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.

Other hominids have been known to keep pets [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Ball]. I would not be surprised if cetaceans were capable of this as well, though it would obviously be more difficult to demonstrate.
Where is he from, if you don't mind my asking? The Jewish cultures in the United States that I'm familiar with are okay with pets.
Monroe, NY (though he is not a Hassid!) It's not that they have a strict prohibition on pets, more of a general disapproval from appeal to cleanliness. I don't know how the super-orthodox interpret the Torah on this matter.
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 [http://www.pinenet.com/~rooster/hasid2.html#HASID2-Q13] which discusses this in more detail.

"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.

"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.
I 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.
In 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).
0Rob Bensinger10y
Interesting, I wasn't aware of the German convention. It seems slightly better; formulations like '1st' (1 stands for 'fir'?) and '2nd' (2 stands for 'seco'?) and '3rd' (3 stands for 'thi'?) never made much sense.
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.)

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 Yudkowsky13y
Very compactly put. The data simply do not contradict the theory in the first place.
What does the hypothesis predict?
That organisms which don't have offspring that look like human babies will not experience the same things as cute as humans do.
I 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?
Another 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.
Yes. 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.
It 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)

Then 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?
Mine 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.
I think 'response-to-cute-stimuli' can be usefully defined on a behavioral level too. I suggest this definition: the animal is interested in the cute-animal, often despite being strangers; it spends time looking at it or touching it, plays with it or talks to it (depending on the animal's species-typical behavior). But it eventually forgets about it, leaves it behind (or allows it to depart), and does not protect or feed it - as it would an adopted baby. Doing these last things goes beyond "owww it's cute!" and constitutes parenting behavior. The question is - do animals reliably exhibit non-parenting behavior of the sort described above, and towards what patterns of other animals?
There are a number of stories of mammals 'adopting' babies of other species in zoos. Here's [http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_2242217.html] one example. There seem to have been some misleading emails including pictures related to this story but as far as I can tell it is true that there have been instances of both a pig raising tiger cubs and a tiger raising piglets.
I have to admit, I wouldn't have thought of this.
That 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.
Because 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.
I'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.
I rest my case.
I just knew someone would come up with something like this :-) indeed it looks cute. One could take it even a step further; look at the weird but cute-looking space aliens in this Moby video [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nas51x3ZQCg]. This actually supports the notion that cuteness is not necessarily proportional to the likeliness to humans or to our ancestors.
Yeah, it definitely isn't a perfect theory. It is obvious in the sense that it is the logical conclusion to come to if you held the Dennet theory and then had alicorn's evidence presented to you. The main thing is that there is no reason to think that the cuteness instinct is a product of recent evolution.
Do we know whether adult rabbits find baby rabbits cute? If not, that would count against the common ancestor hypothesis.
Do we know whether adult non-primate mammals find anything cute? What's a description of their behavior in such a case? So far I've only seen descriptions of animals adopting other-species young to raise. I think child-raising instincts are separate from cuteness responses, in other animals as well as in humans.
Do we know whether adult non-primate mammals find anything cute? Very occasionally [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1246886/Pictured-Three-cheetahs-spare-tiny-antelopes-life--play-instead.html]
And not for long. From the comments on the article you linked, the cheetahs happily ate the impala. Go to http://www.biosphoto.com/ [http://www.biosphoto.com/] and search for "cheetah AND impala". You'll find these photos as well as the ones from a few minutes later... Is your theory that cats playing with live food before killing it is, in general, an effect of the food's cuteness?
I believe that's a different sort of play, consisting of repeated chasing and catching.
Also in the comments, the assertion that the impala that was eaten was an adult eaten earlier. Once sated, the cheetahs were not interested in eating the younger impala.
True, it's not clear which is the complete account. At the very least, photos of some impala(s) being eaten and of this one being played with were seemingly taken in one session.
Good question. It didn't appear until here [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1nwb]. The obvious answer is that cuteness does in fact serve purposes distinct from making people nurture every baby they come across.
I don't get it. This other purpose is nutritive?
Maintaining a food source until a better time to eat it seems like a somewhat better reason to find bunnies cute than because they look like babies. Particularly because eating or at least killing other people's babies is a strategy that some of our near primate relatives use. Significant evidence could persuade me but I'm just not seeing it.
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?
That'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!
Your comment made me wonder about the dietary availability [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_iron_metabolism] of rust [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rust], which seems rather low - the paperclip might not even be useful then!
Hrm... 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?
Maybe. It depends. The precise function our cuteness response had for ancestors might be fulfilled by some other feature or perhaps the ancestral environment didn't select individuals that way. Or maybe the cuteness criteria did evolve a little... just not has fast as our physical features did. Actually, I think we should expect it to evolve slower than our physical features just because plenty less-cute individuals will survive.
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!
They may have. Just not as much. I don't think the reason modern humans take care of their children is just about how cute they are. We've developed additional instincts to encourage child rearing (cultural pressure, some more specialized attachments that individual parents have with just their children and not with other cute things). This is what I mean by the function being fulfilled by another feature. This isn't evidence of anything in particular but cuteness feels sort of cognitively primitive, doesn't it? Like fear? I don't know if associating qualia like that is a permissible inference. I've actually ranked this hypothesis third behind "Babies are cuter after all." and "Coincidental superstimulus".
It's not much of a coincidence if most mammals have similar parental care-inducing cues - including big eyes. Nor is it a coincidence that baby rabbits exhibit such infantile traits more than human children do - this post deliberately chose rabbits as an example because they have cute babies. I rate all this as not adding up to a coincidence at all.
"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?
That instincts are orders of magnitude slower to evolve than physical attributes at the scale of 'people and bunnies'.
The 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?
If attraction instincts (cuteness or sexual) evolve much more slowly than physical attributes, then shouldn't supermodels be chimpier than they are?
Is '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.
This 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.
Not 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.)
Yes. But there is no reason to think the cuteness attraction instinct and the sexual attraction instinct evolve at the same rate or even at a rate of the same order of magnitude. Finding offspring less cute than your ancestors did is far less likely to lead to genetic death than failing to mate with those with the best traits. That seems obvious to me anyway, I could be wrong.
That lots of other animals should share our opinions about cuteness.
How about, the closer something is to human, the more cute? Since there will be 2 million years of pressure honing 'cuteness' to primate needs, and counteracting the x million years of pressure about rabbits.
In that case the fact that other animals are often much cuter than humans completely refutes the theory.
It sure does.
Not if the the cuteness effect was overwhelmed by selection for other traits. That is the part I added on edit. It might be that we're still working with the cuteness criteria of rabbit-like ancestors.
'other trait'? Unless you have a specific other factor in mind, it's just a fully general counterargument [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Fully_general_counterargument]. (I nullify your other traits with other-other traits!)
Huh? The traits in us that make babies less cute than bunnies. Hairlessness appears to be a popular example (most people think furry things are cute), there may be more. Maybe baby eyes are smaller relative to their head than bunnies because of selection for larger brains. It is true that you can't disprove the hypothesis by finding trait that makes bunnies cuter than babies that I haven't thought of. The argument is general in that sense. But we can evaluate the hypothesis in the case of each trait. Name a trait and then we can see if our explanation of that trait is the kind of thing that would be selected for over cuteness.
Why would our cuteness criteria have not changed to reflect baby traits (like small eyes which are selected for on non-cute grounds)?
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 criteria don't matter that much unless one has a baby. I've heard enough reports of (and had some first hand experience with) people that didn't care much about babies before they had them, but then had a “revelatory” experience once they met them. This suggests there's a separate effect (pheromones, hormones, whatever) that makes up for whatever inefficiency in human cuteness criteria, but that mostly activates just when it matters. This would also reduce the evolutionary pressure for any “general” cuteness criteria adjustment. Note also that our “badly adjusted” criteria were not a big deal (in the sense of decreasing reproductive fitness) during most of human evolution. Animals tend to hide their young and protect them, so encountering a cute puppy or kitty would have been a rare occasion for almost all people.
A bad one; it's something like 2 million years back to our LCA with our nearest primate relatives, and I wouldn't want to guess how many tens of millions back to our last common ancestor with the rabbits. What deep structure would be blocking decamillions of years of pressure? Again, you can hypothesize all sorts of outside reasons but without any specific reason... Everyone deals with babies at some point, from evolution's perspective. You are a baby, you interact with babies, you have babies, you raise babies, etc. Mothers may be a good target for a massive dose of brainwashing hormones & chemicals (lord knows they'll need it), but a love of babies and cuteness is valuable for dads as well (where there is no convenient set of biological triggers like giving birth) and other relatives. The domestication of dogs could have begun as long ago as ~100,000 years; and even so, this is just an argument for weak pressures.
I agree with most of this, but I think it's not countering what I was trying to argue: With regards to a certain individual's reproductive fitness, the “precision” of that individual's cuteness criteria is not that important. The actual reproductive advantage is in caring for one's young, thus raising the probability of perpetuating one's genes further. Thus, even a not-very-well calibrated “cuteness” factor might not be very important (in the sense of not causing much selective pressure) as long as something else causes the individual to actually care for zer young. In this case I (weakly) conjecture that the “something else” is a mechanism that “focuses” the “cuteness evaluation” on one's young. As an analogy, consider a myopic species. Selective pressure might be expected to cause it to develop better vision, to help it avoid predators and find food. However, if the same species happens to have, e.g., good (not dog-like, only good enough) smell — which brings it close enough to food for its myopic vision to work, and keeps it far enough from predators to not need eyes for defense, the selective pressure can be very diminished. Consider vision: it is an extremely old feature, so it had ample time to evolve. In fact, I'm told it evolved separately several times on Earth. All current vertebrates come from a common ancestor, which as far as I can determine had eyes. However, their vision acuity varies greatly, even in species that share a habitat. Better vision is always an advantage wherever there is light, but it's obvious from the world around us that the selective pressure exerted by that advantage is often not enough to cause evolution (sometimes, the reverse happens). -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Hmm, I just had another thought, reading your comment about “[a] deep structure” blocking selection: It's not blocking as much as making irrelevant. It may be that we're just wrong. It's possible that the “cuten
What komponisto said. Also, we should expect to find an extremely adorable common ancestor. This would also explain the tendency to associate fuzziness with cuteness.
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 conversion than more recent species. Instead the cutest species should be one with both long time to evolve to meet maximum cuteness and few evolutionary constraints that limit cuteness.
All that is right. But if indeed bunnies are cuter than babies it suggests that the ancestor you describe is a common one. It would be surprising if the ancestors of bunnies had diverged from this cuteness pattern and then returned to it (especially since we seem to think that the more dependent variable is our psychological reaction not the physical features that we call "cute". Thus the prediction.
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 cuteness originator have the same cuteness ideal, and many of them have even cuter babies, because greater cuteness is advantageous and they had more time to evolve it. If the cuteness ideal is hard to change there is no reason to think that it was a perfect match originally. On the other hand, if the cuteness ideal is easy to change there is no particular reason to think that we still retain the original ideal.
All of this assumes that cuteness sensing and cuteness causing features are being selected for over other traits. But part of the original comment was that they weren't- that for human's cuteness is as much a legacy as anything else.
It only assumes that they weren't much more strongly selected for originally than they are now, lack of selection is just a special case of cuteness matching being hard. You wouldn't expect there to have been a perfect match between cuteness sensing and cuteness causing features unless it had been selected for, so expecting the commom ancestor to be exceptionally cute implies sufficiently strong selection then, but not now or in between.

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?

