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Male giant panda cub Tai Shan by Natalie Angier

 
 

Isn’t it adorable how we fall for anything that’s cute?

If the mere sight of Tai Shan, the roly-poly, goofily gamboling masked bandit of a panda cub on view at the National Zoo in Washington is not enough to make you melt, maybe the crush of human onlookers, the furious flashing of cameras and the heated gasps of their mass rapture will do the trick.

“Omigosh, look at him! He is too cute!”

“How adorable! I wish I could just reach in there and give him a big squeeze!”

“He’s so fuzzy! I’ve never seen anything so cute in my life!”

A guard’s sonorous voice rises above the burble: “OK, folks, five oohs and aahs per person, then it’s time to let someone else step up front.”

The 6-month-old, 25-pound Tai Shan — whose name means “peaceful mountain” — is the first surviving giant-panda cub born at the Smithsonian zoo. The zoo’s adult pandas have long been among Washington’s top tourist attractions, but the public debut of the baby in December has unleashed an almost bestial frenzy. People snapped up 13,000 timed tickets to see the cub within two hours of their release, and almost immediately began trading on eBay for as much as $200 a pair.

Panda mania is not the only reason 2005 proved an exceptionally cute year. Last summer, a movie about another black-and-white charmer, the emperor penguin, became one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time. Sales of petite, willfully cute cars such as the Toyota Prius and the Mini Cooper soared, while those of non-cute sport-utility vehicles tanked.

Women’s fashions opted for the cute over the sensible or glamorous, with low-slung slacks and skirts and abbreviated blouses contriving to present a customer’s midriff as an adorable preschool bulge. Even the too big could be too cute. King Kong’s newly reissued face has a squashed baby-doll appeal, and his passion for Fay Wray ultimately feels like a serious case of puppy love.

Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still-expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others.

CUTE ON CUE

Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they cannot lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.

The human cuteness detector is set so low, researchers say, that it deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof, and so ends up including the young of virtually every mammalian species, fuzzy-headed birds such as Japanese cranes, woolly-bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, even a :-) (a colon, hyphen and closed parenthesis typed in succession).

The greater the number of cute cues that an animal or object possesses, or the more exaggerated the signals may be, the louder and more italicized are the squeals provoked.

Cuteness is distinct from beauty, researchers say, emphasizing rounded over sculpted, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap. Beauty is rare and brutal, despoiled by a pimple. Cuteness is commonplace and generous.

Observing that many Floridians have an enormous affection for the manatee, which looks like an over-fertilized potato with a sock puppet’s face, Roger L. Reep of the University of Florida said it shined by grace of contrast.

“People live hectic lives, and they may be feeling overwhelmed, but then they watch this soft and slow-moving animal, this gentle giant, and they see it turn on its back to get its belly scratched,” said Reep, author with Robert K. Bonde of “The Florida Manatee: Biology and Conservation.”

“That’s very endearing,” he said, “so even though a manatee is three times your size and 20 times your weight, you want to get into the water beside it.”

Even as they say a cute tooth has rational roots, scientists admit they are just beginning to map its subtleties and source. New studies suggest that cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain aroused by sex, a good meal or psychoactive drugs such as cocaine.

At the same time, said Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the rapidity and promiscuity of the cute response makes the impulse suspect, readily overridden by the angry sense that one is being exploited or deceived.

“Cute cuts through all layers of meaning and says, ‘Let’s not worry about complexities, just love me,’æ” said Dutton, who is writing a book about Darwinian aesthetics. “That’s where the sense of cheapness can come from, and the feeling of being manipulated or taken for a sucker that leads many to reject cuteness as low or shallow.”

Quick and cheap make cute appealing to those who want to catch the eye and please the crowd. Advertisers and product designers forever toy with cute cues to lend their merchandise instant appeal, monkeying with the vocabulary of cute to keep the message fresh and fetching.

That market-driven exercise in cultural evolution can yield bizarre if endearing results, such as the blatantly ugly Cabbage Patch dolls, Furbies, the figgy face of E.T., the froggy one of Yoda. As though the original Volkswagen Beetle was not considered cute enough, the updated edition was made rounder and shinier still.

BABIES? CUTE? WELL ...

