As a biologist that spends long periods of time surrounded by animals the lines between animal behavior and human behavior can become blurred. It is from this perspective that I have begun to wonder if our society is witnessing an unnatural rise in Sneaker Males.
Each spring, what biologists call Sneaker Males wreak havoc on elephant seal colonies along the coast of California. Crawling stealthily on bellies and infused with youthful energy and hormones, these immature male elephant seals have a singular goal, to cheat and steal what they can from adult Bull seals, be it territorial beach space or females.
Mack truck-sized Bull elephant seals have spent weeks hauling their 4000 pound bodies onto shore, establishing territories, guarding female seals as they pup and nurse their young, and finally mating. Covered in battle scars, these males defend their borders and occupants religiously. It takes intelligence, consistency and brawn; they are respected by the smaller, weaker beach occupants. All is peaceable in the kingdom until the arrival of the Sneaker Males.
When Sneakers move in chaos erupts as vigilant Bulls ward off the younger seals' attack. Other seals scatter in fear, females howl in search of missing pups, and more often than not many are crushed to death in the mayhem.
In the ebb and flow of these macro-sized microcosms, it is difficult not to draw analogies to our own society. Sneakers appear to have snuck in. One needs only to look to the headlines from Boston, Newtown, Santa Cruz, Aurora, Washington DC and more. However, unlike the natural order, what was once a disruptive problem child has grown into an unnatural force. Sneaker Males now come armed with weapons capable of immense destruction, an unfiltered voice through social networks, and infamy through the media. Most disturbingly, Sneakers (male and female) have been given license in the absence of strong, honest leadership to guide them.
In nature, the level of social disruption by Sneakers is tempered by protective leaders and the unity of pack members. This is impossible in a world where individual critics systematically undermine respect for any leader, where praise for the simple, honest worker is rarely uttered, and cheating is an accepted way of life. Public abuse of our presumed elected leader, the President of the United States, has become sport and fodder for individual gain. Ultimately, it has empowered Sneakers from classrooms to Congress.
We live in a win-at-all-costs world, with cheating of all types rampant in our schools, sports, religious groups, and political arenas. An escalator ride in the Nike store past the super-sized photos of our super-athletes illustrates the confusing mix of fallen winners presented to young people. Who is the young Sneaker to look to for guidance and inspiration?
Biology has guaranteed that the energy of youth will erupt with each new generation. The question is, how should we deal with it? In the wild, elder animals keep the young in check, guiding them towards acceptable social behavior and maturity. In our not-so-distant social past such youthful energy was also channeled; young adults were taken into the savannah or to sea by elders to learn to farm, hunt or fish for the greater community, apprenticed into jobs, or drafted into the military. Now, society channels our young through schools where many land in high schools and college campuses looking for inspiration and a chance to "change the world".
Although free to do whatever they want, they often stumble in the face of endless possibilities and little consistent mentorship from experienced adults. In being given ultimate control, they spiral into confusion and depression. In this regard, nature has done humans better. Elephant seal Sneakers instinctively take the right path, for a charging two ton Bull leaves no room for interpretation. And the young survive.
As we ponder our next move regarding society's Sneakers consider the natural biology that creates young energy and the resource in passion it provides. Youthful passion can be directed towards saving endangered species, curing cancer or AIDS, solving global climate change, and mitigating world hunger... or fueling terrorist acts. The crossroads for our children occur in the late high school and early college years when they naturally flex their maturing muscles. Which path they choose is up to us. We can invest in new Institutes of Inspiration and jobs that enable our young to emulate strong leaders of unquestioned integrity focused on greater social goals, or we can continue to accept Retreats for Cheaters that guarantee their failure.
Mother Nature has demonstrated that she knows best. Perhaps, we should start by pairing our youth with her.