That 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.
Yes, but evolution is stupid, so our sexual instincts are not very well-aimed. Rather, like much else of cognition, they are a bunch of hacks thrown together, which then require arbitrary patches like a cuteness response to solve problems like parental care. (Compare: if our decisionmaking were perfect, we should have accurate agency detection rather than hyperactive agency detection; if we could control our nonverbals well enough, we should have accurate rather than inflated estimates of our own attractiveness.) Another consideration is parent-offspring conflict, which predicts that babies try to extract more care out of their parents than is optimal for the parents, perhaps enough of a difference to account for your surprise.
But that wouldn't work as well. I, as a human, would like to be that way; it would still reduce my genetic fitness.
In terms of genetic interests this should reduce to male-female conflict, like birth weight, yes?
Not sure. They seem very much related, but the rationale for parent-offspring conflict applies equally well to parents of either sex (any unit of parental investment gives the child twice the benefit that it gives the parent because the child has only 50% of the parent's genes). See the original POC paper here [https://dl.dropbox.com/u/13100539/ht/3881986.pdf], and a paper on genomic imprinting (also by Trivers) here [http://www.kapshow.com/secret/Trivers98_2.pdf].
There is not necessarily a contradiction between asserting that an instinct is "well aimed" and observing that it is a "bunch of hacks thrown together." Because phrases like "well aimed" are really a kind of shorthand for talking about effects not intent. Thus, nobody would claim that a "selfish gene" really has feelings of selfishness. Sure, and if the combination of instincts work reasonably well together, it's not necessarily a problem that the cuteness reaction reacts stronger to bunny rabbits.

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.

At the risk of doing another evo-psych just so story: Before you have reproduced putting any effort into helping babies diverts resources you could use for your own gains. Whereas after you've reproduced you need to keep your babies alive to pass on your genes. The increased affection for other peoples babies could be a side effect, or it might be beneficial in group environments where child care is shared.
I note that cuteoverload.com [http://cuteoverload.com] has no babies on it, as far as I can tell. Cats, dogs, and little balls of feathery fuzz, but no babies.
Upvoted because of the edit. But don't make this a top-level post, please.
I think this reaction is strongly affected by your current hormone levels (whether you're male or female). Your reactions to baby-cuteness changes depending on genetics, age, menstrual cycle and other hormonal reasons... long-term or short-term.

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.

Advice: get a camera that focuses quickly (most point-and-shoots and all smartphones don't), can shoot in bursts, and has or can take bright lenses.
My dad has a shoot-in-bursts feature on his phone which seems neat but I barely use my phone enough to justify having it, let alone replacing it. We've gotten some irregular good photographs of him (one person who sometimes comes over to help is particularly good at this).
Taking pictures of kids is a technically demanding thing. If you want good images consistently, you'll have to buy an actual photo camera :-/
I would first have to get steadier hands.
No, you wouldn't. Cameras do anti-shake (image stabilization) very very well these days. With certain cameras people get sharp images from multi-second (!) hand-held exposures. For kids, the subject movement will be the determining factor, your hands can shake all they want.
Making explicit something implicit in Lumifer's comment: children move a lot and image stabilization won't do anything about that[1], so with an image-stabilized camera (and perhaps even without) the only way to avoid motion blur is to reduce the exposure time. This in turn requires you to get more photons to the sensor per unit time, which requires a physically larger camera. Smartphone cameras are incredibly impressive these days given the constraints they work under, but a good "real" camera can take in a whole lot more light than the camera in any phone, which will mean shorter exposures and hence sharper kid pictures. [1] Though, hmm, I wonder whether it would be possible to make a camera that identifies subjects and how they're moving -- this is already done for autofocus -- and then uses the image stabilization machinery to keep the subject as motionless as possible in the image. That would be startling but isn't obviously impossible. (If the subject moves too much, obviously it's hopeless.) [EDITED to add: For the avoidance of doubt, I am 100% confident that Lumifer already knows all that, with the possible exception of the idea in the footnote, and 95% confident that you understood it all from what he said; this is for the sake of that last 5%.] [EDITED again to add:] Pretty sure the idea in the footnote isn't really workable. Autofocus tracks subject movement between photos. This would require watching within a single image capture, which implies either taking lots of short-exposure shots instead of a single longer one (implying more readout noise) or else having a separate sensor used only for this (but unless a lot of the light is getting diverted to that separate sensor it's going to be seeing super-noisy images which can't be good for its ability to track subjects). Also, this seems quite expensive computationally.
Yes, but there is one other way besides getting a bigger sensor -- get brigher lenses. One f-stop difference gives you twice as many photons. As to your idea, it might be more workable than you think :-) You are assuming an SLR and that's not the only choice nowadays. Mirrorless cameras have their sensor open all the time and read it continuously (plus some have specific autofocus sensels embedded into the main sensor). Besides, continuous AF already tries to predict the subject movement. It's not a big stretch to to apply it to IS as well. There is the issue of what to track, but tracking the eyes seems like a reasonable default and eye identification already exists in consumer cameras (it's used to maintain the focus on the eyes). The big issue is that IS is very limited in the magnitude of movement it can compensate for and for large shifts you will need to move the whole camera (using something like an autopanning tripod head that FOOMed). All in all, some kind of "subject movement compensation assist" seems technically possible. But at consumer level, probably not before Alicorn's kid grows up.
Oh yes, very much so. But the brighter lenses, again, require non-smartphone cameras. (Not necessarily SLRs, of course.) I wasn't, I promise. Open all the time, yes. Continuously, not so much so far as I know. The processing is separate from the sensor, and there's a readout process that amounts to capturing an image from light falling on the sensor during a given period.[1] Hmm, if readout and reset are separate (which I think they generally are) then I suppose you can capture shorter "subframes" without disturbing the capture of a longer frame within which they occur. That was an error on my part, but it wasn't the result of assuming an SLR camera. I still worry that getting the information needed would require very short (and therefore noisy) subframes, and that that would interfere with accurate tracking. But I haven't done the obvious experiments to see what the images would be likely to look like. I'm not sure why you're telling me this, since I already said exactly the same thing in the comment you were replying to, and the whole point of my proposal was to make use of the subject-motion-tracking already implemented for AF to enable the IS mechanism to compensate for subject motion. Yes, though of course that fails if the subject's eyes happen not to be in shot, or if the subject is something without eyes, or if they're too small in the image to track well (if this turns out to be feasible, bird photographers will love it -- though possibly birds move too fast). AF can do pretty well at tracking subjects even if they don't have visible eyes; I assume this system would use essentially the same techniques. (Track whatever high-contrast features happen to be visible in the right places, I guess.) Yes (that was my point about it being hopeless if the subject moves too much). But we're talking here (or at least I am) about movement within a single image-capture, and the point is simply to extend the range of acceptable exposure times. If a sharp image require
Cameras with an electronic viewfinder have to update it with a reasonable refresh rate, if the AF is set to continuous it's updated in real time as long you half-press the shutter button, exposure/histogram is also updated in real time. The issue is basically how high a frequency can it do. The key word is "predict". If you are confident of your prediction, you can do an exposure without measuring anything while it's in process. Well, there clearly would be a lot of trade-offs involved. An obvious one is that if you e.g. pan the sensor to keep the eyes sharp, all the motionless elements in the image would get smudged. That might work fine for a particular picture, but it is a specific look. They do now. The latest Olympus -- EM-1 Mark2 -- claims to do 5.5 stops just with body IS and if you add lens IS that it can talk to (not sure there are more lens that can do that besides the 12-100mm) it goes up to 6.5 stops.
Wow, okay, I guess that might be worth it. Spouse has a "nice camera" but I don't know if it does this.
also a little bit of photo taking posture helps a lot.

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.

I think people often observe that several month old babies are cuter than newborns, then again I think the same thing is true of many animals, for example, baby chicks.
Excellent observation. I was thinking the same thing.

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”.

Yes, and I would say finding bunnies cuter than human babies isn't a strong argument against Dennett's hypothesis. Supernormal Stimuli [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernormal_stimulus] 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.
Upvoted 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.
Bunnies exist in the ancestral environment. Finding them cute makes us less likely to hunt and eat them, and more likely to waste resources capturing and feeding them. It's possible we don't actually find them cute when we're used to hunting them, though.
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.
Bunnies 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."

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."

This 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.
I 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).
tl;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 [http://lesswrong.com/lw/np/disputing_definitions/], 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, you will be harvested and
Interesting. 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 [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWjjViJzfCU]. (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 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Translational_motion.gif] when they're hit particularly hard. What's the difference? The fact that I've done moshing [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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
I 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.
It 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.
Response: I have weak negative responses in all cases, inanimate objects included. The negative responses are stronger only in case of both old men. Ordering from the weakest to the strongest may be: plasma TV, sexiest person, shampoo, baby, hyena, bunny, creepy man, 90 years man. Few disclaimers: a) I am not a native English speaker, so my understanding of "cute" is probably non-standard. b) I have excluded cute boy/girl from classification, since I have no idea what I may imagine. (Maybe related to a.) c) TV set would score much higher if it were an old black and white model from 1960s. d) I feel a difference in severity of revealed incovenient truths. "You will be cooked" is certainly more harsh than "you will be a resource drain". e) It is difficult to answer, since my initial feelings rapidly change as I think about the situations longer. f) I don't see how relevant is this test to the OP.
My responses: negative emotional response for all the humans, except the baby. Especially negative responses for both the old men. Neutral for the TV, baby, bunny, hyena, and shampoo. Did people seriously feel defensive or protective of inanimate objects?

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.

This could have more to do with a reaction to you than to the object. There's no real motivation to love and protect a cute tiny salt shaker, but surely there's also no call to be or simulate being cruel to it. I mean, it can't hear you. If you address it and say nasty things to it, what are the possible motivations for that? Mightn't it make sense on some psychological level to object and work to prevent the outlet of nastiness due to its perceived meaning about and effects on you rather than the saltshaker?
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.
I 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.
I'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.
I 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.
That fails to explain them protecting the shaker (or the candy.)
Why are you mean to candies :( now I feel sorry too for the poor candies. You anthropomorphism their pain and it leaks into us and that makes us sad for their felt pain through empathy. I think anyway, not like I'm strong evidence.
What the hell--
Interesting. My empathy seems to be working in a weird way. (Will elaborate on this later.)
Report: No discernible response for anything except the creepy old man (minor positive emotional response). Note that I don't really have a conception of "cute" or "sexy," so disregard my responses for cute boy, cute girl, and sexiest person.
Let 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)

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.)

