It's Our Primate Ancestors' Fault We're Obsessed With Cat Videos

Evolution can be blamed for most of humanity’s dumbest aspects, from xenophobia to fascination with celebrities.

primates

Generally speaking—and especially when anything thumb-related is called for—you’ll find that natural selection has been pretty good to humans. But as you might expect from a mind-bogglingly complex procession of randomly mutated crap being thrown against the wall to see what sticks across thousands of generations, it hasn’t got everything right. Even George Clooney, genetically speaking, is still about 96% Curious George, and it shows in all the dumb things we humans do every day.  Here’s a rundown of some of the more unhelpful monkey residue we’ve been lumbered with.

Chimpy Chin-Checking

One thing 2.5 million years of human evolution has failed to rid us of is our creepy preoccupation with each others’ jawlines. Countless studies have shown that most people subconsciously associate a strapping set of mandibles—along with other characteristically masculine facial features, such as heavy brows and wide cheeks—with leadership capabilities. In our hunter-gatherer past, so the behavioral psychology goes, we deferred to leaders who could bite harder and sustain more punches to the face than less jowly contenders.

While fairly well-known, the strong-chin thing is more pervasive and powerful than you might have realized. Tests have shown that people infer leadership traits within 100 milliseconds of seeing a face for the first time, and a 2014 joint Harvard and Princeton study suggested that children as young as three assign characteristics of dominance and competence to the Kurt Russells of this world. This certainly explains a lot of otherwise inexplicable political careers: It also explains the otherwise inexplicable global success of the Icelandic kids’ TV show LazyTown.

The Need to Obsess Over Celebrities

Ever wondered why it’s so easy to be distracted from reading a very important article about evolution by a news story about Jennifer Lawrence, or Ryan Gosling, or someone else with an equally fascinating chin? It turns out, our fixation with celebrities could well be another deep-rooted compulsion we’ve inherited from our simian ancestors.

A series of colorful experiments on male rhesus macaques at North Carolina’s Duke University in the early 2000s had the monkeys ‘paying’ researchers in orange juice rations to look at pictures of hot female monkey buttholes. (Seriously, this is actually what they did in the name of science—they titled their paper ‘Monkeys Pay Per View: Adaptive Valuation of Social Images by Rhesus Macaques’). But the scientists found that the primates wouldn’t just give up their OJ for basic monkey porn—they’d also pay to stare at the faces of dominant males from their group. When it came to monkeys from their colony that had a low social standing, though, the subjects were so unimpressed the researchers had to pay them extra juice to even look at the pictures, suggesting “that monkeys choose whom to look at, at least in part, based on social status.” So our deepest, most ingrained primal instincts aren’t so much kill-or-be-killed as Downton Abbey, which is both disappointing and comforting at the same time.

Falling for Big Eyes

When you stop to think about it, casually referring to someone you want to sleep with as ‘baby’ is perhaps the darkest wrong turn the English language ever took. But it’s not all that weird once you take into account the biological imperative most species have for protecting their young. In the 1940s, Austrian baby-animal specialist (and, believe it or not for such a cute-sounding profession, actual Nazi) Konrad Lorenz classified the main physical attributes of cuteness shared by animals as ‘Kindchenschema.’ He argued that these features—including large eyes, a disproportionately large head and a high, protruding forehead—trigger our parental instincts of protection and care-giving towards infants. In humans, however, this dumb susceptibility to adorableness appears to have evolved way out of control, which is why we fall for puppies, why cats reign supreme on the internet and why the urge to possess Pokémon is so damn strong.

Where it gets weird again is in the idea that people’s fondness for “cute” is so strong that it’s manifested itself in our own species’ physical development. According to biologists, humans display an unusual tendency towards “neoteny”—meaning we retain many of our juvenile features much further into adulthood than most other animals, even other primates—and that this has been forged over countless generations by a sexual selection for babyish traits we find attractive, especially in women (think big eyes and button noses). Presumably, even our monkey cousins find this obsession with the infantile to be a little off.

Hardwired Xenophobia

Another awkward relic of early human society that we’re still grappling with is a genetically ingrained prejudice against foreigners. In searching for an underlying explanation for our fear of outsiders, a group of evolutionary psychologists from the University of Toronto, Harvard, Yale and MIT have suggested it may stem from a strategy among our distant ancestors to prevent diseases entering their communities.

Having deliberately raised participants’ concerns about infection—in some cases offering them vaccinations, then gauging their attitudes about immigration—the researchers claimed to have found a link: “When threatened with disease, vaccinated participants exhibited less prejudice toward immigrants than unvaccinated participants did.” They even proposed a potential clinical treatment for xenophobic beliefs: “Public-health interventions, such as influenza vaccinations, reduce not only the spread of physical illness but also the social malady of prejudice.” Sadly, the findings cannot be trusted, of course, as one of the universities involved was Canadian.

Goosebumps

Even among the assortment of physical clutter that evolution has left us to haul around—including such useless junk as the appendix, wisdom teeth and the vestiges of a freaky reptile third eyelid in the corner of each eye—goosebumps are still kind of embarrassing. The main reason we get them is so that when threatened, we can make our fur stand on end in order to appear bigger and intimidate whatever’s menacing us, the way cats do when confronted by a dog or, you know, a hair-dryer.

The thing that’s clearly missing from this otherwise bulletproof defense mechanism is the fur, which our ancestors lost at least a million years ago. The result is that rather than scaring away potential predators, the goosebump response now just makes us look nicely plucked and ready for basting. At least its official name—piloerection—can still give us a silly giggle.