Has there ever been a more accurate word to describe the period between childhood and adulthood (a.k.a. the teenage years) than “wildhood”? Authors Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers use the apt descriptor as the title of their latest book Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals. In it, they explore that fraught period of adolescence, noting the many challenges and surprising similarities that mark the stage, through time and across multiple species. Here, the authors explain how they came up with the name wildhood:
Our term needed to describe the phase of life in which biology and environment come together to shape mature individuals across all species. It had to be unbounded by a specific age, physiologic sign, or cultural, social, or legal milestone. And it had to capture the vulnerability, excitement, danger and possibility of this distinct phase of life… We chose “wild” to capture the unpredictable nature of this life-stage and acknowledge the shared animal roots. And we added the old English suffix “hood,” which means both a “state of being” (boyhood, girlhood) and a “group of persons” (neighborhood, sisterhood, knighthood), to indicate membership in the planetwide tribe of adolescents.”
The fundamental principle of the book is that all animals, across all species – whether fish, fowl, insect or human – must learn to navigate through the same challenges in wildhood before successfully reaching adulthood. The authors center around four core life skills: staying safe, maneuvering within social hierarchies, courting potential mates, and fending for oneself. They follow four “teenagers” – Ursula, a king penguin born near Antarctica; Shrink, a spotted hyena in Tanzania; Salt, a humpback whale; and Slavc, a European wolf – along with a host of others creatures around the world, as they face tests on their march toward maturity. While it’s common for humans to anthropomorphize animal behavior, the stories of Ursula, Shrink, Salt, and Slavc are backed by years of GPS data, radio collar studies, and peer-reviewed reports. Authors Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers, scholars at UCLA and Harvard, use a cross-disciplinary approach – incorporating research in the fields of evolutionary biology, medicine, neurobiology, behavioral ecology, animal welfare, and human adolescence – to summarize the science behind the animals’ journeys to adulthood.
As the mother of two teenagers, with a third fast fast on his way to teendom, I found this book absolutely fascinating. In fact, it made my favorite nonfiction of 2019 list. The authors write with a surprisingly empathetic tone toward a time of life often disparaged or belittled by adults, and it prompted me to look at the sometimes baffling behavior and choices of my teens with a different perspective. Through the wildlife coming-of-age stories, the authors relate the ways that human teenagers in the throes of wildhood are driven by the same universal motivations as their animal brethren – including risk-taking, social posturing, and parental conflict – as an inevitable part of the maturation process, and they examine these behaviors from an evolutionary and cross-species lens to help readers better understand this tumultuous period of life.
The other day, a friend of mine told me she discovered that her teenage son had been taking a shortcut home by riding his bike on the train tracks of a railroad overpass. You heard that right… if a train was barreling down the tracks while he was on the overpass, the only escape route would be 20 feet down. Onto 4 lanes of busy traffic. After reaming him out (though, those might not have been her exact words), my friend asked her son in frustration, “Do you know how dangerous that is? What were you thinking?” His reasoning was typical teenager: but riding on the train tracks is “fun.” Wildhood, indeed.