Child's eyes. Image for

Deep in the mists and thickets of James Joyce’s Ulysses, his practically unreadable novel (or whatever that thing is called), you will find a marvelously meaningful sentence that glows like a translucent egg in a nest: “It darkles, (tinct, tint) all this our funnanimal world.” Focus on the word “funnanimal.” If it weren’t almost completely unknown by the reading public, it would be recognized as one of Joyce’s greatest contributions to the English language.

Funnanimal is like a dub tune. It echoes and ghosts these other words: phenomenal, fundamental, animal and fun. From the portmanteau “darkles” (dark and sparkles) emerges the phenomenal human, the human animal, the fundamental human and the fun animal. But here is the thing that Joyce’s genius reveals: We know the human has an appearance (phenomenal), that it is a part of the tree of life (animal), and we also know that the human is made of matter, of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and other heavy elements that were forged in stars that, when reaching the end of a sequence, exploded and had their nuclear-fused contents spread across vast areas of space (fundamental). But what did Joyce mean by the fun animal? Why is having fun as important as appearing, living and mattering?

The human is the animal that extends the attributes of childhood into adulthood. Called neoteny, this is one of the important keys to our success as a species. What this means is we are the animal that never really grows up and, as a consequence, never stops doing two things: playing and wondering. But how could this turn out to be an advantage and not a disadvantage? Yes, playing makes evolutionary sense for a child because it’s a great way to learn how to do things like an adult. Also, wonder makes evolutionary sense for a child because it leads to questioning things, which leads to learning new behaviors and concepts. But shouldn’t we stop wondering and playing and get on with life? This makes a lot more sense.

The science writer Ed Yong for the National Geographic:

The evolutionary process called “neoteny” [is] where a species’ growth slows down to the point where adults retain many of the features previously seen in juveniles... [S]ome scientists, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, have suggested that neoteny has played a major role in human evolution too... A slower rate of development may even have shaped our vaunted intelligence, by stretching out the time when we are most receptive to new skills and knowledge.

And that is the advantage. We don’t stop learning. At a certain point, chimpanzees do stop wondering and, for the most part, playing, and begin to accept reality as not a game but world with hard facts—they become adults. Humans just don’t. After we’ve figured out the basic aspects of reality, we continue to wonder about the stars, about why they are bright, why they explode and what happens to all of that exploded stuff. We then go on to learn that some of this stuff forms other stars and worlds, one of which happens to have an animal on it that lives to learn.

If one sees humankind from the perspective of neoteny, from wonder and play, then art begins to assume a very central role in the development of our species. Art is, after all, childish. It really makes no intuitive sense for an adult to be interested in drawing, dancing and making sounds that have no direct meaning or recognizable reward. But a deeper look at our practices and behaviors reveals many unexpected things. For example, there is a good chance that human reason’s greatest tool and the very ground of possibility for science – language – got its start as music. This is not a controversial idea. Indeed, it was famously proposed by Charles Darwin in Descent of Man. But Darwin, admittedly, saw it as a product of sexual selection. And it does not end there. The sociobiologist Geoffrey Miller believes that the art of language, rather than hunting and other practical activities, is behind the rise of the human brain. He argues that a big brain, which is very expensive to maintain (demanding up to 25 percent of our daily caloric intake), is not needed for almost all of our basic needs. We could do very well with a gorilla-sized brain. So where did this big brain come from? He thinks it was sweet talking and poetry. In short, the brain is a sexual ornament. The brain, the source of so many spectacular mathematical and rational achievements, was driven to its incredible size by the need to entertain, to keep a story going, to make more and more glittering strings of words.

Knowing all of this, knowing that art and the imagination played such an important role in the rise of the human animal, and knowing that human reason cannot be separated from human creativity, the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

Nothing is more incomprehensible than how an honest and pure urge for truth could make its appearance among men. They are deeply immersed in illusions and dream images; their eye glides only over the surface of things and sees “forms”; their feeling nowhere lead into truth...

The answer? It was provided by another German philosopher, Hannah Arendt: “As far as philosophy [the mother of all the sciences] is concerned... it begins with wonder.”