Teenagers: A Natural History

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Teenagers: A Natural History by David Bainbridge
Teenagers: A Natural History by David Bainbridge

Teenagers: A Natural History will change the way you think about teenagers. Far from their usual media image, they are not society’s scourge – instead they are the pinnacle of human achievement.

In this book, David Bainbridge, a Cambridge University vet and anatomist, is the first author to take a ‘zoological’ view of where teenagers came from and what they are for. Recent discoveries have now shown that teenagers are a unique human innovation, and that, remarkably, they are also the key to the unique success of the entire human race.

With a lively and accessible style he shows how and why the second decade of human life has become imbued with a heady mix of physical, mental, addictive, emotional and sexual change. Teenage biology and behaviour, often viewed as an unpredictable, idiosyncratic, disturbing mess, suddenly snap into focus as a beautifully choreographed sequence of interwoven steps along the journey to becoming the most complex creature on earth.

Indeed, this is the first time that a ‘zoological approach’ to teenagers could have been written. Viewing teenagers as the product of aeons of evolution, it explains for the first time why:

– Being a teenager is a positive thing for both the individual and the species

– Teenagers are a unique human innovation and they evolved to allow us to do most of the things that make humans special

– Much of the data explain why teenagers are the way they are has emerged only in the last ten years, and much of it has not yet been brought to public attention

– The physical, mental, addictive, emotional and sexual sides of teenage life happen for a reason: they are not just random failings of an undeveloped mind and body.

See also: Sciences Books for Teenagers

Again and again, Bainbridge considers how this journey actually affects the teenagers who travel it. Because of its pivotal role in the human experience, adolescence brings with it the most intense physical, emotional and amorous experiences of our lives. He considers why this evolutionary inheritance can make some people’s adolescence a joy they will treasure forever, while for others it marks the start of a decline into failure, insecurity, mental illness and suicide.

We now know that the teenage years are not just an uncomfortable transition between innocent childhood and mature adulthood. Instead, Bainbridge explains that adolescence – the central moment when all strands of our life collide – evolved for a very good reason. It is the single experience that makes us truly human.


Publication of Teenagers led to the following:

Newspaper Features and Interviews in: The Guardian (Teenagers: The Pinnacle of Evolution, 7 Feb 2009); The Glasgow Herald (The New Zoo Way To Tame A Teen, 3 Feb 2009); Irish Examiner (Smells Like Teen Spirit, 10 Mar 2009); Big Issue (twice, Feb 2009); Globe and Mail (Canada, May 2009); National Post (Canada, 20 May 2009); Colors (Italy); La Vanguardia (Spain); Redação Época (Brazil); La Repubblica (Italy, 19 Feb 2010); Star Phoenix & Vancouver Sun (Feb 2010); Grazia (Italy, in preparation).

Invited Articles: The Times (It’s not a Teenage Strop. It’s a Key Part of Evolution, 23 Feb 2009)

Radio Interviews: BBC Radio 4 (Woman’s Hour, 15 Apr 2009); National Talk Radio (Dublin, 9 Apr 2009); To the Best of Our Knowledge (USA, nationally syndicated, 23 Feb 09); Phantom 105.2 (Dublin, 17 Feb 2009); BBC London, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk; Radio New Zealand (This Way Up, Mar 2010).

Television appearances: It’s Only A Theory (BBC4); Frank Skinner’s Opinionated (ITV); All In The Mind (Australian Broadcasting Corporation); Tatami (RAI).

Invited talks, including: Werner Ganett Foundation, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY; Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon; South Bank Centre, London; Thinking pot, Turin; Dana Centre, Science Museum, London.

Reviews and comments

The author of this book does not dispute that almost all teenagers are morose, sullen, ungrateful, antagonistic, pretentious, awkward, aggressive, libidinous and suicidal. What he does is tell us why they are like this, for which many thanks… His central thesis is shocking, that adolescence – teenagerdom – is unique to humans and, more than this, defines us as modern, clever human beings.

As Bainbridge puts it: “Not only do teenagers spend more time looking inwards, but it starts to become something of an obsession. Early teens may sit for long periods mulling over their own hopes, fears, abilities and defects.” No kidding vet-boy.

So there you are: teenage angst explained away, without so much as a clout around the ear.

Rod Liddle, Sunday Times

Booklist: Treats in Store for 2009. Bainbridge’s zoological approach takes the upheaval of adolescence and turns it into a choreography of interwoven steps that become the most important years of our lives.

Feature: Teenagers: the pinnacle of evolution: It’s not a survival manual – there is none of that self-help preachiness you expect from books on teenagers. This has more of an evolutionary quest and aims to explain why teenagers are the way they are… So he wrote the book, in which he is truly ecstatic about teenagers, and which will no doubt get him many teenage fans… The tone in Teenagers is chatty and energetic and the chances are you will find something really useful here.

17 year-old daughter: I like the way David Bainbridge’s book doesn’t preach at you or make us seem like we’re lazy and violent. And it’s a cool thought that we’re really important because you always think it’s older people who are more important because they tell you what to do. I think it’s great that he’s honest about drugs.

15 year-old son: It’s good to have an adult on my side because I hate the way adults always tell you you’re wrong.

Sally Williams, The Guardian

Should you have a difficult teenager in your life, this book might just help everyone co-exist. Friendly and light-hearted, it attempts to explain why those years are so challenging. David Bainbridge is convinced that the teenage years are something to celebrate… he powerfully conveys the pressures on today’s teenagers – physiologically primed for sex, yet discouraged from reproducing… Teenagers: a natural history offers a fresh and encouraging perspective on a difficult and embarrassing, yet vitally important, stage in the human life cycle.

