny so outrageously adorable? Why are babies, well, pretty cute? I don't know - but I'm pretty sure it's not the cheap reason, because evolution doesn't want me to nurture bunnies.

I'm not convinced that you should be "pretty sure", but I'm more interested in why you used the word "cheap". What does that mean in this context?

2Alicorn11y"Cheap" means the one you come up with if you think about the question "Why are babies cute?" instead of "Why are the things that are cute as cute as they are?"

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the bunny is about 75,119 times cuter than the baby.

You're wrong. That baby is way cuter than the bunny.

6RobinZ11yFor people with cutoffs for low karma comments: Poll on relative cuteness of babies and bunnies [] - karma balance [].
7Nominull11yproblem with the poll: the karma changes have left me several hundred karma points in the red to downvote anything.

In proper English, that would not be ambiguous; pronouns always refer to their antecedents, and no other applicable noun can come between the pronoun and the antecedent.

nolrai explicitly specified "natural language," not your "proper English."

3RobinZ11yOn it [] !
2Kevin11yGo go feminism police!
1Alicorn11yThank you!
2Wei_Dai11yWhy did Eliezer tell everyone here about another blogger who doesn't care enough about Alicorn to find out and use her preferred pronoun, instead of, say, just contacting that blogger directly? And why did people vote it up? Do they want to see more instances of such lack of caring to be reported here? I think I'm missing something here...
6Paul Crowley11yThe blog post is of independent interest aside from the gender mixup.
4wedrifid11yI found the mere fact that a lesswrong post got that much external reference was interesting. I don't think my personal vote should be taken as support of any 'lack of caring' about Alicorn, as that is not an inference I have made about the state of the mind of the blogger based on the evidence available. That is, I reject the framing of the question.
1Eliezer Yudkowsky11yEr... a sense of humor? I regret only that I didn't get to see the look on her face in person, but I was kind of hoping for an AAAAAAAHHH in reply.

Oh, I didn't realize my frustration was so entertaining. Should I stop exhibiting it, to create better incentives?

9Paul Crowley11yWhile I generally get pissed off when people find my frustration entertaining, I'm not sure that's the correct inference here. I can be amused by my friends frustration in a way that, far from diminishing my sympathy for them, is actually borne of it. This is part of what amuses us about the Bill Hicks of this world.

Wow, that's quite a discussion thread that's hanging below this comment; interesting, but completely unrelated to the top-level post. I want to jump in with a few words about anger but I'm completely at a loss as to where to put them.

Anyway, said blogger has now changed his post.

Anyway - one of my few remaining "pet peeves" is the tendency many people have to treat emotions as something unequivocally good, while ignoring the fact that we already have science to show the physical and mental effects of emotion. You don't really get to decide how or whether your emotions affect you - only limited options for preventing them in the first place, and for mitigating them after the fact.

Just so long as we don't end up with a bias towards dividing emotions down the 'negative/positive' line and classify all the 'negative' ones ... (read more)

If you want to change the behavior of those around you - and you're right, sometimes you don't - then the emotional response is a good source of motivation.

That depends on what you define as "good" and "motivation". Most kinds of negative emotional responses don't promote taking positive actions, and they're strressful and harmful to the body as well.

The example I had in mind was someone changing their macroscopic reaction from "VERBAL HULK SMASH" to "icy courtesy" in order to leave a better impression

Note t... (read more)

It wasn't funny.

Here is the final, most likely explanation for the cuteness paradox:

1 - Cuteness genes are positively selected by many things, but the main filter, at least in mammals, is THE MOTHER INVESTMENT. Puppies (humans, bunnies, all of them..) compete for the investment of the mother, because she is the one that feeds them. They cannot feed themselves until they are adults. Cuteness is a deceivement device and (because it costs physical resources) an honest signal for communicating the mother that the deceiver is the puppy most worth of the maternal investment. Ev... (read more)

6George11yMammals that bear many children less cute than a species that bears few: rats vs guinea pigs. But in any case it is very strange even to suppose that cuteness would be a universal aesthetic.
4diegocaleiro11yCuteness is not an universal trait, otherwise we would share this Vulture's mum's intuition.,,15345660-EX,00.jpg [,,15345660-EX,00.jpg] [] In the case of human evaluators of babies, not only our genetic proximity to the baby must be taken in consideration. Human females pupils dilate (signal of attraction) when seeing a baby. Human male pupils will vary, with the case being that childless man are more likely to get a shrinkage, while fathers mostly have dilated pupils. Sometimes it pays not to detect something, evolutionarily speaking, some levels of egoism are tolerated and forgotten to keep future altruism, for instance. Females are pro-babies in general probably because it would be too costly to find other babies neutral, or ugly. The male scenario is a bit different. Also, we see babies all the time, so we should beware of Contrast Effect bias in favor of the bunny.

To the baby picture, my response is "aw, that's cute".

When I saw that bunny picture, my entire face scrunched with joy up for a good 15 seconds, no exaggeration. My hands rose to my face and covered my cheeks in the "Home Alone" configuration, although my expression was I'm quite sure one of joy rather than fear. I had to employ a fair amount of willpower to stop myself from saying "D'awwwww" out loud.

Consider me a data point in favor of your counter-hypothesis.

It's a fun distraction to hone the creative mind for when real debate comes along.

Or a temptation to reinforce bad habits of rhetoric so that when there is actually a rational conclusion to be reached everyone can merrily ignore it and follow their ego unfettered.

This is sort of where I'm at on the issue. I understand that you don't like being referred to as 'he', and I agree that you shouldn't be.

However, my perspective is that 'he' is the default, and if someone refers to me as 'he', that is the only reason. With the handle 'byrnema', I expect people to assume I'm male. Well, it's more subtle than that. I don't expect anyone to make a positive prediction that I'm male -- they shouldn't know -- but since people assign gender in their minds when they consider a person, I expect that assignment to be male.

Does it bo... (read more)

6mattnewport11yI'd never heard of the word 'alicorn' until I started reading lesswrong and I'm comfortable saying that I am not linguistically naive. It didn't occur to me that it was an actual word until Alicorn posted in a thread that it should be obvious she is female with that user name. Consider that for the same reasons a unicorn-associated handle is associated with being female it might not be an effective handle to signal to males that one is female. It is probably wise if one is particularly offended by incorrect gender assumptions to pick a username that clearly signals ones gender to the majority of ones audience.
3Alicorn11yI was not, when I started using this handle, aware of how non-present in popular vocabulary the word "alicorn" is. I thought it was a pretty girly username - maybe not up there with, I dunno, "PinkFlowerPrincess", but perhaps on a par with "Cerise" (a shade of pink), or something subtler like "Purl" (a knitting stitch, also hinting at "Pearl"). It doesn't and was never meant to declare my gender, but I always thought it suggested it. If nothing else, I think "Allison" is a more likely sound-alike than "Ali"-plus-unidentified-suffix, because that actually happened [] . It bothers me that there is a default assignment. If one were going to make a brand new default in a situation where none existed, it's my impression that there would be a better (if still very weak) case for making it female instead, but I don't think it's appropriate to make such assumptions.

My point is that it's perceived as nasty and cruel at all, rather than bizarre or slightly rude or honest. Imagine it was an excessively large salt shaker - say, several feet tall. And faced it and said, "You're worthless because you're too large to be useful." People would give me a quizzical look, like, what's wrong with this guy? But the instinct wouldn't be to protect the large salt shaker.

3Alicorn11yI think this may have to do with liking the object at all, rather than thinking it's cute in particular. If you insulted a painting that I liked (addressing it directly) which I thought was pretty but not cute - "you, painting, have no practical value whatsoever and are too overpriced to justify the space you'd take up on a wall!" - or spoke to a bowl of soup in a restaurant, which I thought was tasty but not cute - "you are too cold, and have too high a potato-to-clam ratio!" - I think that might bother me in the same way it would if you told a cute saltshaker that it was too small to be useful. Expressing harsh opinions of a liked object is seen as hostile.
9bgrah44911yI'll have to take your word on how it would bother you, but I think a crucial difference is that in the instance of the cute salt shaker, the instinct is to protect - notice that the word used, "cruel," is dependent upon how it's received by the anthropomorphized salt shaker. If I tell the soup, "You're too cold and have too high a potato-to-clam ratio!" - is it seen as cruel or mean? It seems more like it's seen as, like you said, hostile - a statement more about my feelings in intent than the "feelings" of the salt shaker in consequence. I also understand that I may be putting too much emphasis on your particular words, inferring precision where none was intended, so if that's the case, let me know. But I think in the case of the cute object, I would be seen as a "bully," whereas in the case of the soup or the painting, I'd be seen as generally unpleasant and critical. To the extent that there's a victim with the un-cute objects, it's the person who values them - I have insulted their taste. This is as opposed to the cute object, where the victim is the object itself.
6Alicorn11yI think you're on to something - I am more likely to anthropomorphize a cute thing on a relevant level, and it would be my taste rather than the object's imaginary feelings that I hypothesized would come into play if you insulted the painting or soup.

The problem with popularity: I've just been searching the web hoping to find someone linking to an investigation into cuteness that delved a bit deeper than spouting 'just so' stories. What I found is that not only are the most prominent results links, most of the next in line links are external responses on the topic that link here.

So what is the alternative explanation for cuteness? Cuteness is a universal response that is very similar in all human beings. People all over the world find the same things cute. Did the phenomenon of cuteness just emerge, culturally, ex nihilo, and spread to every country in which the subject has been studied?

This universal human phenomenon must be explained somehow. The only explanation is that the phenomenon of cuteness is an evolved response.

And, I can't emphasize this enough, Dennett's hypothesis might have been idle speculation, but this issue has... (read more)

5Alicorn11yI'm sure there is an evolutionary explanation for cuteness. I just don't think it's this one.

The fact that some humans who find baby animals cute often treat them like babies, refer to their pets as "my babies," and engage in baby-talk to them is consistent with the notion that considering these animals cute is merely a byproduct of human baby-perception. I think part of the reason that Alicorn's baby bunny is so cute is that it is holding up its arms, like a baby wanting to be picked up.

Most? You think there are more than 2500 species which adult humans would say are cuter than babies? That seems wildly implausible to me; I'd say no more than 300 or so are on par with babies, and fewer exceed it. That isn't too much; surely you could list maybe not >300 species but a measly 150.

How about birds? >10,000 species there; you think there are >5,000 extremely cute birds?

I'd venture that there isn't even a bare majority of cuteness at zoos - institutions would would select for cuteness.

Why would this make rabbits cuter to humans?

3Sticky11yI'm guessing it's because cute rabbits get eaten less than non-cute rabbits, thus exerting selection pressure in favor of cuteness, which presumably is the same in all... something. Mammals? Sounds a little strained to me, though.
6orthonormal11yThe point is that cute is almost certainly a 2-place word [].

1) The baby is far cuter than the rabbit.

2) There's nothing wrong with a stimulus having a superstimulus.

Superstimuli are typically artificial. I don't have this problem with Dennett's explanation of the sweet tooth just because cake exists - the cake is explained. And I wouldn't be complaining about the cuteness explanation if the only thing cuter than the baby were an idealized drawing of a baby.

7Douglas_Knight11yI wouldn't use "superstimulus" to describe a bunny being merely cuter than a baby, but I would for a cuckoo [] too big for the nest, yet still being fed by the host. This is the result of an optimization process, though not an artificial one.
6Alicorn11yIt's in cuckoo interests to be attractive to host birds; it's not obviously serving non-domesticated animals to be cute. It hasn't historically stopped us from eating them at anywhere near the rates that would put that kind of pressure on.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky11yHow does the same cuckoo manage to be attractive to so many host birds?
5Cyan11yCan't find the citation now, but at least some of the reason that host birds feed baby cuckoos is that parent cuckoos monitor how well their offspring are doing and will destroy the nests of birds that fail to feed the cuckoo chick. So there's selective pressure to respond to the cuckoo chick's stimulus without it necessarily being a superstimulus.
5Jack11yGiven 5000 species of mammals in the world that are guaranteed to have a number of facial features in common with humans and a number of developmental similarities, shouldn't some happen to super-stimulate our cuteness sense just by chance?
9Alicorn11yLots of them superstimulate compared to human babies. It doesn't seem very coincidental to me. There are even birds that are cuter than human babies.
8DanArmak11yThat looks like just the evo-psych kind of reasoning Alicorn is warning against. Compare: given 5000 species of mammals that are guaranteed to have many physical features in common with humans, shouldn't some happen to super-stimulate our sexual attraction just by chance? Why would mating choice be that much more strongly selected than baby nurturing behavior? ETA: some good explanations for this difference have been proposed in the comments below: 1. Only mating choice is subject to sexual selection, which is a powerful force. (Eliezer) 2. Animals aren't deliberately trying to appear cute. But other humans are always trying to appear sexy. Therefore our sexual choice heuristics evolved to better eliminate false positives. (Me)

Actually, it makes perfect sense for sexual selection on sexual-attractiveness-features to be subject to far greater selection pressure and fine-tuning than baby-cuteness.

I'll make a testable prediction here: Cases of parental superstimulus (like baby ducks following a stick figure, infant monkeys getting attached to puppets, etc., if I'm remembering correctly) ought to be far more common / easier to fake than sexual superstimulus. I'll limit the key part of the prediction to complex vertebrates so that they have large enough brains to be complicated, but I wouldn't be surprised to find the rule more universal than that.

4billswift11yWhere do you get this - "Superstimuli are typically artificial"?

Superstimuli are typically not found in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (or else the executions that latched on to them inappropriately would tend to decrease in frequency through the population). Although humans have spread to habitats outside Africa, the largest changes since then have been ones humans have made -- i.e. "artificial".

9Wei_Dai11yThat is a reasonable explanation. (I don't know why you were downvoted, and voted you back up to 0.) But theoretically, it's possible to have a superstimulus for cuteness that existed in our EEA, if the maladaptive behavior that would be triggered by it is more easily prevented by a cultural norm or another adaptation, instead of by tuning down our cuteness sense for it.

This is far cuter than all of them put together.

8Jack11yBut how do you feel about these []?
3Clippy11yThose aren't nearly as cute. They have that ugly shape on them that doesn't contribute to paperclip functionality. You could clip that part off and make a second clip for each one of them, given all that they waste. So, not so much "nurturing" behavior induced.
4Eliezer Yudkowsky11yWhat sort of nurturing behavior do you feel compelled to exhibit toward paperclips? Now I'm curious.
8Clippy11yWell, I want to protect them and keep them in a safe place so that other processes in the universe don't convert them into ugly non-paperclip forms. Just looking at that thing makes me want to envelop it within the safe zone!

