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A Veterinary Approach to the Teenage Years

Teenagers: A Natural History: A Natural History - David Bainbridge, Gordon  Neufeld

Bainbridge, David. Teenagers: A Natural History. Greystone.  Vancouver: D & M, 2009.


(This is a reposting of a blog entry I originally posted some years ago (Here).  I just came upon it again this week and decided it was worth another look.)


This is an incredibly bone-headed book, and I’m wanting to take a closer look at why because it seems to represent a specific kind of boneheadedness increasingly widespread now–a mechanistic conviction that whatever people do is substantially mandated by biology or some other sort of “natural” imperative imbed in us by evolution or anatomy and inescapable. In this case, what teenagers are (always are, it seems, and always must be) was established by the evolutionary development that produced homo sapiens–and while Bainbridge does acknowledge here and there the possibility that human beings might occasionally be influenced by their personal genetic makeup or history or the culture that surrounds them, he nevertheless falls back immediately into his basic, fundamental assumption: whatever teenagers do now, as a stereotyped group, must be what they have always done in some form or another throughout history and in every culture, because evolution made them that way and required that they act that way.   There is really never anything that people choose to do that wasn’t in fact a choice actually made by the inherent will of their species trying to be the fittest to survive.

Indeed, his faith in the evolutionary imperative is so complete that he tends even to assume that counterproductive things that people do–things like experimenting with addictive drugs and such that might well lead them into serious trouble–must have emerged from some aspect of human biology that was a positive force in allowing human beings to survive. He says, for instance, that “even the most unpleasant changes [in puberty] confer some benefit on us, or at least they did as some point in the past. When you start to view puberty as a product of evolution,much of what happens to teenagers begins to make sense” (42). He then has to admit that there’s no known evolutionary advantage in various typical patterns of body hair, or in things like teenage acne. And he never considers the possibility that things of this sort might be the kinds of evolutionary mistakes that could end up dooming homo sapiens to the dustheap of history, and therefore be evidence of lack of fitness to survive. Even though he insists that homo sapiens has existed for little more than an eye-blink in terms of evolutionary processes, he sees every single aspect of human biology as nothing but evidence of what has kept us going and therefore what is and always must be true about us and what will and always explain all of our social behaviour–until, I suppose, a species fitter for survival comes along.

His absolute conviction that every aspect of our biology and behaviour emerges from the evolutionary imperative is revealed most clearly in his ongoing habit of using language that ascribes will to biological organisms–their main if not only urge is an inherent will for their species to continue, and so, he keeps saying, they decide to adapt their biology in an effort to do so.

I’m not about to dispute Bainbridge’s obviously substantial knowledge of human biology and of recent developments in the sciences that study it. He does seem to know a lot, and he does present it in clear and interesting ways. Nevertheless, he does then tend to jump illogically from what is known about biology to the conclusion that it accounts for things such as the typical behaviour of teenagers, their typical rebelliousness, etc.  It seem fair to asserts, as he does, that “evolution has given us our teenage years for a very good reason–in the long run they help us to succeed as individuals (that is what evolution does” (4). But having a period in which one makes the biological transition between childhood and full maturity dos not necessarily mean what Bainbridge unquestioningly understands the teen age to be: a collection of cultural norms and stereotypes garnered from the popular culture of the last fifty or sixty years. He asserts, very unpersuasively, “We all know the teenage mind” (100), as if there was just one shared by all teenagers. Indeed, adults can share tales of their lazy, rebellious teenagers because “this stereotyped nature of teenage behaviour suggests that there are certain ordered, consistent changes that take place in all teenage minds” (113-114).

For Bainbridge, indeed, “teenagers are not a social idea–they are quite simply different from everybody else” (12). In asserting that, he ignores a vast history in which those in the teenaged years behaved quite differently that stereotypes imply they do now, and a huge spectrum of other understandings of how people do and/or ought to behave in their teenage years in the variety of differing cultures and subgroups existing even just now in the world today. In all these differing circumstances, I suppose, it might be possible that teenagers still felt and feel not only the same biological urges, but also, an urge towards the same culturally-mandated expressions of those urges, as do contemporary James Deans and Taylor Swifts and such, even though the culture they were or are part of didn’t acknowledge then as being distinctly teenage-like, as being evidence of a separate category of human existence in need of an name and an special kind of analysis and understanding. But I think it highly unlikely that young Buddhists in Asia or young serfs in medieval Europe or young Hutterites living apart from contemporary mainstream culture in colonies in Western Canada or young devout wives of Mormons patriarchs were or are all just secret Barbies and Jonas Brothers at heart.

For that matter, not even all the young, middle-class white people in first world English-speaking countries from which Bainbridge derives his stereotypes display the stereotyped behaviours that popular culture identifies as typically teenaged and that Bainbridge insists are biologically mandated. I can’t say that I much recognize the teenaged years of myself or my own three children in his descriptions of what it always is to be a teenager. His argument might be more convincing if he didn’t just take it for granted that what the media tells us teenagers are now is both true and universal and an inevitable product of biology. According to Bainbridge, all teenagers “undergo an active process of rejection of their parents which is probably essential for their development as individuals” (221). But surely a lot of teenagers in the past and now have made it and do still happily make it into adulthood without rejecting their parent’s values in any way at all. Does that mean they are biological mistakes and, presumably, therefore doomed not to reproduce enough to keep their genes surviving? It hardly seems likely.

