Gould_Mickey_Mouse - From: Gould, S. J. (1979). Natural...

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Unformatted text preview: From: Gould, S. J. (1979). Natural History. pp. 30-36. This View of Life by Stephen Jay Gould - Mickey Mouse Meets Konrad Lorenz Both animal behaviorists and Walt Disney have made stmilar discoveries about our responses Age often turns fire to placidity. Lyt— ton Strachey'in his incisive portrait of Florence Nightingale writes of her de- clining years: Destiny, having waited very patiently, played a queer trick on Miss Nightingale. The benevolence and public spirit of that long life had only been equalled by its acer- bity. Her virtue had dwelt in hardness. . . . And now the sarcastic years brought the proud woman her punishment. She was not to die as she had lived. The sting was to be taken out of her; she was to be made soft; she was to be'reduced to compliance and complacency. l was therefore not surprised—al— though the analogy may SIrike some people as sacrilegious—to discover that the creature who gave his name as a synonym for insipidity had a gutsier youth. Mickey Mouse turned a respect- able fifty last year. To mark the occa- sion, many theaters replayed his debut performance in Steamboat Willie (1928). The original Mickey was a rambunctious, even slightly sadistic fellow. In a remarkable sequence, ex- ploiting the exciting new development of sound, Mickey and Minnie pummel, squeeze, and twist the animals on board a steamboat to produce a rousing chorus of “Turkey in the Straw.” They honk a duck with tight embrace, crank a goat’s tail, tweak a pig’s nip— ples, bang a cow’s teeth as a stand-in xylophone, and play bagpipe on her udder. Christopher Finch, in his semiofli- cial pictorial history of Disney’s work, comments: “The Mickey Mouse who hit the movie houses in the late twen- ties was not quite the well—behaved character most of us are familiar with today. He was mischievous, to say the least, and even displayed a streak of cruelty" (The Art of Walt Disney, 1975). But Mickey soon cleaned up his act, leaving to gossip and speculation only his unresolved relationship with Minnie and the status of Morty and Ferdie. Finch continues: “Mickey . . . had become virtually a national sym- bol, and as such he was expected to behave properly at all times. If he occa- sionally stepped out of line, any num- ber of letters would arrive at-the Studio from citizens and organizations who felt that the nation’s moral well-being was in their hands. . . . Eventually he would be pressured into the role of straight man.’ ’ As Mickey’s personality softened, his appearance changed in tandem. Many Disney fans are aware of this transformation through time, but few ( I suspect) have recognized the coordi— nating theme behind all the alter- ations—in fact, I am not sure that the As Mickey became increasingly well behaved over the years, his appearance became more youthful. Measurements of three stages in his development (see graph, page 34) revealed a larger relative head size, larger eyes, and an enlarged cranium—all traits of juvenility. e)meme Stage 1 Stage 2 Disney artists themselves explicitly realized what they were doing, since the changes appeared in’such a halting and piecemeal fashion. In short, the blander and inoffensive Mickey be- came progressively more juvenile in appearance. (Since Mickey’s chrono— logical age never altered—like most cartoon characters he stands impervi- ous to the ravages of time—this change in appearance at a constant age is a true evoliitionary transformation. Progres- sive juvenilization as an evolutidnary phenomenon is called neoteny. More on this later.) The characteristic changes of form during human growth have inspired a substantial biological literature. Since the head-end of an embryo differen- tiates first and grows more rapidly in utero than the foot—end (an antero-pos- terior gradient, in technical language), a newborn child possesses a relatively large head attached to a medium-sized body with diminutive legs and feet. This gradient is reversed through growth as legs and feet overtake the front end. Heads continue to grow but so much more slowly than the rest of the body that relative head size de- creases. - ’ During human growth, a suite of changes pervades the head itself. The brain grows very slowly after age three, and the bulbous cranium of a young child gives way to the more slanted, lower-brewed configuration of adulthood. The eyes scarcely grow at all and relative eye size declines precipitously. But the jaw gets bigger and bigger. Children, compared with adults; have larger heads and