If the nickname was obviously a femmine one, (e.g. 'Jane'), or even something more exotic but still recognizably femmine (e.g. 'Aerith') I would agree.

But you could infer that 'Alicorn' was a femmine name only through the association between interest in unicorns and being female (which is specifict to some subcultures). That doesn't seem to me any less stereotypical than inferring that somebody is male through the association between nerd interests and being male (which, on the other hand, is supported by statistical evidence and AFAIK occurs in any cultur... (read more)

4wedrifid8yNot being oversensitive yourself is a good practice, dismissing the possibility that another will be offended by something you do is called "insensitive". Yes, sometimes you should take a stand and decide that a person getting offended about a particular thing is their problem, not yours (otherwise you give them complete control over you). However I don't think someone being mildly (or occasionally significantly) offended when people get their sex wrong is really the place to draw the battle lines. Some people get offended if you call them a girl when they are a boy and vice versa. That is all. Either ignore this and be considered an ass by said people (and some observers) or take some degree of care to get it right.

Given that the prior for male is 89%, iit doesn't seem it would take lots of evidence to reach 95% posterior probability that somebody is male.

@Alicorn: I think there is a problem with the reasoning in your blog post. I think that, many people find bunnies cute, because they are very satiated most of the time- which is perhaps a bit unnatural and not a similar state to those during which humans evolved. Someone who is truly hungry and goes without food for a couple of days (or even remembers a time when this happened) will eat that 'cute' bunny raw if no better food source is available. In fact, many mammals eat their own offspring when they starve and humans also practice infanticide in some cas... (read more)

causal American dialect


With the amount of attention causality gets around here, I have to ask.

Edit: this comment has been rewritten; please see wnoise's comment below for original context.

I feel that the topic of gender identity is not as important as this discussion and others like it on LW seem to make it. In a text based environment, using pseudonyms, we are genderless until we reveal ourselves. And unless we intend to employ mating signals between posters here, it has little relevance even after it has been revealed.

I have operated for years in communities where the gender of participants is highly relevant, but where there were taboos against ... (read more)

It's because we want more women to post here so we need to listen to Alicorn and keep her happy!!! We respect her opinions. Diversity is good. If we can't keep Alicorn happy, we're generally screwed as far as attracting (and subsequently not alienating) more women to this site.

See Eliezer's post on this topic.

9komponisto11yI don't perceive Alicorn as "focusing" on "gender identity". I perceive Alicorn as getting annoyed when people (out of carelessness) get her gender identity wrong.

Annoyance is one thing, and I have no problem with it; expressing that annoyance in such a way as to fuel a 118 post thread (and growing) on the topic in an otherwise unrelated article is what I disagree with.

3thomblake11yQuestions of appropriate standards for our community are on-topic to a limited extent. If you disagree, please refrain from making comments like this one, on pain of contradiction.
2Rain11yAs pointed out by Kevin [], this discussion has been had several times before on LW, and community norms should have already been established, in which case continued large threads on the topic are likely unproductive. I also do not see why contradiction should be painful.
2thomblake11yI can't tell if you meant this humorously, so I'll take it as a serious statement of confusion... "On pain of X" is an idiom in English which roughly means, "or else you will experience X", where X is something bad. example []
2Rain11yIf you downvoted this comment, please explain why you feel that the topic of gender identity is so important as to merit top level posts and long discussions in many other posts.
4wnoise11yI have not downvoted it. But the original phrasing "You are too focused on the topic of gender identity; I suggest that the topic is not nearly so worthy of concern." differs from the one here in that it suggests concern to oneself, rather than the concern to the community that this post makes clear. The first is telling other people what they should be concerned with, violating a clear norm, and helping no one.
1Kevin11yI downvoted it. This was already discussed in depth on the site a while ago. See the fall-out posts and discussion related to the PUA stuff (googling for PUA should give you most of it) Basically, the answer to your statement (and then some!) is contained in that thousands of words worth of discussion, and I thought your comment was little more than being a likely trigger for a discussion that's already been beaten into the ground here, even though that wasn't your intention and your intention was in fact exactly opposite. I will state that summarizing this discussion for postery's sake (in the wiki) so we can stop having it is a good idea.
3Rain11yYes, I read those discussions, and those posts, which is why I'm surprised it's still generating threads this large on unrelated articles. When reading, I noticed that this particular thread had a button labeled "load more comments (106 replies)", and that struck me as very wrong for a comment I would have labeled "off-topic" at best.

Young animals don't generally reach optimal cuteness until some time after birth. Given the slower rate at which human young mature relative to other animals your cuteness sense for humans is not necessarily inconsistent with the normal response to animals. It seems to me that the pictures used for comparison in the OP use a bunny at a relatively later stage of development than the human infant.

Newborn puppies, kittens and rabbits are peculiar little blind wriggling things and are less cute than slightly older young animals. Newborn rabbits appear to be hairless.

Cuteness disgusts me a little too. (I wrote this comment without having read yours.) I don't think it has anything to do with psychopathy (in my case, I think I am more empathetic than average by at least one standard deviation) but sensory fatigue and resistance to being emotionally manipulated.

Three comments: upvote-for-bunnies, upvote-for-babies, karma-balance. You only upvote one of the first two, so you only need one balance.

That's very funny.

A particularly irreverent friend and I once agreed that babies are cute in a way that somehow, strangely triggers a desire to eat them! It's probably not a desire to actually eat them, but some grooming-thingy, but it's still a strange impulse to experience. (To explain it in case you don't know what I'm talking about, it's an impulse to do something like bite and nibble them all over, but maybe it doesn't work because they don't have fur or what not. )

The important thing is that we do consider babies somewhat cute.

I don't find babies cute at all - the shitting crying obnoxious variety which really exists is strongly anti-cute.

On the other hand I haven't met a single person yet who wouldn't go awwwwww when interacting with my cat.

2byrnema11yI wonder if we don't repress thinking that babies are cute to some extent. Before I had one, I never thought babies were cute. I just thought: eww, work! or, eww, delayed career plans! They represent responsibility, which isn't cute. (Similar to contents of this thread [].) But if you were walking in a forest and just happened to find a baby. If you didn't know it was a human baby, with various obligations and long-term ties, wouldn't you want to pick it up and snuggle it? Or not? I'll also add here, though it could be added other places, that I don't know if most parents think newborns are cute. (I actually have a theory that children are born a few weeks earlier than evolution long-term conditioned us for.) Children are maximally cute somewhere between 6 months and 3 years and each parent differs in exactly when and why.
9Eliezer Yudkowsky11yUnless the baby is likely to be a relative, isn't this actually vastly less adaptive behavior than picking up a cute bunny rabbit that you can eat later in times of famine?

As a counterexample, some people find rabbits cuter than babies.

Were you begging the question for humor's sake?

Things other than cuteness are at work when people decide what to take videos of. Possible considerations here:

1) Babies live in people's houses. Fewer bunnies do.

2) People are interested in babies as relatives, conspecifics, and insight into child psychology.

3) Babies - past a certain very young age, anyway - have a wider range of behavior than bunnies.

4) People like to document the lives of their children for future reference.

IAWYC, but I wonder how human-universal the cuteness response to bunnies is (constantly being told "these are cute!" might increase it in our culture). I also wonder how many animals look cute that would have been likely prey in the African EEA.

3Alicorn11yI'm not sure what all critters people ate in the African ancestral environment, but I'd be really, really surprised if none of them were cute, at least as juveniles. (Which are easier to catch than healthy adults.)

Or bunnies happen to take advantage of the evolutionarily useful baby-cute sense, and it was never maladaptive enough that evolutionary processes narrowed baby-cute sense.

Sort of like how humans seem to have an automatic mental process to recognize faces even when there are no faces.

2joaolkf7yBunnies prevalence on EEA is uncertain, at best. There are few species so widely hunted as the bunny, but it might be the case that the cute ones were slightest less hunted and reproduced more. Or, we might have selected then for neoteny, as we do whenever we have a chance (dogs, cats, cows, donkey), it makes them more docile and easy to slaughter and enslave. We finding them cute would be then both a side effect of (1) evolutionary pressures for not wasting energy in building an excessively fine tuned cuteness-taste and (2) the fact the most easy way to select for easiness-to-slaughter-and-enslave is to select for baby-like faces. Evolution is a nasty, lazy, immoral mistress."Had Mother Nature been a real parent, she would have been in jail for child abuse and murder."

One really clumsy thing in English is that there is no interrogative pronoun to which the answer would be an ordinal number (i.e. N-th in some sequential order). There isn't even a convenient way to ask that question.

[-][anonymous]10y 4

We do listen to what Feynman says about what physics is, but we expect philosophers of science to have a somewhat better idea.

Not on principle, but because I have read Feynman, and I have read philosophy of science (plenty of it, in my view), I do not expect philosophers of science to have a better idea - but in my case it's not expectation. It's memory.

Of course, you don't have to pay any attention to what I just wrote. But I think that if you read enough philosophy one thing you will find philosophers agreeing on often is that other philosophers are wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, could not be more wrong, disastrously wrong.

Alicorn ends with a consonant. This doesn't guarantee that it will be seen as male, but I think it increases the odds.

You're not the only person I know to make this claim, but I will admit to never having understood it.

That is, I can understand objecting to "If my neighbor visits I'll give them a cookie" because it violates the English grammatical convention that the subject and object must match in quantity -- singular "neighbor" doesn't go with plural "them." I don't have a problem with that, myself, but I accept that some people do.

And I can understand endorsing "If my neighbor visits I'll give em a cookie" despite it violating... (read more)

5Vladimir_M10yPresumably you mean pronoun and antecedent []. Clearly, subject and object need not agree in number (what you call "quantity"); such a requirement would in fact be logically impossible.

Here's a pop evo-psych possibility:

Baby animals appear cute to us so that we prefer to eat the adults instead of the babies. Eating the babies would destroy the population, whether domesticated or in the wild.

This seems to smell a bit too much of group selection. Remember, extremely large selection pressures are needed for group selection to work.

This causes a problem with "they" in this case; "Chris and Pat went to their car" becomes unambiguously "Chris and Pat went to Pat's car" if "they" can refer to "Pat", leaving us with no pronoun for "Chris and Pat".

It sounds like all these (counterfactual?) people who speak "proper English" need to adapt their language.

[/me googles "GenderAnalyzer" and checks own blog.]

We think is written by a woman (67%).

Woo-hoo! (I'm male, but it seems to me a bad thing for that to be obvious from my writing.)

6JGWeissman11yIt's probably not fair to the tool to use it on a community blog [], but: The age result is interesting. (This is a different web site that uses the same underlying service []. It is based on the most recent posts, so the result will likely change over time.)

(I'd also strongly question whether e.g. Gandhi and MLK were motivated by anger over a principle, or the passionate pursuit of concrete goals.)

I can't speak about Gandhi, but a case could be made for MLK. More to the point, these social movements have included more than two people - and some were quite explicitly angry.

In general, fervor over principles is perhaps the most anti-rational emotional response that human beings have... and there's an evolutionary reason for that. Our genes need a way to get us to do things that are stupid for us as individ

... (read more)

If you want to change the behavior of those around you - and you're right, sometimes you don't - then the emotional response is a good source of motivation.

It can also cloud judgement and lead to responding in a way likely to alienate your audience. I'm not convinced it is a net win in general, though it might be in the right circumstances / given the right audience.

For the same reason that I would take offence at being called a 'bastard' even though I actually couldn't care less that my parents happened to be married at the time of my conception.

If something is commonly used as an insult then that can be expected to cause offence independently of any factual content. So my claim is:

It looked like you were using the fact that males insult each other [by calling each other girls] to back up the hypothesis that it is more insulting for a male to be referred to with the wrong pronoun.

It's a typical insult. Insults bad. That's all.

2Alicorn11yI think I might be talking past you. Let me try to re-frame my confusion: Art calls Ben "girly" because Ben has exhibited stereotypically feminine trait F. Meanwhile, Amy calls Bev "mannish" because Bev has exhibited stereotypically masculine trait M. It looks like both Ben and Bev should be insulted, by about the same amount, and you seemed to assent to this, above. Given this background, if Random Internet Person goes on to refer to Amy as "he" and Art as "she", whence your above indication that Art should be more insulted than Amy?

The user name "Alicorn" seems gender-indeterminate to me.

7Kevin11yI assume that is without knowing that the word "alicorn" is related to unicorns? Or are you not confident enough in females liking unicorns much more so than males to be able to give a probability estimate? When I once wasn't sure about Alicorn's gender, I googled "alicorn", saw alicorn was a word related to unicorns and assigned a 95% probability then that Alicorn was female, which was confirmed by seeing someone refer to her as she on here.
5Blueberry11yThat's a 95% female probability, even accounting for the fact that LW is mostly male? You're amazingly confident that female persons like unicorns much more, considering that unicorns have a huge sharp pointy phallic weapon sticking out of their foreheads.

That's 95% confidence that the username would be picked by a female. Not at all the same thing as a 95% confidence that a person who likes unicorns is female. You are ignoring the fact that picking such a username is a powerful signal (to people who know what it means). I think unicorns are kind of cool but that doesn't mean I would pick a username that references unicorns.

6wedrifid11yI sold my unicorn when I realized why the guys would never believe my locker-room stories of sexual conquest.
6Unknowns11yMaybe, but I certainly assumed she was female the first time I heard the name, and I had never heard it before... maybe associations with Alice or Allison or whatever. Anyway it sure seems determinately female to me.

It had never been my intention to suggest a slaughter of all available tame animals; only enough to cover the shortage. The strategy I spoke of is based on preservation, and living animals tend to stay fresh longer than dead ones.

Why the downvotes? Dennett's claim is that the cute-finding instinct is helpful because it means we protect and care for babies. So okay, Sticky give a reason why we find baby bunnies extra cute... they combine two cute-conferring properties babyness and bunnyness. Fine, but that just pushes Alicorn's question back a step: How is it that this instinct that evolved so we would protect babies applies to rabbits? In other words... why are (adult) bunnies cute?

4brazil8411yHere's a thought: A human who found other humans super-cute would be extremely vulnerable to cuckoldry (broadly defined). So that there might have been some selection pressure in the opposite direction. Put another way, one can expect familiarity to breed a certain amount of contempt.

Another interesting thought: Animals probably find human babies cute too.