For me, the most annoying aspect of Bainbridge’s work is that, in trying to establish that being teenaged is indeed a unique and special stage of human life, he had to invent both a childhood and an adulthood quite unlike it; and his version of childhood in particular is particularly unconvincing, not to mention, an insult to children.

He tends to assume that all adults everywhere always have been just like he is himself: “All adults have similar memories of adolescence, distorted, distanced, and rationalised by the lens of age” (76); furthermore, it happens not because of nostalgia or the imposition of cultural stereotypes on our own past, but because “our brain has changed since we were teenagers.” And in order to define teenagers as newly aware of and sensitive to relationships and the feelings of others, he seem to feel he has to insist that children are devoid of these qualities–that their biology prevents them from thinking deeply, or feeling deeply, or understanding anyone or anything deeply.

He says, “we now think we evolved children to be little brain incubators–charming, unthreatening people whose brains are not finished, but who do not eat much of our valuable food because they are small. It makes sense to keep them small for as long as possible, because all they have to do is talk all the time, break things, and manipulate adults” (69). I suspect Bainbridge is trying, and failing miserably, to be funny here.

Or again, the second decade of life is “a time when we start to ascribe extremely subtle and complex interpretations of the world around us–this is why a ten-year-old could not write a sonnet” (108). And yet some ten-year-olds do write sonnets, and many more have very complex understandings of the world and the people around them.

Or again, horrifically, “Children may be charming little people who can talk and think a little, but we do not become fully mentally human until we are teenagers” (132). Yes, I checked it–that’s an accurate quote.

Among other things, furthermore, as the teenae years begin, “many of us start to see ourselves as individuals at this time” (183). “As the first ten years of life elapse,” in fact, “children occasionally refer to how they see themselves and how they think others see them, but these flickerings of self-analysis are interspersed with long periods of an endearing ignorance of self. . . . While children are rather poor at self-analysis, preferring instead for adults to show them the correct way to do things, adolescents are the complete opposite” (189). Furthermore, “a major reason why depression often starts in adolescence is that this is the first time when the brain has sufficient cognitive abilities to be able to suffer it” (200). And we need to be teenagers in order to “start to discover the subtleties of nuance, sarcasm, irony, and satire” (138). Yeah sure–so much for Dr. Seuss and all.

All of that, of course, merely confirms some very old and very wrong assumptions about childhood–assumptions that have allowed and still do allow far too many adults to treat children cruelly or pre-emptorily, on the basis that they don’t have the feelings to be hurt by it or the intelligence to see through it.

In the light of the concerns I have with the arguments presented in this book, I probably shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bainbridge is by profession a–wait for it–veterinary anatomist! Who better to understand and analyze the problems of human teenagers than an animal doctor, right? He says, “I must emphasize that, as a veterinary surgeon with zoological training, it is philosophically pleasing for me to view humans as ‘just another species.’  After all, they are animals like any other, subject to the same rules of biology as any other, and amenable to study” (15)  In point of fact, they are not quite so amenable to study–Bainbridge complains more than once about the impossibility of conducting the appropriate experiments on human teenagers that would, for instance, allow scientists to determine the significance of chemicals essential in the developmental process by depriving control groups of them–shades of Dr. Mengele.

But the real problem here, once more, is that Bainbridge’s focus on humans as animals tends to ignore or slide over ethical issues–to conclude, for instance, that men are biologically mandated to be aggressive and women passive, so that controlling male aggression or women taking charge of their own fates come to be viewed as evolutionarily regressive acts, or perhaps, even, impossible. What am I make of a statement like this: “If men’s brains are hard-wired to be attracted to fine-limbed, smooth-skinned, high-voiced, round-faced people, does this explain paedophilia? Are male paedophiles simply men who are more attracted to the characteristics women retain from childhood than those women acquire to puberty” (61). If so, what ya gonna do about it, eh? Biology requires that these men prey on boys, so let ‘em at it.

In viewing humans as animals, Bainbridge also tends to ignore the ways in which we are cultural beings. “[I]t is obvious to any casual observer,” he insists, “that brains of teenage boys and teenage girls often work in different ways” (89)–their brains, mind you, not their culturally-inflected minds. In cartoons and bad movies and silly advice columns, yes–but in actual real life, as a matter of course? And note the taken-for-granted assumption that sex differences account for all gender differences: “surely a brain develops differently if it is housed in a male body than in a female body?” (90), and “Teenager inherit a brain that already knows what sex it is” (96–not surprisingly, Bainbridge has a hard time accounting for homosexuality, which he sees as both inherently genetic and counter-evolutionary, since it doesn’t lead to breeding). That’s really not all that far away from assuming that, say, brains are inherently different in bodies of different skin pigmentations. In fairness, I acknowledge that Bainbridge does wonder if “perhaps our sexuality is less hard-wired than a rat’s” (95).

In response to Bainbridge’s obsession with evolutionary explanations, I’m tempted to argue that the real reason for the success and survival of homo sapiens as a species has been its incredible imaginativeness and flexibility in developing differing kinds of social and cultural arrangements and understandings, and that rather than being at the mercy of its biology, it has survived and developed exactly because of its ingenuity in inventing a huge and complex and contradictory range of ways of organizing and understandings itself in response to that biology. That why there is history. The teen age has been significantly different in different times and places, in ways apparently not interesting to the veterinarian approach.