eyes, smaller jaws, a more prominent, bulg- ing cranium, and smaller, pudgier legs and feet. Adult heads are altogether more apish, I’m sorry to say. Mickey, however, has traveled this ontogenetic pathway in reverse during his fifty years among us. He has as- sumed an ever more childlike appear— ance as the ratty character of Steam- boat Willie became the cute and inof- fensive host to a magic kingdom. By 1940, the former tweaker of pig’s nip- ples gets a kick in the ass for insubor- dination (as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia). By 1953, his last cartoon, he has gone fishing and cannot even subdue a squirting clam. The Disney artists transformed Mickey in clever silence, often using suggestive devices that mimic nature’s own changes by different routes. To give him the shorter and pudgier legs of youth, they lowered his pants line and covered his spindly legs with a baggy outfit. (His arms and legs also thickened substantially—and acquired ' joints for a floppier appearance.) His ' head grew relatively larger and its fea- tures more youthful. The length of Mickey's snout has not altered, but de- creasing protrusion is more subtly sug- gested by a pronounced thickening. Mickey’s eye has grown in two modes: first, by a major, discontinuous evolu— tionary shift as the entire eye of ances- tral Mickey became the pupil of his descendants, and second, by gradual increase thereafter. Mickey’s improvement in cranial bulging followed an interesting path since his evolution has always been constrained by the unaltered conven- tion of representing his head as a circle with appended ears and an oblong Dandified, disreputable Mortimer (here stealing Minnie’s afiections) has strikingly more adult features than Mickey. His head is smaller in proportion to body length; his nose is a full 80 percent of head length. snout. Thus, the circle’s form could not be altered to provide a bulging cra- nium directly. Instead, Mickey’s ears moved back, increasing the distance between nose and ears, and giving him a rounded, rather than a sloping, fore- head. To give these observations the ca- chet of quantitative science, I applied my best pair of dial calipers to three stages of the official phylogeny—the thin-nosed, ears—forward'figure of the early 19305 (stage 1), the latter-day Jack of Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947, stage 2), and the modern mouse (stage 3).'I measured three signs of Mickey’s creeping juvenility: increas- ing eye size (maximum height) as a percentage of head length (base of the nose to top of rear ear); head length as a percentage of body length; and in- creasing cranial vault measured by rearward displacement of the front ear (base of the nose to top of front eat as a percentage of base of the nose to top of rear car). _All three percentages increased steadily—eye size from 27 to 42 per- cent of headlength; head length from 42.7 to 48.1 percent of body length; and nose to front car from 71.7 to a whopping 95.6 percent of nose to rear ear. For comparison, I measured Mickey’s young “nephew ” Morty Mouse. In each case, Mickey has clearly been evolving toward youthful stages of his stock, although he still has a way to go for head length. You may, indeed, now ask what an at least marginally respectable scientist has been doing with a mouse like that. In part, fiddling arodnd and having fun. of course. (I still prefer Pinocchio to Citizen Kane.) But I do have a serious point—two, in fact—to make. First. why did Disney choose tolchange his most famous character so gradually and persistently in the same direction? National symbols are not altered capri- ciously and market researchers (for thc doll industry in particular) have spam 3 good deal of time and practical efloH learning what features appeal to peopla as cute and friendly. Biologists also mesnuammdwt-Mmmmmetflmykenmd Lorenz. 1971.UeedbypennlulondHuveruUrMIltyPnu. Humans feel affection for animals with juvenile features: large eyes, bulging craniums, retreating chins (left column). Small—eyed, long- snouted animals (right column) do not elicit the same response. have spent a great deal of time studying a similar subject in a wide range of animals. In one of his most famous articles, Konrad Lorenz argues that humans use the characteristic differences in form between babies and adults as important behavioral cues. He believes that fea- tures 0f juvenility trigger “innate re- leasing mechanisms” for affection and nurturance in adult humans. When we see a living creature with babyish fea- tures, we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness. The adaptive value of this