Does nature nurture us to care for specific presentation of sentient beings – animals, insects, plankton, and humans? How does this socialization happen? Is there a code for cuteness? Have animals adapted – through intentional breeding – to human desires for cuteness, or have access and proximity to nature transformed human desire, socialization to presentation, and collective anxiety? Sylvia Wynter may add the question, who and what is Human?
In other words, is animal cuteness socially constructed? How have dominant ideas of cuteness colonized the imagination and impacted what species of animals humans decide are worth saving?
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, there is a cuteness code, an algorithm of adorability, an equation of endearment.
"Even creatures that are terrifying as adults, including lions and panthers, somehow begin life as aw-inducing cubs. There are those who look at baby hippos and just want to scoop them up into a cuddle. So how is it that the same fierce or wild animals we would never dream of choosing as pets pull on our heartstrings quite so much when they're born? Why are they immortalised in Disney films like Bambi and Dumbo, and Japanese toys like Hello Kitty? And why nowadays do puppies and kittens flood our social media timelines?"
Austrian ethologist and zoologist Konrad Lorenz identified in 1943 what he describe as the "baby schema" that includes "a large head relative to the body, chubby cheeks, a high forehead, a small nose and mouth, and rounder bodies. We simply can't help but gravitate to anything that fits this cute blueprint."
In addition to image and presentation, the cuteness code has a behavioral component. "Study after study has confirmed that humans prefer pictures of infants over those of grown-ups, and scientists at the University of Lincoln have calculated this strong drive becomes hardwired into us by the age of three. Culture, too, backs up this preference, as abstract representations of the baby schema can be found all over the world in cartoons and toys."
The BBC Earth reports that this co-evolution of cuteness has a dark side, a eugenic consequence for who lives and dies.
According to the Ugly Animal Preservation Society
"Ugly animals are neglected. I set up the Ugly Animal Preservation Society as a tongue-in-cheek [sic] way of trying to redress the fact that the cute and cuddly species like the panda dominate natural history books and TV shows. By being blinded by beautiful animals, we not only miss out on the joys of hearing about some fantastically weird in wonderful creatures, but we might actually be harming our planet. This preference for the charismatic megafauna is not just contained to the telly though. Though invertebrates make up about 79% of animal life, they are only covered in 11% of conservation literature. Ugly animals are less likely to be researched, never mind protected. This taxonomic bias constrains the capacity to identify conservation risk and to implement effective responses."
Discussing pretty privilege, Romano Santos from Vice News elucidates, "Many studies have sought to understand the connection between aesthetic beauty and moral judgments (sometimes referred to as the "beauty is good" stereotype), with some pointing to how similar areas of the brain are involved in recognizing good looks and good will. Throughout the world, attractive people show greater acquisition of resources and greater reproductive success than others," says one study. In another study, from 2009, 284 subjects rated photographs of people according to how likable, attractive, and trustworthy they perceived the people in the photographs to be. Results showed that attractive individuals were deemed more trustworthy than unattractive individuals."