Monday, February 17, 2020

There is poetry, art, and literature to be made out of natural history. There is meaning to be made out of science. (My review of the new book "Wildhood")

I had the pleasure of reviewing Wildhood, by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, for the journal Evolution. The uncorrected proof is posted in early view at the journal's website:

Here's a bit of my review, which I cannot republish in full at this time and so it's got gaping holes. But maybe these fragments will help inspire good ideas and some reading...

It’s been months since I saw a fox sunbathing late one afternoon in the center of a sandy equestrian ring down the road from my house.  I still check for her each time I pass. I have no idea if she was male or female, but her squinty, cool repose and solitary freedom said “teenager”. Under that sunbeam, she was stunning. I was jealous? I gawked at her until she stood up and disappeared into the pines. Having only ever glimpsed two families at dens, most foxes I see are padding along with purpose or decomposing along the highway. Never did any of them vibe “teenager”. Why not, and why this one?

Teenagers in the Animal Kingdom are often difficult to distinguish from adults and that’s one reason scientists have paid them less attention. For another, adolescence is fleeting. As the thinking goes, better for yourself and your lineage if you can master adult behavior in a hurry, once it’s expected of you.

People like to think of human adolescence as a carefree period that we should savor, or that we would savor if only youth weren’t wasted on the young.  This warped hindsight makes it especially hard to comprehend the increasing malaise, literally, that is the American teenage experience (Twenge 2017). Whether we’re savoring it or suffering through it, whether we’re iGeners without jobs commuting in our parents’ car from our parents’ home to the state university or not; no matter where on Earth adolescent humans are coming of age, they cannot rush through this life history stage. Anthropologists like to think humans are strange for developing into physical adult form so far in advance of behaving like one, but this lag, long or short, is just how it’s done in the wild. Upon reading Wildhood anyone who believes that human teenagers are animals in their own right or that iGeners are especially [insert negative opinion here], will reflect carefully on the basis for their position, if not reconsider.  From a place of genuine awe about, and compassion for, human adolescents, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers have unleashed their insightful curiosity on what it means to be a teenager on planet Earth with the hope that being one as a Homo sapiens will get better as a result. [...]

Anchoring each of the four crucial aspects of adolescence are four real-life animals: Ursula (a king penguin to lead us through safety), Shrink (a spotted hyena to lead us through status), Salt (a North Atlantic humpback whale to lead us through sex), and Slavc (a European wolf to lead us through self-reliance which envelops the first three components). Their individual, sometimes harrowing, stories are beautifully narrated and elegantly woven into the deep exploration of each topic. Readers who are sensitive to anthropomorphism will not be dismayed.

Transferring insights about nonhuman animal behavior to humans can be tricky. I struggled in leaping with the authors from penguins threatened by leopard seals to humans threatened by standardized tests and social media. I struggled to link what I know about people’s privilege to the suggestion that it’s a similar force playing out in other species. Likewise, I struggled through the discussion of nepotism since our species’ actual beliefs about relatedness, featuring beliefs about, and understanding of, how males contribute, sets us apart from all other creatures who aren’t actually thinking about kinship (Dunsworth 2016; Dunsworth and Buchanan 2017). Sure, when it comes to many facets of life, like safely navigating a world with gravity, there is “competence without comprehension” (Dennett 2017), but that uniquely human comprehension about relatedness seems to be an important part of why humans have quite different and intricate kinship systems compared to our closest relatives, resulting in especially human forms of privilege, nepotism, status, sexual behavior, etc. 

Other important cultural considerations are downplayed in Wildhood, like gender. Because gender is largely exclusively a human phenomenon, the decision to focus cross-species comparisons elsewhere makes sense. However gender’s impact on human adolescence cannot be understated.  Biological anthropologist Meredith Reiches (2019) writes about how [...] 

Human culture involves extreme cooperation too. [...] 

Wildhood’s authors consider deeply the role of parents in their teens’ socialization and this discussion is largely focused on the inheritance and learning of social skills, rank, and status. Of course, humans are fair for comparison, as they are across the entire book, but again there is something subtle but powerful that’s downplayed in Wildhood: the benefits of friendships and how to get them. Biological anthropologist Michelle Rodrigues and colleagues (2019) found that human teens, as they transition to relying more heavily on peers, have greater social support from their friends as well as fewer depressive symptoms if they have stronger parental relationships.  [...]