2SilasBarta11yMaybe so. I've heard anecdotal stories about female cats that have had baby kittens, and then take an interest when their owners had a newborn, becoming very protective of the (human) baby.

To me, a baby's babbling is a lot cuter than purring or mewing. And to me, a baby grabbing at something with its tiny hands is a lot cuter than play-hunting, rubbing, or licking.

Same here.

So for me, the real conundrum is fur. As far as I can tell.

Our ancestors were furrier, so we might have evolutionary baggage leading us to find furriness cute. As long as this baggage didn't hurt human reproductive success, there would be no reason for it to disappear.

The concept is derived from ethology. Konrad Lorenz observed that birds would select for brooding eggs that resembled those of their own species but were larger.

Birds sometimes protect and nurture eggs of similar species but larger. This should obviously refute the hypothesis that super-stimuli cannot occur in nature. These eggs presumably inspire the same nurture-cuteness drives in birds that cute bunnies inspire in us. Our evolved feelings are imperfectly calibrated, this is truly no surprise to evolutionary psychologists.

I regret not having the time to read all the comments before class, but, in addition to our culture which does anthropomorphize wee bitty aminals, we don't have the acquired distaste or taste for eating or repelling rabbits.

My mother is a gardner, likes puppies, kittens, etc, and hates rabbits. She's said a person will find them cute until they keep ripping up your flower bed.

It seems plausible that having been starving and relieved by rabbit meat a few times, a person would think "Yum!" upon seeing a rabbit.

Perhaps our cute instinct is slightly... (read more)

3NancyLebovitz11yThe site includes the cutest images []. The cuteness response can be set off strongly by a cute creature associating with human stuff or (just a few of them) seeming to do a distinctively human gesture. Any theories about what's going on there?
4Eliezer Yudkowsky11yIt might be an awful experiment to perform, but if we can find a parent with a newborn child and sufficient self-honesty to be trustworthy, we can ask them whether or not, in all honesty, their own baby is cuter than those images, which were cute enough to make my head explode into candy. If a trustworthy self-honest rationalist parent looks at that and says "yes, my baby is cuter"... I'd have to say that explains a lot about parents and a lot about the continued survival of the human species.
4JulianMorrison11yWhat would be even more interesting would be to do a time-series. When do human infants have peak cuteness?
7TomM10yAs a fairly observant and (as far as I can tell) realistic parent, I have noticed that both of my children have (up to their current ages of four years and 19 months) had several peak periods for cuteness. So far they have had peaks centred at the same ages: 5 months, 15 months and (oldest only so far) 3 years. This is not to say that they are not cute at any other ages, but at these ages they have been radiantly, eye-wateringly cute.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky11yAlso, Alicorn's image found on a Google search is the cutest image on the top of TheCutest.Info. No matter how she found the image to begin with, this seems like highly relevant data! Even a search procedure that seems fair can manage to turn up an unfair point of comparison. Albeit some of the other images in the top 40 seemed far cuter than that to me - cuter than babies. Maybe I just don't like bunnies? How could evolutionary psychology explain that?
3Alicorn11y"Allison"? My name is not Allison. "Alicorn" is not my real name, related to my real name, derived from my real name, similar to my real name, or otherwise indicative on any level of my real name. Even if it were, I prefer not to disseminate my real name in most online contexts. For this reason SIAI-house-inhabiting persons have continued to refer to me as Alicorn, to avoid leakage of their knowledge of my real name. So even if you knew my real name, you should not use it.
9Eliezer Yudkowsky11yI initially commented to the above effect that it was just a random brain-bleep and I did not remember your True Name if indeed I had ever been told it, but then deleted the comment, since if I had known your name to be Allison and genuinely slipped up, I would want to be the sort of person who simply wouldn't say whether or not it was a revealing slip-up, one way or the other, so as to maintain Plausible Deniability. To put it another way, if it had been your real name, I would want to be able to truthfully say, "Whether it was her real name or just a brain-cache substitution, I would not confirm or deny it one way or the other, so you cannot take any evidence from the fact that I am being apparently evasive." This requires that I say the same thing whether your name is Allison or not, since otherwise people can take Bayesian evidence from it. However since in this case you have already commented to this effect, I suppose I might as well confirm it. I did once know an Allison and my brain seems to repeatedly substitute that name for yours. I usually catch it before commenting, but not this time. There are other bizarre things my brain does along the same lines, for example, I simply cannot remember, even after having been told a dozen times or more, whether Peter Thiel's last name is pronounced Thee-el or Tee-el.
6komponisto11yFor my part, my brain automatically interprets your pseudonym as a portmanteau of "Allison" and "unicorn", and there doesn't seem to be much I can do about it. (Not that I would be any more tempted to refer to you as "Allison" than I would be to refer to you as "Unicorn", of course.)
2bgrah44911yHer real name is Carmen Sandiego.
5Alicorn11yIt can't be, because I'm willing to reveal my location relative to the Earth.
2byrnema11yLooking through those pictures, I get cuted-out, and want to go find that site about bunny suicides [].
2Alicorn11yI think that may have the effect of crosswiring with the funniness [] reaction, although I can't access introspective data on the subject because I generally prefer my cute animal pictures to be devoid of humans and human artifacts.

Hey, let's play a game! Pick any comment in this comment tree and reply to it with a picture you consider cuter than it. The markup is ![]( . Please do not reply to yourself. One picture per post please.

I'll start with the first Google Images result for "cute":

I'm appalled that Less Wrong came to have a "Post cute kittens" thread this soon. Still, I wouldn't call it an unfortunate turn of events.

8CronoDAS11yAs an Internet forum grows older, the probability of a thread devoted to posting pictures of cute kittens approaches one. ;)
1Kevin11yI will bet 500 karma (1:1, terms fully negotiable) that there will be a "funny picture" thread within one year.

I believe that Konrad Lorenz was the first one to advance the evolutionary theory of cuteness. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article about it (pdf) using Mickey Mouse as an example (don't be dissuaded by the author's identity). Lorenz argued that we respond with awwwws and nurturing behavior to features that distinguish infant humans from adults, like large round heads, large eyes, small pudgy limbs, and clumsy movements, even if they belong to another animal or a nonliving thing.

There has been research on why animals are cute, again going back to Lorenz, a... (read more)

6wedrifid11yI have heard it said that in general dogs seem cute because they bred themselves to exploit us more so than us breeding them. Actual breeding came somewhat later on.
2Unnamed11yYou're right - I should've said "selected" instead of "bred" - they became cuter under selection pressure from humans.
5Unnamed11yThis is a rewrite of my comment as more of an argument and less links and speculation, since I think that parts of it might be clearer that way. Lorenz's theory is that humans evolved to respond with an awwww to the features that distinguish infants from adults, and so we also awwww to other animals that have those features. Why do other species have features that we find cute? One reason is that we've exerted selection pressure on them - for instance, by being more friendly to cuter wolf/dogs. A second is that features common among mammal young naturally became features of human babies, so of course other baby animals have some cute-inducing features. A third is that features that differ between babies and adults also tend to differ between different species, and so there will be some species that have the baby-like version of those features or even a more extreme version. Babies are smaller than adults but some species are smaller; babies have small less-protruding noses but some species have smaller noses; babies have small limbs relative to their body but other species have smaller ones; babies are soft but some species are softer. Bunny superiority may just be a result of there being enough species so that some will have a large enough collection of extreme cute-inducing features to be super-adorable. And since our ancestors don't seem to have wasted a ton of fitness on cute non-humans, they didn't undergo a strong evolutionary force to prevent the bunny takeover.

This may not be the best place to ask, but is Evolutionary Psychology actually falsifiable?

1ikrase8yProbably depends on what you mean. It does make predictions, but it is very difficult to get away from what is already known.

You mean Ariel Sharon? That is his last name (which he actually chose himself. He was born Ariel Scheinermann, then he changed it to Sharon, probably because Scheinermann sounded too much German).

In fairness, his given name Ariel sound femmine to me, thanks to a certain cartoon character, but according to Hebrew grammar it's actually a male name and it literally means 'Lion of God'. Blame ignorant Disney.

2[anonymous]8yBTW, that Sharon was pronounced with a stress on the second syllable, whereas the feminine first name has a stress on the first syllable. (Similarly, if I read that someone's first name is Andrea I can't tell whether they are male or female unless I know where they come from, but if I hear it pronounced I can.)

I don't feel a need to associate my identity with it, but I think it'd be a better world if preference for unicorns didn't signal gender or sexuality at all.

You'd better not move to Germany. Chairs have a masculine sexual identity.

2Vladimir_M10ySlavic languages also assign a grammatical gender to every noun, and there's nothing sexual about it. (I certainly find nothing sexual about stars, books, rivers, or mathematics being feminine.) Even for nouns that denote humans and other living creatures with biological sex, the correlation between grammatical gender and biological sex is high but still not perfect. The gender defaults are mostly masculine (though with some exceptions), and it would be impossible to change that without rewriting the grammar of the language altogether, which is why the entire business over gender-neutral language in English has always seemed absurd to me. On the upside, it's almost impossible to speak without revealing whether you're male or female, since you have to refer to your attributes and actions using adjectives and even verbs inflected for gender, so confusions of this sort are almost impossible (however this can make it impossible to translate literature where a character's sex is supposed to be hidden).

I am 19, and apparently I had a cached belief that 16 is the ideal age for childbirth. (I've tried to track down the source, and I think it's from a novel I read a really, really long time ago, where a character was 'legally too young, but biologically the ideal age for childbirth'.) A quick Google search suggested 25-35 years of age as the period of peak fertility. Which I did not know. And which makes me feel better about having to delay having kids until then.

On the main topic, there's a big danger of generalising from one example: whether you find b

... (read more)
7JenniferRM10yIf you're not running on instincts then you might want to be particularly careful with your beliefs in this area... Peak fertility is different that the optimal age for a first child. Fertility is much easier to measure (based simply on the probability of getting pregnant given an standard opportunity to do so) whereas the best age to have your first child is a ridiculously complicated calculation having to do with your values and goals plus: the current and future state of medicine, the current and future state of the economy, your current and future pool of partnering opportunities, and probably other stuff as well. Azathoth (who doesn't know about fertility medicine or transhumanism or the singularity yet, and was informed of the pill one or two "clock cycles" ago) probably thinks it is a good idea to be very fertile near the end of one's period of fertility because it's your last chance to have your last kid, even if the probability of birth defects is substantially higher. In the modern democratic/industrialized environments, women don't have replacement levels of children. This might be "good" if we're all looking around and correctly determining that the population should be lower and 0,1, or 2 "really well raised" kids are better than 8 "poorly raised" kids. Alternatively, this might be "bad" if our parenting instincts are just going crazy in this environment. Like it could be that if/when we're well informed 70 year olds who resist cognitive dissonance we might look back on current reproductive decisions with justifiable regret. In the (justifiably controversial) book The Bell Curve, the authors claim that before the advent of SATs, merit-based scholarships, and a universal college expectation for smart people, society was different in many ways, including that people in college were more likely to have rich parents but otherwise had the same intelligence as everyone else, and also that higher IQ predicted early marriage, early parenthood, less divorce,
2NancyLebovitz10yOne more factor-- I think people are less likely to have children (or many children) if they trust that larger social structures (private and/or public pensions and provisions for care) will support them when they get old. I believe that WEIRD (and we probably drop the "white" because the meme definitely spreads to other races) cultures are unsustainable at present tech because the birth rate is too low.
2DavidAgain10yThe 'younger the better' belief is quite common. I assume that it's because most people worrying about age and childrens are at the older end and thinking they should be younger, and so they project that backwards. Also it fits with some popular myths of 'everyone used to have kids at 14'. On the generalising from one example, I was actually addressing Alicorn's original point. That babies are cute is pretty generally accepted, but I wouldn't be able to guess how many people prefer bunnies. Surveys sound interesting, but there are also areas where people misreport, either because they think there's a 'right response' or because they simply mistake their own views. I'm squeamish about killing animals, and mammals more than lizards etc., but I don't think cute baby mammals would be harder to kill.
2Swimmer96310yI have been attempting a Google search to find out the average age of first-time mothers in the year 1500. I'm guessing it would tend to be younger in rural regions, but my search so far as turned up nothing but noise. This is one of the skepticisms I had when we first learned about qualitative research in my nursing class. But I guess the point is less to be objective and more just to gather descriptive data. Later on you can choose your variables and find reliable ways to measure them, and your research becomes quantitative.
3gwern10yYou can find some relevant data about pre-Industrial and Industrial England in chapter 12 of Clark's Farewell to Alms. (Interestingly, age of marriage - which implies first pregnancy since illegitimacy was so rare - dropped around 2-3 years for women between the 1600s and 1800s.)
3DavidAgain10ySame demographer friend (more accurately, ex-girlfriend who was studying social and economic history at the time) told me that illegitimacy varied a lot by region in the early modern period. If I recall correctly, there were Northern rural communities where the first child was typically born before marriage. Or maybe so soon after that the parents must have known the women would bear a child. This was because marriage was seen as marking when you set up house, rather than the start of sex, and because you wouldn't fix a relationship until fertility/combatibility was clear. People may have become engaged and pledged to each other first, mind.

Destroying a population of livestock is a group problem that gives its negative selection on the local tribe. For wild animals this is even worse since the selection pressure is then spread over at least all humans in the region and probably over other species that would be using those wild species as prey. Worse, there's a clear individual negative to not eating a young wild animal when one has a chance; it is easy food that won't fight back.

"Pain" in this expression means "penalty". Though I haven't looked it up to confirm, I'm pretty confident the word "pain" itself comes from Latin poena via French peine, meaning just that.

(The first time I heard this idiom, the phrase was "on pain of imprisonment".)

I don't think there is quite a 'True Scottsman' in here, but I sure feel his shadow looming over me as I read it.

I agree that everyone has the right to get angry if they wish. What I really don't like is the extra step that is often taken to claim that because someone else's behaviour angers or offends you, it is therefore your right to enforce different behaviour on them. The example that perhaps most annoys me is when some religious group claims that because they are so deeply angered / offended by the behaviour of some other group (homosexuals, atheists, Belgian cartoonists, etc.) that it is their right to demand that the other group refrain from the offensive behaviour. I think the right to offend is just as (if not more) important as the right to take offense.

