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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