Astounding Connections Between Human and Animal Adolescents
An interview with the award-winning authors of a fascinating new book.
Posted January 23, 2020
I'm pleased to post this fascinating interview with Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers1, authors of Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals. After I began reading this wide-ranging transdisciplinary book, I felt like I was on my own epic journey as I read about myriad astounding connections about which I had never thought, during which I learned a lot about their "entirely new way of thinking about the crucial, vulnerable, and exhilarating phase of life between childhood and adulthood across the animal kingdom." I'm pleased that Barbara and Kathryn could take the time to answer a few questions about their seminal and forward-looking new book that convincingly argues against human exceptionalism. Our interview went as follows.
Why did you write Wildhood?
Horowitz: For more than a decade we’ve been exploring wildlife biology and veterinary science for insights into human health and development. Among other things, we’ve discovered new explanations for certain forms of heart disease, cancer, and obesity. We’ve also studied psychiatric conditions—anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, and other kinds of emotional pain not unique to humans.
For Wildhood, we decided to apply our “species-spanning” methodology to adolescence.2 We wanted to understand rising rates of anxiety, suicide, sexual vulnerability, and dangerous risk-taking in teens today.
Bowers: We also wanted to bring dignity to this intense time of life. Adolescence is not a disease to be cured, a burden to be endured, or a phase to be shrugged off. What happens during adolescence shapes destinies. Behaviorists call it a “sensitive period” for this very reason. And yet, while our culture prizes youth, adolescents themselves are often underestimated, dismissed, or called lazy. On the other hand, sometimes adults mock adolescents for their passion, exuberance, or devotion to a cause. There’s even a word for it—ephebiphobia—(pronounced eh-FEE-buh-phobia)—which means the fear or hatred of adolescents. We hope Wildhood will empower human teens and shine a light on the power and potential of every adolescent animal on the planet.
How did you two come to work together and how does your latest book follow up on your previous book Zoobiquity?
Bowers: A mutual friend introduced us in Los Angeles in 2008. We hit it off right away.
Horowitz: To write Zoobiquity, we literally brought together physicians and veterinarians to explore shared health vulnerabilities across species and evolutionary time, looking for ways to help patients of many species.
With Wildhood, we looked for developmental commonalities shared by animals that aren’t traditionally compared to one another. We found that animals who are big in size but inexperienced are vulnerable in several ways: 1) they’re easy prey and often targeted by predators; 2) they’re exploited (including sexually) by dominant older animals; 3) they’re hungrier as subordinates—which makes them take greater risks and increases their vulnerability to starvation. New studies are showing that negative adolescent adversity in rodents, dogs, numerous wild species and humans is correlated with behavioral disturbances and reduced survival later in life.
What are some of your major discoveries and what sorts of similarities are there across diverse species in the transition from childhood to wildhood to adolescence?
Bowers: The “teenage brain” has gotten a lot of attention over the past couple of decades. Compared to children’s brains and adult brains, adolescent brains show unique patterns of development. In Wildhood we add a crucial piece of knowledge: humans are not the only creatures with teenage brains. Other animals show distinct neurobiological changes during adolescence that affect their behavior. After synthesizing our research, we found that adolescents must learn to handle four core life challenges in order to survive as adults.
What are those four tests of adolescence?
Bowers: In order to become a mature and successful adult, every adolescent must learn to: stay safe from predators and exploiters; relate to others and navigate social hierarchies; communicate sexual desire and interpret the desires of others; become self-reliant enough to find food and disperse into the world. In other words: safety, status, sex, and self-reliance.
How does understanding wildhood help us to learn more about the evolution of different ways of coping with the social demands of growing up?
Horowitz: Much adolescent social stress comes down to something we call the “neurobiology of comparison.” Many elements of the human brain engaged in emotional activation evolved in ancient animals to help them navigate crucial assessments around hierarchy formation. Mood and status are linked through this ancient neurobiology. Rising in status increases a schooling fish, flocking bird or herding ungulate’s chances of surviving and reproducing. Pleasure and pain shape animal behavior and increase fitness. Since rising in status elevates an animal’s chances of surviving and reproducing, when an animal rises in status it is “rewarded” with neurochemicals including serotonin. When an animal falls in status they feel the pain of reduced serotonin.
Comparisons are at the center of modern social media experience. The pain or fear of missing out and other social media agonies can be traced back to activation and overloading of systems evolved for much less assessment and ranking.