I'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.
Trying 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.
I'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.
0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 12y
Of course it's not JUST a sex thing. That would make no sense, either in evolutionary terms or in terms of actual evidence (there are a lot of very loving fathers in the world). But I suspect that when we're talking about random babies on the street, the tendency to go gaga over them is more than weakly a sex thing. I've met maybe 2 guys who do that, but maybe 25% of girls (this is a guesstimation). It probably varies more between individuals than between the genders, though. (Note: my mother tells me she also had a strong gaga-over-babies reflex when she was in her teens.) Have you EVER had a warm fuzzy feeling looking at babies? Also, do you spend a lot of time with children? Do you have warm fuzzy feelings for friends' and relatives' babies? I see the same children every week when teaching them swimming lessons, and it's probably the "making friends" part that makes me want to take them home at the end of the day.
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.
0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 12y
I guess I lump all of those in with "general tendency towards cuteness" since when I think "baby" I think of the whole experience: holding, feeding, changing, bouncing up and down, the first time they hold up their head, the first time you smile and they smile back... Visually, yeah, some bunnies can be cuter than some babies. If you had chosen different images, I might have agreed that the bunny was cuter. Agreed that in some ways, three-year-olds are cuter than one-year-olds. All babies look about the same (except to their parents) and although they're cute, from what I've their cuteness doesn't vary as much. Whereas some three-year-olds are walk-out-of-a-fairy-tale cute and some, well, aren't. (Again, except to their parents.) I'm going to stop commenting about babies now because the I-want-a-baby-now thing is a preoccupation of mine that I doubt many people on this site share. (Not to mention inconvenient in our current society that strongly penalizes teen mothers.)
If the teen mother comment implies that you yourself are a teenager, I'd be interested in your source for saying you're 'right at the age when, biologically speaking, I should be having kids'. I can't find stats on this because babies in general are one of the areas where internet searches create too much noise for easy research, but a friend who studied some social demography stuff once told me that fertility doesn't peak until the 20s. On the main topic, there's a big danger of generalising from one example: whether you find babies cute is likely to relate to a whole host of your personal experiences and feelings about babies as well as the instinctive cuteness response. But beyond that, I don't think there would be strong selective pressure against a cuteness response that also encompassed baby animals. Farmers don't seem to find the cuteness of lambs to be a barrier to killing them, after all. If I was making up just-so stories, I'd guess that cuteness serves to get attention, increase patience and prevent boredom during childcare, rather than to make us want to look after them. You could do some interesting studies on this, though. I wouldn't be surprised if some subconscious effects of cuteness responses (whether direct physical correlates or side effects on future actions etc.) would link more to bunnies, while people felt they should claim that babies are cuter.
3Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 12y
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. No doubt. But in general, I think a LOT of people (especially females) will have had the personal experiences that lead them to think babies are cute. And I wouldn't be surprised if mothers whose 'cuteness' instinctive response is lower would have more trouble raising children, no matter how good their intentions. (I have a very sad story about this, actually, but I'm saving it for a top-level post.) This reminds me of the area of qualitative research (in nursing, but you can do it anywhere I assume.) You go out and interview a whole bunch of people (mothers with babies in this case) and ask them a lot of questions about the emotions they feel surrounding their child and how their warm fuzzy feelings affect the way they care for your child. Then you compile the results, pick out common trends, and you have some empirical evidence to justify your just-so stories. (Assuming that baby-cuteness serves the same purpose now as it did during our evolution, which I think is safe.) As an aside, I really don't have much of a cuteness response to animals. I occasionally feel guilty eating meat because of a top-down moral belief that they have some form of consciousness and ability to feel pain, but on a purely emotional level I doubt I would have any trouble killing and eating a rabbit.
If 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,
One 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.
The '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.
2Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 12y
I 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.
You 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.)
Same 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.

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.

You'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.
It 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.
Has 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.
http://cuteoverload.com/tag/kittens/ [http://cuteoverload.com/tag/kittens/]
Hah, thanks. That made my day better.

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.

This just rephrases the question as "why are bunnies cute?"
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?
Here'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.
A human who locates some bunnies, considers them cute, and domesticates them, will ultimately get more bunny-meat with less effort than one who simply kills and eats bunnies on sight.
Then why aren't cows, sheep, horses, or even chickens nearly as cute as kittens and bunnies?
Baby sheep, horses, and chickens are very cute... cows not so much.
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.
It still seems like the dominant feature for cuteness is being a baby. An evolutionary explanation that did not explain that would be very strange.
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.'
What possible use can a foster-child ever be to a non-human parent? As for human adoptive parents, animal cuteness does not seem strongly correlated with usefulness. Apart from the few species we domesticate anyway, how are "most mammals" of any use to us?
http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_2242217.html [http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_2242217.html] If this happened in the wild, that momma pig would eventually have adult tigers ready to fight alongside her legitimate offspring, which could conceivably help to defend them from predators. At the same time, adopted tigers won't compete with the other piglets for root vegetables as a food supply. Combined-arms tactics, almost. "Most mammals" are made of meat; if all else fails, they're edible. "The few species we domesticate anyway" were low-hanging fruit in terms of suitability for domestication, 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.
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. Outside of the few ruminant species who can eat grass, almost all mammals compete with humans for food. Instead of feeding a growing pet for a year, and then making one large meal out of it, you could feed a growing human child for a year. Bad evolutionary tradeoff. The correct decision is to eat that mammal now. It's not a coincidence. But that doesn't mean we necessarily benefit from it in evolutionary terms. We just enjoy doing it. Those animals that are truly useful, I believe we would have (and in some cases did) domesticated, whether or not they were cute.
Unless 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.
Agree. 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.
These sentences seem extremely incongruous to me.
I predict-- in advance, even!-- that you are not a fan of Lord of the Rings.
...I liked the movies...
And I would like more information about Lothlorien's ecosystem. But the movies are epic, I admit.
You worshipper of feudal tyranny and racism!!
Yes, usually reading about sheep would be boring. But I suppose this book is so interesting because it exposes one to a world view that they wouldn't otherwise have known about, in very high relief -- and an important component of that world view was the importance of sheep.
Plausible. 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.
Martinmas (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. [http://www.witheridge-historical-archive.com/medieval-year.htm] Not exactly the environment we evolved for, but it's solid evidence of feasibility.
I don't doubt that slaughtering some tame animals in winter is a good strategy. But those come from self-sustaining, reproducing herds of tame animals. What I doubt is the viability of slaughtering all your animals and then taming new ones each spring, as you seemed to suggest.
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.
Thousands 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.
As 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.
I'm not really sure what you're arguing exactly. Would you agree that animals that are commonly domesticated (cows, sheep, pigs, dogs, cats, horses) have young that humans also find cute? It seems that the widespread domestication of these animals is partly because they are also useful, either as a direct food source or because they help find, hunt or protect a food source. Is your point that other animals also have young that humans find cute (baby seals spring to mind) but are less commonly domesticated and therefore usefulness rather than cuteness of young is the primary criteria that determined domestication? That may be true - hunting hawks are an example of an animal that has been partially domesticated (or at least trained) but isn't generally considered 'cute'. It is probably impossible to know the full story behind the domestication of animals but it seems at least plausible that humans first 'adopted' some animals partially because they were 'cute' and the utility was an unplanned benefit.
Yes, but not significantly more than the average young mammal is cute. The difference |P(Cute|Domesticated) - P(Cute)| is small and uninteresting. Yes, precisely. It's possible. There are also other models, where humans domesticated whole groups of animals gradually over many generations. For instance, people who followed herds of large grazing mammals around could have protected them from predators and very gradually tamed them by selection and by relaxation of predator pressure, perhaps over many generations of people as well as of cattle. In another case, it's said wild wolves or dogs may have come to live in human settlements and eaten scraps, or cats may have come in to hunt rodents in grain stores, and were only gradually domesticated. We can't know for sure, as you say. But at the very least, once humans had a general concept of domestication, they began trying to domesticate potentially useful animals, disregarding their cuteness or un-cuteness.
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).
Well there is no doubt why domesticated animals are cute and this holds true for rabbits. Alicorn's claim was that this holds true for non-domesticated rabbits as well.

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.

Then it fails again. People get attached to pets. They tend not to eat them, even if they're edible.
Not 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.

Yep. Even in Europe (well, in Italy at least) eating horse meat is not something unheard-of.
Is 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.
Taking a quick glance at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_the_domestic_dog [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_the_domestic_dog] , 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.
horse meat [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_meat] dog meat [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.
Thin slices of Mettwurst [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.)
What do "low fat" and "high quality" have to do with one another?
Point conceded; I wrote hastily. It does seem, though, that horse meat has quite favorable cholesterol values and an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
Well, yes, but it is a little nitpicking, isn't it? The point is that meat isn't the reason why most of the dogs and horses are and were kept.

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?

"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?"
But the originator of the explanation did have the second question in mind. From Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuteness]: Unfortunately Lorenz's original article is not available on the Internet, but I'm guessing that he was aware that some people find certain animals cuter than infants, but given the superstimulus and perhaps other explanations, did not consider it fatal to his theory.
Mortality among ancestral newborns were rampant so caring for them was probably of less marginal utility than caring for young children, I think.
My "cuteness sense" responds that way. I find young children (2 - 4 years old) much cuter than newborns. I don't think I'm alone in this.
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 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rabbit_1hr_old_gnangarra.jpg] are peculiar little blind wriggling things and are less cute than slightly older young animals. Newborn rabbits appear to be hairless.

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.

For people with cutoffs for low karma comments: Poll on relative cuteness of babies and bunnies [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1non] - karma balance [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1noo].
problem with the poll: the karma changes have left me several hundred karma points in the red to downvote anything.
That is a problem - indicate your opinion in a comment, and we'll hand-count it.

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)

Mammals 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.
Cuteness is not an universal trait, otherwise we would share this Vulture's mum's intuition. http://g1.globo.com/Noticias/Brasil/foto/0,,15345660-EX,00.jpg [http://g1.globo.com/Noticias/Brasil/foto/0,,15345660-EX,00.jpg] http://www.patuca.blogger.com.br/Cosan-005.jpg [http://www.patuca.blogger.com.br/Cosan-005.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.
What about the fact that most people here didn't find the bunny cuter than the baby? And that this is probably true in general?
I'm not sure that's been established. Doesn't this [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1non] say otherwise? Not if you believe (http://thecutest.info/top.html [http://thecutest.info/top.html])
Yikes. Didn't see the LW poll results. I just remember the initial comments on this discussion, where pretty much everyone was saying the baby is cuter, and getting modded up. Very, very strange.

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

We could just as easily imagine the selection bias having worked the other way (LessWrongers are hardly a representative sample and some have motivated reasons for choosing one way or another, especially having read through the thread), but you're of course right that, in any case, this sample isn't telling us much. I thought the baby was cuter... but why bother voting in a meaningless poll like this? (No offense :P)
People that find human infants cuter than rabbit, dog, or cat infants isn't a direct contradiction of the hypothesis, as humans would be particularly likely to find human infants cute (just as dogs are particularly likely to be protective and nurturing to puppies). The point is that animals with large litters are particularly likely to have cute infants other things (like degree of genetic closeness) equal, and that large litter animals would be sufficiently cute to overcome the fact that we're not related. Of course, domestic puppies and kittens have an advantage over wild animals, as much selection was based on human popularity. Thus, the question is whether you find say Infant Elephants [http://www.africanservalcatsafaris.com/images/animalorphanage1.jpg] as cute as infant (wild) rabbits or Wolf Puppies [http://www.firstpeople.us/pictures/wolves/1024x768/Wolf-puppy-near-den-Canada-1024x768.html].
The baby elephants I saw on safari recently were pretty cute [http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattnewport/4371733011/in/set-72157623346547389/]:
People that find human infants cuter than rabbit, dog, or cat infants isn't a direct contradiction of the hypothesis, as humans would be particularly likely to find human infants cute (just as dogs are particularly likely to be protective and nurturing to puppies). The point is that animals with large litters are particularly likely to have cute infants other things (like degree of genetic closeness) equal, and that large litter animals would be sufficiently cute to overcome the fact that we're not related. Of course, domestic puppies and kittens have an advantage over wild animals, as much selection was based on human popularity. Thus, the question is whether you find say Infant Elephants [http://www.africanservalcatsafaris.com/images/animalorphanage1.jpg] as cute as infant (wild) rabbits or Wolf Puppies [http://www.firstpeople.us/pictures/wolves/1024x768/Wolf-puppy-near-den-Canada-1024x768.html].
I find the bunny cuter than any human baby I ever seen, and I believe that the majority of people will share the same feeling, but our opinions are aneddotical and do not constitute scientific proof. What we need is to take a statistically unbiased sample of people and asking who is cuter between the two, eliminating in this way the random influences (positive or negative) on the istinctive cuteness reaction caused by cultural bias or personal experiences, because those should be distributed equally and then cancelling each other, while the genetic bias should emerge as the dominant result being shared by all the people in the sample. Maybe someone will do a study about cuteness in the future, corroborating my theory or falsifing it. But the point is that there is nothing "unscientific" about evolutionary psychology. It's a science, and it's the best model of the human psychology ever developed.
Huh? More people who bothered to vote [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1non] found the bunny cuter.

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.

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 LessWrong.com 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)

I'm sure there is an evolutionary explanation for cuteness. I just don't think it's this one.
Hmmm.... Dennett's explanation sounds just like what my Ev. Psych prof described. I'll ask her about it on Thurs.
I'd love to hear what a pro has to say about bunnies and why they're cute! Please let us know :)
@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 cases. However, during times when there is enough food it is likely that finding your baby cute is evolutionarily advantageous. Not all animal responses are fixed or rigid behavior to outside stimuli- some responses vary dramatically as a function of the internal states of the animal.

