The NYT has a looong article on the science of cuteness, from Hello Kitty to pandas to babies to baby penguins to...baby pandas. Turns out cuteness is used by human babies to stay alive; by those at the top of rigidly hierarchical Japanese society to make power differences more palatable; and by marketers and propagators of ideas to make them more appealing and persuasive.
As an example of the latter, the article cites teen anti-smoking campaigns which achieved marked improvements when their messages were presented "by cute cartoon characters like a penguin in a red jacket or a smirking polar bear." But an even more interesting example goes unremarked, even though the animals themselves are the stars of the article.
Pandas have been given a central role as the cute public face of the Intelligent Design movement. The 1993 book Of Pandas and People is considered the bible [sic] of ID proponents, and it is regularly put forward as an alternative textbook to the "neo-Darwinist orthodoxy" that is contained in most science textbooks. Pandas, as it's known [how cute] was pivotal in the recent ID vs. Evolution trial in Dover, PA, too; students were directed to check it out as an alternative to the "controversial" theories they were about to hear. [Of course, it came out during the trial that Pandas began as a religious text, an apologia for "creationist science"; and when that was ruled unconstitutional, the editors did a quick find-and-replace with "ID."]
Anyway, huge tangent, but it occurred to me the other day when I noticed some pandas in a Noah's Ark set [$99 at gummylump.com, all wood from Voila Toy], and I wondered if there was such thing as an ID-compatible, doctrinally correct Noah's Ark toy set, and if there were, wouldn't it most definitely include pandas?
[Now that I mention it, the other religious battle being pitched these days, the one over gay marriage, has a baby penguin as its mascot, too; And Tango Makes Three is the On Pandas and People of its cause. Never mind that the gay penguin couple actually preceded the book; or that, on the other hand, one of Tango's dads now has a girlfriend. Polemical religio-politics has never been so cute.]