First things first, read these two blog posts on cat domestication and dog domestication, respectively. There’s a lot of great information in them. Note, but don’t get hung up on, the slight hints of post-modern Internet pidgin used occasionally in both of them, especially the all-caps portion of the intro to the dog post. I’ll circle back to language later in this post, but for the time being it’s worth noting that the author (who is a talented writer in both Standard Modern English and Internet Pidgin1) sprinkles the essays with references to “doges”, occasionally uses the faux-French “ze” instead of “the”, etc.

Now not knowing too much about animal domestication, both of these essays straight up blew my mind. The notion I found most interesting, though, was that of neoteny as a primary mechanism for domestication. Neoteny is the retention into adulthood of juvenile traits. To quote the post on cat domestication:

“There is another big goddamn difference when it comes to meows, too- wildcats will meow as kittens but hardly EVER meow as adults, whereas domestic cats if you hadn’t noticed meow all the goddamn time and never shut up. They have retained the kittenish behavior of meowing into adulthood (similar to the way that dogs retain the wolf puppy behavior of barking into adulthood). This retention of a juvenile trait is known as neoteny and it’s pretty common among domestic animals, particularly pets. You want humans to love you and care for you? BE A BABY FOREVER

Cats have a lot of other neotonic behaviors, like kneading (aka the thing kittens will do to mom’s belly to stimulate more milk production) and high levels of playfulness[.]”

This idea that neoteny can be adaptive in cases of domestication is interesting, because it occurred to me while reading the post that there’s another sort of creature that I interact with that is also extremely neotonic. Geeks.

Look at the two pictures below2 3. One of them is a play-oriented kid’s daycare, the other is a tech office:

Copyright  Ab Rogers Design

Copyright camenzind evolution

If I were to photoshop out the playing children in the first photo, do you think you’d be able to tell the two apart? How long would it take? If the only clues you had to go on in the two photos were primary colors and a slide, how would you tell apart the natural environment of adult technical professionals from children at play?

It’s not accidental that nerds surround themselves with toys, tend to score high on measures of openness to new experience, and have play-oriented hobbies (like video games, board games, ultimate frisbee, etc.) I suspect that in ambiguous, cerebral professions, neoteny might be a strong advantage.

But first, look at some of the other ways in which geek neoteny expresses itself.

Geek speech is extremely playful and inventive. Geeks tend to love word-play and neologism and have built not one, but several overlapping and mutually integrated pidgin languages.4 This sort of perpetual re-invention of speech is unusual in adults, but found commonly in teens and pre-teens.

Geeks tend to be socially oblivious to varying degrees, many of them intentionally so. Most geeks fail to see the point of social niceties and tend to be much more blunt and artless than their ages would suggest. Most older geeks never acquire truly adult social networks and don’t seem to develop the desire for family building. Those geeks I know that have kids tend to treat their children more like peers than the non-geeks I know.

The same guilelessness that marks geeks as having child-like social sensibilities can also itself be a social asset. Geeks are famously low on social skills, partially because of genes, partially because past times like reading, gaming, and coding, don’t give one a chance to develop those skills. In my experience, it’s very common for geeks to go from being strangers to acting like very close friends with someone, based largely on only shared interests. In the absence of practiced, developed social skills, child-like enthusiasm and guilelessness can lead to remarkably thriving and stable communities around common interests. (It’s rare, in my experience, for nerds to have friends with drastically different interests. Regular adults will usually have several such friends and can have interesting and meaningful conversations about topics which are outside the areas of their interest and expertise. This is a characteristic that very few geeks have.)5 And while geek friendships are every bit as awkward as individual geek social awkwardness would suggest, these intense, childlike passions give geeks an avenue to build friendships that many have a hard time building with socialization alone.

More generally, geeks tend to display the sort of wonderment, obsessive passion, openness to new experiences, and playful orientation towards the world that one more commonly associates with children than with adults.

All of this leads me to a hypothesis: this neoteny is going to help the geeks conquer the world. While brain plasticity is a real thing that declines over time, it doesn’t decline at a steady rate and can be reversed. It’s well established that people with active minds and varied habits maintain neuroplasticity better than those with less stimulation. So a group of people who conscientiously stay childlike, with varied interests and an extreme openness to new experiences well into their adult lives might have a decided intellectual advantage over those who don’t, as they adapt to new technologies and new trends. This would account for the many middle-age nerds and programmers who have stayed completely up to date on the sources of culture, eagerly adopting modern social media and self-curated news sources like Reddit. The simple neoteny of being enthusiastic about new experiences and viewing the world as a creative object of play makes one not just resilient to technological and social change, it makes one thrive on it. It makes geeks, to use a term from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, anti-fragile.

Just as neoteny in dogs and cats helped them to adapt the sorts of neural machinery they needed to be integrated into our families6, geekdom might be a memetically advantageous way to preserve neuroplasticity and intellectual curiosity long past the adolescent period in which it traditionally began to disappear.7

So in a way, geekdom is an unintended exercise in self-domestication. Geeks seem to stumbled onto a well-established evolutionary pattern, neoteny, that often produces excellent results in situations divorced from the evolutionary pressure of brutal, violent nature. In the case of geeks, this auto-domestication appears to be successful because of the enhanced neuroplasticity and openness to new ideas it affords them, which is a huge advantage in an environment in which keeping up with evolutionary change can be incredibly adaptive.

As with dogs and cats, it brought with it a variety of other side effects, some positive and some negative, that make for a very particular memetype. Just as cats and dogs are reliably and noticeably different from their wild or feral brethren in certain ways, so are geeks memetically different from your typical adult in well-understood, reproducible ways.

1 Which, contra many naysayers, can actually be extremely expressive if used correctly.

2 Copyright AB Rogers Design

3 Copyright camenzind evolution

4 Hacker slang, l33t, and Lolcat are three that spring to mind.

5 All of this might be true for other sub-cultures. Hipsters might have a strain of this going on, but I get the impression that that’s more conscious rebellion and that hipsters, for all my dislike of their smug self-absorption and self-conscious, intentional iconoclasm, due seem to be more “adult” than geeks, in the traditional sense of social maturity.

6 OMG THIS GIF So fucking brilliant on the part of the dog. I could write an entire essay about how this gif shattered my theory of mind when it comes to dogs.

7 This neoteny may also be way nerds my age seem to be seem to be avoiding the musical and artistic stagnation that previous generations fell pray to. It’s pretty common for baby boomers to still be listening to music from the 60s, but most nerds, even those older than me, seem to still be discovering new music. Non-geeks my age, however, seem to be slowly falling behind the times, with many of them still listening to the music that was popular when we were in high school and college.