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.

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.

I wouldn't use "superstimulus" to describe a bunny being merely cuter than a baby, but I would for a cuckoo [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reed_warbler_cuckoo.jpg] 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.
It'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 Yudkowsky13y
How does the same cuckoo manage to be attractive to so many host birds?
If so, then it also doesn't significantly harm humans to see animals as cute (since it doesn't make us give up a source of food). If this is so, then a much weaker justification might be accepted for the source of cuteness, perhaps as weak as "side effect of phenotypically unrelated evolution".
Can'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.
There isn't strong evidence of this. ~Bird Dork.
Good to know. Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brood_parasite#.22Mafia_hypothesis.22] calls one particular paper "rather convincing" -- is it on crack in this instance?
I saw that hypothesis [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brood_parasite#.22Mafia_hypothesis.22] when I was looking for the picture, but it doesn't apply to the particular picture, where the cuckoo is the only chick in the nest, in fact, too big for even the mother to perch on the rim. That was way beyond the pictures I'd seen before, where the cuckoo is merely bigger than the mother. Actually, the picture doesn't make sense me: how can the mother provide enough food for this gigantic chick, much bigger than her whole brood?
Maybe that's not the mother. Some birds will feed cuckoos in nests not their own.
That's pretty crazy! I'd like a cite. That seems like pretty strong evidence for the superstimulus hypothesis. Do they also feed chicks of their own species in other nests? Is it just philanderers? otherwise, it sounds like pretty poor fitness.
I just recall reading it somewhere, sorry. It could easily be wrong. (I did find something talking about a goose feeding a bunch of fish, though.)
Given 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?
Lots 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.
This doesn't rule out the baby hypothesis (although I don't accept it as the best one, myself). The important thing is that we do consider babies somewhat cute. By the hypothesis, if babies weren't cute at all (if everyone recognized how ugly they are), adults would care for them less. If true, this would be a beneficial instinct despite the attention wasted on cute animals. Since evolutionary adaptations are selected from chance mutations to begin with, it's not unreasonable for one to have mildly negative side effects. Can someone weigh in on how numerically probable it is that evolution hadn't improved this instinct further, to only work on babies, if we assume it has existed for X millions of years? We need hard numbers...
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.
I 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 [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1nt3].) 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 Yudkowsky13y
Unless 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?
Now this is an explanation I can accept as at least remotely plausible without doing mental gymnastics!
Probably not. I don't have strong opinion if babies are above or below 0-cuteness level, it seems to vary from person to person - but they're definitely below mammal average baby cuteness.
Personally I agree, but many people report that they find babies cute. It's not universal.
That 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.

It's not 1 of 5000 species of mammals which is cuter than human babies - it seems like most of them are.
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.
Well, "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.
The cost of a mistake may be lower in the case of cuteness than sexiness. Indeed, sexual arousal is comparatively difficult to trigger, even by members of the actual target group: most humans don't find most humans of the opposite sex very attractive, while they may find most babies somewhat cute.
"May" be. I don't see this as being demonstrated. I prefer explanations like Eliezer's that show greater selection pressure - there's a whole range of explicit sexual selection, but no real selection on other species for cuteness. Here's another explanation: other species don't benefit from being cute-to-humans, so they don't spend their time trying to cheat humans into perceiving them as cute. But humans are deliberately trying to be sexually attractive and are very good at taking advantage of any weak points in our sexual heuristics. Therefore our heuristics evolved to eliminate false positives.
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.
If I had a list of species-weighted random pictures of mammals, I would take the bet that random mammal baby is cuter than human baby.
Where 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".

That 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.
Oh, it's absolutely possible -- this I why couched the phrasing in terms of "typically" and "tend to". And, well, votes are noisy. If I had to ascribe a reason, it would be definitional -- superstimulus could be used to just mean "trigger the adaptation more than what the adaptation was for", which need not imply any significant harm, or it could be used to mean "will trigger the adaptation to such a strong extent, that it does cause harm, either by inappropriate behavior to the stimulus, or disrupting appropriate behavior to the stimulus it was adapted for." I think the latter definition is more useful, though I admit that the examples I've tried to find for excluding based on it (finding patterns in randomness, finding faces in car grills) also didn't trigger more than the usual stimulus, so would have been excluded from the first definition as well.
-5Eliezer Yudkowsky13y
The editing (choice of

This is far cuter than all of them put together.

But how do you feel about these [http://www.leithpetwerks.com/Cat_images/BQ100.jpg]?
Those 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 Yudkowsky13y
What sort of nurturing behavior do you feel compelled to exhibit toward paperclips? Now I'm curious.
Well, 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!
Cuteness actually disgusts me a little, and I find the baby more off-putting than the rabbit, so I guess I think the baby cuter too.
Cuteness disgusts me a little too. (I wrote this comment [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1nxh] 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.
I am lacking in empathy, but I'm nowhere near charismatic or confident enough to be a psychopath. In fact I lack empathy to the point where it would be nearly impossible for me to manipulate other people: I can't figure them out well enough to push their buttons. I possess a few cognitive traits associated with autism, though most likely not enough to be formally diagnosed as autistic.
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?
As 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.
I have never heard of autistics having difficulty making eye contact with animals...
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 Yudkowsky13y
Citation 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 Yudkowsky13y
Thank 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"?)
Yes. This was why I qualified the initial claim with "fairly". Perhaps it should have been qualified further.
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.
Alright, this + the sensitivity of the subject lead men to edit the original comment. Th
Indeed, 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".
Here's a single data point -- a sociopath that does have a cuteness response. http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/988bl/i_am_a_sociopath_unable_to_feel_guilt_ama/c0l0j3u?context=3 [http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/988bl/i_am_a_sociopath_unable_to_feel_guilt_ama/c0l0j3u?context=3]
Interesting AMA. No reason to think he is a psychopath though.
Sorry, I was thinking that psychopath was an out of date term for sociopath, but apparently it is a non-DSM diagnosis for a particularly extreme, predatory type of sociopath.
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).
Wikipedia redirects "sociopathy" to "psychopathy" [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociopathy].

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.

I'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.)

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

Maybe 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.

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)

The site includes the cutest images [http://thecutest.info/top.html]. 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 Yudkowsky13y
It 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.
What would be even more interesting would be to do a time-series. When do human infants have peak cuteness?
As 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.
My baby boy was at or near the top of all the images for cuteness for about 1 year. Or I would have said so at the time.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky13y
Also, 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?
"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 Yudkowsky13y
I 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.
I apologize to all for making such a big issue about the typo. (I removed the flamebaitish part of my earlier comment.)
For 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.)
Exactly the interpretation my brain had. Until, of course, Alicorn told me she is named for the horn of a unicorn.
Obligatory wiki link [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alicorn]. It isn't the most reputable wiki link.
Yeah, "unicorn" would be a much better slip-up to make in terms of what the name actually means than "Allison".
Her real name is Carmen Sandiego.
It can't be, because I'm willing to reveal my location relative to the Earth.
True, but you haven't revealed your temporal location relative to me.
I am at the same time as you, moving in the same direction at the same speed, barring relativistic complications that are unlikely to be significant.
Yes, but how do I know you're telling the truth? Carmen Sandiego is purported to be very devious.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky13y
Well, but she wouldn't outright lie, would she?
Honestly, I'm sufficiently young not to know about the non-trivial characteristics of Carmen Sandiego.
We have? I'd assumed it was just habit =)
There are multiple reasons at work, but that's one of them, yes.
There is no user named Allison. [rest of post deleted]
Actually, I don't particularly know/recall Alicorn's real name, and that's a common mistake I have to correct whenever I write it - my brain seems to substitute the cache.
My name is not "Allison". "Alicorn" is not my real name, related to my real name, derived from my real name, or otherwise similar to my real name. And Eliezer has not met me in person yet, although he may have heard my real name from SIAI-house-inhabiting people, all of whom know it (though many call me Alicorn anyway).
Looking through those pictures, I get cuted-out, and want to go find that site about bunny suicides [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1nur].
I think that may have the effect of crosswiring with the funniness [http://thefunniest.info/] 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.
Mothers praise and fuss over human babies that cutely imitate adults. It seems like good training for a critter that's going to grow mirror neurons and a sense of empathy.

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 ![](http://www.blabla.com/picutre.jpg) . 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.

As an Internet forum grows older, the probability of a thread devoted to posting pictures of cute kittens approaches one. ;)
I will bet 500 karma (1:1, terms fully negotiable) that there will be a "funny picture" thread within one year.
6Paul Crowley13y
Not fair, there's no way we could compete with the chipmunkula.
You guys are no fun! :(

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)

I 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.
You're right - I should've said "selected" instead of "bred" - they became cuter under selection pressure from humans.
Saying dogs bred themselves implies a motive rather than an evolutionary selection bias. Humans do consciously breed dogs, while cuter dogs merely happened to be more successful around humans. Notably, it is in the human interaction that the dogs' cuteness is helpful, whoever it ends up being helpful to.
This 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?

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

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).

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?

That'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.
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. So for me, the real conundrum is fur. As far as I can tell. But I admit that this is based on introspection and I'm assuming that my own cuteness standard is somewhat universal.
Same here. 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.
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. Over a long time, this arguably should have a big impact.
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've been harder. When you couple those facts with social norms towards reproducing, people failing to mate or take care of their kids due to being distracted by cute animals seems less and less likely.
Well dogs have been domesticated throughout history, as far as I know. So it seems to me that in the last 10 or 20k years there would have been decent opportunities for a lot of people to be distracted by cute puppies. Obviously before that there aren't any records. But it seems to me that if humans interacted with other animals on a regular basis -- hunting, watering holes, etc., then it must have happened occasionally that they would interact with a baby animal from another species. Perhaps the hunger instinct can be relied upon to steer one straight in such a situation.
Actually the fur thing makes some sense if you consider that being born furry was pretty common not that far in the past. Most hispanic babies today are born furry around the head area, and shed it over the first few weeks. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanugo [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanugo]

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)

This 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?
Baby cats and dogs also might not be dangerous, but might be dangerous to mess with as well. If more trustworthy strangers have cuter babies, does this mean that all animals are more trustworthy than people?
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.
It can't just be harmlessness-- all sorts of things (like pencils) are harmless but not cute.
Possibly I want to limit my hypothesis to life-forms, thank you for the feedback.
There are cute inanimate objects. Tiny ones. I have adorable polyhedral dice, which I acquired by squealing over them so much that their prior owner thought I should just keep them.
Ah, finally we have a hypothesis on the benefits to humans of the general cuteness instinct!
I have acquired multiple possessions by expressing sincere admiration of them; cuteness was only a factor of said admiration in the one case.
You can kill someone with a pencil.
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.
The cute=harmless hypothesis would predict that writing utensils of equal size that are more difficult to kill or harm with, say a brush or a crayon, are cuter. And also that soap bubbles are cuter than most other lifeless objects.
I'm sure you could contrive a way to kill someone with a bunny.
Contrived ways for bunnies to kill themselves: http://www.jimmyr.com/blog/Bunny_Suicide_Comic_Pics_226_2007.php [http://www.jimmyr.com/blog/Bunny_Suicide_Comic_Pics_226_2007.php]
Certainly. I can imagine several contrived ways how to use a bunny as a weapon, while I don't know how to kill someone with a soap bubble. Still, bunny is cuter.
Fill the soap bubble with a toxic gas.
Cats 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.
Cats 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 [http://www.crainium.net/jdjArchives/LionKiss.jpg], and that stops registering as cute at all when I consider the chance that that lion could have mauled her.
I 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.
That's how I parsed the original comment's 'threat levels' - it's not that we're hardwired to see certain things as nonthreatening and thus cute; the perception of threat is learned or situational, and cuteness is the opposite perception, and thus also learned or situational. (I'd want to play with big cats in that situation, too. Have you seen the videos of the guy who does [http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=lion+whisperer&search_type=&aq=f]? They're adorable.)

