From Childhood To Wildhood


Barbara Natterson-Horowitz is a physician, evolutionary biologist, and Harvard professor who has developed a species-spanning approach to understanding health and development. She just returned from the 2019 Nobel Conference in Stockholm where her research was featured and she gave a keynote address to the Nobel Assembly. Full  disclosure, she’s my sister-in-law. That’s how I scored this Q+A.

Q: How did you transition from physician to evolutionary biologist?

A. Coming off of a five year study of wild animal adolescents, my new book WILDHOOD (co-authored with Katherine Bowers) presents an entirely new understanding of social anxiety, risky behaviors, and failures to launch among young adult and adolescent humans. 

I started looking across species and evolutionary time to better understand human health and development ten years ago when the Los Angeles Zoo asked me to participate in the cardiac care of their animals. I saw many connections between human and veterinary medicine.  Seeing that wild animals develop such “human” problems as heart attacks, breast cancer, seizures, even anxiety and eating disorders transformed my research and approach to medicine. 

WILDHOOD applies the same species-spanning lens to better understand the challenges of becoming an adult. 

Q. A little vocab: What is Wildhood? Can you describe comparative biology? And while you are at it, will you explain what a phylogeny is?

A. Wildhood is the phase we developed to describe of life between puberty and when the four skills of mature adult life have been mastered.  Every adolescence is unique but across species every adolescent animal is the same: the four skills that must be mastered are the same across species. For example there are many differences but the wildhoods of T Rex and Neanderthal are strikingly similar in terms of how the animals are using their time— essentially its purpose.   

Comparative biology is a field that looks across species to identify commonalities and differences in animals and organisms that allow us to understand them better  

Phylogenies are models used by evolutionary biologists to compare species and characteristics. They are often shown as family trees( like a geneology) with trunks and branches. Branches are often different species and the trunks are common. Our phylogeny of adolescence shows the connection between adolescent risk behaviors, anxiety, depression and failure to launch across species evolutionary time. The phylogeny of adolescence shows that: (1) None of these issues are unique to our species or modern times and (2) The great challenges of adolescent and young adult  life cannot be understood without looking across species


Q: Over the past few decades, scientists have recognized that the adolescent brain is not at all a half-baked adult brain but rather it’s a unique entity in its hardwiring, thought processing, and behavior activation. In WILDHOOD, you make the case that this awareness should translate into safer, healthier adolescent years, but it hasn’t. Why not?

A: In my Harvard course “Coming of Age on Planet Earth” I show how a comparative and evolutionary approach expands our understanding of human challenges. The adolescent brain is one of the issues we study. 

For quite a few decades, differences in adolescent brains have been connected to behaviors that raise their chances of becoming anxious, depressed, injured or killed.  Neurobiology (brain science) was supposed to be the key to explaining and solving adolescent issues. But it has done very little to improve mortality, anxiety, depression and other issues facing adolescents.  

I was frustrated by the absence of new approaches to understanding adolescence.  I developed a research methodology that combines methods from medicine and evolutionary biology. Together these present an entirely new understanding of adolescent behavior and approaches that may be more effective

Q: You have created a new view of development across species – adolescence isn’t just for humans anymore (and it hasn’t been, for several hundred million years, you’re just the first to point it out). Why is it so important for us to understand the common threads of adolescence across different groups of animals? And how should this understanding change how we parent our own (human) kids?

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz

A. There are many confusing aspects to parenting modern adolescents. Things become clearer looking across species. For example: Understanding “Predator Inspection” and “The Conformity Effect” help parents keep their adolescents safer. Understanding “Status Descent” and “The Oddity Effect” help parents help their adolescents be happier. Understanding: “Parental Meanness” and “Extended Parental Care” help parents gauge  when to step in and when to step back.

There are countless examples of behaviors and patterns seen across species which exist in humans but have not been identified before. Once you see them it makes decision making much clearer. 

You can purchase Barbara’s book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.