Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mother Nature

When I was an anthropology undergraduate student, I read and reviewed the book Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species by anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. This book, along with Birth in Four Cultures, was a book that began the shaping of my interest in maternal health and anthropology of reproduction.

Hrdy writes this book from a primatology, biology, women's studies, feminist, history, sociology, and evolutionary psychology perspective. It covers an enormous range of topics, from animal behavior to european history, all providing perspective on the assumption that maternal instinct is a defining element of a woman's nature. As the book's description notes, "Hrdy strips away stereotypes and gender-biased myths" and shows that mothers "deal nimbly with competing demands and conflicting strategies."

I have gone back to this book many times since I first read it. It presented a lot of ideas to me for the first time; For example, placentophagia, the grandmother hypothesis, reasons behind wet-nursing and infanticide, and more.

Below is my review of the book (c) 2006:

         What do langurs, prolactin, and an infant’s appearance have to do with being a loving mother? Everything, according to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How they Shape the Human Species is a book that, in no less than 700 pages combines biology, psychology, history, and anthropology to present a new argument in regards to the image of motherhood. Hrdy writes there is no such thing as maternal instinct. In actuality, there is such thing as maternal instinct, just not in the way that we usually think of it. Society assumes that all mothers have intrinsic caring behavior towards their offspring. Hrdy’s book presents the idea that a mother’s natural instinct is to make decisions about whether or not to birth and raise a child -based on personal situation – and then decide between their needs and that of their offspring.
The idea of the self-sacrificing mother is a product of human cultural ideas, not the dominant reality. This idea is based on our ideas of morality (not nature or biology), which vary across cultures. We believe in our society that it is immoral and unnatural for a mother to not raise every child that she conceives. Hrdy deftly challenges this notion. She calls attention to the fact that in many cultures mothers practice infanticide regularly, and women throughout history and all of evolution have done so as well. She also points out that mothers do not instantly bond with their children, and not all mothers love every child unconditionally.
There exist in our society some very serious conflicts for women: to be good mothers, but also to be women who need to work in order to help raise the children, or to follow personal ambition. Or, to not use birth control or abortion (in other words, to have every child), but not have enough daycare provided. Hrdy writes that life is hard and mothers cannot be blamed for the choices they sometimes have to make. She is a proponent of the idea that being pro-life is being pro-choice. I think that this is one the most interesting ideas that this book presents. A child will only survive if the mother or caretaker wants the child to live. Thus, the mother should be given the opportunity to decide when is the right time in her life for her to be able to successfully raise a child. Then that child will live a healthy and cared-for life, and not succumb to the uncertainties that go along with abandonment or not being fully cared for.
There is a great deal of variety and complexity of behavior among mothers. A mother decides whether or not she can successfully raise a child based on her health, environment, and personal ambitions. Would the child die if she were to let it live? Would its life be hard? Does the mother have the money and resources to raise the child to be healthy and successful? Would raising the child harm the mother? Or keep the mother from pursuing her own goals? Would the investment made in one child at one point in time be better at another time for another child? Hrdy advocates the notion that since our society believes that every single human being deserves the right to live, and to kill an infant is bad, then something needs to be done to help mothers. In order for children not to be abandoned or killed mothers need help. More than euphoric hormones or an adorable infant to help a mother attach, she needs some form of help in order to make sure each child is cared for – such as allomothering. This is an important point, but it also makes it seem that Mother Nature is a long-winded endorsement of day care.
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy uses many animals and primates as biological examples for types of mothering, such as langurs, spiders, mice, bees, and more. These animal mothers make certain logical choices about having and raising children. For instance, mice automatically abort a fetus by absorbing it whenever an infanticidal male is around and harm to the baby is inevitable. Here, maternal investment in the child would be a waste of resources that can be reserved for a more successful time later. These explanations are fascinating, and show great insight into the biological workings of motherhood. In the case of primate examples this can be relevant, however, with other animals it can have its drawbacks. Even if the explanations are interesting and make sense, do they have to do with us? Moreover, with all the seemingly relevant examples of primates which are supposed to tell us something about our own evolution as human mothers, she then writes that the two percent genetic difference between humans and apes is actually quite significant because of culture, language, and so on. Thus, if this difference is that significant, what do all her examples of them mean for us?
Hrdy is very selective about what she uses to back up her argument. For instance, when she gives human examples most of them are of indigenous peoples. She is coming from a biology background, so this makes sense. The indigenous people probably live closer to how original humans lived when we were evolving, especially maternally (although its hard to say how things were evolutionarily because we were not there and cannot know for sure). Yet using these people as an example causes a problem because our societies now are so different from these original human societies. And culture, which plays a huge part, varies greatly. We no longer live in societies where allomothers are easy to find. Also, investment in children lasts a much longer time now that parents also save money to send children to school. Humans cannot catch up biologically with the advances we have made culturally, and it has a huge impact on childrearing.
             These days, with the option of birth control, mothers choose to terminate investment in offspring if the conditions are not right for child raising. They choose to have fewer children with more chance of success. It is a question of quality vs. quantity. Wanting quality over quantity is healthier for the mother (though it may be the opposite of what males may desire). Hrdy has proven that this scenario is not unnatural, it just is not in harmony with society’s expectations, which wants a completely selfless mother full of love for every single child. By changing the way we think about motherhood, Mother Nature has an important impact on our society’s thinking. Mothers, fathers, scientists and politicians can all benefit from taking a look at maternal instinct in this way. Hrdy successfully refutes many female gender myths and assumptions. She does a great job at making the subject matter interesting not only to scientists but also to laypeople. She incorporates biology, psychology, history, and anthropology. Although it lacks a discussion about what adoption and love mean for evolution, Mother Nature covers a great deal of information.

*Note: This review was written more than 6 years ago, and well before this topic became my passion. This review would probably turn out somewhat differently if I read and wrote about the book today.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...