A Juvenile Species: Neoteny, Recapitulation and Childhood

Bergson’s method notwithstanding, I confess to rarely (that is, almost never) proceeding in my thinking from intuition. Chaotic, unconscious speculation followed by exhaustive rumination might be more apt (blame a scientisitc super ego?). In this case, though, I am making a brief “agential cut” (Karen Barad’s phrase) into an intuition I have long harbored: that the child in Western modernity is always already made to serve a recapitulative function, and that this installs an unbridgeable onto-epistemological gap between adults and children that has yet to be punctured in the slightest. The child-form exists only insofar as it organizes the evolution and development of the human organism according to the parallel popularized by the biologist Ernst Haeckel in the 1860s: that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, a formula that pervades every field of knowledge and material apparatus involved with children, especially those that we are habituated to naming race, sex, and sexuality.

For all of the new/neo/feminist materialist work circulating at the moment that aims to repair an epistemological fault (in both senses) in the humanities by no longer separating the social and the somatic, or the natural and the cultural, I remain stubbornly convinced that the child continues to act as unthinkable substrate to so many attempts at nondualist, nonteleological thought. By way of suggestive exposition, I offer three recapitulationist passages, each followed by some nascent reflections from my ongoing dissertation work.

First, to specify the terrain of my intuition and to represent the biological sciences (especially evolution) in their most critical mode, consider Stephen Jay Gould’s following remarks from his very carefully considered and exhaustive study, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977):

Neoteny has been a (probably the) major determinant of human evolution. When we recognize the undeniable role of retardation in human evolution, the data of neoteny can be rescued from previous theories that made them so unpopular. Human development has slowed down. Within this ‘matrix of retardation,’ adaptive features of ancestral juveniles are easily retained. Retardation as a life-history strategy for longer learning and socialization may be far more important in human evolution than any of its morphological consequences (9).

I should add, by way of emphasizing my reading, that Gould’s book includes an entire chapter that details the influence of the theory of recapitulation on the sciences of child development and primary education, so he cannot be accused of omission. This passage, with its somewhat difficult to digest casual–if nonetheless technical, certainly for 1977, when Ontogeny and Phylogeny was published–use of the term “retardation” from evolutionary biology raises some questions as to the “natureculture” (to borrow from Donna Haraway) in play here. The consensus that humans are born relatively prematurely compared to other animals (since it takes us a good one and a half- to two decades to mature) is not so much the concern here. The biological postulate of a general human neoteny becomes, however, wedded to a certain value that, despite Gould’s otherwise excellent critical readings in science, is revealing for its presence. “Retardation as a life-history strategy,” in his reading of it, after all, concerns “longer learning and socialization.” This is in part a defensive strategy: by making learning and socialization the consequences of the juvenile quality of the human, Gould expels any of the politically nasty morphological consequences he mentions in passing at the end of the sentence–consequences that have long underwritten epistemologies of racial and sexual inferiority. Nevertheless, that “learning and socialization” are presumed by Gould to be so value neutral as to not need further contextualization is where my intuition enters into play. For what is this prematurely born human species if not one uncompleted, vulnerable, and requiring, precisely, pedagogy and social interpellation? And are these two assumptions not the fundamental biological argument for government of the self and others as a “natural” capacity of humans–both an argument for human exceptionalism and, in turn, a naturalisation of capitalist and Enlightenment political economy?

To represent the anti-humanist and social theory side of this coin, and to specify my point, let me turn now to my second passage, from Lacan’s famous essay on the Mirror Stage:

In man, however, this relation to nature is altered by a certain dehiscence at the heart of the organism, a primordial Discord betrayed by the signs of uneasiness and motor unco-ordination of the neo-natal months. The objective notion of the anatomical incompleteness of the pyramidal system and likewise the presence of certain humoral residues of the maternal organism confirm the view I have formulated as the fact of a real specific prematurity of birth in man.
It is worth noting, incidentally, that this is a fact recognized as such by embryologists, by the term foetalization.