2RobinZ11yLet is return to the specific, then: I would suggest using the gender-neutral singular they not because I or Alicorn or anyone else is offended, but because it reinforces the idea that everyone, not just men, can contribute to the conversation. Saying "he" by default reinforces the idea that everyone is men here, a condition which is usually associated with an uncomfortable environment for women. It is the latter that leads to the former and the latter that should be discussed.

Not always. I posted a link to Greta Christina's "Atheists and Anger" elsewhere in this thread:

Which brings me to the other part of this little rant: Why atheist anger is not only valid, but valuable and necessary.

There's actually a simple, straightforward answer to this question:

Because anger is always necessary.

Because anger has driven every major movement for social change in this country, and probably in the world. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, the modern feminist movement, the gay rights mo

... (read more)

I think it's a good idea to support the right to have a berserk button.

I don't, and here's why: having a negative emotional response to something kills rationality dead. It causes people to forget their well-thought out goals and engage in compulsive, stereotyped behaviors attached to the specific emotion involved, whether it's going off to sulk in a corner, flaming, plotting revenge, or loudly lecturing everyone on proper behavior... ALL of which are unlikely to support rational goals, outside the evolutionary environment that drove the development o... (read more)

8RobinZ11yWith all due respect, I (not at all calmly) disagree. The mistakes that you can make by being emotional are not inevitable, and they are not mistakes because of your emotion - a true emotion is true [] - they are mistakes because you didn't say, "I can feel my heart racing - did this person just say what I thought they said, or am I misreading?" And so forth. But if you're right? And if your response is proportionate? Your anger (or ebullience, or jubilation, or bewilderment, if you really want to be rational about analyzing the effects of emotion on rationality) is your power. Do you think Eliezer Yudkowsky works as hard as he does on FAI because, oh, it's a way to spend the time? Do you think that his elegy* for Yehuda Yudkowsky [] was written out of a sedate sense of familial responsibility? Do you somehow imagine that anything of consequence has ever been accomplished without the force of passion behind it? I pity your cynicism, if you do. Edit: I will concede instantly that "berserk button" is a deceptive term, however - what I am discussing is not an instant trigger for unstoppable rage, but merely something which infuriates. * Edit 2: The term "cri de coeur []" was suggested over the message system in place of "elegy" - I think it may well hit nearer the mark as a description.
2pjeby11yIf your heart weren't racing, you wouldn't have needed to ask the question. Meanwhile, "true emotion" is rhetoric: the feeling of fear as the hot poker approaches is not rational, unless blind struggling will get it away from your face... and mostly in modern life, it will not... which means you're simply adding unnecessary insult to your imminent injury. Passion != anger. If it feels bad, you're doing it wrong. Doesn't matter to my argument: at least a rage trigger is over relatively quickly, while being infuriated over a principle can ruin your life for days or weeks at a time. ;-) Bad feelings feel bad for a reason: they are actually bad for you.

Based on what I think are reasonable assumptions: that it is at least as annoying for a male to be referred to as 'she' as vice-versa, that there are many more males than females posting at lesswrong, that the proportion of gender-indeterminate usernames is roughly equal between men and women.

Historically, 'he' has been more commonly used than 'she' when referring to gender indeterminate individuals in English so it doesn't even necessarily imply any gender assumption.

9thomblake11yPerhaps interestingly, J.S. Mill tried to argue that "Man" is historically gender-neutral, and so women already have the right to vote in England, since the law refers to "man". He did not win that battle.
9Jack11yMy understanding is that "man" is historically gender neutral. Old English used wer (wereman) for adult males and wif (wifman) for adult females. Wif is etymologically related to wife and eventually changed into woman (from wimman). Wer got dropped and all we have left of it is "werewolf". The use of "man" to refer to only adult males is relatively late, like 1000 A.C.E. -ish.
6dclayh11ySo a female werewolf should actually be a wifwolf? Excellent!
8RobinZ11yIf nothing else, priming [] would put the lie to that.
4ata11yIf you are talking about a hypothetical or gender-unknown person, using "he" will make it much more likely that people will imagine this person as male. How it's historically been used, and even how it's conventionally used now, are irrelevant if we're talking about its actual cognitive effects. (For what it's worth, I think this [] is the best exposition of sexist language I've read. It's fascinating (yet not all that surprising) how some commonplace linguistic patterns become immediately and intuitively appalling to most people if they are simply applied to a different personal attribute.)
4Alicorn11yProbably. But it gets more annoying the more it happens. I have become more annoyed every time it's happened to me. And it happens more to women than it does to men. So this assumption loses validity over time for any given person. And it is just not that hard to avoid guessing! AAAAAAAAAAAUGH Ahem. I mean: No.
2wedrifid11yAssuming history to be unswayed by politics and the meaning of common words to be determined by their usage wouldn't this be "Yes. But I vehemently object and anyone using pronouns in this way should be punished with unimaginable hoards of dust specks and furthermore be socially disapproved of"? I actually think 'AAAAAAAAAAAUGH' fits better! :)
4Alicorn11yThe probability that anyone would (non-jokingly) refer to me as "he" while knowing (or even strongly suspecting!) that I am in fact female is miniscule; the probability that I am female (even given locally appropriate priors) isn't; and if I were male and known to be so, the probability that I'd be referred to as "he" would approach 1. Referring to someone as "he" constitutes Bayesian evidence to one's audience that the referred-to individual is male. Be not thou casual with the Bayesian evidence.
2Benquo10yI am not so sure "No" is an indefensible response. "so it doesn't even necessarily imply any gender assumption." may be a false claim. For example, if you were reading something about a generic, ostensibly nongendered "he", and then a mention of "his wife", I imagine that wouldn't be too jarring. But if instead, say, the text went on to talk about him giving birth, I imagine most people would be a little confused. So there are some assumptions implicit in the male pronoun.
2wedrifid11y(Probably somewhat more so given that referring to each other as 'girls' is a common form of insult among males given that it asserts traits that while rewarded in females are easy targets of abuse in males.)

How did you get "he" from the blog post?

It (she) was a girl it is highly unlikely that (she) would have made the mistake. Apart from defaulting to writing 'she', she would have blogged since 2003 and would have had her own identity confused more than once.

But mostly I fell back on my prior for people who write blogs on these topics:

Isegoria - From the ancient Greek, equality in freedom of speech; an eclectic mix of thoughts on Policy, War, Economics, Business, Technology, Science, Fitness, Martial Arts, and more

This prior screens off my mo... (read more)

4Alicorn11yOh, the blogger is probably male. But from eir perspective, so was I: I blogged about "refining the art of human rationality" and ey could have been ever-so-responsibly screening off priors and making eir best guess and ey was wrong and I am pissed off. So, I decline to do the same thing.
9wedrifid11yMeanwhile I find 'ey' just irritating so my approach is to sometimes just avoid pronouns while other times I randomly generate pronouns based on my prediction, biased towards 0.5. I don't recall being dramatically mistaken thus far and seem to have a reasonably good track record for guessing right based on writing style. At least, that is, in cases where I get later confirmation.

The singular they has a long and illustrious history. I know I've said it four or five times in the recent comments, but that's what I'd recommend.

3wedrifid11yReally? I use 'they' quire frequenly but feel bad every time. I'll stop feeling bad now. Thanks. ;)
3Alicorn11yI'm sorry you find "ey" irritating; I promise not to refer to you a la Spivak. And I'm glad you're good at detecting gender from writing style. And someday you may piss someone off very badly.

It doesn't appear to have occurred to you that some people find Spivak pronouns very annoying. They annoy me immensely because it feels like someone is deliberately obstructing my reading in an uncomfortable way to make some kind of political point almost entirely unrelated to the context of the post itself. I usually just stop reading and go elsewhere to calm down.

2Alicorn11yI promise not to refer to you with Spivak pronouns either. "I don't know what gender the person I'm talking about is and wouldn't care to get it wrong" is not a political point, though.

It's not me being referred to with them that bothers me, it is them being used at all. I find it difficult and uncomfortable to read, like trying to read 1337 5p34k, and it breaks my reading flow in an unpleasant way. It's like bad grammar or spelling but with the additional knowledge that someone is doing it deliberately for reasons that I consider political.

3RobinZ11ySingular they may be less distracting than Spivak, much as I like the latter.

It is a reasonable default assumption, not adjusted with negative effect of a mistake in mind.

5RobinZ11yBut you don't need to invoke a default assumption here - the singular "they" is a perfectly well-established alternative.

People at this end of the internet tend to have 'male' as the default gender for everyone.

2Alicorn11yYes. It's very annoying.
7mattnewport11yOn average, less annoying than the alternatives.
8RobinZ11yThere are few good reasons to object to the singular they - the usual ones make less sense than objecting to the word "giraffe" []. Were I writing a style guide for LessWrong...
8[anonymous]8yI find the opposition to singular they baffling -- I don't know who started it, but whoever they are, they have a funny sense of what sounds awkward.

Then why aren't cows, sheep, horses, or even chickens nearly as cute as kittens and bunnies?

I have a very adverse reaction to human babies... I want to pop them. Or something similar. They look like you could just stick a big pin in them and they'd go POP.

Bunnies are way cuter than human babies (at least to humans I think).

I'm sorry about your lack of empathy, as it seems like it might feel isolating. (If it is -- I shouldn't project.)

Are you sure you would like to push people's buttons if you could? (No guilt? Or are you relieved you don't?)

One autism trait is difficulty making eye contact, because it is over-stimulating. Do you feel more comfortable looking at pictures of the baby with closed eyes than the bunny with the open eyes? Or does that not have anything to do with anything?

2James_K11yAs it happens I'm pretty introverted so my difficulty in social situations doesn't bother me, I quite like having a fairly empty social calendar. I can cope fairly well in social situations, mostly because I've learned the proper rules for conduct they way I learn any unfamiliar information. The problem is when I find myself in unfamiliar social situations (like dating) where I don't know the rules. I'm really not keen on being able to manipulate people, though at times I think I'd be sorely tempted. In any case its a moot point because without extensive cognitive modification of kind currently unknown to science, I really don't think I'm able to manipulate people. I don't have the eye contact issue, and I really don't know why I find cute things off-putting. On rare occasions I find cute things endearing, for instance I liked the chipmunk-tarantula that someone else has posted on this thread. The only common thread I can find is that things that are uncanny or unusual tend not to disgust me even if they're cute. Also, apart from cute things I find almost nothing disgusting.
2Alicorn11yI have never heard of autistics having difficulty making eye contact with animals...

There may be reasons for experiencing "cute" besides stimulating parental care, but I'm skeptical about the food-source-theory because I think things are cute independent of their nutritive value. The only connection may be that adult herbivores tend be cuter than adult carnivores, and they also taste better.

Nevertheless, I was thinking about what kinds of food I think are cute. And this brought me in an entirely different direction. Anything miniature is cute. (Even a mini-paperclip.) Is this a different sense of cute again? Is our parental duty stimulated so broadly we can experience it in response to a mini-hamburger?

2wedrifid11yThat's an interesting take on it. I was going along a similar train of thought of 'anything miniature is cute'. I just didn't interpret it as parental. I took it as 'Miniature things are barely worth it but are growing extremely fast. Throw it back and eat it when it is ten times the nutritional value in a couple of weeks!' My surprise would then be that we experience even in response to things that are not a 'mini-burger'. I'm not going to benefit from eating clippy unless I am iron deficient and I embed him in an apple for a while to rust before I eat it!

Of course - there are no evil cats plotting to take over the world.

Do people who consider adult cats and dogs dangerous find kittens and puppies cute? I've only known a few people in the former categories, but those people didn't.

But the pencil can't kill someone on its own. The fear attaches to the pencil-wielder, who after all can also kill someone with their bare hands.

Some potential confounding factors to consider:

  • Society spends the first 18 years of kid's live's teaching them how and why not to have babies (not complaining, just pointing out that it could affect one's cuteness judgments).

  • Your cuteness detector might very well be tied to detecting your own genetic material. IOW, you might find your own babies very cute, and those of others, not so cute. (My parents claim that this is the case, I wouldn't know.) And you, being female, would have a very good idea of what babies are genetically yours...

Fundamentally, aren't you asking why furry mammals are cuter than non-furry mammals?

2DanArmak11yThat's not the only determinant of cuteness. For instance, kittens also purr, mew, play-hunt, rub themselves against people, and lick people. All of which are cute, attractive behaviors that babies lack.

Is it not worth considering "cuteness" to be defined in terms of threat levels. It seems to me that in most cases there is a direct correlation between cuteness and perceived threat.

By threat I am referring not just to physical (claws versus soft paws, large vs small, dominant versus meek, hard versus soft) but even biological (messy / unhygenic looking creatures versus fluffy / cuddly looking ones) or social (flawed versus flawless).

This may explain why some people perceive cuteness differently. One person may look at a human baby and see no pos... (read more)

6AdeleneDawner11yThis also might explain why some of us think that babies are cute, and others of us don't: Not that babies themselves are potentially dangerous, but that messing with someone else's baby is potentially dangerous, particularly if the baby belongs to someone who's not a tribemate. I suspect that finding a given baby cute correlates with how much we trust the baby's parents; in the case of strangers' babies, it would correlate with our priors regarding how dangerous it is to interact with strangers. This doesn't explain why some stranger's babies register as cuter than others, though - perhaps that correlates with how much the babies look like people who we believe would trust us to interact with their babies?
3NancyLebovitz11yIt can't just be harmlessness-- all sorts of things (like pencils) are harmless but not cute.
2DanArmak11yCats are dangerous predators and many housecats scratch or bite humans in play, but they're still cute, often in the very moment of doing so. They can also appear cute when hunting real prey.
3AdeleneDawner11yCats that are actually dangerous to us are generally not perceived as cute, though. Googling 'cute lion', for example, turns up primarily cubs, drawings of cubs, drawings of adults with cublike proportions (which look decidedly nonthreatening), or babies or pets dressed up to look like lions. The only picture of an actual adult lion on the first 5 pages that registers as even remotely cute is this one [], and that stops registering as cute at all when I consider the chance that that lion could have mauled her.
2DanArmak11yI see this as saying that fear masks cuteness. It makes sense that immediate physical fear overrides cuteness-attraction. But if fear is banished, the same animals - even adult felines - appear cute (to me, at least). For instance, if I had a bionic body that a lion couldn't maul, I strongly believe I'd find that lion kiss picture very cute and would very much want to play with big cats.

Well, there was a supposed ~10000 humans bottleneck, not too far ago, evolutionarily speaking, so humans really do have less variance than many species.

Fair enough. But the rest of our evidence consists of two pictures you selected! The selection bias potential there is way worse.

