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Evolutionary Principles of Human Adolescence

Fisher, Martin M.D.

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: February 2001 - Volume 22 - Issue 1 - p 76-77
Book Reviews

New York University School Of Medicine; Division of Adolescent Medicine; North Shore University Hospital; Manhasset, New York

Evolutionary Principles of Human Adolescence, by Glenn E. Weisfeld, New York, NY, Basic Books, 1999, 401 pp, $65.00.

During the past few years, various authors have written books, chapters, and articles exploring cultural influences, both past and present, on adolescent development and behavior. Included among these authors are Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote a chapter in the textbook Comprehensive Adolescent Health Care (W.B. Saunders, St. Louis, 1998) arguing that many of the problems encountered by contemporary adolescents are due to a mismatch between our evolutionary backgrounds and our current environments; Thomas Hine, who wrote a book entitled The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager (Avon Books, New York, 1999), which traced the patterns of adolescent behavior and experience in the United States; and Judith Rich Harris, who argued in her book The Nature Assumption (The Free Press, New York, 1998) that parental influences are relatively negligible, compared with peer influences, in determining adolescent behaviors. Even the author of this review had the opportunity to review the ways in which rabbis in Talmudic times, approximately 1800 to 2000 years ago, viewed adolescent development and behavior using concepts similar to those used in current times (Journal of Adolescent Health, 23:120-123, 1998).

Glenn Weisfeld, the author of Evolutionary Principles of Human Adolescence and a professor of psychology at Wayne State University, attempts to tie each of these concepts together by explaining that all of human behavior and development is based on a set of principles that have evolved over time from species to species. These principles determine how genetics and the environment interact to influence behavior, and these influences have simularities in all age groups, including adolescence, from species to species, culture to culture, and time to time. His general thesis, explained in the first chapter is that "our genes equipped us for the hunter-gatherer, small group existence that we pursued for 99 percent of our hominid existence...that they have had no time to adjust to agricultural society (which is just 10,000 years old), let alone industrialization" and that we must therefore contemplate all human traits in this context.

The book is divided into 15 chapters, the first 5 of which review evolutionary principles in general. The author notes that these principles combine a biological, psychological, and social approach; reviews the basic human emotions (such as sexual feelings, loneliness, pride, and shame); and shows how these emotions (also refered to as motivations) are each involved in survival and reproduction in all individuals, in our own species and in other species. The ways in which these motivations differ for males and females, a major theme throughout the book, are explored in detail by the presentation of many anthropological and cultural examples.

The author moves on to the adolescent age group in Chapter 6, where he reviews the varying time frames within which adolescents have been expected to become responsible for working, marrying, and child rearing in different species and cultures, and the ways these concepts apply to our current society. Issues related to puberty are explored in great detail in Chapters 7 to 10, including discussions of how the puberty rites established by various cultures, as well as the interactions of hormonal and behavioral factors in males and females, have each evolved to maximize the potential for survival and reproduction for individuals and groups. The author extends these concepts further to peer and sexual relations in Chapters 11 to 13, emphasizing especially the role of competition and dominance behaviors in males, the role of pubertal timing in females, and the roles of femininity and masculinity in securing and keeping a mate. The author continues with an evolutionary view of parent-adolescent relations in Chapter 14 and concludes in Chapter 15 with a model that ties together the book's topics.

This reviewer found the basic concepts of the book, as well as the many details and examples provided, to be quite interesting, although the book is slow reading. The author provides a summary at the end of each chapter, which is especially helpful because the concepts do not flow in a straightforward, sequential manner. The book contains over 800 references from an impressive array of disciplines (including biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology), and they are well presented to illustrate the author's points. The author does an especially good job of comparing anthropological and historical concepts with issues faced in current society, such as adolescent risk-taking behaviors, the high rate of divorce, and parent-child conflicts, explaining how behaviors that appear to be problematic in present-day adolescents have evolved because they have been beneficial to adolescents in other contexts over time. The book is clearly a scholarly presentation that synthesizes many aspects of human behavior and development in children, adolescents, and adults. It is recommended reading for those in the fields of behavioral pediatrics and/or adolescent medicine who are interested in better understanding the basis of adolescent behavior, whether in modern society or throughout the ages.

Martin Fisher, M.D.

New York University School Of Medicine; Division of Adolescent Medicine; North Shore University Hospital; Manhasset, New York

© 2001 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.