It's a jungle out there, if you're transitioning to adulthood. No matter what species you are. Sarah Ell talks with co-authors of Wildhood, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers to find out more.
A group of adolescents hanging out in a familiar spot, away from the watchful eyes of parents ... a bit of fooling around, wrestling and tickling ... some casual flirting, checking out potential partners ... It could be a Friday-night teenage party in any part of the world. But it could also be a bunch of young lions on the African savannah, or a rowdy pod of young humpback whales.
Everyone who has lived through it knows that "growing up" can be a turbulent and traumatic. But is the often intense, transformative experience of leaving childhood behind and learning to live in the adult world unique to humankind? Or is it a universal condition, shared by other species on the planet?
Medical doctor Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and science writer and animal behaviourist Kathryn Bowers first joined forces to write the ground-breaking and bestselling Zoobiquity, published in 2012, which examined the connections between human and animal health. After consulting on the case of an emperor tamarin monkey experiencing heart failure, cardiologist Natterson-Horowitz began researching what other human afflictions were also suffered by animals, uncovering a previous largely unexamined world of koalas with chlamydia, reindeer addicted to magic mushrooms, jaguars with breast cancer and rhinos with leukaemia.
The authors coined the term "zoobiquity" to imply the commonality of links between humans and other animals. Now the pair have created another term as they turn their focus to another aspect of human experience which we might like to think of as uniquely our own: the period of "coming of age", between becoming physically sexually mature and assuming full adulthood. Wildhood captures both the unpredictability of this life stage and the roots we share with our animal cousins, "across species and evolutionary time".
Throughout human history, young people have often been given a bad rap — viewed with suspicion and even feared by the older members of the populace. (In New Zealand, think about the moral panic around milk bars and teenage sexuality in the 1950s, which resulted in a government inquiry.) This researchers have found that this phenomenon — known as ephebiphobia — is also not restricted to our own species.
"From an evolutionary perspective, in animal societies everywhere there are hierarchies where the dominant animals are older and subordinate ones are typically younger," Natterson-Horowitz says. "But these subordinate animals eventually get bigger and get older and become a threat. So going back to the ancient roots of this, if you're looking at an adolescent, you're basically looking at your replacement."
The pair proposes that there are four basic skill areas which an adolescent individual — be it a human or other animal — has to master in order to survive in the adult world: safety, status, self-reliance and, the key for the continuation of the species, sex. These four factors are basically the same, the authors say, whether the adolescent in question is a fruit fly (in which case it might spend only 9 to 14 days in this phase), a spotted hyena (18 months to five years) or a human (from around age 11 until well into their 20s).
The book is full of examples and case studies, from an inexperienced young king penguin discovering the dangers of the deep ocean for the first time, to a spotted hyena learning the rules of social hierarchy on the plains of Tanzania and a young wolf leaving his home forest for the first time, to the long and varied sex-life of a 50-year-old Atlantic humpback whale.
We highly evolved humans might assume that animals are off doing it left, right and centre — following their "animal instincts" — as soon as they can. But Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers write that in fact in most animals there is "a noticeable lag" between the completion of puberty — when animals become physically mature — and the beginning of breeding.
And what do they do while they're waiting? Just like curious, hormonal human teenagers, the authors believe adolescent animals of many species are learning the social and "cultural" skills related to successful mating in the future — in other words, exploring and perfecting the art of courtship.
"What was interesting to us was how long it takes for some of these animals to master courtship. Sex is easy — courtship is harder and takes a lot of learning," says Natterson-Horowitz.
Until recently, much emphasis on animal behaviour has been placed on male sexuality, while overlooking the experience and behaviour of females — a situation the authors hope will increasingly be reversed.
"We're hoping to be part of that change," Natterson-Horowitz says. "There is a whole movement of going back and looking at what we think we know about animal behaviour and considering the lenses through which that information was acquired. It's quite well-known that there is a very heteronormative lens through which animal behaviour has been viewed for so long and that's being re-thought."
For Wildhood, the pair examined research about animal behaviour through the particular lens of adolescence. "Just because an animal looks big in their body doesn't mean they're experienced — just as a 13-year-old boy might be 6ft tall but he's not an adult. Having a lens that can distinguish between these experiences, and especially those vulnerabilities, is powerful, and hasn't applied to wild animals before."