These babies are soooo much cuter than your bunny.

6Alicorn11yThe video of babies has the advantage because they are moving around. If the bunny hopped and sniffed things and twitched its nose and groomed its whiskers and nibbled on parsley and crept under a bush and peered out at you, it would be 75,119 times cuter than them.
2taw11yI don't find these babies cute at all, and their voices are quite unpleasant. (also I have a cat, but no babies)

Cats are cuter than bunnies.

2CannibalSmith11yCatgirls are cuter than cats.

Male tentacle monsters perceive Japanese schoolgirls as a superstimulus relative to female tentacle monsters. It probably has something to do with the tie on the sailor uniforms.

4CronoDAS11yWhat does a female tentacle monster look like, anyway? And do they like human males?
9arundelo11yI think that's a different meaning of "cute".
2Leonhart11yDo you think the two meanings of cute are mutally exclusive? In me they're mutually reinforcing, at least some of the time.

Another problem with polling this way is that we can't tell how many people voted.

5taw11yThe proper way is to have two comments: Vote up if bunnies are cuter. Vote down if babies are cuter. You karma whore positive karma if your predictions as for which option would be more popular turn out to be true. Awesome poll + prediction market in karma - what not to like?
[-][anonymous]11y 3

You shouldn't have made the comment announcing the poll double as one of the poll options. Now if this option gets voted down sufficiently far, it will be invisible to anyone who's not sufficiently curious to click the "show" button.

Yeah, that's really odd. Personally I have no awwwww response to human babies - in fact they actually disgust me a little - but I do have an awwwww response to human children and a sometimes-sexualized awwww response to some adult humans. In all cases my awwwww response is opposed to (although it can coexist with) an awe response.

It was mentioned that people are socialized to find bunnies cute, but I think that looking at gender differences in the same culture might reveal something since I don't think men are socialized that strongly.

[-][anonymous]8y 2

Interesting, I wasn't aware of the German convention. It seems slightly better;

As for me, I dislike stuff that looks like the end of a sentence but actually isn't or vice versa, so I feel very uneasy when I have to use something ending with a full stop (e.g. “etc.”) immediately followed by something starting with a capital letter (e.g. “I” or a proper name), and I try to avoid that by reworking punctuation to make it clear whether or not I'm starting a new sentence. (Even in iii's comment where “century” starts with a lowercase letter, some part of my brain alieves that there are two separate sentences.)

How in the earth did you get 'he' from 'Sharon'?

3wedrifid8yI have no idea how the Wedrifid from nearly three years ago selected 'he'. It doesn't seem the kind of detail one would encode indefinitely in long term memory.
[-][anonymous]8y 2

It is possible that the bunny depicted is a domestic specimen, but it doesn't look like it to me.

Definitely not domestic. That's a wild cottontail of some kind.

In any event, I chose it for being a really great example; there are many decidedly wild animals that are also cuter than cute human babies.

I wonder what the distribution of cuteness-responsiveness as a trait looks like. I notice that some people just don't get much from pictures like that bunny, but they'll react much more "as expected" to the baby. Speaking personally, I routinely coo over moths, spiders and bees.

Again, you have a hypothesis that sounds very plausible, but because it does sound so plausible, I'm instantly suspicious of it. Plausible things often turn out to be false.

Is there any quantitative test you can propose, or an experiment you could run, that would give you a number between 0 and 1, representing the probability of your hypothesis being true ? If the answer is "yes", then perhaps someone had already done the research ? If the answer is "no", then IMO it's not thinking about.

These are all interesting ideas, but are they true ? That is, is there any evidence to support any of them ?

Why are we all assuming that finding animals cute represents an evolved trait and isn't, for instance, a freak consequence of all the books and cartoons we're exposed to which anthropomorphize animals? (No points for guessing the other candidate for that etiology).

and also happen to be cuter than many non-domesticated species, which I doubt is a coincidence.

Yes, but there's a theory here that you have the cause and effect backward: they're cute because they're more babyish, and they're more babyish because that's what they're bred for. Apparently, dogs are supposed to look and act like wolf puppies or something. So says Temple Grandin, anyway. Wikipedia agreed when last I looked.

We do listen to what Feynman says about what physics is, but we expect philosophers of science to have a somewhat better idea.

I don't. I've read work by prominent philosophers of science and noticed parts that were not even internally coherent. As far as I can see they are off in their own little world divorced from anything useful.

1Sniffnoy10yOK, I guess that part was just wrong.

Actually, both, to some extent. There is good and bad writing in terms of aesthetic style, and also in terms of logical soundness and factual accuracy. Any given piece of writing can be good or bad along these dimensions almost independently. Clearly, texts that combine great style with bad logic and inaccurate facts are especially misleading and difficult to assess correctly, and a lot of Orwell's writing is in this category.

Now, in this essay, the great stylist Orwell breaks his own advice all over the place and thereby demonstrates that it's complete r... (read more)

Don't we use "whose" for that purpose?

Speaking only for myself here, but in regards to race, I've been moved somewhat from unmarked to marked state (while remaining white, or possibly "white"), and in my experience, being unmarked is a lot more restful.

"The pronoun form 'they' is anaphorically linked in the discourse to 'this person'. Such use of forms of they with singular antecedents is attested in English over hundreds of years, in writers as significant as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, and Wilde. The people (like the perennially clueless Strunk and White) who assert that such usage is "wrong" simply haven't done their literary homework and don't deserve our attention." (Language Log)


4Eliezer Yudkowsky10yLanguage Log and Strunk and White are not playing the same game. Strunk and White are playing "Does this look right nowadays?" Language Log apparently thinks there are official rules determined by history. I, of course, think the singular "they" looks just fine, nowadays.
4FAWS10yThis could hardly be farther form the truth. Language Log thinks that some completely made up rules that even the authors that propagate them often don't follow in the very books they are doing the propagating in (I'm not sure if this applies in the specific case of Strunk and White and singular they, but it applies in many cases of what's labeled prescriptivist poppycock there) are made even more absurd by history and the usage of high status people praised for their style.
5Vladimir_M10yExactly so. My favorite example is Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," in which he rails against (among other things) the passive voice, but the very opening sentence of the essay contains the phrase "it is generally assumed." Mistakes were made, I guess...
4[anonymous]10yThis is unfair to Orwell. Orwell's advice is not to never use the passive voice. To begin, Orwell gives examples of bad writing and says: His obvious complaint is that the passive voice is overused and inappropriately used, not that it is used at all. Note the phrase "wherever possible". That suggests that the problem he is identifying is one of excess. In obvious reaction to this, he suggests a rule which exactly flips the above description, specifically: This however does not say "never use the passive, ever". And it should furthermore be obvious that Orwell does not mean, "never use the passive where you can find some convoluted and unreadable way to use the active." I should think that you could always find some convoluted way to use the active. Rather, I think it should be obvious that he means, "never use the passive where you can use the active well." What it amounts to is a reminder to the writer to re-examine his passives to see whether an active would not be better.
2Vladimir_M10yWell, yes, he also says, "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." But his opening sentence sounds to me precisely like the sort of passive that he's warning against. It conjures the image of vague nameless opponents instead of naming concrete people, or at least concrete sorts of people, where we could examine if he really represents their views fairly. For a careful reader, this should be a warning that he might be setting up a strawman. Can you even think of a concrete phrase that exemplifies a more shamelessly weasely use of passive than "it is generally assumed that..."?
2Sniffnoy10yTo expand on this point - Strunk & White and Language Log are both playing the "does this look right nowadays" game; the difference is that LL is basing their conclusions on what people actually do nowadays, whereas S&W are simply stating what they think would work better with no actual testing. That they failed to actually follow it suggests that in actual usage they did not find it to work better. The reference to historical authors (rather than the current ones that would be more relevant) is just a bit of Dark Arts by LL, because the people espousing such arbitrary rules often claim they are based on history.

This isn't a issue from anything coming from the Torah. Rather, a dislike of dogs likely stems from anti-Semites in Eastern Europe having their dogs attack Jews, and later the use of dogs by the Nazis to keep concentration camp inmates in line.

However, there's is some connection to cleanliness issues also. Some people claim that the Jewish home should mirror the historical Temple in Jerusalem and thus should not have any non-kosher animals in it at all. See this essay which discusses this in more detail.

Psychological conditioning, rather than simple evolutionary instinct, is a major factor in our modern Western viewpoint concerning baby human vs. baby animal cuteness. We must consider the impact a century of books, cartoons, movies, and teddy bears has on our perception of this matter. This programming begins at infancy before we are even conscious of it, familiarizing and humanizing creatures that our ancestors not far back in time would have slaughtered, eaten, or killed for sport without guilt.

2[anonymous]8yThere's probably something to that. While pets are kept all over the world, there definitely seems to be a big difference made by culture. I imagine socioeconomic status has something to do with it as well. I've had friends, both continental European and from various other parts of the world, who thought American society, having so many pets so visibly, was weird and possibly a bit disturbingly neotenic. Working class folks and people from early-generation diaspora families seem to rate especially likely to be weirded by it, in my experience. One of my Somali friends found the fact that I keep a cat weird, and kept worrying she was going to bite her randomly (to be fair, reading cat body language is a skill not everyone possesses). They have cats in Somalia, of course, and she was raised in North America, but the position and frequency of pets in Somali culture is just not the's different enough that a lot of Somali people I talk to will profess that Somali people just don't keep pets. Not because it's a true universal statement, just because white American norms around pets seem odd.

What would be a clear, non-amusing, ideally empathy-inspiring expression of frustration?

2Kevin11yA :( probably wouldn't hurt

People keep mistaking my gender and it makes me sad :(

I'm a little curious why you care so much about people getting your gender correct online.

Speaking personally, I generally use my actual name in my screen name which to native English speakers shows my gender clearly. But even then, some non-native speakers see a name ending in "a" and apparently conclude that that's female.

Also, I have a very high-pitch voice for a male, so I regularly get mistaken for a female over the phone. But this isn't really that annoying except when it becomes an actual inconvenience (as in "I'm sorry ma'am, but I need to speak to your husband about this." and then refusing to believe that they really are speaking to Joshua Zelinsky).

So I'm curious why this preference issue is one that you place so much emphasis on.

7Alicorn10yI have never been mistaken for male in person or on the phone, ever. Additionally, people who identify me as male (or choose to express their uncertainty with male pronouns) on the Internet aren't typically doing so because there's positive evidence to that effect; they're guessing based on my location ("the Internet" or the specific site), which amounts to careless, casual stereotyping and rankles horribly. If people tended to only identify me as male after I dropped a casual reference to an ex-girlfriend without mentioning in the same context that I'm bi, that would bother me less, albeit still some, because it would be a reasonable update to make on the basis of information I'd provided beyond simply having wandered into an area that they suppose to be the province of males.
4Bugmaster8yI know what I said about unicorns above, and I think that's still relevant, but I disagree with your characterization of the gender misidentification as "stereotyping". Given that there are more men than women on Internet discussion sites, and especially on Less Wrong, wouldn't it be reasonable to guess that any given poster is male, unless there's evidence to the contrary ? By analogy, if I knew that a bag contained 75 black marbles and 25 white marbles, why shouldn't I guess that a random marble, that I pulled out of the bag without looking, is black ?
2shminux8yOnly if you are unable to actually look and check the color. Which was Alicorn's whole point.
6Bugmaster8yI'm not sure how the looking would work in practice. I would feel incredibly creepy if, every time I wanted to quote someone's blog post, I had to first contact the poster and inquire about his/her/etc. gender. Conversely, assuming I ever posted anything of consequence (unlikely, I know), I'd feel uncomfortable if someone asked me, "hey, I liked your blog post and I want to respond to it; BTW, what is your gender ?". But perhaps my reaction is atypical ?
7Alicorn8yI am not upset if people write in or around their uncertainty about my gender. "He/his" does not do either, but "(s)he" or "ey" or "they" or "Alicorn" or "the OP" or whatever would be all fine and no contact would be necessary.
2[anonymous]8yMy prior probability that someone is male is about 50%, knowing that they read Less Wrong amounts to about +10 dB of evidence that they are male (as of the last survey []), so the posterior probability that someone is male given that they read Less Wrong is about 90%. How does Bayesian updating amount to careless, casual stereotyping?
2Swimmer96310yI completely agree. Well, it doesn't rankle for me in the same way because I probably post a lot less on the Internet than you do, and thus get a lot fewer assumptions. (Also, I kind of like the thought of people not knowing my gender.) But I completely agree that the Internet, and especially sites like LessWrong, is assumed to be populated by males.
1Vladimir_M10yAlicorn: Have you considered that your writing style might be unusual for a woman? Even based on a small sample of writing that has no obvious clues, it's usually possible to guess the author's sex much better than chance. You write in a very technical matter-of-fact style, with long, complex, and yet very precisely constructed sentences, and take unusual care to avoid ambiguities and unstated implications. (You'd probably be a great textbook writer.) Whatever the reason for this state of affairs might be, people who write like that are overwhelmingly men. Also, why not simply use a female name if you're bothered by this?
5Alicorn10yOut of curiosity, what markers do you associate with feminine writing?
1Vladimir_M10yPerhaps I should stress that it's not that you write in a typical masculine style. Rather, you write in a style that's altogether unusual, and the minority of people who write like that are predominantly men. So it does constitute some evidence, unless I'm completely mistaken about the facts of the matter (and I pretty confident I'm not). Regarding the typical male/female style, it's hard to give a simple description. It's an intuitive impression that's not amenable to detailed introspection. Somehow a given text usually sounds more natural in male voice than female or vice versa, unless perhaps it's a completely dry technical discussion, and while far from being 100% reliable, these guesses are also far better than chance. As for those clues that can be analyzed explicitly, I'm not sure if it would be a good idea to get into that topic, since it's mostly about (statistically accurate) sex-stereotypes, which is clearly a hot-button issue.
3[anonymous]10yIt's been my experience that writing style isn't especially gendered. I used to think I could tell, but I can't actually guess accurately based on writing style alone. (Topic choice, sure.) And, of course, women have successfully written under male pseudonyms many times. Lots of behaviors are gendered, but there's psychological evidence that people are biased towards seeing gender differences in everything, and I think the "female writing style" is one of those supposed gender differences that doesn't actually exist. If you want, though, we can see if you can guess the gender of the authors of a few writing samples where the choice of topic doesn't give it away. I initially thought Alicorn was male too, but that's because she has a genderless username and writes on a majority-male site. I've been mistaken for a guy on the internet, when I thought my username was plenty girly, but, you know, I was on the internet so the priors are skewed.

