Teenagers: A Natural History

Teenagers: A Natural History

Author David Bainbridge
Published by Portobello Books
Distributed by Allen &Unwin
RRP NZ$39.99 AUS$35.00
GT Issue 2009 T4
Reviewer Catherine George
(with the rather unhelp­ful assist­ance of Seamus Ford, age 14)

If you have ever thought your teenager’s beha­viour may best be explained by David Attenborough branch­ing out from anim­als to adoles­cents, this may be the book for you.
David Bainbridge is a vet who teaches veter­in­ary ana­tomy at Cambridge University, and in this book he aims to use his bio­lo­gical know­ledge to con­vince us that being a teen­ager is a pos­it­ive and under­stand­able exper­i­ence.
The book cov­ers the gamut of teen­age issues, like many oth­ers, but does it in the “pop­u­lar sci­ence” genre.

It was pos­sibly this lack of attempt to dis­cuss broader social, cul­tural and gender issues which teen­agers have to deal with that made it less suc­cess­ful with me.
Of course if I’d paid more atten­tion to the title, (A Natural History) I may have been more for­giv­ing.
While tak­ing his point that many aspects of teen­age devel­op­ment can be explained by bio­logy, his dis­missal of cul­tural influ­ences makes the book less than con­vin­cing – there was no evid­ence that the teen­age changes he dis­cusses are inter­na­tional, as he writes from a very white and west­ern per­spect­ive.
One example is there was no men­tion of the impact of tech­no­logy on teen­agers lives, surely a huge omission.

There was a def­in­ite clash in the writer’s voice over the course of the book.
There are clear and con­cise sci­entific explan­a­tions of everything from why teen­agers are bet­ter than every­one else, why all the sleep risk and anger, to whether teen­age drug use is really a bad thing.
For read­ers reas­on­ably versed in sci­ence, these will be inter­est­ing and may really make you see teen­agers in a dif­fer­ent light – beholden to their genetic makeup rather than sul­len and irrit­at­ing! I, how­ever, struggled with many of these pas­sages, as it is very dif­fi­cult to keep the easy read style Bainbridge is aim­ing at up without pat­ron­ising read­ers with bet­ter know­ledge of bio­logy.
And when he gets away from the straight sci­ence, his slightly twee informal voice gets extremely grat­ing, as if he isn’t sure of his audience.

While the book says it is for any­one, whether they are a teen­ager at the moment, know one or have been one, the real audi­ence for this will be par­ents and teach­ers fairly well versed in sci­ence. My 14 year old was inspired by the great cover and snappy blurb, but when it came to help with the review said “It was sooooo bor­ing. He thinks he’s really funny.
And he isn’t.” While this is a bit harsh, I have to go along with it a bit.
I don’t know if find­ing out that my son’s brain is slowly repla­cing the tegmentum-accumbens reward­seek­ing sys­tem with a tegmental-accumbens-prefrontal path­way that allows emo­tions to be more con­trolled by intel­lect will make our house any calmer, but I’ll try and keep it in mind.

Recommended for par­ents and teach­ers who would like a rel­at­ively easy explan­a­tion of the bio­logy of the teen­age years.

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