This is a blog inspired by the acquisition of a new puppy (Simon, a Dobermann, born 15/11/2010). However, since even I don't really believe the emotional life of a puppy can sustain a blog indefinitely, I'm combining such reflections as Simon's progress gives rise to with my other indulgence, books. So this will be about books and dogs, in particular books about dogs, and dogs in books. There'll also be plenty of photos of Simon.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Importance of Being Cute

My title is taken from a chapter heading in Hal Herzog's book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. He argues, not surprisingly, that cuteness has real survival value for animals -- the difference between loving them and hating them or eating them may just be a matter of appearance. The Canadian government, according to Hertzog, in 1987 succumbed ('sort of') to public protests over the culling of baby seals: they banned the killing of seal pups under fourteen days old -- fourteen days being when the pups cease being so cute as to make bad copy on a poster. (This does, though, make me wonder: how come people eat sucking pig?)
Herzog argues, following Konrad Lorenz, that the 'cute response'  is triggered by the fact that humans are attracted to anything that looks like a human baby, and that 'young animals share features with human infants: large foreheads and craniums, big eyes, bulging cheeks and soft contours.'


Bulging cheeks? Large cranium?  I don't see it. (Need I spell it out that in my book the puppy is cuter than the baby?) I wonder if one could do a test: take a puppy to the park, as I've been doing every morning. Count the number of people who approach the puppy, stroke it, play with it, ask a question about it. I'd say it runs to about 90% of everybody in the park. Now take a baby to the park. This I haven't done (nobody wants to lend me their baby) , but I'm willing to wager that the cute response will be way down at 50% max. But I'm open to persuasion: anybody out there with a baby?  (Okay, my sample is pre-selected. The park is frequented by dog-lovers. Okay, then, take the baby to the mall.)

Here are my friends Hans and Andre interacting with Simon:

Now my question is this: are my friends responding to Simon's baby-like features? Or what? (The test would be to confront them with a live baby next time and see how they respond.)

Then there's another question: granted that cuteness has undoubted survival value, in that humans are attracted to animals in proportion to their cuteness --as Herzog says, 'This is bad news for the rare giant Chinese Salamander. It is the largest and possibly most repulsive amphibian on earth, a beady-eyed, six-foot-long mass of brown slime.' But then again, in China this may be the only way to escape being eaten --  granted, as I say, that we love animals because they're cute, what is that makes animals love us? Why would Simon give the time of day to two fully-grown unshaven human males? 

It's a mystery. 


  1. I think it's clear that you're a novelist not a statistician: parks vs malls as controlled environments?
    All this human correlation to animals is a bit of a wobbly hypothesis in the first place. We who love babies - and dogs! - should all be eating snakes and eels it seems. So, are your friends responding to Simon's baby-like features? No. Puppy-like charm? Yes. All that exuberance is oh so winning! Are they dog-lovers in the first place? Probably, yes. Do you have friends who would be unmoved by Simon? Probably, yes.
    What makes animals love us? Food, shelter, affection - and probably in that order.
    Why would Simon give two human males the time of day? Because they've been vetted and given entrance to the den by the alpha male/figure; not unlike humans in that respect.

  2. So if it's food that makes animals love us, what's in to for Simon with Hans and Andre? They don't feed him, after all.
    And as for being vetted by the alpha male, that's a flattering theory for the alpha male, but how come Simon cosies up promiscuously to every dog-walker in the park?

  3. (Approved of) males in Michiel's house may feed him, the way Michiel does.
    As for being vetted, I can't see him cosying up to anyone he thinks Michiel disapproves of - like an intruder in the house. Promiscuity in the park - isn't that what parks are about? Not to mention the fact that Michiel smiles benignly at every approaching human and greets them with all the approval of one dog-lover for another.
    What the hell - we all know that Simon, like all dogs, has intelligence and a nose for the goodies and the baddies that we humans can only dream of.

  4. Michiel, you haven't seen the way I behave around babies... On the other hand, Simon is much more of an attention slut than any baby I've ever seen. But, and unfortunately this is often my reaction to people as well, I think he is cute enough to get away with it.

  5. Well, so we get back to the The Importance of Being Cute. And isn't that reprehensible? See George Eliot, a few posts back. In the meantime: attention sluts only get away with it because you (we!) allow them to.

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