In ‘Wildhood’ Scientists See Similarities In Adolescents And Other Animals: NPR
Are you worried about a young adult family member, just out of college or in between jobs, who has returned home? Or a teenager who is bullied in school?
In Wildhood: The epic journey from adolescence to adulthood in humans and other animals, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers invite you to discover the wisdom in how penguins, hyenas, whales, wolves and other animals experience adolescence.
In their previous bestselling book, Zoobiquity, Natterson-Horowitz, evolutionary biologist and professor of medicine, and Bowers, science writer and animal behaviorist, examined the links between human health and animal health. Now in Wildhood, they are teaming up again to examine species in adolescence, that intermediate stage of life when one is neither a young child nor a full-fledged adult. Puberty, they explain, is about physical development, while adolescence “combines body and behavior. It’s about learning to think, act and even feel like a mature member of a group ”. Because animals have been doing this for millions of years, we can teach them a lesson or two about the process.
Take the phenomenon “boomerang children,” those young adult humans who return home after an initial period of relative independence. Often this is viewed critically, as if the parents were abusing their offspring who should be more independent. Yet this kind of extended parental support is prevalent in the animal world, say the authors.
Many teenage birds and mammals are allowed or encouraged to stay home instead of going on their own. They can babysit younger children or help in some other way while avoiding dangers around the world. Sometimes the parental support offered is quite extreme. Mid-aged red squirrel mothers cede their territory to their adult offspring, often storing these territories first. Some songbird mothers accompany their older offspring to other flocks and introduce them to potential high-ranking mates. These young people who stay at home can also come at a cost, as they don’t have a lot of experience finding their own food or dealing with predators.
Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers conclude: “Recognizing the pros and cons of extending parental care in the animal world can help humans develop a more realistic and perhaps even compassionate understanding of how and when to continue to support their children. older and adults. “
A reader’s response to Wildhood will probably depend on the degree of conviction of this reasoning. It’s refreshing to see this recognition of the similarity between humans and other animals. Yet, one might wonder how instructive is this kind of specific comparison really? After all, while adolescent animals often need to negotiate complex family dynamics and hierarchies of group domination, they don’t face the pressures of late student loans and mental health crises – or sexism or racism. . Power-based and culturally constructed inequalities in the human world are qualitatively different.
Likewise, can it be true that “it is impossible to fully understand the complexities of human bullying without examining its function and form in animals”? In mice and monkeys, the learning performance of low-status individuals is inhibited by various mechanisms by their alpha superiors. The are preserved evolutionary trends in mammals, and we are mammals too.
Yet, too often, direct analogies undertaken Wildhood between humans and other animals goes way too far. When the text changes from “severely depressed adolescents and young adults” in one paragraph to “defeated lobsters and hyenas” in the next, good science has been left behind.
A disturbing example of this problem can be found in the section on predation. Here we find a discussion of how the pharaoh cuttlefish (a type of cephalopod related to octopus) acts as a predator on hermit crabs by deceptively altering their appearance. He is immediately followed by one on predators, like kidnappers, on human adolescents. Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers do not hesitate to make a direct comparison: “Sometimes, like the pharaoh cuttlefish, [the abductors] took on a non-threatening appearance. “
I wonder what can be meaningfully learned by comparing predators, who eat another species as part of their evolved biology, to human predators who intend to terribly harm someone of their own kind.
And it just doesn’t make sense – or wise – to compare the mobbing behavior of songbirds that dive-bomb a house cat with Selma’s march to Montgomery by activists who fought for civil rights.
Despite these issues, there is some fascinating material in Wildhood supported by numerous notes taken from the reading of the scientific literature by the authors. The structure of the book is attractive. Each of the four main sections is centered on a concept and an individual animal. In “Safety” we meet the penguin Ursula near Antarctica; in “Status”, hyena Shrink in Tanzania; in “Sex”, a Salt humpback whale born near the Dominican Republic; and in “Self-Reliance”, loup Slavc in Slovenia and Italy. Slavc’s life story is particularly fascinating: as he crossed the Alps, I was caught in the steep learning curve he went through to keep himself alive.
As an anthropologist with a career focused on animals, urging recognition of how we humans share our thinking and feeling capacities with many other species Wildhood a mixed blessing. Understanding the lives of animals can shed light on our own – and the lives of the beloved teens in our lives, too. However, pushing these interspecies too far does not do anyone justice.