Whatever needs pitching, cute can help. A recent study at the University of Michigan showed that high-school students were far more likely to believe anti-smoking messages accompanied by a cute cartoon character such as a penguin or a polar bear than when the warnings were delivered unadorned.

“The kids expressed more confidence in the cartoons than in the warnings themselves,” said Sonia A. Duffy, the lead author of the report, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Madison Avenue may adapt its strategies for maximal tweaking of our inherent baby radar, but babies themselves, evolutionary scientists say, did not really evolve to be cute. Instead, most of their salient qualities stem from the demands of human anatomy and the human brain and became appealing to a potential caretakers’ eye only because infants would not survive otherwise.

Human babies have unusually large heads because humans have unusually large brains. Their heads are round because their brains continue to grow throughout the first months of life. Baby eyes and ears are comparatively far down the face and skull. Baby eyes are also notably forward facing, and all our favorite Disney characters also sport forward-facing eyes, including ducks and mice, species that in reality have eyes on the sides of their heads.

Baby movements are clumsy, an amusing combination of jerky and delayed, because learning to coordinate the body’s many sets of large and fine muscle groups requires years of practice. On starting to walk, toddlers struggle to balance themselves between left foot and right, and so the toddler gait consists as much of lateral movement as it does any forward momentum.

The giant panda offers another case study in accidental cuteness. It is a member of the bear family, a highly carnivorous clan, but the giant panda specializes in eating bamboo. As it happens, many of the adaptations that allow it to get by on such a tough diet contribute to the panda’s cute form.

Inside the bear’s large, rounded head are the highly developed jaw muscles and the set of broad, grinding molars it needs to crush its way through 40 pounds of fibrous bamboo plant a day, said Lisa Stevens, assistant panda curator at the National Zoo.

The panda’s distinctive markings further add to its appeal: The black patches around the eyes make the eyes seem winsomely low on the panda’s face, while the black ears pop out cutely against the white fur of its temples.

Male giant panda cub Tai Shan rests after a vaccination at the National Zoo in Washington in this Sept. 30, 2005 handout photo. Though the zoo’s adult pandas have long been among Washington’s top tourist attractions, the public debut of the baby in December has unleashed an almost bestial frenzy here.  End

 
 
Adventures in Bolivia by Sandin Phillipson

As a graduate student, I finally had the opportunity to work on a project in southern Bolivia. Although I had spent previous summers camping alone while conducting fieldwork in remote areas, this was to be my first journey overseas, to a country known variously for coca growing, revolution, and the final resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

La Paz is nestled in a series of steep valleys that are eroded in a jagged, blasted moonscape of sun-baked volcanic rock. One of the city parks is called "Valle de la Lunas" or Valley of the Moon. The city has sprawled up the valley slopes onto the Altiplano, or high desert. As my taxi drove from the airport over the lip of the high desert, the city was spread out below, partially obscured through a haze of heavy smog. After finding the company office, a driver took me to a hotel in the old part of the city, popular with young, dominantly British and Spanish backpackers. Left to my own devices for several days, I taught myself the phrases and words to order breakfast and dinner, and wandered through the open-air market to practice my nascent Spanish skills on vendors of flashlights, jeans, and trilobite fossils. I found Bolivians to be the friendliest of people, who seemed to delight in talking to a Norteamericano. At first, I felt no ill effects from climbing the steep streets in what has been described as the World's highest-altitude capitol city.   continue>

 
 
