baboon animal mother

Matrilineal Baboons: Maternal Lessons from Distant Cousins

“He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”

—Charles Darwin, 1838

Scientists have long recognized the value of studying some our closest genetic cousins, the baboon animal mother, in gaining information to better understand human behavior. However, few have valued it highly enough to live among them, as scientist and author Robert Sapolsky did every summer for twenty years from the 1970s through the 1990s. The resulting book, A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons contains as much about human behavior in the wild as it does of the behavior of baboons.

According to a review in the New York Times, his observations led him to challenge the view that social dominance was achieved through a combination of high testosterone levels and aggressive behavior. Instead, he discovered that the lowest ranking males were those with the highest levels of testosterone as well as stress. Just as in humans, stress results in a higher likelihood of disease. The males with the lowest stress hormone levels, including the most dominant ones, rather than engaging in frequent aggression, instead engaged more often in cooperative social behaviors such as grooming and other positive interactions.

The Role of the Baboon Animal Mother in Social Hierarchy

The baboon animal mother plays an important role in the social structure of baboon troops, which usually consist of up to 150 members. Baboon families are matrilineal, most troops having approximately nine families. It is the females who create a stable linear hierarchy that can remain in place for generations, while the dominance hierarchy of the males changes frequently. The changes in male hierarchy depend on a large degree to alliances and bonds formed with females.

Matrilineal families within a troop can become competitive, and both short-term and long-term male-female friendships between members of separate families helps reduce conflict. Such long-term friendships also often result in cooperative child rearing practices.

A review of the book points out that the author persevered with his long-term project despite a violent coup attempt in Kenya in 1982, a human attempt at changing the dominance structure of their own society. Sadly, most of the baboons in the troop in which he had come to be accepted as a low-ranking male died from an epidemic of bovine tuberculosis. His important field work and subsequent books about the effects of stress earned many awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship genius grant, the Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and the Klingenstein Fellowship in Neuroscience.

A Female Perspective on the Social Role of the Baboon Animal Mother

Biology professor Dorothy Cheney‘s book, Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of the Social Mind, contains a vast storehouse of information about baboon animal mother behaviors and perhaps the origins of those of human mothers. One of the most relevant areas of her research is that of competition versus cooperation. Her research revealed that natural selection favored those that were most capable of making decisions regarding when and with whom to compete and when to cooperate.

In an excerpt of the book, readers learn that baboons belong to the genus Papio, and that they are less closely related to humans than other primates, such as chimpanzees. However, the author believes that there are a number of reasons that studying their behavior is relevant to better understanding human behavior. One reason is that their social structures are much larger than those of chimpanzees. Individual baboons belonging to a troop of 100 or more members must learn to create and negotiate a relatively complex social network, much like humans. This requires them to develop a sophisticated set of social skills that includes non-relatives as well as relatives.

Like human society, many of their relationships are simultaneously competitive and cooperative. Cooperative efforts are required to evade predators and defend group resources. Competitive efforts are required to ensure that each group of allies receives an adequate share of group resources. Those resources are dependent upon knowledge of the ecological environment. Studying baboons in the wild, as opposed to those in captivity, provides the opportunity to observe learned behaviors in their natural evolutionary context, and how those behaviors affect reproductive opportunities and ultimately, survival.

One of the reasons that the role of the baboon animal mother is so important is that troops contain more females than males. This disparity in numbers also encourages baboons to form mating bonds and friendships based not just on individual need, but the needs of the group as a whole. Cheney’s research methods and experiments have been lauded as innovative. For example, her research revealed four distinct types of verbal communication or “barks” in response to various environmental stimuli.

While scientific research methods can seem clinically methodical, in the case of baboons, they revealed many very human similarities between the baboon animal mother and the human mother. Creating and maintaining meaningful social connections is vitally important for survival, dealing with the stresses and difficulties of everyday life, and making it enjoyable.

baboon animal mother
Female Monkey Holding Its Baby, Middle Kingdom, ca. 1981–1802bc, Egypt, Amethyst

May 16,2016  |

cooperative family life

How Cooperative Family Life Can Change the World

“The desire to psychologically connect with others had to evolve before language…We still have to explain why humans are so much better than chimpanzees at conceptualizing what others are thinking, why we are born innately eager to interpret their motives, feelings, and intentions as well as care about their affective states and moods—in short, why humans are so well equipped for mutual understanding.”

–Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

The First Development in the Evolution of Cooperative Family Life: Compassion

There has been a great deal of discussion among evolutionists about whether compassion is the product of the evolutionary process. Charles Darwin, one of the founders of evolutionary theory, argued that humans’ highest moral achievement was concern for the well-being of others. Further, he pointed out that compassion is also found in other species. For example, in one experiment, rats would only be fed if they pressed a lever which would deliver an electric shock to their littermates. The rats refused to press the lever, despite their hunger.

While it may be most common among family members, demonstrations of compassion are often observed in interactions even between members of different species. These demonstrations support Darwin’s theory that compassion begins in the family, spreading outward into the surrounding community, further into a nation, and eventually, around the globe. His theory seems to be proving correct. According to one 2011 article, researchers studied 32 modern foraging societies and found a high incidence of cooperation despite most of their members not being genetically related.

Evolutionary psychologists like Martin Daly and Margo Wilson as well as anthropologists have contributed to our understanding of how human compassion evolved. Anthropologist, professor, and mother of three Sara Blaffer Hrdy is among those dedicated to using the lessons of the past to improve parenting in the present. Her book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding” sheds new light on the societal evolution of motherhood.

The Evolutionary Basis for Cooperative Family Life

There are several theories regarding how humans developed the compassion necessary for cooperative family life.According to one theory,ape intelligence within stable societies is partially defined by the ability to determine social status, recognize deception, and cooperate. These attributes and skills within a competitive social group help insure reproductive success.

One of the most important and distinguishing differences between ape mothers and human mothers is that while ape mothers maintain constant contact with their infants, human mothers allow other people to hold their infants from the moment they are born. The extreme helplessness of the human infant, coupled with their slower rate of growth and development, resulted in the evolutionary necessity for cooperative family life. Since humans take many years to reach adulthood, it was necessary to acquire the capacity to understand others, and therefore determine who is safe to participate in the process of caring for the child.

The Effect of Longevity on the Evolution of Cooperative Family Life
Another important biological difference between human mothers and other species is that human females live for many years after menopause. Female apes don’t survive very long past their reproductive years. That difference led to the “Grandmother Hypothesis“, which postulated that the assistance of grandmothers made longer periods of dependency, and greater social intelligence, possible.

This theory was one of the influences that led to Hrdy’s cooperative breeding hypothesis. Because human babies are cared for by a number of individuals, termed alloparents, they develop skills specifically designed to maintain contact with their caregivers. One of those skills is the ability to effectively read and respond to particular facial expressions. That ability, developed over the many years of human dependence upon other members of the community for survival, provided the basis for the human trait we know as compassion.

Another feature of the cooperative breeding theory in the animal kingdom is that some members of the community forfeit their own reproductive success to contribute to the reproductive success of others determined to be more reproductively “fit”. That fitness is determined by those having genetic traits most conducive to the continued long term survival of the group. Those forfeiting become helpers. Generations of exposure to a variety of caretaking helpers ensuring their survival led to the natural selection of humans with a greater capacity for successful interpersonal engagement. This could be called the survival of not only the fittest, but the kindest.
Compassion leads to cooperative family life, which then expands to include others. Hopefully, it will one day expand towards the creation of a cooperative global society.

cooperative family life
Andromache and Astyanax, Pierre Paul Prud’hon, (French, Cluny 1758 1823 Paris), Artist completed by Charles Boulanger de

November 16,2015  |

How Mistakes About Maternal Instinct, Explained By Imagination And Even Poetry By Victorian Scientists Including Darwin, Still Resonate Today

According to Robert J. Stoller in his book “Sex and Gender”, Herbert Spencer, an important English philosopher, biologist and anthropologist of the Victorian era said that

“Given women’s and men’s respective shares in the rearing and protection of offspring, women must have been endowed more than men with that form of the parental instinct that responds to infantile helplessness, that doubtless this biologically given specialized instinct conferred on women special aptitudes for dealing with infantine life”.

Maternal Instinct in a Victorian Era

This belief in the existence of maternal instinct was typical of the time. When the age of industrialization began, this perceived basic difference between men and women was further magnified by the division of labor.