Well, there's this.

5[anonymous]10yI did not know about that! (Quick summary: n-gram analysis shows that women use more pronouns than men, among other distinctions.) Ok, there does seem to be such a thing as a gender difference in writing style. Even within genres.
1Vladimir_M10yWriting style can't be strictly separated from the choice of topic (or rather sub-topics addressed when writing on a given topic), and some of the most powerful clues come exactly from where these things blend into each other. Moreover, in interactive back-and-forth writing on forums and blogs, typical male and female behaviors and attitudes often quickly become apparent, just like in a live conversation, and are clearly detectable in writing. Someone has already posted a link to a paper whose authors claim to have found measurable statistical differences between male and female styles, but I'm not sure how much (if at all) the usual human intuition relies on those specific clues. But in any case, I don't see where exactly you disagree with my above diagnosis, given that it's discussing what I believe to be a fairly extreme and clear-cut case. Do you think Alicorn's style doesn't have the characteristics I described, or that such writing isn't statistically likely to come from men? If you have some samples ready, I'd be curious to give it a try.
7[anonymous]10yTwo writing samples, one male and one female, from humanities journals: First: Second: Two excerpts from New York Times articles, one male and one female: First: Second: Two excerpts from short stories, one male and one female. First: Second:
2Vladimir_M10yThe humanities articles both use the same formal dry academic style, from which it's hard to say anything. The first one is much worse in terms of long-winded verbiage, but that doesn't say much. If I had to guess, I would toss a coin. The Times articles are similarly written in a routine journalistic style (it reads like a telegram with some cliche phrases cut and pasted between the words), so again it's hard to say anything. (Also, from what I know, news articles are heavily edited and it's questionable how much individual style they preserve.) If I really had to guess, I would say the first is more likely to be female by an epsilon. Google confirms this is correct, but I admit I wouldn't bet any money on it. (On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if an experienced newspaper editor could guess much better.) As for the short stories excerpts, well, that's some bad prose. The first one sounds to me a bit more feminine; I'd say it's something like a 60-40 guess. Googling these paragraphs, I see that I guessed right; admittedly, I wouldn't have bet very much money on this one either.
3[anonymous]10yWell, she thinks explicitly and abstractly, like most people here, and I suppose that could be more common in men, but I don't think I've noticed anything especially male or female in her prose. I didn't notice an unusual lack or predominance of pronouns. (Actually I think Alicorn, more than most LessWrongers, tends to illustrate ideas with anecdotes about individual people, whether real or hypothetical. So that would mean more pronouns -- but then again, Eliezer has the same habit, and I don't know if that means you'd consider his writing feminine.)
6Document10yI've been collecting examples of Eliezer being mistaken for female; so far I've got six, plus two people uncertain. (Someone suggested that it's because of his name, but I don't remember why.)
7Eliezer Yudkowsky10yNumerous cases in Methods of Rationality, especially during the early days. It's as if they had priors suggesting that most Harry Potter fanfiction authors were female.
4[anonymous]10yAren't they? That's always been my impression. Although I can think of a lot of exceptions, like you, nonjon, and the guy who wrote Wastelands.
6NancyLebovitz10ySomeone mentioned that his first name could be misread as Eliza.
1Vladimir_M10yI didn't base my conclusion on pronouns at all. Maybe you missed my commend a few turns further up in the thread where I describe it in more detail.
4wedrifid10yFor what it is worth Alicorn's writing style always resolved to female written for me. And the name seemed even more female - along the lines of "Alison". My intuition possibly focuses on somewhat different features of communication when making the distinctions. Being bothered is not usually about avoiding the negative stimulus.
2Raemon10yThis may be (although I'd like to see solid data before assuming so). But I also suspect that being on a rationality blog acts a filter for the sorts of people who DON'T write like that.
1NancyLebovitz10yThere may be a clue about reasons to be concerned in your post. You sometimes (how often?) get ignored because you've been mistaken for being female. Women's input being ignored isn't all that rare, and that can lead to women wanting to be taken seriously while being known as female.
2[anonymous]8yHe gets ignored for being mistaken for not being Joshua Zelinsky.
5Dufaer11yHow is it even reasonable to expect some arbitrarily visitor to notice (or guess correctly) your gender? Do you evaluate your writing style or your expressed thoughts to be so typically female as to yield to no other conclusion? Or do you count on the “obvious” connotations of a name like “Alicorn” - for it is surely obvious that anyone naming oneself thus must be thinking about some fluffy, girly sparkling unicorn instead of, for example, making a reference to the Invisible Pink Unicorn - or something (especially on a rationality website!). There is no personal information on the user pages here on LS, and decidedly no gender marks on top of the posts themselves. Also, you are obviously not willing to provide any info to make you identifiable in RL and yet expect all people to infer that you are female anyway, even given the prior probability distribution (“there are no girls on the internet”, “a contributor on some intellectual/academia website”)? Even when one does not think of people on the internet strictly as male, it is simply usually a better guess to refer to them as “he”, given that i) one is unwilling to use “he/she” or a similarly artificial form, and ii) there is no other information one is willing to look up. Thus I conclude that as long as you do not change your nickname into something like “Alicorn(female!)” or change your expectations, you will be sad like this time and time again. [ :( ]
3Raemon10yI think it's an unfortunate but inescapable fact that people are unlikely to assume a given poster on a rationality site is female unless said poster has an obviously-female-name (and honestly, I don't think "Alicorn" counts. I had no idea what it meant until you explained). But I AM genuinely offended by the Isgoria blogger proclaiming that male pronouns were "neutral", even when applied to a specific person. I'm not sure it was the optimal use of my time given the year old status of this discussion, but I sent an e-mail saying so. It gave me warm fuzzies, at least. I think the male bias in the english language is a ridiculously obvious problem, and I am extremely frustrated whenever a someone says "hey, it'd be cool if you made a small effort to use gender neutral language" and the response is "dude, what's YOUR problem?" (Originally I used male pronouns to refer to the Isgoria blogger, then realized I didn't actually know for sure. I'm 90% sure the blogger is male, and I don't think it's necessarily wrong to guess someone's gender wrong. But it also didn't take much effort to avoid the use of pronouns in the first place, and if we had an official actually neutral pronoun it wouldn't have been an issue.)
8Johnicholas10yThere's a knockdown essay on this subject by Hofstadter: []
1Raemon10yI've read that essay, it's largely responsible for my current views (or at least made me much more vocal about them). The only issue I have with it is that it's almost too subtle. I didn't really get what was going on until I skipped down to the end. I sent it to a feminist friend of mine and she got annoyed with it and stopped reading before she understood what the point was.
5wnoise11yNo, "allele" is not the word we want, though we should be using it in preference to "gene". "Allele" just means "a particular variant of a gene". Technically speaking, "gene" means all the ways of coding for some particular set of structures (or rather the proteins that end up constructing them, or otherwise affect development). For example, humans have two primary genes for blood type. The first gene determines the Rh factor, with one allele of that gene coding for positive Rh, and the other for negative Rh. The second gene determines the ABO encoding, with one allele coding for O, a second for A, and a third for B. And of course, the alleles on each copy of the gene combine to produce different phenotypes, which can often be simplified to the "dominant recessive" model when there are only two common alleles in a population (e.g. Rh). ABO typing is more complicated -- A and B refer to types of "antigens" (surface markers) that your blood cells may have. Each is produced if you have at least one allele of that type. O, in contrast produces no antigens. (There are actually a whole passel of other genes that code for existence of a whole lot of other antigens and typing factors, but the variants are a lot rarer, so most people don't need to worry about them.) The term wedifrid is asking for (and that I would really like to have) is about the frequencies of alleles. There is casual talk of someone's son being 50% related to his father. Certainly exactly 50% of his alleles were copied from his father. On the other hand, we should say that he's also 50% related to his father's identical twin brother, where there is no direct copying -- just the happenstance that this set of 50% of alleles is identical to that of his father's identical twin. But, as it turns out, of the 50% of genes that weren't copied, a very very high proportion will be the same as in his father (or indeed his uncle). A natural distance to define on these sets of alleles is the l_1 distance "how many

My livejournal gets 58% female; my synopsis of my webcomic gets 81% female; and my serial fiction, which I coauthor with another woman, gets 75% female.

I wasn't referring to the total percentage but to ranges: for example when it estimated from 65-75%, it seemed to be wrong 1 in 4 to 1 in 6 times instead of 1 in 3 to 1 in 4. But maybe my sample was still too small.

I'm not convinced that the Ekman's-facial-coding division coincides with this particular discussion's alberzle-bargulum split.

Me either, but it's a great example of the sort of thing I'm talking about: hardwired physiological reactions leading to biased mental processing. (IIRC, one of Ekman's studies, btw, actually involved connections between the "anger" facial expression and immediate damaging effects on the heart.)

Anyway, Ekman coding is one of the very few tools we have for being precise about emotions. The original developers of NLP tr... (read more)

The singular they doesn't actually constitute "twist[ing] the language" - it is as valid as "everyone knows each other".

As for the rest: I don't know if you were around during the PUA mess, but there were not a few comments suggesting that this community was obviously offputting to women. I can't tell you what factors contributed to that with complete confidence, but given how many people have told me that they find improper pronouns irritating, that's a place I would start.

The singular they may be a bit more subtle than you realize. I agree with linguist Geoff Pullum: it's ok to use 'they' as a singular bound pronoun (someone lost their wallet) but not as a singular referring pronoun (Chris lost their wallet).

In this case, the blogger that Alicorn complained about needed a singular referring pronoun, since a specific person, namely Alicorn, was being referred to. I think all things considered, 'he or she' would have been most appropriate.

2RobinZ11yI'll grant that "Chris lost their wallet" is a distinctly modern usage - if you prefer "Chris lost his or her wallet", please use the latter. I think the extension of singular they is the more elegant solution to the problem of unknown genders (particularly in communities where the answer to "he or she?" is sometimes "no" - I have visited such online), but I'll grant that it is a judgment call.
5thomblake11yIndeed - I dislike "he or she" because it makes assumptions about gender and just puts off the "gendered language" problem.
4Wei_Dai11yI think there can be no complete solution to the gendered language problem, since it comes down to respect and status, which is something people will always fight over. For example, if I start using an ungendered pronoun to refer to everyone I know, then some people might be offended because they think I don't care enough about them to refer to them using the correct gendered pronouns (which takes more effort and therefore signals caring).
3Wei_Dai11yI disagree that it's a more elegant solution. Suppose I say "While on vacation with a bunch of friends, Chris lost their money." I bet almost everyone would interpret "their" to mean "Chris and friends'" instead of "Chris's". Even when the meaning can be correctly deduced from context, using "they" in place of "he or she" as a singular referring pronoun would probably cause a significant delay in reading as the reader tries to figure out what "they" might be referring to, and whether it's an unintentional error. In communities of people who prefer not to use either "he" or "she" to refer to themselves, they can set whatever community-specific rules they want. I have no objection to using "they" in that context, but it doesn't seem like a good general solution for the problem of unknown genders.
5nolrai11yNatural languages are full of ambiguity, and yes that use sounds wrong cause your talking about a particular person. And if you really wanted to say that it was Chris's money, how about "Chris lost Chris's money." It sounds awkward to me cause my English only allows use of they in the singular if it is an abstract person, not a particular real person. I mean its not like "Chris lost his money" is unambiguous, it is not at all clear to me weather the he refers to Chris, or someone else. That would probably be clear in discourse because of context.
5Wei_Dai11yDo you agree that using 'they' as a singular referring [] pronoun is not yet a part of natural English (i.e., a majority of English speakers do not naturally use it that way, nor expect it to be used that way), but that usage is being proposed by some as a useful reform, while others oppose it? My point is that making this change involves a large cost, including a period of confusion as some people start using 'they' as a singular referring pronoun while others are not expecting it to be used that way. And we can foresee that it will increase the amount of ambiguity in English even after this period of confusion is over. Is 'he or she' really so bad that this costly reform is worthwhile?
2wedrifid11yMost of the people I talk to accept 'they' as natural English. My highschool English teachers would probably be an exception, as was I until I decided to let it go. Wnoise probably has a point that 'singular they' is a matter of dialect, with most, perhaps unfortunately, having lost some of the more elegant subtleties. A good question. I'm happy to leave it with 'singular they' for most people but 'he or she' for people who want to signal sophistication (by speaking correctly). It is probably too late to hope to gain much relief from ambiguity except when you are familiar with your audience's manner of speech. EDIT: I missed the great, great grandparent about singular bound vs singular referring. Thanks Wei.
1RobinZ11yAs wedrifid suggests, I think you overestimate the cost. Heck, English allows the verbing of nouns - screwing around with grammatical number is chump change.

As I mentioned before, I'd want to see a specific reason why the pre-conscious reaction(s) brought about by a particular, genuine negative emotion would be more useful than the same behavior executed by conscious choice or strategically trained reaction.

The same behavior is the key. Working out the right emotional displays and social strategies applicable to various situations is an extremely difficult task, as many with an Asperger's diagnosis can attest to. Anger (and related emotions) allow people to take actions that are appropriate to certain situa... (read more)

1pjeby11yThere seems to be an implicit assumption here that you would have to be "controlled", but what I've been talking about is eliminating the need for control, by simply altering whatever mental association is making you have something to control. Emotions aren't something that just happen due to environmental conditions; mostly, they require a learned pairing to be triggered, and those pairings can be altered. For example, if you thought that Santa Claus existed, and then later realized he didn't, a whole bunch of emotional triggers got switched off automatically as soon as you realized this. You did not need to become a "trained jedi" to stop the emotion of wanting to wait up and see Santa - you simply didn't have the reaction any more. I'm going to stop the discussion here, though, because you still haven't identified with any specificity whatsoever what sort of situations you're talking about. I have only the vaguest idea, and assume you are talking about some sort of corporate-politic machinations, so I'm using my own experiences as a guide. In my own experiences, however, I cannot recall any situation where someone was positively served by an immediate negative emotional reaction to anything - the game always went to people who could calmly spin any situation to their strategic advantage. However, I'm also thinking of situations primarily where objective standards of performance were also involved, and were ultimately the most important thing. I could imagine that in situations of total politics and no objective standards, perhaps some other case could exist. I just cannot (yet) imagine what that would look like. So, that means we're going to keep talking past one another in this area unless you give me a specific example of a situation where you think an instinctual negative reaction would help a person's real goals. Otherwise, we're just handwaving different priors. Perhaps this is the point of confusion: I'm not talking about most people. I'm talking abou

Btw, if I had to hazard a guess, I would guess I would not label your current emotion as anger, because you've been far too reasonable and accommodating. That is, I would predict your facial expression markers to not inlcude those associated with irritation, zeal, rage, or contempt. (All of which I would expect to be associated with cognitive changes in reasoning capacity and active perceptual biases.)