Lacan’s somewhat odd (at least out of context) insistence on a vocabulary of empirical objectivity in his borrowing from the scientific disciplines in which Gould is fluent is not exactly at issue, here–that is, I am not offering an epistemological corrective to a scientific discourse. Spend five minutes observing an infant less than a year old and it is hard to retort that Lacan is merely socially constructing the programming of the social order, deluding us all.

Again, it is the value and the function of premature birth and foetalization here that trouble me, and no doubt because this is where the child carries the labor of the Lacanian explanation of the entry into language and subjectivity through the Imaginary mirror stage as prelude to the even more intense violence of the Symbolic. The child’s “signs of uneasiness and motor unco-ordination” are interpreted as essentially psychotic (necessitating the equally delusional anesthetic of the primitive ego resultant of the mirror stage) only by a hunch: as so many psychoanalysts will point out, you can’t analyze a newborn child and there is no way to prove that the mental life of infants or pre-Symbolic children is radically chaotic except to say that adults are not very psychotic for the most part. This assumption is only so by measure of degree of likeness and resemblance to adult subjectivity. Hence, ontogeny once again recapitulates phylogeny, for the only point of children, it would seem, is to provide a “retarded” mold for the eventual recreation of adult sameness from generation to generation (apparently an exhausting, slow process).

What does the founding of the social-somatic, which Gould and Lacan together evoke, or the natureculture of the human organism, through a recapitulation theory of a juvenile human species, assume a priori? The naturalness of pedagogy itself, something of which we should be eminently beware after Foucault’s careful and exhaustive tracing of the pedagogization of the species, race, and nation through sexuality as the node connecting the individuation and the population. But of course we could go further genealogically and turn to Plato’s The Laws or Republic, where ample dictates about the naturalness of molding children abound. This is not a new idea, but it is utterly, structurally pervasive. As a result of it, there is nothing available by which to think the child other than as a recapitulation of the history of adults. In a very accurate sense, there has never been any way of understanding what a child is. A child has only ever been a certain degree of incomplete adult.

This is not because there is no other possible way of understanding that what we call children are different from what we call adults. The centrality of pedagogy to carefully educating us all on the natural recapitulation of adults in children makes that very clear. As a final example, then, note Dr. Spock’s pedagogy of recapitulation in his famous parenting manual, Baby and Child Care (this is from the 1968 revised edition):

Each child as he develops is retracing the whole history of mankind, physically and spiritually, step by step. A baby starts off in the womb as a single tiny cell, just the way the first living thing appeared in the ocean. Weeks later, as he lies in the amniotic fluid in the womb, he has gills like a fish. Towards the end of his first year of life, when he learns to clamber to his feet, he’s celebrating that period of millions of years ago when man’s ancestors got up off all fours…The child in the years after six gives up part of his dependence on his parents. He makes it his business to find out how to fit into the world outside his family. He takes seriously the rules of the game. He is probably reliving that stage of human history when our wild ancestors found it was better not to roam the forest in independent family groups but to form larger communities (229).

The point of sharing this passage is to point out just how much labor of pedagogy it takes to reiterate, over and over, that everything we see in the child is a recapitulation of ourselves. It is precisely not self-evident but a matter of an education both social and somatic, but nonetheless not immune to a genealogical unmooring in its overstated confidence as a discourse of truth (my dwelling on the non-self evident founding of the self-evident is a somewhat Derridean stress in my thinking here, too, that I might like to pursue elsewhere). What else is Dr. Spock doing here, after all, except teaching parents to see in their children the naturalization of the passage from the state of nature to the social contract of the body politic?

Taken together, Gould, Lacan and Spock suggest that the function of the child as the recapitulation of the adult form, with its attendant juvenilization of the species, precisely in its utter pervasiveness, should alert us to a struggle internal to a discourse of truth on the human. An intuition upon which I shall endeavor to follow up.


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