Koochie-koo: Cute babies get all the attention

Q. Not to sound too hyperpragmatic, but does a baby's cuteness serve any "purpose"? –J. Fariello

Cuteness is a type of attractiveness associated with youth, whether a puppy, a kitten, or your offspring, says Deirdre Barrett in Supernormal Stimuli. Infants of most species have disproportionately big heads, big eyes, a small nose, chubby limbs and clumsy coordination. Playfulness and helplessness also tend to be part of the bargain.

"A few characteristics such as dimples and baby talk are unique to humans, but most are common across species," Barrett says.

To evolutionary biologists, all of these work to elicit nurturing in adults, an obvious survival adaptation.

Rather dismayingly, studies show that really cute babies get more attention not only from strangers but even from their own parents. Fortunately, adds Barrett, most babies are cute enough to attract sufficient nurturing: Mothers and fathers of the "terrible twos" are often heard to remark, "It's lucky he's so cute or I'd have left him on some church steps by now."

Can we have your undivided attention, please? Or if not that, can we have at least a fraction of it? –M. O. Ceremonies

In today's Type A or "accelerated" culture, the "rat race" is no longer merely fast-paced but "amphetamine-paced" or even "meth-paced," with "multitaskers" everywhere, says Paul McFedries in IEEE Spectrum magazine. It really does feel like we're doing several things at the same time when we listen to music as we check for e-mails or tweets and work on a multipage memo (critic Raymond Tallis' "e-ttenuation" of work and relationships). There's a verb for this– "to background," as in ringing up a client or colleague and getting only an occasional "Hmmmm" response: You've just been "backgrounded."

Though we believe we're paragons of "polyattentiveness," more likely we're just getting good at quick-shifting our "continuous partial attention," as we rush from one thing to the next while exerting minimum effort to complete each.

That our attention has become such a precious commodity is no surprise in today's "attention economy," where the competition for our eyeballs and "earballs" (listening to music, podcasts, radio, and so on) is so intense that some companies are into full-blown "attention warfare." One solution that McFedries himself employs is to practice deliberate "disattention" to such things as celebrity gossip and Balloon Boy-type stunts.

What did early humans learn to do a lot later than was previously thought, forcing them to do a lot more of something else and probably even dictating their diets? –B. Wilson

Humans lived in Europe for 700,000 long cold years before mastering fire, so shivering was often the order of the day, said W. Roebroeks and P. Villa at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, as reported in American Scientist magazine. Many archaeologists had thought that controlled flames must have been a prerequisite for human migration into colder climates, but more recent data from numerous sites across Europe show no evidence of fire use until 400,000 years ago.

"After that, remains of ancient hearths and scorched tools appeared with increasing frequency,” the authors say. They suggest that the first humans in cold climates must have relied on high metabolism— stoked with lots of protein and an active lifestyle– to weather frosty boreal winters.
Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at Strangetrue@cs.com