These babies are soooo much cuter than your bunny.

The 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.
I don't know. I just looked at some bunny videos. Cute. But those babies are way more adorable.
There's a selection effect - people take more videos of babies than they do of bunnies. That allows higher variance and better-quality high-end videos.
Fair enough. But the rest of our evidence consists of two pictures you selected! The selection bias potential there is way worse.
You have my word that the baby was the cutest baby in the first several pages of results for "cute baby" on a Google image search by my own lights, and the bunny was just the cutest bunny I happened to have on my hard drive. Edit: Actually, I did reject one cuter baby because the picture was watermarked.
How long have you been collecting pictures of cute bunnies on your hard drive? :-) Scratch that. The same picture is also first in google hits for "cute bunny" Still, perhaps a larger data set makes sense.
I don't know how long I've been doing it, but my "Lagomorpha" folder contains 14 images.
Hrm... that at least brings up a possibility... Any chance that there's much higher variance in the appearance of baby bunnies than in baby humans? In that case "find the cutest" rather than "find average" might go rather farther with bunnies than humans.
Well, there was a supposed ~10000 humans bottleneck [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_catastrophe_theory], not too far ago, evolutionarily speaking, so humans really do have less variance than many species.
Probably not variance that's easily detectable to humans.
Why do people take more videos of babies than bunnies? Could it be because babies are cuter?

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.

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.
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.
I 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.

Catgirls 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.

What does a female tentacle monster look like, anyway? And do they like human males?
I think that's a different meaning of "cute".
Do you think the two meanings of cute are mutally exclusive? In me they're mutually reinforcing, at least some of the time.
I was mainly being cheeky, but I don't think I have ever experienced them at the same time.

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]10y 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.

Interesting question. I've met people that straight-up didn't get the cutes from human babies but did respond to baby animals, though, and I can't think of any for whom the reverse is true; n=1, but this is still somewhat surprising to me. I can think of some sketchy evopsych reasons why this might be true without scrubbing the infantilism hypothesis -- perhaps a lot of the human cuteness response got wired in at an evolutionary stage when proto-human infants had fur. But I can also think of a number of countervailing points; baby chimpanzees [http://photosof.org/view/baby_chimpanzee_on_tree-wide.html] are cute, for example, but there are cuter animals. Perhaps a simpler explanation is that certain animals serve purely by happenstance as superstimuli for the human cute response, but as a species we're sufficiently willing to kill and eat cute things that this didn't have any significant survival effects. This requires that there be things other than the cuteness response protecting human infants, but that seems obviously true to me. (I maintain, however, that jumping spiders [http://www.discoverwildlife.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/800px_530px/gallery/apache_jumping_spider_web.jpg] are objectively adorable.)
Thinking about the sheer number of animals in different phyles who provide dedicated parental care for at least some portion of the offspring's life, it seems to me like the "cute response protects baby" explanation may be putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. There are poison dart frogs who make damn devoted daddies (housing their tadpoles in little pools of water that form in bromeliad leaves, maintaining the condition of the water, and begging for passing females to lay an unfertilized egg so baby can eat it); there are primates who kick the young out fairly early; octopus mothers stop eating altogether (even though they're still capable of it physiologically) and just guard their eggs until they die. Sure, if we want to squee over a helpless baby it WOULD probably improve that baby's survival chances, but I rather suspect that devoted infant care is not a good single-factor explanation here. Moths [http://26.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ljb3z9T15h1qge2x0o1_500.jpg] too! [http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_marwizVSXS1rnuapfo1_500.jpg]
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 seem to be a serious dearth of competing hypotheses, and the evidence is certainly suggestive: the combination of small body size, a rounded body and head of large size relative to limbs, big eyes, soft features, playful behavior etc. all seem like they add up to a pretty good match. It also seems to be a culturally universal phenomenon, and those are quite rare. Alicorn's point about cuteness giving us an unusual number of false positives relative to (say) sexiness is well taken, but I'm not sure how strong it actually is; superstimuli [http://itscalledstylebaby.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/jessicarabbit.jpg] for [http://tealgeezus.deviantart.com/art/xxxHolic-Watanuki-178280942] sexiness [http://dualshockers.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/bayonetta-21.jpg] that don't match real human phenotypes are definitely out there. Sexual selection's also under intense pressure relative to most other evolutionary cues, which might imply a need for our instincts in that area to be more accurate, although it seems (to my non-biologist self) like childrearing should be in the same ballpark.
Superstimuli for sexiness are like superstimuli for taste: take the reproductively best things in the ancestral environment, and exaggerate their characteristics outside of what was found there. For example, prominent sexual characteristics are sexy; Escher girls made mostly of breasts and buttocks are therefore sexier. Watanuki is such an example; the gangliness and androgyny are are but possible, the legs and facial structure are exaggerated but not that far from realistic equivalents. Also, are many people sincerely attracted to Jessica Rabbit? It seems to me like she only represents sexiness, like we immediately understand a stick figure in a skirt to mean "woman".

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).

One argument for "evolved trait" is cross-cultural consistency. Thus, if just about every culture (past or present) finds rabbits cute, that's some evidence that there's something in our inherent neurological processes that applies the label / emotional reaction "cute" to things that look like rabbits.
And do we have evidence of cross cultural consistency? I mean you can take the modern world as pretty much a single culture. Has anyone asked isolated pygmy tribes if they find animals cute?

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.

There'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 same...it'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.

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)

In 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.
All 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.
There is a name for that. The thing we mean when we say 'the child shares 50% of its genes with its father' when it actually shares nearly all of them. A word for the particular difference from the base gene pool that a genetic source gives. It fit perfectly but I just can't remember it. Any ideas?
No, "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

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)

I 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.

It'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.

One more possibility: our cuteness detector is simply our threat detector for animate objects with a minus sign. Bunnies are especially cute because we're especially confident that they can't hurt us. People who feel threatened by the responsibility that babies represent don't find them cute.

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.
May be something to that. Other animals have an innocence factor about them that humans lose pretty quickly for me. Especially by 2 years old or so, I start finding some human kid behavior more manipulative than cute.

If I don't eat the bunny, I'm sure to find something else to eat. If I eat the bunny, though, it's definitely not going to be alive anymore (attack of the zombie digested bunnies anyone?)

There isn't as much pressure on human evolution to avoid making cuteness mistakes, as there is on bunny evolution to be cute. If evolution were to move fast enough, and the cuteness complex would be hackable, it seems possible to me that things would evolve to hack it (and beat out babies at it).

What about domestication?

There may be two sides of the effect. First, sense of cuteness could lead people to keep domestic animals, and having domestic animals was an evolutionary advantage. Second, the way how animals lose their cuteness when they are older may be explained by our need to eat them later.

Or, alternatively, we can think that animal cuteness has evolved first when people domesticated dogs, which were one of the first domestic species, and has nothing to do with eating them later - rabbit cuteness being a side effect. Baby cuteness could be o... (read more)

Ahh, but it's a baby bunny. If cuteness is a baby-protector, it might have begun a long time ago, maybe even when we were on four legs and furry. It might not not have had time to catch up with our change into big skulled hairless monster apes.

... there are many decidedly wild animals that are also cuter than cute human babies.

Yup. I think that this is more similar to the human ancestors that needed to be cute in order to be taken care of than any modern infants are.

I though rabbits had to be cuter because more rabbits eat their children than do humans. They never stopped selecting for that.

Why would this make rabbits cuter to humans?
I'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.
The point is that cute is almost certainly a 2-place word [http://lesswrong.com/lw/ro/2place_and_1place_words/].
Why would how humans feel towards rabbits effect how likely they are to be eaten by their rabbit parents?
It wouldn't. That's supposed to be a side effect.
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. )
Rabbits are herbivores.
Eating one's offspring is an adaptive strategy at times of scarcity, especially for species at the r end of the selection spectrum [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R/K_selection_theory]. Of course, still more adaptive would be to eat the offspring of other, genetically-distant individuals, but for herbivores that is usually much harder to arrange.
But the baby rabbits just look so tasty [http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=rabbits+eat+their+young].

Having a pet is a reliable signal that you'd take care of children, maybe?

People with a preference for pet owners end up with children with a caring parent, creating selection for attraction to pet owners.

Then, once there's attraction to pet owners, there's sexual selection for pet ownership.

So, if finding animals cute makes you more likely to be a pet owner, it gets selected for.


  • We find specifically the animals that make good pets to be cute. Animals that are violent or hard to access we find less cute.
  • Pet owners that take good care of thei
... (read more)

It's really important to remember that there isn't an actual intelligence behind evolution. Finding your progeny cute and vulnerable is a huge evolutionary advantage. So specific traits are chosen for us to identify as 'young and vulnerable' markers. It makes sense that it's just a coincidence/side-effect that other young mammals have those same traits and we find them cute. Especially if those traits are exaggerated beyond what would be considered what is normal or healthy. (I mean look at those ungodly large dark eyes on that cute wittle wabbit - those w... (read more)

Does anyone know how to contact this blogger so I can correct em on my gender?!

7Eliezer Yudkowsky13y
Hey, Alicorn, look what I found! http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2010/02/why_bunnies_are_cuter_than_bab.php [http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2010/02/why_bunnies_are_cuter_than_bab.php]
On it [http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2010/02/why_bunnies_are_cuter_than_bab.php#comment-2304168]!
Go go feminism police!
Thank you!
Why 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 Crowley13y
The blog post is of independent interest aside from the gender mixup.
Ah, thanks. I guess my brain was so primed to think about the gender mixup that I missed the obvious.
I 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 Yudkowsky13y
Er... 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 Crowley13y
While 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.
Perhaps you should at least stop exhibiting it so amusingly. Lately it's sounded like something out of Peanuts.

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?

Agreed, 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".
What would be a clear, non-amusing, ideally empathy-inspiring expression of frustration?
A :( 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.

I 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.
I 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 ?
Only if you are unable to actually look and check the color. Which was Alicorn's whole point.
I'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 ?
I 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.
She mentioned that a simple google search would have done the job. Granted, the gender-inquiry step often bypasses one's consciousness completely, and it happened to me here and elsewhere on more than one occasion.
Actually a simple google search yields this: http://www.google.it/search?q=alicorn [http://www.google.it/search?q=alicorn] The first result is Wikipedia, the second and the third are My Little Pony stuff, and they even mention a male alicorn.
This 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".
"alicorn gender site:lesswrong.com" with the date restriction of before Feb 24 2010 (when she posted a question about correcting her gender in someone's blog) gives me a pretty unambiguous [http://lesswrong.com/lw/134/sayeth_the_girl/] second hit.
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.
You 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).
In 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.
I 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.
Angels 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.
In 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!"
This set of posts made my day.
It seems to be encouraged, not frowned upon. And offering your daughter and the wife of the intended (non-angelic) victim is super-righteous.
Um, no. [source [http://www.biblegateway.com/keyword/?search=angel&version1=31&searchtype=all&wholewordsonly=yes]]
“The sex of angels” is an Italian idiom for an irrelevant question, much like “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” is in English.
One 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.
...huh. Be right back. If anybody needs me, I'll be reevaluating everything I thought I knew about My Little Pony.
Hah, 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?"
Stabbing lions. And ill-informed hunters.
More like 89 black marbles, 8 white marbles, and 3 striped/grey/transparent/other-colour marbles [http://lesswrong.com/lw/8p4/2011_survey_results/]. But still, I don't usually use gendered pronouns unless I'm >95% sure of someone's gender (from the venue, their username, and what I've read by them so far).
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.
My 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 [http://lesswrong.com/lw/8p4/2011_survey_results/]), 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?
2Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 12y
I 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.
Alicorn: 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?
Out of curiosity, what markers do you associate with feminine writing?
Perhaps 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.
It'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.

