The Evolutionary Ladder vs. the Adolescent Ecological Niche

So I am not a biologist, but I am twins with one (sort of), so I’m qualified to make the extended metaphor I’m about to make by the transitive property of rhetorical devices. Or something. You know that famous picture of the evolution of man, from monkey to upright caveman? And how that’s 100% not how evolution works? Monkeys are not humans that somehow missed the evolution boat. Every species evolved to fit a particular ecological niche. Evolution is not a movement from objectively worse/primitive thing to better/sophisticated thing. Instead, it’s a series of changes that produce organisms best suited to their environment at that time as that environment changes, too.

I think this is perhaps a good way to think about being an adult engaging in media for children and adolescents. I’m a day late and a dollar short responding to the dreadful Slate article by Ruth Graham entitled “Against YA.” It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and lots of people have already said all sorts of insightful things about, essentially, how utterly wrong Graham’s argument (that adults who read YA should be embarrassed by consuming media that she believes is intellectually inferior because she believes teenagers are intellectually inferior) is, was, and always will be. I mean, when you read the article, it’s just plain old snobbery, and I think even most people who didn’t spend the last three years of their lives getting degrees in children’s lit would agree.

The thing is, I think that though most people would not be quite so maddeningly smug about it, many adults do fall victim to some of the thinking in that article — namely, that teenagers are underdeveloped, unfinished humans, just waiting to add a few more years onto their age, when the oven timer of life will go off and they will emerge from the oven of adolescence as a complete product. In this way of thinking, teenagers are less complicated and less sophisticated than adults, and therefore so are their thoughts, their opinions, their desires, and their media. 

However, just as a monkey is not an unfinished human, a child or adolescent is not an unfinished person. (I am not trying to call children and adolescents monkeys. Just work with me here.) Their thoughts, opinions, and desires are no less complex and real than those of adults, and therefore their media shouldn’t be any less complex, either. And a lot of it isn’t, because luckily a lot of media creators know this. Graham, by her own admission, hasn’t read much YA, and she isn’t going to. In her mind, there is a media ladder: first rung for children’s lit, next for YA, and last for adult. Like the oft-cited evolutionary ladder, however, this is a completely erroneous way of looking at change. Of course people change as they grow up. I am not the same person as I was when I was 15. I’m very glad that the changes that have taken place over the last ten years have happened. But that doesn’t mean 25-year-old Kathleen is more complex than 15-year-old Kathleen was. I’m just in a different place in my life. A different ecological niche, if you will.

Evolution and aging are both subject to linear time, but that doesn’t mean either is a straight line of progress or improvement. Adolescents are not half-baked adults. They are adolescents. They are very good at being adolescents. They are not waiting to come into personhood; they’re already there. Adults who engage in adolescent media, meanwhile, are not walking backwards down their developmental ladders. They’re just reading about fully formed people in a niche of life that the adults themselves no longer fit. Nothing embarrassing about that.

This metaphor is really just my way of saying treat children and adolescents like people, for the love of all things holy. Snobbery is not attractive in any stage of life, and there’s nothing sophisticated about an adult who doesn’t know how to respect other people.

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