Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

This book is written by Sarah Hrdy who was trained as an anthropologist, primatologist, and evolutionary theorist. She had personal reasons for delving into this topic as she experienced enormous conflicts in wanting to pursue her career while also being a mother. This book has incredible depth in the examples she provides from both the animal world and across human cultures. One of the most fascinating discussions was the thorough review of the prevalence of infanticide and abandonment in humans. The level of committment by human mothers to any particular offspring is influenced by a myriad of circumstances, including whether or not she has support from others, whether she has other offspring needing attention, the amount of resources available to her, etc. This perspective puts into context the trade-offs that mothers have always made and suggests that the abortion rates we see today may not be an aberration but an expression of the age-old choices that mothers have had to make as to how much investment they could put into each offspring. I also enjoyed Hrdy's discussion of the baby's role. Because the mother's committment is not automatic, babies have evolved mechanisms to "woo" their mothers to care for them (cuteness, chubbiness, crying, etc.). Babies have about 72 hours in which to do this as most infanticide and abandonment occurs before this period. Although she is not a proponent of the "glue" theory of bonding, she does argue that in mothers at risk of distancing themselves from their babies, close intimate contact in the first hours and days after birth can have the effect of invoking maternal feelings in the mother. Differing attachment patterns in older babies are viewed as adaptive solutions to caregiving that reflects differing levels of committment, i.e. a baby adopts avoidance as a strategy so as not to provoke a rejecting mother. This book is well worth reading.

Hrdy, Sarah (1999). Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. New York: Ballentine Books.