I 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.
Writing 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.
Two 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:
The 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.
Well, 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.)
I'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 Yudkowsky12y
Numerous 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.
Aren'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.
Someone mentioned that his first name could be misread as Eliza.
I 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.
For 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.
This 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.
That just says ‘well educated and highly intelligent’ to me. Now, such people tend to be more commonly male than female, but given that someone posts on Less Wrong I don't think that writing style is further evidence for them being male.
I'm not sure which shadows which here. It doesn't seem like writing in this style will cause someone to post on LessWrong, while conversely it seems much more likely that someone who has been posting on LessWrong for a while will adopt this writing style. Thus, ISTM that the writing style overshadows posting-on-LessWrong more than the other way around. Given that I have the text itself, learning that it was posted on LessWrong I wouldn't infer much from it, since regardless of gender they aren't obviously more likely to write this way on LessWrong if they're a regular user, whilst if I only know that someone is posting on LessWrong then learning that they write in this manner also gives me all the other non-LessWrong writer data. Not sure if I'm really being clear. Basically, in my model the causal chain goes the other way around.
My priors before I started paying attention at all (i.e. before the first time it came up in a conversation I was part of, on the internet, that someone was uncomfortable / sad / whatever that they were being referred to as the wrong gender - which, for record, was a post-op man genetically female who still had a few culturally-programmed female-expected behaviors) were around about .4 female to .6 male for any random person I meet and discuss with on the Internet. Even that .4 seems rather high compared to the base stats I've seen since then for some populations, but there's apparently some factor which makes me more likely to engage and enjoy discussions and interactions over the web with women, for some reason I don't yet understand. However, since then, I've had to update downwards. Even with my abnormal encounter rates (e.g. meeting 30% women in communities that are 3% women overall), on average I still only expect and observe that I "befriend" (or otherwise engage and interact with more actively with) women only one in five times of such people, i.e. the other four are men. This if I only include so-called "normal" men and women, because I also end up meeting abnormally high numbers of transgenders, asexuals, queers, and other nonstandard genders. On top of that, out of the women that I do tend to interact with (which are already at less than 0.2 expected rate), only one in two cases I'll end up having to refer to them before their gender becomes "revealed" in some manner (sometimes because of an obvious nickname). Of the half where I do, nowadays I use gender-neutral format, but before I started doing so, only one in four (well, three out of thirteen to the best of my memory, in total) got slighted/offended/whatever that I used male pronouns. Which basically ends up with there being an approximately 2% expected probability that for any person I start interacting with I might use a male pronoun for a woman that will be affected by it, unless there is a hig
There 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.
He gets ignored for being mistaken for not being Joshua Zelinsky.
How 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. [ :( ]
I 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.)
There's a knockdown essay on this subject by Hofstadter: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html [http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html]
I'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.
I remember reading that article, and not being impressed. He lumps all the sexist talking points into one essay, and therefore it ends up looking like one big strawperson. He may have good points, but unfortunately his own essay undermines them.
My understanding is that the essay's effect is via the horror a reader feels at the alternate-world presented in the essay. It opens the reader's eyes somewhat to the degree that sexism is embedded in everyday grammar and idiom. My understanding is that it is not a persuasive essay in the usual sense. Please elaborate.
You may not count it but I dispute the 'simple' word.
So we should not stereotype people's geneder based on the fact that they post on geeky websites (stereotypically male) but we should stereotype people based on their association with unicorns (stereotypically female, supposedly)? (And why are unicorns supposed to be stereotypically girly? Horses are typically a symbol of strength and masculinity. So an horse with a large horn on its forehead, well...)
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 [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1p1/logical_rudeness/]".)
So do you maintain that it reasonably possible to infer Alicorn's gender by her nickname? If you do, please explain how this is not stereotyping. If you don't, I apologize for misunderstanding your remark.
To the extent that inferring that female gender is more likely from a feminine name is "stereotyping" then sure I endorse stereotyping [http://lesswrong.com/lw/e95/the_noncentral_fallacy_the_worst_argument_in_the/]. To answer the question again: You should "stereotype" (which you seem to be using to mean 'update in response to information') based on both. Social tact dictates that some care should be taken to avoid making mistakes. Getting pronouns wrong is embarrassing, particularly if someone is around to play offense [http://lesswrong.com/lw/13s/the_nature_of_offense/]. If you aren't sure it is safer to rephrase the sentence such that it doesn't rely on gendered pronouns.
If the nickname was obviously a femmine one, (e.g. 'Jane'), or even something more exotic but still recognizably femmine (e.g. 'Aerith [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AerithAndBob]') 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 culture). Wei Dai argues that offense is a response to a perceived threat to one own status. He also cautions about oversensitivity. It doesn't seem to me that getting a pronoun wrong because you didn't datamine the Internet for personal information just to get a pronoun right is an attack to someone status. True, you could use gender-neutral constructions. I'm not a native English speaker, but I suspect that many native speakers find constructions such as 'he or she', the epicene 'they' or paraphrases like 'this person' excessively artificial and unidiomatic for informal speech. After all, why should you assume that somebody over the Internet will be offended if you incorrectly guess the content of their pants? Isn't equality feminism all about not caring about what kind of genital organs people have got, except on issues directly related to these organs? If somebody posted a comment like: "Every woman knows that babies are cuter than rabbits. It's in our maternal instinct. This guy doen't know what he's talking about." then Alicorn could be reasonably offendend, since this comment would imply that she was defective as a woman and hence it would lower her status. But that's not what was posted. The poster actually liked the article, she (*) just got one pronoun wrong. (* the 'Sharon' signature and the remark about being a mother are definitely enough evid
Not 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.
I wasn't really sure how to word that sentence to strike the right emotional note (I've changed it a little, hopefully for the better). I think it's legitimate to argue "you should not make assumptions about gender until you have some actual evidence to go on. " I don't think it's legitimate to argue "my name relates to unicorns therefore you should assume I'm a girl." Either people associate the word alicorn with femininity or they don't. And since this issue has come up multiple times, apparently enough people don't make that association that it's an issue. I also don't think the world would be a better place if more people DID think Alicorn was a girly name. My favorite game is Robot Unicorn Attack. I've considered buying Invisible Pink Unicorn Merchandise [http://www.invisiblepinkunicorn.com/ipu/home.html]. 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.
Slavic 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).
And maidens are neutral. Which suggests to me that grammatical gender in German has much less to do with personal gender than it does in English.
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.
The "bridge" study was by Lera Boroditsky, as discussed here [http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html]. Her papers are available here [http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers/] - 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.
I mistook your gender as well, initially. In my defence, I had no idea what "Alicorn" meant, except that it sounded like "Unicorn". Unicorns are male more often than not, and the word "Unicorn" is male-gendered in my native language, which tipped my gender assignment all the way toward "male". My point is, the people who are mistaking your gender may not be making any assumptions about you. They may just be making assumptions about unicorns.
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.
Edit: this comment has been rewritten; please see wnoise's comment [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1off] 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 attempts to discover true genders (online, text-based roleplaying). In such environments, I've developed a severe lack of concern for the topic at large, and instead read what the person has to say and contribute without a gender filter. Many times, I don't even read the name of a poster except as a pattern that allows me to place the comment in context with those around it. Alicorn's focus on gender identity has, several times now, generated very large discussion threads and at least one top level post. I do not understand why this is accepted by the rest of the LW community as important and relevant to the topic of rationality.

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. http://lesswrong.com/lw/13j/of_exclusionary_speech_and_gender_politics/

Being non-anglo-saxon, I'm in a minority here. So you need to listen to me and keep me happy!!! You have to respect my opinions. Diversity is good. If you can't keep me happy, you're generally screwed as far as attracting (and subsequently not alienating) more non-anglo-saxons to this site.
Are you happy?
I 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.

Surely if the thread's grown unwieldy, that's not simply because Alicorn expressed her annoyance? There's a whole bunch of other people involved here, whose contribution matters even if it all stems off of one of her comments.
Questions 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.
As pointed out by Kevin [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1ofn], 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.
I 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 [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1p5/outside_view_as_conversationhalter/1ofy]
I would categorize it as 10 percent humor, 60 percent temporary interest in the vague threat implied by the "don't do this... or else" definition and why that context was appropriate when applied to the topic of contradiction, and 30 percent etymological interest, as I have "on pain of death" as the most-associated thought when hearing the phrase (Google agrees, with that as the top suggestion to complete "on pain of"), and was curious as to how the permutation may have originated. ETA: I disagree with the sentiment that contradiction is a negative, undesirable, or potentially painful event; instead, I view it as an opportunity to update maps, assuming that the contradiction is supported by the weight of the evidence.
"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".)
If 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.
I 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.
I 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 site:lesswrong.com 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.
Yes, 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.
I didn't downvote, but considering that many people are confused about gender identity, applying rationality to it seems a reasonable topic for posting here.
Pragmatically: It's important because the fact that this keeps coming up again and again suggests it's not going to go away just because it's annoying to many when it happens, and a mechanism to channel, redirect or settle the matter in the form of community norms hasn't yet been found. Meanwhile, there's clearly people who find it relevant, both to their participation in LW and not infrequently to life experiences that have bearing on what they can contribute to refining the art of rationality. Some of those people are major contributors here; some of them may still be lurking. Some of them haven't even found te site yet. A global norm that rejects the topic altogether seems like a great path to evaporative cooling in an area where LW has real potential for PR issues, and which may be a long-term impediment to its success. Restricting the topic to Discussion only (regardless of the potential quality of the post and ensuing discussion) or attempting to limit the length of threads directly seems like a bad idea. You can always downvote it if you don't want to see it.
I didn't downvote your comment; I think you actually make an interesting point. For me, it's not just that people obsess over issues of gender (and race, and sexual preference). It's that their gender (or race) sometimes becomes like the team they are on and (arguably) warps their views. For example, let's suppose you did a poll and asked people if they think women should have the right to vote. I'm pretty confident that the percentage which says "yes" would be higher among women than among men. So it seems likely that peoples' group membership colors their judgments.
How on earth did he get 'he' from 'Alicorn'?
8Eliezer Yudkowsky13y
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".

Sir Yvain, Knight of the Lion [http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/yvain.html].
that was interesting, and there was I thinking of alicorn as male and yvain as female, shuks..
Am 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.)
It's easy for me to see your name as Warriorgal.
I believe I was agnostic on the question, for one.
It 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.

Do 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.
http://lesswrong.com/lw/1f4/less_wrong_qa_with_eliezer_yudkowsky_ask_your/19iw [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1f4/less_wrong_qa_with_eliezer_yudkowsky_ask_your/19iw]

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.

About gender pronouns, your gender, gender politics in general or something more esoteric?
About 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 peop

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.

I 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.
I 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.
The 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.
Too sensitive compared to how you would want to feel [http://lesswrong.com/lw/hp/feeling_rational/"] if you knew more about your preferences (how low worlds rank where the offense was made) and more about what the world is like, e.g. the state of mind of those making the perceived offense?
I'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.
Your impression is accurate. It's frequently an issue in gatherings of trans people, let alone in mixed groups or majority-cis spaces.
Is that from someone reading it as 'Eliza'?
0Eliezer Yudkowsky13y
No clue hath I, though your suggestion seems plausible enough.
Alicorn ends with a consonant. This doesn't guarantee that it will be seen as male, but I think it increases the odds.
The user name "Alicorn" seems gender-indeterminate to me.
I 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.
That'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.

0Eliezer Yudkowsky13y
"Alicorn" sounds much more feminine than either "Unicorn" or "Aliborn".
I sold my unicorn when I realized why the guys would never believe my locker-room stories of sexual conquest.
Yup-- didn't know "alicorn" was a word.
Maybe, 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.
Ali can be short for several female names, but it can also be a male name.
This is a cultural norm kind of thing, but in the cultural norms where Alicorn chose her name, I think it really was intended to be a feminine username. I think women do have a tendency to try and choose somewhat feminine usernames, because otherwise a lot of the time on the internet they will be mistaken for men which gets annoying quickly. I think something that would allow us to definitely solve this problem is profile pictures (which don't have to be your actual picture) or user profiles.