With such an intense need for social support, one might wonder if humans are still wild (Gibbons 2014) and whether our adolescence even counts as “wildhood.” In her memoir Part Wild, Ceiridwen Terrill (2011) ponders the differences between wild wolf and domestic dog development, and it is relevant to Wildhood. [...]

On Wildhood’s page 144, the unique power and beauty of the book is laid bare. After considering myriad factors that shape an animal’s social development and its place in hierarchical society, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers arrive at the crucial implications for adolescent humans in educational settings: “Understanding that differences in status can impair learning and academic performance is essential for educators and students at all levels. It may be useful for an elementary school teacher struggling to understand why a bright child can’t grasp a concept. Or why a middle or high school student who gets the material just can’t demonstrate it on the test. And it should be part of campus conversations about clubs and societies that, through the exclusion of others by race, gender, and socioeconomic level, create the kinds of status hierarchies known to impair learning ability, academic performance, and possibly future opportunities for members of excluded groups.”

Wildhood begins with one long argument for its existence, no doubt a reflection of the culture of nonfiction science publishing. Sure, some books may work as explorations or “guided tours” but it is expected of authors, if not demanded by publishers, that nonfiction books have an argument (Toor 2019) to be thrust into the marketplace. Fiction is excused, of course, because the argument is understood: reading is good, it can even be enjoyable, and it is a portal into other lives, other worlds that are otherwise unavailable. To read fiction is to become a bigger version of yourself. This is the same profound outcome of nonfiction and, yet, readers are served arguments. There is poetry, art, and literature to be made out of natural history. There is meaning to be made out of science. Just relating ourselves to other animals, is argument enough and should be understood.  To their credit, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers complete this rite of passage in the preface before moving on and never looking back.  

I keep looking back for that sunbathing fox who was a teenager, to my mind, because she looked wildly alive from my adult perspective. One of my most intense teenage memories is of driving my parents’ car, alone for the first time, to go pick up some toilet paper and milk.  Running this mundane errand, I’d never felt more alive. I did envy that gorgeous fox, soaking in the rays all to herself, embodying my wilder younger years.  At 42 years old, with a small child and with hundreds of undergraduate students, I connect the electricity of life with them, of wildness with youth and not with what I am increasingly becoming. But these mopey sentiments fade away with the attitude that “teenage” is just a number. In the book’s front matter, where the authors list the age ranges of wildhood across species, one animal’s is kept open-ended.

Literature Cited
Dunsworth, H. 2016. Do animals know where babies come from? Scientific American 314(1): 66-69. 

Dunsworth, H., and A. Buchanan. 2017. Sex makes babies. Aeon Magazine August 9, 2017. 

Dennett, D.C. 2017. From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. W.W. Norton & Co, New York.

Gibbons, A. 2014. How we tamed ourselves—and became modern. Science 346(6208): 405-406. DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6208.405

Natterson-Horowitz, B., and K. Bowers. 2019. Wildhood: The epic journey from adolescence to adulthood in humans and other animals. Scribner, New York.

Reiches, M.W. 2019. Adolescence as a Biocultural Life History Transition. Annual Review of Anthropology 48: 151-68. 

Rodrigues, M.A., Sanford, S.R., Rogers, M.P., Lee, K.M.N., Wilson, M.A., Amos, J., Hunter, C.D., and K.B.H. Clancy. 2019. From maternal tending to adolescent befriending: The adolescent transition of social support. American Journal of Primatology e23050.

Terrill, C. 2011. Part Wild: One woman’s journey with a creature caught between the worlds of wolves and dogs. Scribner, New York.

Toor, R. 2019. Scholars Talk Writing: How a Literary Agent Views Academic Books.  The Chronicle of Higher Education July 14, 2019

Twenge, J.M. 2017, iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy—and completely unprepared for adulthood.  Atria, New York.

If you are blocked by a paywall at Evolution and would like to have the entire text of the review, just email me

Friday, February 14, 2020

Moving (and in chaos), not stopping MT!

Dear MT viewers,
We are in the (chaotic) process of moving from Penn State to Massachusetts, so haven't been able to do any posts for a while.

BUT please keep checking, as we will be back!