I am very excited to have an article that I wrote on the adaptive nature of adolescent behavior featured in a new culture series in the This View of Life (TVoL) online magazine. My piece, entitled “Adolescent behavior doesn’t make sense (except in the light of cultural evolution)” summarizes an argument that has been rolling around in my head for awhile. I basically hypothesize that all of the seemingly-paradoxical behaviors of adolescence make sense if you consider them from the perspective of cultural evolution. Rather than being an out-of-control developmental period that’s produced by the misalignment of different neurological changes, I see adolescence as a very well-timed phase that evolved to give every young adult maximum exposure to a variety of cultural ideas. Whereas others have argued that the “problems” of adolescence are either the result of developmental constraint or a mismatch between contemporary and ancestral environments, I suggest that any problems that arise during adolescence represent costs that — on average — are offset by the benefits of obtaining cultural ideas from outside of one’s family. Perhaps what makes this argument most unique among cultural evolutionary explanations is that I don’t assume that genes and culture are at war, trying to battle each other for control over the same “vehicle”; instead, I argue that the suite of biological changes that come with adolescence evolved in order to harness the survival and reproductive benefits of diversifying one’s cultural portfolio.
I don’t think that my hypothesis is novel: I certainly have run into this idea in passing in several sources, although despite my best attempts at searching I was not able to find a particular publication that made a similar proposal (and I think that Richerson & Boyd 2005 mentions this idea, but reviewing the book I couldn’t find the section). My goal was to bring this way of thinking about adolescence to a wider audience, and perhaps to renew interest in research testing this hypothesis. I would love to test this hypothesis myself, but from where I stand I am not sure how I would pull off such a study!
In addition to my article there are several other interesting features in this series. Joe Brewer, culture editor for TVoL, provides an introduction that contextualizes the series. My article is a fitting sibling to Christina Moya‘s “Why Chimpanzees don’t stereotype, we do, and whales might“, which explores why a human propensity for stereotyping makes perfect sense in light of our culturally-mediated groupishness. Paul McLaughin‘s “Environmental Sociology and the Second Darwinian Revolution” considers how what we know about the biophysical world can be integrated into our conception of human sociology. And in their “Memetic Isolation and Cultural Speciation: An important strategy for intentional community development?“, Iuval Clejan, Christopher Congleton, and Gil Benmoshe explore an idea that I have also toyed with, that applying population-isolation-thinking to culture could be a way of understanding both cultural diversity and cultural innovation.A Major Post, Behavior, Cultural Evolution, Development, Gene-Culture Coevolution, Human Evolution, Memetic Fitness, Mismatch theory, My publications, Neuroscience, Psychological Adaptation, Reproductive Fitness, Sex and Reproduction, Sexual Competition, Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution, Web