I think something that would allow us to definitely solve this problem is profile pictures (which don't have to be your actual picture) or user profiles.

User profiles good, pictures bad.

Frankly, the "problem" here really isn't very hard to solve: just don't assume you know a person's sex unless you actually know it!

This is undoubtedly the case. However, the opposite choice is also quite popular -- choosing masculine usernames to avoid being harassed for being female.
How in the earth did you get 'he' from 'Sharon'?
I 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.
The last prominent world leader of that name was male, I believe.
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 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariel_%28The_Little_Mermaid%29], but according to Hebrew grammar it's actually a male name and it literally means 'Lion of God'. Blame ignorant Disney.
BTW, 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.)
Shakespeare's "Ariel" (from the Tempest) is also often depicted as a female character (though originally referred to as a male character). This graph [http://www.babynamewizard.com/voyager#prefix=ariel&ms=false&exact=false] does seem to imply however that its popularity as a female name may have been indeed influenced by Disney.
I forgot that Ariel sounds female, too. I don't know if that undermines or reinforces my point!
"Last names don't encode gender" -- Claude Shannon
If one fails to invoke System 2 processing and reflect that world leaders are rarely known by their first names (assuming one even realizes that that example is where the 'Sharon may be male' thought is coming from), then they certainly do.
I don't know how it keeps [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1pz/the_ai_in_a_box_boxes_you/1k7b] happening [http://lesswrong.com/lw/12b/revisiting_torture_vs_dust_specks/wsz?context=2#comments]. How did you get "he" from the blog post? (Or is it indicated somewhere else?)
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: This prior screens off my more general prior for the sex of bloggers in general. Beyond that I have a prior for the types of signalling that I expect to find humans engaging in based on their respective reproductive motivations. At what odds would you bet against me if I was betting that the blogger in question was male?
Oh, 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.
Meanwhile 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.

Really? I use 'they' quire frequenly but feel bad every time. I'll stop feeling bad now. Thanks. ;)
Glad to be of service!
I think the singular they is not appropriate in this case, where the referent is a specific person of unknown (to the writer) gender, namely Alicorn, instead of an indeterminate person. From Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they]: Like some others here, I also find 'ey' annoying and distracting, so the fix I would prefer in this case is 'he or she'. Does anyone consider that annoying or ungrammatical?
I'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.

I 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.