In case you're wondering, research quite clearly shows we're not the only animals that have recreational sex. In Zoobiquity, a chapter called "Roargasm" looked at the sexual behaviours of animals beyond mating, revealing among other things that species as diverse as monkeys, whales and elephants masturbate and bats, goats and a range of other animals engage in oral sex.
"There is a great deal of non-procreative sex in non-human animal species," Natterson-Horowitz says. "I can't say if they're doing it for fun but it is certainly not true to say that we humans have sex for this reason and that reason and animals do it to reproduce."
One of the other aspects of sexual behaviour, which we might think of as being — unfortunately — human, is the use of sex to assert power or dominance. In this #metoo era, it's pertinent to note that in some animal species, males use not only actual force but also non-physical coercion to make females comply with their sexual desires. Male dolphins and quail, for example, harass potential mates by not allowing them time to forage and feed until they have submitted.
"For a long time there have been scholars who have written about sexual coercion in wild animal species and, of course, there's a range of behaviours in human and animal societies," Natterson-Horowitz says. "It should go without saying that just because we find something in the animal world, it's not an endorsement for it in human life — on the contrary. Our humanhood is to some extent defined but how we choose not to do things that are done in nature at times.
"But one of the things that was really interesting was to learn that in terms of sexual coercion there are certain more vulnerable animals than others and, to some extent, it's being a younger animal is likely a vulnerability."
More troublingly, some chimpanzee females have been observed initiating sex during their fertile periods with male animals who have been aggressive towards them in the past.
"These females were not choosing: they were complying," Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers write in Wildhood. "They were approaching these males because they were scared not to.
"It was really interesting to learn about and see this form of sexual coercion, in which there isn't actual physical restraint. Wildlife biologists who had been looking at the power dynamic in a group of animals discovered that what they had thought was not coercive [sexual behaviour] actually was, because of powerful male individuals who were intimidating the females who basically had less power. It's hard to read about that and not think about what's happening in our own society."
Learning about sex and courtship is, of course, complicated for human adolescents by another factor that animals don't have to deal with: the all-pervasive influence of the internet. The easy availability of porn, social media and sexual messaging add another layer of complexity to the journey to maturity.
"It's kind of made all four areas really hard — how to stay safe, navigate social hierarchies and make friends, how to conduct romances and how to maintain a self," says Bowers. "In terms of sexuality, it seems one of the hardest things is how condensed and concentrated sexuality is."
Bowers, a California native, likens it to how growers have used selective breeding to deliberately increase the psychoactive properties of cannabis over the past few decades.
"Cannabis is a much stronger drug than it was 30 years ago and the same thing has happened with sexuality and the internet. It's more concentrated - and more available - and that has made it harder [for young people].
"But that's why we found it so useful to look to nature for these four areas of behaviour. At the same time as it's harder for modern teens, it is still all about safety, status, sex and self-reliance and, if we can just concentrate on those four things, then whatever the technology is, it's still the same four challenges. And, for me, I find that very comforting — it's still four things to concentrate on, not infinity things to worry about."
In terms of helping our own offspring navigate the treacherous waters of adolescence, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers say communication is key. Both parents themselves, their children now young adults, they have been able to observe the process first-hand while researching for and writing the book.
"One thing we're hoping Wildhood will do is open up conversations between parents and children, or among teens themselves, about what it means to have a sexual conversation," Bowers says.
"When you look at courtship videos of animals, where one animal does this then the other one does this, they're often called courtship rituals or displays or dances. But what we realised through our research is that these are actually conversations and that they can change at any moment. It's not just 'push a button and the behaviour happens', it's two animal individuals negotiating if they are ready to move on to the next step at any moment.
"We think this idea of conversation would be a useful idea to bring into sex education, and a lot of that is starting to happening. There are many programmes that are trying to help young people understand what a relationship is, rather than just the mechanics of sex.
"People who work with teens say that's what [young people] want, too — more guidance in relationships. How to get one, how to get out of one and how to do it kindly and respectfully. And that seems to a step in the right direction."
Wildhood, the epic journey from adolescents to adulthood in humans and other animals, by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers (Scribe, $40)