If only I had known! I could have videorecorded myself to post to Youtube, and we would have a testable hypothesis! :P

That said: this remark constitutes d... (read more)

6mattnewport11yIs this a case of anger-on-the-Internet vs. anger in real life? There is an emotion on the Internet which I am sometimes inclined to identify as anger which is not at all the same as the real life emotion of anger which I have experienced in myself and others. Real life anger is scary stuff, something that can result in you or others actually getting physically hurt. It is inseparable from a fear of physical harm. I don't know where you draw the line between anger and rage but my physical-world experiences with either have been disturbing. I sometimes read posts on the Internet which 'make my blood boil' but I don't label it 'anger' because real-world anger is something far more frightening. A discussion mediated by the Internet can't really invoke the implications of real-world anger.
2pjeby11yAnd this also supports what I've been saying, on two additional points: FIrst, you appear to agree that actually entering into that emotional state is a mind-killer. And second, having buttons that pushed you in the direction of that state was not actually helpful to your considered goals. I think this is sufficient to conclude the discussion; I feel like Albert and Barry [], just having agreed on "alberzles" and "bargulums". Yay, rationality! ;-) [Edit: misspelled "bargulums", not that anyone could tell.]

So, perhaps you are using "anger" to refer to a broader range of emotions than I am?

This is consistent with my observations of your remarks in this thread modulo the imprecision of the English language. There probably is a fact of the matter when it comes to which usage is more accurate, but I doubt we'll settle it by posting comments on LessWrong. (;

but I worry that you imply Alicorn should not be annoyed.

It is hard to extract that implication given:

This is sort of where I'm at on the issue. I understand that you don't like being referred to as 'he', and I agree that you shouldn't be.

2RobinZ11yYou're right - I tried to reread byrnema's comment to avoid that kind of error, but I must have missed that sentence twice. I should not have been so pointed. Thank you for catching my mistake.
2byrnema11yTruthfully, it doesn't matter what a person declares in the second sentence if they then negate that sentence with the body of their comment. Perhaps you read for feeling and tone, as I do -- that's why I didn't point to a specific sentence as a defense in my reply. However, what I was explaining was that while I don't question that Alicorn should feel the way she does, I have a tendency to overly reduce problems (which feels like I'm trivializing them) and that's probably what you were reading. I didn't intend to do that, but since my friends say I always do that, that's probably what I did. (Outside view.)

I hope that my comment wouldn't be interpreted that way -- I support how Alicorn feels about the issue even if I don't feel the same way. (I might anyway if my handle name was Alicorn -- or Cerise.)

However, I've been told by close friends that the most annoying trait about me is that I'm a "spin doctor" -- that I think that problems can be 'fixed' just by framing them differently.

5RobinZ11yY'know, given the quote wedrifid pulled out, I don't think it should be except by a careless reader - mea culpa. That "spin doctor" thing makes me wonder, though: is there some substantial variance []* in the ability of people to reframe their way away from berserk buttons? It would explain some comments I have received if I personally am lacking in that attribute. * Edited to add link.
8mattnewport11yRecognizing that a berzerk button (I had to google that by the way, not everyone is a tvtropes fanatic contrary to what seems to be a common assumption here) is a fact about you and not a flaw in the external world is probably part of it. From an instrumental rationality point of view it is often easier to control or adjust your own reaction than it is to change the world to avoid your triggers.
3wedrifid11yIt's on TvTropes? I just assumed "less stigmatised way of saying tantrum" based off context. The thing is that these triggers exist only for the purpose of changing the world. The most significant emotions are a way to have a credible precomittment to do a mutually destructive thing if the other(s) do(es) not comply. For example, by damaging one's own body with excess adrenalin and cortisol while causing similar distress to those who defected in your constructed game. Quite often the triggers are actually well calibrated to serve our interests and it isn't always wise to mess with them.
6pjeby11yFixed that for you. ;-)
6wedrifid11yGood, but let me fix it further to what I really mean, ancestral environment included. ;)
3mattnewport11yI guessed at the meaning but it sounded like a specific reference to me, TVTropes is the first hit on Google. True, the tactic can also backfire however. I respond badly to such tactics, presumably partially an evolved defense to their widespread use.
2RobinZ11yI apologize for not defining the term - links to TV Tropes spell trouble for a lot of people. True - but I prefer to advocate for adaptive behavior, rather than altered emotional response, in many cases. Pronouns is one such.
2mattnewport11yThe problem with that is that the behaviour that needs adapting is that of other people (in this case, to a first approximation, all English speakers). The emotional response is ones own and therefore easier to change. You might continue to lobby for others to change their behaviour once the emotional response has been brought under control but unless you think the emotional response is actually the optimal way to change the behaviour of others it is not desirable.
4Morendil11yYes, reframing [] is a learnable skill. Family therapist Virginia Satir had a reputation as an exemplar of that skill. One book I've read, "The patterns of her magic", goes a little into the details of how it's done.
3wedrifid11yI think so. It seems to depend on personality (innate emphasis on practical vs political thinking for example), education (cognitive behavioral therapy emphazises reframing things away from awfulising and suchlike) and status ('berzerk button' is a high status only option). (I should note that I am not trying to label the berzerk button as defective by observing that it is trained away from in CBT. CBT is intended for people who's existing thought process is not working for them. If going berzerk or otherwise allowing things to make you angry gets you what you want then CBTing it away is not advocated.)
2pjeby11yReally, that's the best way to fix problems. Funny enough, when our brains aren't reacting to something as though it's some kind of threat to our life or status, our higher reasoning actually functions and lets us change the outside world in a more sensible way. I don't think this makes you a "spin doctor", unless you're attempting to reframe others' problems for your benefit at their expense.

Austin Powers: You must admit she is rather mannish. Really, if that is a woman she must have been beaten with an ugly stick.

Good point. Now I can think of one.

Vanessa: That's you in a nutshell.

Austin Powers: No, this is me in a nutshell: 'Help! I'm in a nutshell. How did I get into this bloody great big nutshell? What kind of shell has a nut like this?'

And that is just damn funny.

Well, I don't think it would customarily be said to one's face...

Fair enough - I only mentioned it because I happened to have a period where I avoided singular-they because I thought it was forbidden. I'll trust your judgement on style.

If this happened in the wild, that momma pig would eventually have adult tigers ready to fight alongside her legitimate offspring,

A tiger couldn't grow on pig milk alone - the zoo in that story are giving the cubs meat supplements. Later, the young tigers will need to be taught to hunt to get enough meat. And pigs wouldn't like the games adolescent tigers play. Later on, the tigers could eat other pigs who might have mated with their adopted siblings; or the tigers' own future mates might eat them. There's no way this wouldn't end in tears.


... (read more)
8Strange711yUnless you've got a surplus of highly-perishable food, a surplus which will end as surely as winter follows after fall. In that case, the mammal in question acts as a convenient storage device, a bank which will often follow you around of it's own volition rather than needing to be carried. Even if there's overlap between human and potential-pet diets, that doesn't mean they're in direct competition. Dogs, for example, will happily eat the same fresh meat a human would, but can also survive on gristle and partially spoiled meat that human stomachs violently reject.
3byrnema11yAgree. It is interesting that unless you grew up in an agricultural/non-industrialized culture, such things can only be known from reading novels about people that have (and written by people with such first-hand experience). For example, the book Independent People by Halldor Laxness gives an idea of how critical a domesticated animal could be for survival. In the story, the main character's wife died because he wouldn't keep her a cow. Relevantly, he raised the child she left (their child, in fact) because the child was cute more so than out of duty. When the child was 15 or so and less cute he forgot all about her. The book is longish but so good. He's got like 50 pages in a row about minute details about sheep.
9Alicorn11yThese sentences seem extremely incongruous to me.
2AspiringKnitter9yI predict-- in advance, even!-- that you are not a fan of Lord of the Rings.
2Alicorn9y...I liked the movies...
2DanArmak11yPlausible. How often do people eat most or all of their tame animals in late autumn, and adopt new animal babies in spring, instead of maintaining bigger herds of tame animals that can reproduce to replace the ones eaten? I remember hearing about something of the kind, but can't recall the details... The question is, then: how viable is taming and raising animals for short periods of time before eating them? Spoiled meat isn't something you have a reliable supply of. You can't raise a dog just on spoiled meat and other things humans won't eat.
2Strange711yMartinmas (November 11) was the traditional day for slaughtering and salting old stock and swine to provide a supply of meat, however meagre, for the coming winter. [] Not exactly the environment we evolved for, but it's solid evidence of feasibility.
2mattnewport11yThousands of years of history of people raising pigs suggests otherwise. Dogs appear to have been domesticated at least partly because they were able to help with hunting and presumably the widespread adoption of canine companions is evidence that humans benefited from the relationship more than enough to compensate for any upkeep costs.
2DanArmak11yAs I said, useful species like dogs and pigs are domesticated because of their usefulness; their cuteness is not a prime consideration. Piglets aren't champions of cuteness. Puppies are cute, but grown dogs or wolves are dangerous and must be very frightening if you're not used to domesticated ones.

Thus, the question is whether you find say Infant Elephants as cute as infant (wild) rabbits or Wolf Puppies.

The baby elephants I saw on safari recently were pretty cute:

What if it's a flag for imprintability?

A cute, unattended creature is a potential investment, with the hardest part (childbirth) already taken care of. Large eyes, brains, and paws relative to the rest of the body is a physiological consequence of incomplete development, and most mammals have some potential use or other to whoever they recognize as 'parent.'

Obligatory wiki link. It isn't the most reputable wiki link.

They're cute, but I think kittens would win against calves and chicks in a cuteness contest. Or leopard cubs, if you think size is a factor. My point was that cuteness is not well correlated with domesticability or with tastiness.

It's easy to propose explanation for this, harder to test them. Maybe it's because we regard sheep and chickens as food animals while kittens are companions and friends?

Regardless, your original point stands - human babies aren't as cute as many animal ones.

Calves are actually pretty cute in person, they're not as photogenic though (we had a farm at school so I've been around lots of young farm animals).

6Paul Crowley11ySTOP STOP! I die!

It would be surprising if we found all babies cute because most babies do not carry our genes. Even a simplistic application of evo-psych would predict that we'd find our own babies very cute, while we'd be unmoved or even disgusted by others' babies.

Whether this is actually the case is a matter for careful experimentation and analysis, however. Evolution as a theory is not sufficiently precise to reliably make such detailed predictions (I believe this was Alicorn's original point)

5fmuaddib11yIn fact non social species, like felines, are unmoved or even aggressive toward babies not kin related to them. But we are primates, and being primates very social, we are subject to trivers reciprocal altruism, in other words: childs are very prone to help strangers if they feeds them. They can be adopted and parassitated as muscular force in exchange of a small piece of the meal, smaller than those of the natural childs of course, as foster care studies have demonstrated. So we can find others child very attractive too, because they can be very useful to us, because they are easily exploited due to the long period of dependence from adults. This is not directly related to the cutness, anyway, that is a physical trait, with specific characteristics (big facial elements, head bigger than the body, small arms, etc.). If one puppy develops those traits to deceive his parents, those traits will be there to be seen by all the other people too. Unless there is a specific adaptation to resist such aestetic feedback in non kin related puppies, like in some non-social species, the brain response at a cute face is the same.
3wnoise11yAll babies carry the vast majority of our genes. We're extremely related to all other humans -- the complication is that they're also our most relevant competition. Tiny fractions of a percent differ between one person's kids and their neighbors. Nonetheless, these are the genes we're geared to care about.

That organisms which don't have offspring that look like human babies will not experience the same things as cute as humans do.

2David_J_Balan11yI don't think I understand. The hypothesis says that we evolved to find human babies cute because people who find babies cute are more likely to take care of them and then they'll reproduce and propagate those genes. I guess there's no strong reason why that necessarily means that we have to find human babies cuter than anything else: if the "appreciating cuteness" faculty happened for some random reason to glom extra hard onto bunnies there probably there wouldn't be any very strong selective pressure against it (though as Alicorn points out, there would probably be some slight pressure). Is that what you mean?
4brazil8411yAnother thing to keep in mind is Eliezer's example of finding a human baby in the woods. Or worse yet, on your doorstep. In other words, the cuteness reaction can arguably work against you by making you vulnerable to cuckoldry.
3MichaelVassar11yYes. I would also guess that the framing of this problem is also the cause of some of the confusion. As others have noted, newborns are not the optimal target of a cuteness response, that would be something more like four year olds, e.g. maximally expensive children with a large sunk cost. Also, Alicorn may have unusual perceptions of cuteness and no-one may have wanted to contradict a perception. I just actually looked at Google Images and my conclusion is that babies are cuter than bunnies, though not by enough that as a good frequentest I could refute that null hypotheses that bunnies and babies are the same thing. My wife and I have previously observed, while walking in the park, that as the theory predicts boy babies are cuter than girls except when the girls are Chinese, presumably due to the greater parental investment required by boys and the history of unusually frequent female infanticide in China.

A lot of predators have pretty adorable cubs. If anything the babies should be identified as more of a threat, since the mother protecting them will usually be more motivated than if she were simply trying to eat you.

It really isn't your fault. The DSM is fracking mess on this. They basically defined ASPD (which is usually what sociopath refers to) to extend to pretty much everyone who breaks the law. It is just a way of diagnosing all criminals with something. It is dominated by things basically every criminal by definition has done. It is a fake disorder. It just happens that there is this real condition which happens to make it extremely likely a person will be diagnosed with ASPD.

That said, having read more of the AMA I think there is a pretty high probability of psychopathy (I'm not qualified to diagnose but, then, I'm not sure the people who are know what the hell they're doing).

Well, an obvious explanation would be that it didn't have time to. Since Jack's theory claims it's an old trait, it might be embedded deep in an old structure of the brain (IIRC at least some emotions are seated very deep), and it might be hard to change, in the sense that most mutations that would make babies seem cuter would have other deleterious effects. As long as people find babies cute enough, the selection effect from the bad effects would delay the change until the rare mutations that don't have bad effects happen.