"Political"? I think it may have been a few decades ago, when the pronouns were invented, but at this point Spivak is generally used for courtesy purposes, as Alicorn said. Breaking the flow I'll agree is a valid objection, however. I have opted to avoid neologistic pronouns for that reason, save in cases where such are requested. If someone wants to be a "xe", that's their business, I say.
Thanks for the detailed description of why you find invented pronouns annoying. I'm pretty flexible about new words, so I react to invented pronouns as a minor novelty. I don't know what people who use invented pronouns have in mind-- they could be intending to tweak people, or they could be more like me and generalizing from one example.
I trained myself to use Spivak pronouns in less than a month. As far as lingual/grammatical conventions go, they flow very naturally. Singular "they" does not, because a plural verb does not belong with a singular subject. I find that much more annoying.
Dost thou also find the use of "singular you" annoying?
There is a difference between those situations. "You" is the only modern second person singular pronoun, whereas the third person singular has "he" and "she" in addition to the oft-used "they," the latter obviously being the one which doesn't fit. Personally, I do feel it would be better to have some separation among the singular and plural second person pronouns, to avoid awkward constructions like "you all" and similar things. However, "thou" doesn't seem to be a very viable option, given its current formal, Biblical connotations [http://www.bardweb.net/content/thou.html]. Also, the English language is missing a possessive form of the pronoun "which" (compare "who" and "whose"), if anyone wants to work on that problem.
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.
Don't we use "whose" for that purpose?
That is the suggested remedy, but it's a bit of a kludge. "Who" is intended to be used as a pronoun for people, so the possessive form "whose" should be used in the same way.
I'm a bit confused that you call it just a "suggested remedy"; my point is not that anyone advises this, it's that this is what English speakers actually do. Intended by who? Should why? It's not even clear offhand that we should regard "whose" as exclusively a possessive form of "who", given the above.
There's a difference between what people actually do and what they should do. Exactly my point. "Who" is for people, i.e. those beings that can have intentions. But doing so reduces the clarity of the language, by conflating two different meanings.
Off the top of my head I can't think of any situation where the antecedent of "whose" would be unclear due to its ability to also refer to inanimate objects.
I have to disagree with this. I'm also someone who's bothered when words with multiple distinct meanings get merged, but I don't think this can be described as a case of that. (I suppose the most obvious objection is that this does not reduce the quality of the language because there is nothing to compare to. If English ever had these other words you suggest, it can't have been for hundreds of years at least.) In any case, these words are just function words, they're just relative pronouns. Merging different relative pronouns doesn't add extra meanings - most of them could be pretty well expressed with "what" - it just forces you to include the information even if it's not relevant (maybe we don't care if what did this is animate or not), while allowing some things to become slightly shorter by being implicit (we can say "he who did this" rather than "What person did this". This wouldn't work as well with "whatever", but that's a quirk of how the word is formed in English rather than any general feature of relative pronouns.) Basically you're just introducing another unavoidable; it doesn't "add meaning" any more than does English's insistence that all finite verbs have tense.
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 the English grammatical convention that "em" isn't a pronoun. I don't have a problem with that either. But doing both at once seems unmotivated. If I'm willing to ignore English grammatical conventions enough to make up new pronouns altogether, I don't see on what grounds I can object to someone else ignoring subject/object matching rules. Mostly, when people say this sort of thing I understand it to be an aesthetic judgment, on a par with not liking the color blue. Which is fine, as long as they aren't too obnoxious about trying to impose their aesthetic judgments on me.
Presumably you mean pronoun and antecedent [http://depts.dyc.edu/learningcenter/owl/agreement_pa.htm]. Clearly, subject and object need not agree in number (what you call "quantity"); such a requirement would in fact be logically impossible.
Yup, you're right. I have absolutely no idea what my brain thought it was doing there. Entirely incidentally: requiring that the subject and object match in number would admittedly be a strange sort of grammatical requirement to have, as it would preclude expressing all manner of useful thoughts (e.g., "Give me two slices of pizza"), and I'd be incredulous if an actual language claimed to have such a requirement, but I'm not sure it's logically impossible.
You're right, of course. In fact, one could conceive of a language where the grammatical number of the object would have to agree with the subject, and it would therefore not give any information about the actual number of things denoted by the object, which would have to be stated explicitly if it's necessary to avoid ambiguity, like in languages that lack grammatical number altogether. For all I know, there might even be an actual human language somewhere that features something like this.
I don't consider the creation of words to fall under the auspices of grammar. That happens in English and other languages all the time, because new or different concepts frequently need to be expressed in ways that are unavailable in the current state of the language. Using new words promotes clarity, in the long term, but misusing current words does the opposite.
"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) [http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001582.html] (Examples [http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/sgtheirl.html])
4Eliezer Yudkowsky12y
Language 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.
This 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.
Exactly 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...
This 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.
Well, 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..."?
Your position seems to be, then, that Orwell's advice is sound, and it was his failure to follow his own advice which was unsound. I had taken you to mean approximately the opposite - that Orwell, a good writer, failed to take his own advice, and thereby illustrated the unsoundness of his advice. Or did you have something else entirely in mind?
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 rubbish when it comes to achieving good writing style. Good style in fact requires breaking these rules so often that it's meaningless to espouse them as general guidelines. What's significant is that Orwell is such a good stylist that his style dazzles you into not realizing this even as the contradictions are dancing in front of your nose. At the same time, the rules do have some limited applicability when it comes to logic and facts: some particular sorts of passives, bad metaphors, etc. are commonly used as weasely rhetorical tricks -- and Orwell's weasely essay does in fact employ them, hidden in plain sight by his great style. So, to sum it up, Orwell has taken some observations about writing of non-zero but limited usefulness and applicability and written an unsound essay espousing them as supposedly general (if not absolute) rules. In the process he has contradicted himself by demonstrating that to achieve good style one must break these rules liberally, and also by breaking them in those situations where they do have some applicability (such as the awful "it is generally assumed that...").
Debates on proper language style and grammar are always entertaining due to the impossibility fundamentally inherent in them of ever coming to a rational resolution. 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.
To 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.
Is it Dark Arts to head off at the pass the feeling that a grammatical rule is upholding 'proper, traditional' English against 'slipping standards'?
If that's actually what's being argued, no. And indeed prescriptivists often do argue this. But nobody seems to have actually been claiming that in this case.
If it had been explicitly claimed it wouldn't be 'heading it off at the pass'! :-)
They may be wrong on this particular matter, but it hardly follows that they "don't deserve our attention". White (of Strunk and White) is the author of Charlotte's Web, still popular after six decades, so, not quite a literary failure.
Sure. Also, if they are driving a car into an intersection I'm crossing, I definitely endorse attending to them. But I suspect the poster Morendil is quoting meant "don't deserve our attention [as authorities on grammatical usage]." The pervasive wrongness of Strunk and White, in particular, is a recurring theme on LanguageLog.
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.
I 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.
It is not clear to me what you are saying. On the one hand you are saying that their work is representative of English as it existed. On the other hand you are saying that they are highly influential. Well, which is it? But either way, E. B. White meets the criteria to at least some extent. First, he is indeed a representative of English as it existed in the mid-20th century. And as such, he is arguably more relevant to us now than Shakespeare and Chaucer are, since his English is closer to ours. Chaucer's work, after all, is sufficiently hard for us to read that there now exist translations into current English of his work, and even Shakespeare cannot be read without a glossary. As for influential, well, after all, White is one of the authors of Strunk and White's Elements of Style, which is influential. In fact, it is precisely because of the influence of Strunk and White that Language Log is bothering to talk about it.
Both representative and influential. Why would that be a contradiction? Newton and Einstein are both referred to as showing how scientists work AND as influencing scientists after them. Writers and 'experts' are being mixed up here. White's involvement here is as a commentator and critic, not in his own writing. Shakespeare and Chaucer aren't commentators offering arguments, they're the sort of thing that experts have to be expert in. You can argue whether another commentator's analysis is right or wrong, but it's more difficult to reject the evidence of cases in the field itself. The example of Einstein is a different sort of evidence about science, and a different sort of appeal, than the arguments of Kuhn or Popper.
I didn't say it was a contradiction. I was asking you to clarify what you were saying. In any case I answered for both possibilities. As I argued elsewhere [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/3oj4], I don't think this distinction is decisive. But now you are simply not answering what I wrote, but are beating up a straw man. My original statement was: In other words, I am admitting that they are wrong (I say "may" but my intent is that I am persuaded by the evidence from the OED), so if we treat them as prosecution lawyers I would say as the jury that they have lost the case and the defense has won, but I am saying that Language Log goes too far in saying that they "don't deserve our attention" - i.e. that they should not have been permitted into the courtroom in the first place. That takes it one step too far, and I pointed that out.
Sorry, I took 'which is it' as meaning it must be one or the other. I think that the distinction is, while not perfect, well worth making. If we're being philosophers of science, we listen to what Feynman says about physics, but our response can be to disagree. If it's understood that some hold Feynman's position, the simple fact he says it doesn't itself constitute direct evidence. Whereas if we're being philosophers of science and someone points out that our theory about what science can do clashes with what one of Feynman's theories actually did, we have to engage with that in a different way. On refusing them from the courtroom, LangagueLog obviously thinks they are simply bad commentators. It refers to 'the perennially clueless Strunk and White'. I don't know the area well enough to know if that's fair. But your counter-argument was that we should listen to White because he was a literary success, and that argument was founded on the comparison to appeals to Chaucer and Shakespeare. The fact is that White was being referred to as a bad commentator, which is very consistent with being a good author. And Chaucer and Shakespeare were being referred to as influential and representative authors, not simply succesful ones.
I disagree, because I think that being a bad commentator on writing is not "very consistent" with being a good writer. That is not a comfortable fit. It is technically consistent (i.e. possible), but not very consistent (i.e. probable). Similarly, Feynman being a good physicist would be technically consistent with making outrageously false statements about what science is in his popular essays, but it would not be a comfortable fit. We do not expect someone who has no clue about what science is to actually be a good scientist, and we are right not to expect that. This is why, having seen that Feynman is a good scientist, we expect him to have a very good grasp of what science is and so we expect his popular essays about science to be insightful and largely true. This is why I find the distinction being made here between writer and commentator on writing to be a bit thin.
I think we're coming from different ideas about this: in my experience, practicioners in any area often make absolutely horrible theorists about it. And at my university there was a physics professor who actively discouraged students from taking history and philosophy of science. Not because he thought it was worthless but because he felt it would blunt their scientific focus and abilities. This is all relative to those of similar intelligence/ability who haven't specialised: on average, those doing well at almost any intellectual/educated pursuit will correlate with doing well at others to a degree. There are honourable exceptions, of course. In any case, even if there is a close association, there's still a difference between someone's work as a practitioner and their work as a commentator.
I sense this veering onto a whole other topic, but it may still be worth pointing out that the Elements of Style is not, and is not intended as, a work of theory. It is intended as a manual of instruction. And as far as I know, by far the majority of instructors in one craft or another are themselves practitioners rather than philosophers or sociologists who study the field from an outside vantage point. You want to learn physics from a physicist, not from a philosopher of physics. You want to learn writing from a writer. You want to learn architecture from an architect. And so forth. And before we had schools of art, we had the system of apprenticeship, in which people who are learning a trade study under those who are already making a living in the trade.
This is a good point; however, it rests on the assumption that Strunk and White managed to accurately describe what they are doing. But actually they failed at this. Examples (because these are what actually determines it but have been lacking from the discussion so far - yes, these are drawn from Language Log, it's an easy source): http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001905.html [http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001905.html] http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001906.html [http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001906.html] The note about "which" here [http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001803.html] The note about "needless words" here [http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001904.html] Point 10 here [http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2922]
You are stating this as a binary fact (either they did, or they did not, accurately describe what they are doing). But surely what is more relevant is not a binary fact, but rather a matter of degree. Two questions are important: 1) What portion of their own advice did they not follow? Suppose you find ten things that Strunk and White didn't do that they said you should do. That amounts to a page of errata, which many books have (and which maybe all books should have). If we threw out every book that had (or deserved) a page of errata, then we would probably empty the libraries. 2) To what extent did they not follow it? Question number (2) is interesting because it's not always a question that can easily be answered by looking at their writing. Here's what I mean. Suppose that I write an essay that is 100% passive constructions. Then I remember the advice to avoid passive constructions if possible. So I go through my essay, find a lot of passives that would be strengthened by making then active, and bring my essay down to 80% passive constructions. Now, somebody looking at my essay will see that it is 80% passives and he might be tempted to conclude that I didn't follow the advice to avoid passives. And he would be wrong.
That you do not find it very consistent is not relevant, because it happened. Even if you do not resolve it in the same direction as the people at Language Log, the contradiction between their writing and their advice on writing remains.
You 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 simply don't think that this distinction is decisive. After all, on the topic of what physics is, we pay attention to Richard Feynman not only as an example of a physicist. We also pay attention to what he says about what physics is. And we take his statements about physics as having some authority on the strength of his being a physicist.
Fundamentally it seems to come down the expert-at-vs.-expert-on distinction [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/04/expert_at_versu.html]. Being an expert at writing is some evidence for being an expert on it, but if what one says in one's persona is an expert on writing doesn't actually match what you do in your persona as an expert at writing, we have to ask which one is actually accurate. These are people who were initially known as experts at writing, so if there's a contradiction it's quite possibly because they were able to parlay their reputation as one into reputation as the other, without necessarily actually being the other. And if someone is primarily an expert at writing, then looking at what they actually wrote is more important. We do listen to what Feynman says about what physics is, but we expect philosophers of science to have a somewhat better idea. But all this is hardly relevant. The fact remains that these days we have better experts on writing, whose expertise is actually empirically based. Should the debate become so unclear as to come down to authority rather than arguments, who has the better track record is pretty clear.
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.
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.
OK, I guess that part was just wrong.
Singular they may be less distracting than Spivak, much as I like the latter.
I use singular "they" sometimes, although I find it makes many sentences awkward, especially if I'm also talking about some plural items or persons.
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.
It is a reasonable default assumption, not adjusted with negative effect of a mistake in mind.
But you don't need to invoke a default assumption here - the singular "they" is a perfectly well-established alternative.
As a rule of thumb, it's annoying to be talked about without being considered.
People at this end of the internet tend to have 'male' as the default gender for everyone.
Yes. It's very annoying.
On average, less annoying than the alternatives.
There are few good reasons to object to the singular they - the usual ones make less sense than objecting to the word "giraffe" [http://tailsteak.com/archive.php?num=259]. Were I writing a style guide for LessWrong...
I 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.
How do you even gauge this? Do you know how annoyed I am on some absolute scale so you can make such a comparison?
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.
Perhaps 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.
My 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.
So a female werewolf should actually be a wifwolf? Excellent!
Or wyfwulf... or something. There was no standardized spelling. Also, I think woman used to mean wife, in the same way it is occasionally used in casual (grrr) American dialect English today. There might be a different word for an unmarried female (and an unmarried female wolf-person!).
Casual? With the amount of attention causality gets around here, I have to ask.
Well a language could hardly function if it was acausal, could it?! Fixed.
If nothing else, priming [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Priming] would put the lie to that.
If 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 [http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html] 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.)
Probably. 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.
Assuming 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! :)
The 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.
That is evidence in favor of that usage of pronouns being undesirable for efficient communication of evidence. It doesn't comment particularly on whether or not that particular usage has been traditionally accepted. I'm not trying to argue with your objection to that kind of usage. I certainly don't consider using 'he' by default any better than using 'she' by default. I think "AAAAAAAAAAUGH" is a valid response. It is just ironically more valid than 'No'.
I 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.
"Doesn't even necessarily" is different from "appropriate in every possible situation including when the gender is not indeterminate". Matthew's claim was: If you think that is incorrect, you're just wrong. If you disapprove and are distressed by that historical fact then that is a legitimate position of the kind that can be expressed by vocalized but non verbal expressions of distress.
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.
Eh... that's not "necessarily" right. The historical usage of "he" to refer to gender indeterminate individuals doesn't imply that there isn't a necessary (to the extent that that term is meaningful in discussions of this sort) gender assumption in modern usage. In fact, that's the problem - the "indeterminate" individual is by default male (white, middle class, straight, cisgendered, whatevs).
Yes, hence the appropriateness of "AAAAAARGH". It is a flaw in the language in an objective effectiveness of conveying information sense. Plus it would piss of Alicorn legitimately. If you think about it, could be offensive to males too. Why do they get special wordly attention while we get stuck with word that doesn't allow the conveyance of distinct sexual identity while the females can be either? It's a good thing that usage is becoming obsolete ('she' can be used indeterminately too and he less often), otherwise I'd have to care too.
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.
I don't understand:
(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.)
You don't think females are socially punished for exhibiting "male" traits, or you think it's comparatively insignificant?
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 bother you, specifically, that the default assignment is male? Or in your case, with the handle Alicorn, that it seems unusual not to update the probability that you're female? If the latter then you really must just ask this person to find out what they were thinking (if they were). Possibly the person is either a little linguistically/socially naive or they were thinking of the name 'Ali' perhaps with an Arabic origin and the 'orn' ending is unclear -- if you don't think of unicorns. (Why should it be though that a unicorn-associated handle must be a female? Nevertheless, that's the way it is.)
I'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.
I 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 [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ss/babies_and_bunnies_a_caution_about_evopsych/1nws?context=1#comments]. 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.
Thanks for the not-particularly-annoyed-by-"he" datum - but I worry that you imply Alicorn should not be annoyed. Even if this is not your intent, 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 of those emotions. (And let's not even get started on motivated reasoning... which, AFAICT, is motivated almost exclusively to avoid negative emotions rather than to obtain positive ones.) Anyway, if you allow yourself to have a "berserk button" that hijacks your rationality on a regular basis, (and aren't doing anything about it), you're only giving lip service to rationality. Okay, modify that slightly: maybe you don't know HOW to get rid of or work around your button. But you sure as heck shouldn't be arguing for a right to keep it! (I expect that objections to this comment will largely focus on individual boo lights that people will put forth in support of the idea that some things should be allowed to set off "berserk buttons". But I hope that those people won't bother, unless they can explain why their particular boo light requires them to have a compulsive, fixated response that's faster than their conscious minds can consider the situation and evaluate their options. And I also hope they'll consider why they feel the need to use boo lights to elevate their failings as a rationalist to the status of a moral victory! Lacking a compulsive emotional response to a boo light doesn't alter one's considered outlook or goals, only one's immediate or compulsive reactions.)
With 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 [http://lesswrong.com/lw/hp/feeling_rational/] - 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 [http://yudkowsky.net/other/yehuda] 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 [http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/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.
If 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.
In regards to the right to have a berzerk button: This depends at least partly on what you mean by a right. People do have berzerk buttons. I hear "don't have the right to have a berzerk button" as "should make it go away right now-- shouldn't have had it in the first place". On the other hand, "do have the right to have a berzerk button" is problematic in the sense that it can imply that berzerk buttons are a sort of personal property which should never be questioned. It occurs to me that this is a problem with English which is at least as serious as gendered pronouns. A sense of process isn't built into the language in some places where it would be really useful. The problem is there in the word "can". Does "you can do it" mean you can do it right now, perhaps if you just tried a bit harder? If you tried a lot harder (and you really should)? After ten years of dedicated work? Something in between?
It is hard to extract that implication given:
You'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.
Truthfully, 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 would question whether it doesn't count - I believe your statement was sincere, and that counts for an awful lot - but the feeling and tone was definitely what I responded to. On the gripping hand, I was being quite precise when I said "should not have been so pointed" - I think emphasizing the right to be angry is important in several contexts (example [http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/10/atheists-and-an.html]), and I would want to have still said something about the right to a berserk button ... but not the slanted "even if this was not your intent". (Incidentally, I appreciate the degree of nuance you've been employing in your replies - I suspect this is one of the more valuable benefits you gain from your penchant to reduce problems!)
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.
Y'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 [http://lesswrong.com/lw/dr/generalizing_from_one_example/]* 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.
Recognizing 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.
It'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.
Fixed that for you. ;-)
Good, but let me fix it further to what I really mean, ancestral environment included. ;)
In the specific case of our socially-driven negative emotions -- those associated with status and status threats, especially -- they rarely overlap with our considered interests, unless we either 1. already have high status, or 2. are literally dependent upon our social circle for physical survival In most other situations, actually having a negative emotional reaction will not serve our goals. Interestingly enough, even in the event that a display of anger is tactically useful, a fake display of anger is actually even more effective and can even be status-enhancing. (I've heard it said that this is true of horses as well: that a trainer acting angry gets respect from the horse, but a trainer who's actually angry loses their place in the pecking order.) This is probably why sociopaths are especially effective in the corporate tribal jungle, but I've also known a few very nice, non-sociopathic company presidents who had no problem yelling when something needed yelling about... without actually being angry about it.
are literally dependent upon our social circle for physical survival That one is complex. A small status threat does not, in itself, threaten survival, but a large number of status threats may well affect one's chances of making money, getting medical care (or getting decent medical care), or being attacked by police and/or imprisoned-- these are a matter of physical survival.