Humanity is helpless in the face of Baby Yoda. Those saucer-size eyes, X-wing ears, and three-digit mitts are adorable enough to melt any heart, even one hiding behind Beskar armor. But when watching The Mandalorian, you don’t even have much choice in the matter: Science says we’re all programmed to react a certain way when we see the little green guy.
“Little Baby Yoda is not a natural animal,” says Alan Beck, a professor of animal ecology at Purdue University. “He was selected. He, basically, was more than even domesticated for the traits that we hold dear.”
There’s been an abundance of research on the power of cuteness over the years, going at least as far back as the 1940s. That’s when ethologist and zoologist Konrad Lorenz proposed the existence of “baby schema,” a cluster of physical characteristics that inspires caregiving. Among the attributes? A large round head and wide eyes. Baby Yoda certainly matches that description, and it’s hard to believe that’s just a coincidence. “They know what they’re doing,” says Daniel Blumstein, a professor with UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
Of course, no one involved with The Mandalorian has explicitly said that the show’s creative team engineered Baby Yoda for internet domination, but this is Disney we’re talking about. Back in 1980, the now-late paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote about how the company transformed Mickey Mouse to make the mascot more childlike and appealing with a bigger head and eyes, thicker snout and limbs.
“We are sort of hardwired to respond to these sorts of features,” Blumstein says. “Oh, isn’t that cute, we say when we see a Baby Yoda, or when we see a puppy, or when we see a baby of any other species, where we might not have that same feeling when we see an adult of another species.”
Even if the House of Mouse isn’t deliberately playing with baby schema, it is tapping into it and other scientific concepts, notes Samuel Levin, an evolutionary biologist and senior research associate at Oxford University. “Star Wars is set in a galaxy long, long ago and far, far away. As long as it’s in our universe, we know that the rules of evolutionary biology apply,” he says.
For instance, a recent study suggests that baby humans hit maximum cuteness at 6 months old, a finding that might have to do with infant mortality rates. Levin supposes that a similar theory could apply to 50-year-old Baby Yoda and his mysterious species. “He’s clearly at optimal cuteness,” Levin says. “Maybe this tells us that species have high mortality rates in ages 0 to 30, or something. But around age 50 is when [there’s] low mortality rates, they’ve made it through some threshold of dying.”
The sight of Baby Yoda doesn’t only bring out purely nurturing feelings, though. Bryce Dallas Howard — who directed the fourth episode of The Mandalorian — herself had an intense reaction when she first saw the robed puppet. She told Vulture recently that it was similar to the feeling of wanting to “smush” something because it’s so cute, a sensation that scientists call “cute aggression.” According to a study published in 2018, it’s possible that the nonthreatening impulse to squeeze or bite something adorable (like, say, an alien frog) is a coping mechanism, a way to balance overwhelming positive emotions.
However people respond to The Mandalorian’s breakout star — by screaming, crying, or just giving him a polite nod at an NBA game — one thing is indisputable. “I think the scientific community can officially rule,” Levin says, “that Baby Yoda is cute.”