Recognizing the evolutionary purpose of neurotransmitters and sensations makes it impossible to deny the existence of physical or emotional pain in any animal. If it is going to shape behavior it has to be painful. Moreover, because the status a wild animal attains in adolescence may follow it for the rest of its life, it makes sense that adolescents “feel” rising and falling in status more powerfully. The life or death sensation teenagers may have while on social media, for example, has its roots in this ancient legacy.
What are some of the practical applications of the epic journey from adolescence to adulthood?
Horowitz: For years we’ve used our research framework to teach adolescents and young adults about anxiety and depression, sexual coercion, privilege, and independence.
One practical thing to remember is that adulthood doesn’t just happen with the passage of time. As we write in the book, “boys and girls don’t become men and women overnight. And the transition from foal to stallion, joey to kangaroo, or sea otter cub to sea otter elder is just as distinct, just as necessary, and just as extraordinary. All animals need time, experiences, practice, and failure to become mature adults.”
"Some risk behaviors are actually safety behaviors, and peer influence is often very important. We found that animals over-protected as adolescents, including mammals and fish, were often less safe as adults, and animals that explore new areas with peers learn safety behaviors more quickly.
How we feel is based on how we rank relative to others. We found that assessment during hierarchy formation is stressful and that the more animals are exposed to assessment, the more stressed they become. Adolescent mood swings, seen through the lens of hierarchy-formation can be understood better. We might want to limit exposure to social media or create what we call “status sanctuaries,” times, areas, or places where adolescents are not being judged.
Many adolescent animals “wait” to have sex. First times are hard for everyone—the roots of consent and coercion can be found in behavioral conversations hundreds of millions of years in the making".
Who is your intended audience?
Horowitz: Anyone who lives with, works with, or is an adolescent. That means parents, teachers, counselors, coaches, therapists, other educators…and of course, adolescents themselves.
Bowers: We’ve found that grandparents engage with the ideas in Wildwood in a special way. Grandparents have experienced three wildhoods: their own, their children’s, and their children’s children’s. Pondering how safety, status, sex, and self-reliance change over a lifetime can bring a new understanding to life’s deepest questions, such as: “Am I safe?” “What is friendship?” “Whom do we love?” “How do we make a living, understand social privilege, and create fair societies?”
Any adult can use Wildhood to re-think adolescence. Understanding how adults pass on the best of their culture to enrich and sustain the world could not be more important during times of rapid global change.
What are some of your current projects?
Horowitz: Studying female health across species is one of our interests. We’re developing high school and college curricula about species-spanning health and wellness.
Bowers: We’re also looking at expanding our science communication efforts over different types of media—print and broadcast, fiction and nonfiction. And we’re beginning a project that will bring the same attention and respect to older age that we tried to bring to adolescence in Wildhood.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?
Horowitz: We believe human exceptionalism is a blindfold that prevents us from recognizing important connections across diverse species. Removing this blindfold allows us to see solutions. But to do this well, disciplines need to communicate their science to one another. Human psychiatrists should study animal behavior. Neuroscientists should study behavioral ecology. Anthropologists should study the systems that shape human behavior, including autonomic physiology and evolutionary biology. We hope this kind of thinking will help every human adolescent understand their deep and ancient connection with every other animal adolescent coming of age on Earth.
1) Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, is a Visiting Professor at Harvard in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and Professor of Medicine at UCLA. Her research focuses on the natural world as a source of insights into human pathology and developmental challenges.
Kathryn Bowers is an animal behaviorist and author. A former editor at the Atlantic Monthly, CNN-International, and Zocalo Public Square, Bowers is also a Slate Magazine/New America Future Tense Fellow. The authors' New York Times bestseller, Zoobiquity, was a Finalist in the American Association for the Advancement of Science Excellence in Science Books Award, a Smithsonian Top Book of 2012 and a Discover Magazine Best Book of the Year. It has been translated into seven languages and has been chosen as a Common Read at universities across the country.
2) A note on methodology:
We’ve developed novel methodologies for generating and testing hypotheses using a phylogenetic model which integrates neurobiological, developmental, and ecological data. Horowitz's background in neuroscience, cardiovascular physiology, medicine, and evolutionary biology along with a decade of comparative studies have helped us identify and understand scientifically powerful connections. We used this methodology to study a diverse range of species to identify shared vulnerabilities and strengths