Also, note that our cuteness crit... (read more)

The way you characterized the evidence I would have said, "This comment reminded me: there's an interesting correlation between psychopathy and finding babies uncute - it comes down to the relation to the fear expression and infantile expressions."

But I would want more evidence (particularly regarding alternative mechanisms for baby-distaste) before I claimed a likelihood factor as large as ten.

Well, but she wouldn't outright lie, would she?

3LucasSloan11yHonestly, I'm sufficiently young not to know about the non-trivial characteristics of Carmen Sandiego.

Ah, finally we have a hypothesis on the benefits to humans of the general cuteness instinct!

4Alicorn11yI have acquired multiple possessions by expressing sincere admiration of them; cuteness was only a factor of said admiration in the one case.

I think this is the best explanation, but I have to admit it doesn't satisfy me 100%. Logically it seems to me that have the cute instinct triggered by a furry creature must hurt human reproductive success at least a tiny amount.

Well, maybe. But I would want to see some actual historical accounts or folktales of humans getting sidetracked by cute animals recently enough in our evolutionary history to matter. In the EEA, the availability of cute animals as pets would have been a lot lower than it was today. And trying to get a wild animal as a pet would'... (read more)

'other trait'? Unless you have a specific other factor in mind, it's just a fully general counterargument. (I nullify your other traits with other-other traits!)

In that case the fact that other animals are often much cuter than humans completely refutes the theory.

2gwern11yIt sure does.

People who care enough to rig a poll to give them expected karma probably also care enough to be sensitive to the tactic.

3taw11yI liked that downvote. I'm only 1k karmapoints short of getting into the sidebar, so maybe I should rig a few polls - are kittens cute, is evolution true etc. ;-p

Please, enlighten the evolutionary psychologists with your theory of why humans everywhere on earth find the same pedomorphic features cute, without using evolutionary explanations.

This reads as though you haven't read the article. Alicorn is not arguing that evolutionary explanations should not be used.

The fact that humans universally find the same pedomorphic features endearing in bunnies that they do in babies is not surprising. Bunnies, Hello Kitty, and moe anthropomorphisms are cute because they evoke helpless young children, they prime the same

... (read more)
4knb11yNo, she's saying the cuteness explanation offered by Dennett fails (due to a single data point, no less, her opinion about the cuteness of an animal) and that it is a cautionary note about evolutionary psychology. My comment is relevant, because the fact that we find pedomorphic things universally cute, across cultures only means that our cuteness instincts are imperfect. The fact that our evolved minds misfire sometimes is not a surprise to evolutionary psychologists, and Dennett would likely have no problem with humans finding child-evocative things cute. They're called superstimuli,and it isn't terribly surprising that they could exist in nature as well, as I further explain in Tyrrell McAllister's comment below.

Do we know whether adult non-primate mammals find anything cute?

Very occasionally

There are some correlations that suggest a possible relationship between finding cute things disgusting and psychopathy.

(Non-edited version was over-confident, some comments below reflect that)

7Eliezer Yudkowsky11yCitation needed.

Here. In particular see the meta-analysis (4th on the list). For the connection to babies and cuteness see the second to last on the list. To summarize: the fear expression mimics infantile expressions- enlarging the eyes and opening the mouth. The reason for this is that the way babies look elicits a caring and protection response in other people. Psychopathy is, at least partly, a dysfunction in processing fear expressions. There is decreased amygdala activity in response to distress expressions among psychopaths relative to control groups. Thus, finding babies disgusting suggests some pretty serious amygdala dysfunction.

There is no direct evidence that finding cute babies disgusting means you're a psychopath but it suggests that the something pretty abnormal is going on with the person's experience of empathy.

Note that saying someone is a psychopath that doesn't mean he/she has committed any crimes or is particularly damaging to society. Indeed, given some estimations it would be very surprising if there weren't several psychopaths reading Less Wrong. Higher even, since there is some evidence of comorbidity with other conditions that seem to be unusually common here (like ADHD... (read more)

6Eliezer Yudkowsky11yThank you for the references, upvoted. But it's not clear to me that "finding babies uncute" has actually been linked to psychopathy per se, albeit it might be something interesting to investigate because of a couple of chained correlations. In fact the term "fairly strong evidence" in the original comment does seem misplaced, unless you know of a specific experiment indicating that. (Also, would "fairly strong evidence" in this context mean say "a likelihood factor of ten for finding babies uncute, even though the base frequency of psychopaths is low" or "a substantial fraction of people who find babies uncute are in fact psychopaths"?)
2komponisto11yIndeed, I suspect that most people who aren't versed in psychology hear "psychopath" simply as a negative-affect-word meaning "sick, twisted person likely to have committed a heinous crime".

I don't know how long I've been doing it, but my "Lagomorpha" folder contains 14 images.

You call THAT a superstimulus?

Now this is a superstimulus!

3wedrifid11yNo this [] is a superstimulus!

But then shouldn't we expect similar stuff to happen for rabbits? for them to evolve away from the primordial shared cuteness criteria?

Actually, wait... human babies are rather more helpless than the babies of most other mammals, right? Shouldn't more helplessness, more (and longer) dependence on adults result in stronger perception of cuteness of them? (via shifts in their appearance and our criteria)?

Okay, now I'm just plain confused!

Babies are less prone to running away, and parents, being an extremely biased party, are probably responsible for a huge share of all baby videos.

The cuteness originator being a common ancestor of all species that value cuteness doesn't imply that it achieved particularly high cuteness. Suppose that the cuteness ideal is essentially invariant (e. g. changing our idea of cuteness to include long noses would be extremely difficult and pretty much require reinventing cuteness from scratch), and valuing cuteness has been originally selected for because the babies of the cuteness originator just happened to be cute enough for cuteness valuation to be an evolutionary advantage. Successor species to the cu... (read more)

What komponisto said. Also, we should expect to find an extremely adorable common ancestor.

I don't see how this follows at all. Either cuteness and baby look manage to converge over the lifetime of a reasonably long-lived species or they do not. If they do we should expect our own babies or at least those of the most recent long-lived ancestor species to look cuter than the cuteness originator. If they don't , presumably because cuteness is difficult to fine-tune, there is no particular reason to think the cuteness originator achieved a higher conversio... (read more)

Are you happy?

Well, there are clearly behavioral traits other than the cute response that go into protecting human infants; if phenotypical cuteness was the only factor here, for example, there'd be little incentive to preferentially protect your own children. Parents that I've talked to have on occasion described their own kids as apocalyptically cute relative to pretty much anything else, but I'm pretty sure there are things other than phenotype involved here.

I don't think the evidence for a pedomorphic interpretation of cuteness is quite conclusive, but there do see... (read more)

But you have to know that the person who uses the nickname 'alicorn' has posted something about her gender.

The word 'alicorn' itself doesn't seem associated with anything femmine, other than the 'unicorns are girly' stereotype which is itself far from obvious.

2DaFranker8yYou mean the monstrous, superpowered godlike entity of human-level intelligence that purely selfishly rewards with mystical life-enhancing divine gifts those that save it, and those who would threaten it find themselves and all their relatives and descendents forever cursed, including any innocent offspring five generations removed from a single unicorn-threatening ancestor? The first time I knew I'd probably encounter a unicorn in a game of D&D, I started rolling my next character. All in all, I think the "unicorns are girly" stereotype isn't all that widespread outside of certain typical US populations. For most populations, I'd figure the question of unicorn genderness never even occurs in the first place - unicorns are just one of those many "mythical creature" thinghies. Then again, I'm from a rather young generation and I have an extended family that is rather high standards in terms of gender cultural programming and social expectations (or prevention thereof).
4wedrifid8yIn whatever population I am part of (not a US one), it isn't the beast itself that is considered female, but rather that females are more likely to be associated with it. Probably a selection effect because they are slightly less likely to be impaled on sight. Perhaps the unicorn suffers from a similar problem as the angel. When I hear the word "Angel" I think "Enormously powerful, ruthless, highly masculine yet somewhat pretty enforcer that is quite likely to slaughter you on sight". I don't think "scantily clad girl with harp". Unicorns are somewhat analogous albeit being territorial beasts rather than henchman.
1Bugmaster8yI associate the word "Angel" with an eldritch inhuman monstrosity, the very sight of which will drive you mad, if you're lucky. It is a messenger of an inscrutable divine omni-power, and it only ever carries one message: annihilation.
5wedrifid8yAngels carry at least two types of message: Annihilation and threats of annihilation if compliance with arbitrary demands is not immediate! Sometimes they are also scouts come to investigate whether said annihilation is necessary. Tip: if large flawlessly beautiful men walk up to your city don't try to gang rape them. Offering your daughters up to the would-be rapists as a compromise is frowned upon but not penalized.
5fezziwig8yIn one case, the message was "You're pregnant". Then, later, a whole chorus of angels gave a concert in celebration of that child's birth. Which is not to detract from your point! The very first thing those angels said, to Mary and the shepherds both, was "Fear not!"
2Raemon8yThis set of posts made my day.
2MugaSofer8yUm, no. [source [] ]
3thomblake8yOne of my most salient associations with unicorns is dangerous men. One of my friends was a social worker, and he found that nearly every time he saw the lodgings of a male serial rapist or other such severely disturbed male, they were decorated with unicorn posters.
5fezziwig8y...huh. Be right back. If anybody needs me, I'll be reevaluating everything I thought I knew about My Little Pony.
2DaFranker8yHah, yeah, that's exactly the kind of usage I would come up with if I had to pick something unicorns would be a symbol for. My image of unicorns as incredibly monstrous, scary supernatural creatures first came from the question: "Okay, it's a white horse with a long, pointy, sometimes serrated or with screw-like sharp spiral edges, horn, but... what the hell do they use that horn for?"

Actually a simple google search yields this:

The first result is Wikipedia, the second and the third are My Little Pony stuff, and they even mention a male alicorn.

7DaFranker8yThis link is not stable. Google uses filter bubbles. I don't have the same first results as you do. In fact, the first two results for me point to LessWrong directly, the third to an MLP fan wiki, and the fourth to a random news article that apparently misspelled "unicorn".

One possible explanation for finding babies and other small fluffy things cute is their vulnerability; babies are extremely vulnerable, and require protection. A cuteness reaction from caretakers would lead to a better standard of care and higher survivability. The caretakers find babies cute not because of any inherent cuteness of the baby, but because babies need to be taken care of and caretakers need to find ways to not find the caretaking onerous. We know we need babies to propagate the species, and we need to create reasons for ourselves to put up wi... (read more)

3chaosmosis8yI agree that cuteness highly correlates with vulnerability, at least for me. I'd also like to note that babies bring my cuteness meter into clash with my ugliness meter. Babies are simultaneously cute and repulsive, because they look like human beings who have been in an accident or who have been deformed. They're more cute than repulsive, though.

Actually, eating a baby bunny is a really bad idea when viewed from a long-term perspective. Sure, it's a tender tasty little morsel -- but the operative word is little. Far better from a long-term view to let it grow up, reproduce and then eat it. And large competent bunnies aren't nearly as cute as baby bunnies, are they? So maybe evo-psych does have it correct . . . . and maybe the short-sighted rationality of tearing apart a whole field by implication because you don't understand how something works doesn't seem as brilliant.

3DavidAgain10yIt's only a bad idea if there's a decent chance of you getting to eat that bunny or its offspring AND if there would otherwise be a shortage. Otherwise a small bunny in the hand is worth dozens of big ones in the bush. As a tribe, or better still a species, there might be benefits to not eating what you catch, but there's unlikely to be real benefits to the individual, so you'd need group selection here. Even in modern society we can see this: look at the problem of over-fishing for instance. 'Fishermen' and indeed 'humankind' would benefit from more careful fishing, but you need strong international enforcement to try to make indivduals follow this route. As an individual, the food you get from a sprat is more on average than the miniscule chance of you getting bigger fish later because you release it.

IIRC, Germans, Italians, &c. will describe the same objects differently based on the grammatical gender of the word describing it; i.e., speakers of a language in which "bridge" is masculine will emphasize a bridge's strength and stability vs beauty and grace, and visa versa, &c. So gender in the wider sense interacts with it somewhat.

On a lighter note, Mark Twain had a typically great passage which he claimed to be a literal translation of a German story, the main humor being that various inanimate objects are referred to as hes and shes while the hapless fishwife has to get by on its.

4Unnamed10yThe "bridge" study was by Lera Boroditsky, as discussed here []. Her papers are available here [] - it looks like the most relevant is: Boroditsky, L., Schmidt, L., & Phillips, W. (2003). Sex, Syntax, and Semantics. In Gentner & Goldin-Meadow (Eds.,) Language in Mind: Advances in the study of Language and Cognition.
[-][anonymous]10y 1

If we're to be treating people as deserving of our attention on the basis of their literary success, as the author of the quote did (see the appeal to Chaucer et al.), then it becomes relevant that E. B. White wrote Charlotte's web. If we are going to ignore what E. B. White says on matters of usage because it doesn't matter what he did as a writer, then in order to be fully consistent we should ignore Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the rest. This, however, undermines the Language Log quote, because it relies entirely on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the others to make its point.

2DavidAgain10yI don't think it's straightforwardly literary success. Chaucer and Shakespeare may be the two most influential writers in English. Their work represents the form of English that 'won' in the 14th century and turn of 1600 respectively. The only other texts that leap to mind as historical sources of similar importance would be the King James Bible and the first Dictionary. Shakespeare and Chaucer aren't being appealed to as authoritative commentators. Their writing is referred to of evidence of English as it did and does exist.
1Sniffnoy10yYou seem to be failing to draw the distinction between looking at what they said and looking at what they did. And indeed, Strunk and White did not, in fact, actually follow their own advice.

I take the "doesn't even necessarily apply [..]" to be equivalent to the claim that use of the male pronoun is never in itself sufficient to establish some assumption with respect to gender or sex, which claim I disagree with; if the pronoun would be surprising in some circumstances, for reasons of sex or gender, then it carries those connotations everywhere.

A friend of mine has a three-year-old who is so cute that she looks like she walked out of an illustrated fairy tale. I met this three-year-old when she was one, and while she wasn't precisely awful to look at then, she was definitely less cute than she is now and less cute than the bunny. Another friend of mine has a new baby, and while this baby is unprecedented for me in the sense that I can identify her as looking like her parents, she is not as cute as the bunny.

Note that I do like holding and interacting with babies. They are small and warm and have itty-bitty fingers and toes to play with and soft hair to pet. But visually, bunnies win.