response can scarcely be questioned, fer we must nurture our babies. Lorenz, by the way, lists among his releasers the very features of babyhood that Disney affixed pro- gressively to Mickey: “a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region. short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consis- tency, and clumsy movements." I propose to leave aside for this at- ticle the contentious issue of whether or not our affectionate response to ba- byish features is truly innate and in- herited directly from ancestral pri- . mates—as Lorenz argues—or whether 2 it, is simply learned from our immediate experience with babies and grafted upon an evolutionary predisposition for attaching ties of affection to certain learned signals. My argument works equally well in either case for I only claim that babyish features tend to elicit strong feelings of affection in adult humans. Lorenz emphasizes the power that juvenile features hold over us, and the abstract quality of their influence, by pointing out that we judge other ani- mals by the same criteria—although the judgment may be utterly inappro- priate in an evolutionary context. We are, in short, fooled by an evolved re- sponse to our own babies, and we transfer our reaction to the same set of features in other animals. Many animals, for reasons having nothing to do with the inspiration of affection in humans, possess some fea- tures also shared by human babies but not by human adults—large eyes and a bulging forehead with retreating chin, in particular. We are drawn to them, we cultivate them as pets, we stop and admire them in the wild— while we reject their small-eyed, long- snouted relatives who might make more affectionate companions or ob- jects of admiration. Lorenz points out that the German names of many ani- mals with features mimicking human babies end in the diminutive suffix chen, even though the animals are often larger than close relatives with- out features similar to human babies—— Rotkehlchen (‘ ‘robin’ '), Eichho'rnchen (“squirrel”), and Kaninchen (“rab- bit”), for example. In a fascinating section, Lorenz then enlarges upon our capacity for biologi- cally inappropriate response to other animals, or even to inanimate objects, that mimic human features. “The most amazing objects can acquire remark- able, highly specific emotional values by ‘experiential attachment’ of human properties. . . . Steeply rising, some- what overhanging cliff faces or dark storm-clouds piling up have the same, immediate display value as a human being who is standing at full height and leaning slightly forwards”-—that> is, threatening. We cannot help regarding a came] as aloof and unfriendly because it mimics, quite unwittingly and for other reasons, the “gesture of haughty rejec- tion" common to so many human cul- tures. In this gesture, we raise our heads, placing our nose above our eyes. We then} half-close our eyes and blow out through our nose—the “harumph” of the stereotyped upper- class Englishman or his well-trained servant. "All this,” Lorenz argues quite cogently, ‘ ‘symbolizes resistance against all sensory modalities emanat- ing from the disdained counterpart.” But the poor camel cannot help carry- ing its nose above its elongate eyes, with mouth drawn down. As Lorenz In an early drawing (see page 30, stage 1) Mickey had a smaller head, cranial vault, and eyes. He evolved in stages toward the characteristics of his young nephew Morty (connected to Mickey by a dotted line). The "Evolution" of Mickey Mouse staget stagez stageS Morty reminds us, if you wish to know whether a camel will eat out of your hand or spit, look at its ears, not the rest of its face. In his important book Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, Charles Darwin traced the evolutionary basis of many common gestures to originally adap- tive actions in animals later internal- ized as symbols in humans. Thus, he argued for evolutionary continuity of emotion, not only of form. We snarl and raise our upper lip in fierce anger— to expose our nonexistent fighting ca- nine tooth. Our gesture of disgust repeats the facial actions associated with the highly adaptive act of vomit- ing in necessary circumstances. Dar- ' win concluded, much to the distress of many Victorian contemporaries: “With mankind some expressions, such as the bristling of the hair under the influence of extreme terror, or the uncovering of the teeth under that of furious rage, can hardly be understood, except on the belief that man once ex— isted in a much lower and animal-like condition. ’ ‘ In any case, the abstract features of human childhood elicit powerful