 
After several days, altitude sickness left me with a feeling of exhaustion and constant headache in spite of six weeks of hiking in the Colorado Rockies. At last I was to depart for the exploration camp in southern Bolivia, as the pickup laden with fuel drums and survey stakes arrived to collect me. My driver, Nicco, guided the pickup through the bustling, chaotic streets of La Paz and we rolled south on a two-lane, newly paved highway toward Oruro, a hot, dusty, windblown town that represents the end of pavement. There, the sun-baked main street was covered in a one-inch layer of dust that was excited into whirling vortexes as lines of Volvo flatbed trucks trundled through. Gray, windblown silt covered the cobblestone street, sidewalks, building facades, and withered decorative trees to produce a desolate dreamscape devoid of color. We rolled through a featureless landscape beneath an endless expanse of blue sky and mercilessly bright sun. As the daylight began to wane, the highway degenerated into a pair of deep ruts across the featureless desert, passing desolate adobe towns. We forded streams of frigid meltwater from the Cordillera Oriental, often breaking a thin film of ice. Night fell and still we rolled south, now across the Salar de Uyuni salt flat. Despite the heater in the Mazda 4x4, the cold crept in, and in the ghostly play of the headlights, the shimmering white deposits of salt might have been snow drifts. Time dragged, with only the constant rumble of the tires on hardpan marking a cadence in the darkness that surrounded the small, heated compartment of the pickup. At last we reached a town, a sign of human habitation in what seemed increasingly like a harsh wilderness. Not a single light bulb was evident as we thumped slowly over the cobbled streets. Dark shapes shuffled along the sidewalks, and the shadows of adobe buildings rose and fell, capering in the glare of the headlights. Stars, bright and brilliant as diamonds, but equally as cold, seemed to provide the only other light. Amidst this scene of harsh desolation, the corpses of dogs littered the streets, frozen stiff where they had ultimately succumbed to the uncaring elements.

After another three hours of crawling through the frigid darkness, the road seemed nothing more than a gully, with sagebrush whipping the sides of the truck. Almost imperceptibly, we left the desert and a sheer rock wall suddenly loomed out of the darkness. The truck climbed the rapidly rising road, which clung to the side of the cliff, and the engine whined in protest at the exertion caused by the steep grade and thin air. In the days to come, my own heart and lungs would register a similar wheezing protest. We passed through a looming cleft in the rock wall, beneath towering ramparts massed in the impenetrable gloom. Suddenly, the truck stopped and we had arrived. Arrived where? In the dim light, I could barely discern an adobe wall. There were no lights, no sound of people or animals, and no hum of machines that we have come to expect virtually everywhere in North America. In the dead quiet, pitch black surroundings, I might have been standing in a cavern instead of in front of the quadrille where I would live for the next four months. I had arrived in Bolivia.

About The Author

I am a geologist, and have visited several countries in Latin America and Europe, and have worked on various civil engineering and mining related issues throughout the U.S. and other places. I have written journal articles from a scientific viewpoint, but thought it would be fun to write about some of my travel experiences on a more informal level. I have other photos and geology related items at http://sedward.home.netcom.com/petrography.html
 
 
Across the High Sierra by Sandin Phillipson

I have always enjoyed long road trips across the country, perhaps because they have all the elements of a Homeric adventure. After completing basic training for the Army, I was ready for assignment to my permanent duty station. I was directed to travel from Norfolk, Virginia to Monterrey, California, so I flew home to Wisconsin and prepared to drive the rest of the way. My 1964 Dodge Polara had been purchased for $125 during my last year in high school, and I naively anticipated the adventure of driving nearly 2,500 miles across the continent. As I crossed the Minnesota border early on the first morning out, it occurred to me that I had just driven the farthest distance of my entire life. This was also to be my first time completely alone, and I savored the thought of the next week spent on the open road.

I picked up the small state highway to Northfield, reportedly the scene of Jesse James' last, abortive raid, and then left the winding, picturesque Minnesota country roads behind in favor of I-35 South. The Slant-6 engine rattled along, and the speedometer needle floated near 55. I wanted to avoid placing too great a burden on the 23-year old car, which had compiled an indeterminate number of miles during its lifetime. It was the month of March, and as I rolled south through Minnesota and into Iowa, the snow banks shrank and the gray, lowering clouds threatened rain rather than snow. Finally turning west at Des Moines onto I-80, the stiff north wind buffeted the Dodge sideways, and a motorcycle passed, canted nearly 30 degrees into the wind to maintain equilibrium. It felt like a point of no return, and my only course was west toward on unknown shore. All across the brown, late Winter, windblown prairie I gripped the wide, heavy plastic steering wheel, fighting the wind and an out-of-balance front wheel that set up a harmonic shaking throughout the car. I anxiously scrutinized the instrument cluster until reaching Lincoln, Nebraska, where I decided to stop for the day after successfully entering yet another state for the first time in my life. Due to my lack of firsthand knowledge of the country's geography, I imagined that as I approached central Nebraska, I would soon descend into a vast desert. This thought prompted me to stop in Kearney to have the increasingly maddening vibration repaired, and after having the wheel balanced, I was off again. Nebraska seemed like such a long state, and I had taken to peering at my instrument cluster again, worriedly watching the alternator needle as it leaned slightly over to "discharge". Tapwater from the motel near the outskirts of Cheyenne seemed to rejuvenate the battery.

