The Evolution of Immaturity
[Guest Article] Blame evolution for your teen’s immaturity. The Discovery Channel has published a review of an upcoming paper by Bruce Charlton, professor of biology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Charlton is a promoter of Evolutionary Psychology, a developing field of Psychology that attempts to explain all human characteristics in light of their evolutionary history. In this paper, Charlton focuses on the observation that in the last fifty years, people have matured later, and in fact, many have not matured completely:
Specifically, it seems a growing number of people are retaining the behaviors and attitudes associated with youth. As a consequence, many older people simply never achieve mental adulthood, according to a leading expert on evolutionary psychiatry. Among scientists, the phenomenon is called psychological neoteny.
Charlton attributes the current trend to our modern environment, in comparison to our “hunter/gatherer ancestors”:
“…While the human mind responds to new information over the course of any individual’s lifetime, Charlton argues that past physical environments were more stable and allowed for a state of psychological maturity. In hunter-gatherer societies, that maturity was probably achieved during a person’s late teens or early twenties”, he said.
Charlton explained to Discovery News that humans have an inherent attraction to physical youth, since it can be a sign of fertility, health and vitality. In the
mid-20th century, however, another force kicked in, due to increasing need for individuals to change jobs, learn new skills, move to new places and make new friends.
Charlton attributes the failure to mature to the pressure of the educational system, which keeps people in school, at submissive positions, far beyond the time when they should have been developing their assertive personalities. The result is adults that display immature characteristics:
“By contrast, many modern adults fail to attain this maturity, and such failure is common and indeed characteristic of highly educated and, on the whole, effective and socially valuable people,” he said. “People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.” Charlton added that since modern cultures now favor cognitive flexibility, “immature” people tend to thrive and succeed, and have set the tone not only for contemporary life, but also for the future, when it is possible our genes may even change as a result of the psychological shift. The faults of youth are retained along with the virtues, he believes. These include short attention span, sensation and novelty-seeking, short cycles of arbitrary fashion and a sense of cultural shallowness.
Charlton predicts that based on evolutionary selection, this will become a dominant genetic characteristic over time:
Charlton added that since modern cultures now favor cognitive flexibility, “immature” people tend to thrive and succeed, and have set the tone not only for contemporary life, but also for the future, when it is possible our genes may even change as a result of the psychological shift.
The obvious next question one should ask is if this immaturity has not already become apparent in the departments of Evolutionary Psychology.
Assuming that all our psychological traits evolved due to environmental pressures, Charlton feels that if our environment encourages immaturity for long enough, we will become genetically disposed to immaturity. This sounds Lamarckian. History shows, contrariwise, that societies have only been successful at fostering maturity for a limited period of time. How does he know our society is not simply paralleling the example of Rome, where maturity rose and fell with its civilization?
Charlton seems to offer conflicting sources for our immaturity problem. First, he attributes it to the pressure of the educational system, and uses as an example the immaturity of “academics, teachers, scientists, and many other professionals”. If this is true (and this academic’s thinking provides anecdotal evidence for it) then we will be fine, since most people do not pursue advanced educations. Most people, however, would agree that the problem goes well beyond academia. It is a symptom of society in general. Charlton’s second explanation, that the problem began in the mid 20th century with the pressure to “change jobs, learn new skills, move to new places and make new friends,” seems to contradict his first explanation.
Either way, since society has had these same pressures for thousands of years, why is there any vestige of maturity remaining now? We should have evolved into children long ago, as soon as we got past the hunter-gatherer stage. There is no reason evolution should wait until the middle of the 20th century. We are becoming immature because evolutionary thinking like this rejected the absolute authority of our Creator over us, leaving us adrift to pursue our baser instincts and desires, like spoiled children.
This story illustrates how the universal acid of Darwinian thinking is more pervasive and insidious than a set of armchair speculations by academics. Charlton’s type rationalize immature behavior as evolutionary adaptations rather than moral wrongs. If immaturity leads to reproductive success, it must be OK; why fight it? But under their own assumptions, it is impossible to determine who is calling whom immature. For example, David Brooks of the New York Times is cited at the end of the Discovery Channel article lamenting the loss of wisdom and maturity of our predecessors in today’s society that blurs the “bourgeois world of capitalism and the bohemian counterculture.” Yet what is wisdom in Darwinland if not reproductive success? Brooks needs to let his hair down and get dirty with the new inhabitants of the fitness peak. Then history will have to judge the outcome of the war between the Bohemians and the Visigoths (05/09/2006).