Gail Vines, Independent

At a time when youth culture is feared and demonised, here is a welcome antidote. As well as providing a highly readable account of the physical, emotional and mental changes that occur in the second decade of life, David Bainbridge argues that teenagers are the most impressive creatures on the planet. The evolution of adolescence, he contends, is what allowed the human brain to make its “great leap forward”.

Kate Douglas, NewScientist

Drawing on evolutionary biology, palaeoanthropology, psychology, his own happy memories of being a Led Zeppelin fan, and a chirpy prose style, he examines the teenage years with reverence, not to say awe.

Cassandra Jardine, New Statesman

This phenomenon and the behavioural traits that accompany it are, according to David Bainbridge, the author of this thoughtful but sometimes unsettling book, what makes teenagers so difficult for adults to understand.

Bainbridge, a veterinary surgeon by training, now combines the role of clinical veterinary anatomist at Cambridge University with writing popular science books. And he has amassed correlations and anecdotes to support his thesis. Just as well: scientists cannot carry out the kind of experiments that would settle the matter one way or the other – that is, inject adolescents with chemicals to alter the way their brains develop to test for a link between brain structure and antisocial behaviour.

But Teenagers is unsettling in a number of ways. First, because in discussing the place of sex, drugs and rock and roll in teenagers’ lives, he accepts that the challenges facing today’s youth are far greater than in the past. This is something we all know, but Bainbridge spells out the downside of sex and drugs in detail. Second, he seeks to persuade us that the teenage years are the high point of our lives (in biological terms, I am sure he is right). But for those of us who passed an enjoyable adolescence, the thought that the best is behind us must be depressing. And for those whose adolescence was less than wonderful, the thought of those missed opportunities for sex, drugs and general misbehaviour must be galling. Bainbridge has written a compelling natural history – but it’s the history of all our yesterdays.

Alan Cane, Financial Times

Poor teenagers: criticised, ridiculed or patronised ever since the likes of Aristotle and Shakespeare commented on their occasionally mildly problematic behaviour, now they must endure being examined by a vet. David Bainbridge, Clinical Veterinary Anatomist at Cambridge University, inspects even the parts they might wish to keep private. His boundless enjoyment of a journey across the length of human evolution is what most makes this book worth reading… Afterwards, you will know more than you ever thought knowable about the “cultural history” of pubic hair and the evolutionary origin of the penis.

More than a natural history of teenagers, this thought-provoking book is about humans and our place in the world, and the unexpected but real importance of adolescents in that world. Teenagers have for a long time been the object of negativity more than positivity and if teenagers are such a different animal, who better than a veterinary anatomist to dissect them?

Nicola Morgan, The Scotsman

This popular science book offers an engaging account of the physiological and intellectual growth spurts, and the moods and excesses that accompany them… Bainbridge’s description of this process shows the elegance and verve with which he uses metaphor as explanation.

Terri Apter, Times Literary Supplement

David Bainbridge is a Cambridge University vet and anatomist and it is from this “strange creatures” perspective that he writes this highly accessible popular science book. Let’s face it, teenagers are an anathema to most of us – this explains in simple, yet scientifically substantiated, terms quite why they are irresistibly drawn to sex, drugs and rock and roll – and why they are biologically predisposed to lie in bed for as long as possible!

Annika Joy, Pink Paper

This is a subtle but very revealing change of emphasis. Bainbridge shows that teenagers are not just large children or inexperienced adults but people in a qualitatively different developmental phase… Whether you are stuck in this difficult decade yourself or have children who are, this is a fascinating and fresh perspective.

Luiz Villazon, BBC Focus Magazine

Fortunately, Bainbridge is a veterinary anatomist at Cambridge University and he clearly knows his science. This, along with an enviably lucid writing style, enables him to explain brain structure and physiology in an accessible way, dealing effectively with current models of development for non-scientific readers while not inadvertently patronising those who already know where the hypothalamus is located.

Bill Thompson, New Humanist

Teenagers: A Natural History is a brilliant book. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend it if it wasn’t easy to read and engaging. Go for it – this is not information that an education person should be without.

autodidactory blog

This is deliberately provocative, but he does an admirable job backing up his statements with a well-researched, well written book setting the latest scientific evidence on how children move though the teenage years and on to adulthood. There is no dogma here: he runs though the scientific evidence, which is often conflicting and then he assesses what it might mean in practice… There is real humanity in this book. The science is warmed with practical illustrations and a real affection for the subjects of his investigation.

Reader review, Amazon

1 thought on “Teenagers: A Natural History”

  1. The book Teenagers: A Natural History by David Bainbridge is a must-read for all parents, teachers, and anyone else who works with or deals with teenagers!

    This comprehensive and thought-provoking work provides an insightful look into the teenage years, exploring the physical, psychological, and social changes that occur during this tumultuous time. It also offers practical advice on how to better understand and interact with adolescents in order to help them thrive.

    Bainbridge’s research is deep and thorough, yet presented in a way that is accessible to readers of all backgrounds. He draws from various sources including psychology studies, evolutionary biology, anthropology, sociology, and more to develop his theories about adolescent development. His writing style is engaging and easy to follow throughout the book.

    Teenagers: A Natural History does not offer prescriptive solutions but rather encourages us to think critically about our own beliefs regarding teenage behavior. It provides valuable insight into why teens act the way they do and how we can best support them through their formative years. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in gaining greater understanding of this important topic.


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