emo- tional responses in us, even when they occur in other animals. I submit that Mickey Mouse’s evolutionary road down the course of his own growth in reverse reflects the unconscious dis- covery of this biological principle by Disney and his artists. In fact, the emo- tional status of most Disney characters rests on the same set of distinctions. And to this extent, the magic kingdom trades on a biological illusion—our ability to abstract and our propensity to transfer inappropriately to other ani- mals the fitting responses we make to changing form in the growth of our own species. Donald Duck also adopts more juve- nile features through time. His elon- gated beak recedes and his eyes en— large; he converges on Huey, Louie, and Dewey as surely as Mickey ap- proaches Morty. But Donald, having inherited the mantle of Mickey‘s origi- nal misbehavior, remains more adult in form with his projecting beak and more sloping forehead. Mouse villains or sharpies, con- trasted with Mickey, are always more adult in appearance, although they often share Mickey's chronological age. In I936, for example, Disney made a short entitled Mickey 's Rival. Mortimer. a dandy in a yellow sports car, intrudes- upon Mickey and Min- nie's quiet country picnic. The thoroughly disreputable Mortimer has a head only 29 percent of body length, to Mickey‘s 45, and a snout 80 percent of head length, compared with Mickey's 49. (Nonetheless, and was it ever different, Minnie transfers her af- fection until an obliging bull from a neighboring field dispatches Mickey‘s rival.) Consider also the exaggerated adult features of other Disney charac- ters—the swaggering bully Peg-leg Pete or the simple, if lovable, dolt Goofy. As a second, serious biological com- ment on Mickey's odyssey in form, I note that his path to eternal youth repeats, in epitome, our own evolu- tionary story. For, as I have argued in several columns, humans are neotenic. We have evolved by retaining to adulthood the originally juvenile fea- tures of our ancestors. Our aus- tralopithecine forebears, like Mickey in Steamboat Willie, had projecting jaws and low vaulted craniums. Our embryonic skulls scarcely differ from those of chimpanzees. And we follow the same path of changing form through growth: relative decrease of the cranial vault since brains grow so much more slowly than bodies after birth, and continuous relative increase of the jaw. But while chimps accentu- ate these changes, producing an adult strikingly different in form from its baby, we proceed much more slowly down the same path and never get nearly so far. Thus, as adults, we retain juvenile features. To be sure, we change enough to produce a notable difference between baby and adult, but our alteration is far smaller than that experienced by chimps and other pri- mates. A marked slowdown of develop- mental rates has triggered our neoteny. Primates are slow developers among mammals, but we have accentuated the trend to a degree matched by no other mammal. We have very long periods of gestation, markedly extended child- hoods, and the longest life span of any mammal. The morphological features Cartoon villains are not the only Disney characters with exaggerated adult features. Goofy, like Mortimer, has a small head relative to body length and a prominent snout, but he is depicted as an appealing numskull. of eternal youth have served us well.~ Our enlarged brain is, at least in part, a result of extending rapid prenatal growth rates to later ages. (In all mam- mals, the brain grows rapidly in utero but often very little after birth. We have extended the operation of this fetal rate.) And the changes in timing them- selves have been just as important. We are preeminently learning animals, and our extended childhood permits the transference of culture by education. Many animals display flexibility, and play in childhood but follow rigidly programmed patterns as adults. Lorenz writes, in the same article cited above: “The characteristic which is so vital for the human peculiarity of the true man—that of always remaining in a state of development—is quite cer- tainly a gift which we owe to the neo- tenous nature of mankind.” In short, we, like Mickey, never grow up although we, alas, do grow old. Best wishes to you, Mickey, for your next half century. May we stay as young as you, but grow a bit wiser. Stephen Jay Gould teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University. ©W|ltDimcyProdudom ...
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Gould_Mickey_Mouse - From: Gould, S. J. (1979). Natural...

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