It felt as though I rolled endlessly across the plains of Nebraska, and had plenty of time to marvel at the early pioneers who encountered the vast expanses of rolling grasslands for weeks on end. Wyoming was different from anything that I had ever seen, and I was excited to cross even the low, rugged hills that represent the beginning of the Rocky Mountains in this area. The low hills were soon gone, and I was on a scrub desert. Gradually, through the thickening gloom, I discerned a more prominent range of the Rockies, and felt a thrill to have reached tangible evidence that I was actually Out West! Black, snow-filled clouds released flurries of stinging white crystals until it became difficult to see. I crept through the deepening gloom, now at only 40 mph, peering just beyond the dim circle of light cast by my weakened headlights. Nervous glances at the worrisome alternator gauge revealed no information, and I crept on until the glowing oasis of the Little America truck stop came in view. I opened the driver's door into a biting gale of wet, swirling snow that turned the bright parking lot lamps of the gas station into hazy sundogs. A glance at my headlights revealed that two inches of frozen snow had accumulated over the lenses, diffusing the bulbs' rays into a feeble orange glow. The work of ten minutes chipping ice with a screwdriver was sufficient to restore them to their former brilliance, and reduce my hands to numbness. After a late dinner of hot roast beef and mashed potatoes, smothered in thick, rich gravy, I was prepared to resume driving, my spirits buoyed by a good meal and the restoration of my headlights. The dashboard instrument lights fluoresced a soft green through hollow push button controls, as I followed the dual beam headlights through the slackening storm. I stopped in Bridger for the night, and was struck by the sharp cold and clear, prairie quiet in which the calls of coyotes drifted across the darkness.

The next day, at last I encountered the long-expected desert, with the descent into Utah and the Great Salt Lake basin. What an amazing site from this ribbon of blacktop, where salt and white mud stretch off into the distance, an apparent sea of white in which the hazy images of distant mountain peaks floated and bobbed. Whirling storms of salt danced across the road, and I noted the custom of passersby to spell their initials with cobbles tossed in the salt mud. I hoped that the end of this day would see me in California at last, and toward the late afternoon, I passed Reno, dominated by the brightly colored Circus-Circus. Although exhausted, I sensed that I was close to the day's goal as the grade of the road increased and jagged shoulders of rock encroached on the interstate. Past the last of the garishly flashing State Line casinos, a gorgeous, knife-edged valley came into view, with steep slopes nearly obscured by snow-covered, majestic pines. The interstate clung to the side of the valley, and the narrow lanes allowed only momentary lapses in concentration to enjoy the postcard view of the opposite slope.

The narrow lanes, sharp curves, and momentary night-blindness from the continuous glare of oncoming headlights began to tax my tired nerves. I pulled off the interstate at Truckee, which seemed as exciting as a Swiss playground in a Roger Moore-era James Bond movie due to the heavy fall of snow and abundance of ski rack-equipped vehicles. I found a motel, and rented a cabin, falling asleep satisfied that I had at least reached California. The following morning, the bottom half of the front fender succumbed to two thousand miles of vibration, as it collapsed in a crumble of rust and Bond-o. I proceeded west on I-80, over the summit of the Sierras, and began the gradual descent though snow-covered firs and past large warning signs apparently written in trucker language, advising them to "better let ‘er drift". The snow disappeared, as did the firs, to be replaced by lush fields and humid warmth of the fertile valley. I had successfully crossed the Great Plains, salt desert, and Nevada wasteland, and my object was finally in reach.

After spending the night in Monterrey, I headed for Fort Ord where I would report for duty. This epic journey across the Sierras represented a significant step away from my small home-town, which to me was nothing but a dead end where I could expect only to become an obscure loser. But here was a chance for a new beginning, following the same route as others who came west to improve their fortunes. As I passed beneath the arched sign that boldly proclaimed "Fort Ord, 7th Infantry Division (Light)", I sensed the freedom that I had enjoyed on the open road slip away. However, the self- direction and sense of adventure that I had experienced while crossing the continent would reassert themselves in time. End
 
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