The division of labor resulted in a large degree of division, even segregation, between the worlds of men and women. Women and children were largely isolated within the confines of home and hearth, while men’s lives were largely conducted in the social world of business and commerce outside the home.

Maternal Instinct and the Impact of Darwin

That concept of maternal instinct was one that Charles Darwin himself had written about. He rejected the idea that social feelings were acquired through experience, formulating instead what he called the “associationist doctrine“. According to this doctrine, humans, like animals, also possessed social instincts.

The fact that Darwin’s theory seemed to support the belief in maternal aptitude helped to solidify it in the form of rigid social structures. Darwin wrote in 1871 in his book “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex”

“Maternal instincts lead women to show greater tenderness and less selfishness and to display these qualities towards her infants in an eminent degree”.

The Ideal Mother with Biological Instinct

Quotes such as these were used to form society’s definition of the ideal mother. However, the concept of women possessing maternal biological instincts was never sufficiently explained by science.

It was explained instead using imagination, and even poetry. For example:

  • some claimed that the maternal instinct was located in the “cerebral organs of sense”(Van de Warker. E., 1875, Sexual Cerebration. Popular Science Monthly 7:289-92), which today we would call the brain
  • others believed them to be located in the “reproductive organs” (Van de Warker. E., 1875, Sexual Cerebration. Popular Science Monthly 7:289-92)
  • with one group further specifying the “uterus” (Thomas, W. I., 1897,  On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes. American journal of Sociology 3:31-63)
  • some even claimed that the instinct was dependent upon the “mineral manganese“.

Relegating the maternal instinct to organs that only women possessed gave these theories further credibility.

Astoundingly, the fact that women’s breasts often produce milk in response to the sound of their babies’ cry was not included in this body of “scientific evidence”.

The Choice Between Motherhood and Public Life

Spencer also explicitly stated that parental aptitude, or maternal instinct, meant that women should not seek at all to enter into public life. Women today seem to agree with the first part, the existence of maternal instinct. However, most would disagree with the conclusions on maternal instinct that the male scientists of two hundred years ago reached. Their own conclusions might be stated in this way: The biological gifts of women to take care of children should be recognized, nurtured and respected in our societies.

What is strange is that even though they did not know what we know now through extensive research, somehow people knew that biology, to some extent, decided the fate of women. Many years later, in the aftermath of the feminist seventies, it still does.

However, there are many women who envision equal participation in the workforce and society, and this is regardless if the existence or scientific proof of a maternal instinct. According to Adrienne Rich, an American poet and essayist, women will achieve sexual liberation when they have learned to think ‘through their body’.

Adrienne Rich was one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. In her book Of Women Born, we see Rich believed women need to connect to their

“our great mental capacities, hardly used; our highly developed tactile sense: our genius for close observation; our complicated pain enduring, multi pleasured physicality”.

She definitely offers a different viewpoint than other liberal, socialist or Marxist feminists who see state childcare as a prerequisite to women’s liberation. In fact, she is explicitly opposed to any form of state childcare.

“The repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers”

The American sociologist Alice Rossi has also changed her position from that of the liberal feminism of the seventies and rejects the concept of sexual equality. In her book “A Biosocial Perspective on Parenting”, she stated already back in 1977 that

“you do not have to do the same things in order to achieve equality”

This has become a classic phrase in the ongoing social dialogue on the topic of equal rights for women. To a degree, such reactions in the early eighties served as a kind of corrective pendulum swing from the extreme feminism of the seventies.

It was with this pendulum swing that biological essentialism was born. Terms such as “nurturance”, “community sense”, “family support”, “institutional innovation” and “volunteering” became much more in vogue beginning in the eighties.

Women should band together in challenging society to improve and foster childcare while recognizing and rewarding the unique talents and abilities which are bestowed by nature upon women. Indeed, future generations, for both men and women, depend on it.

maternal instinct
Young Mother Gazing at Her Child, William Bouguereau, La Rochelle, 1871

September 11,2015  |

parental care

On how Hrdy’s primates studies impact our views on parental care

Sarah Hrdy is an American anthropologist who has devoted much of her career to studying parental care in primates, and she has ruffled quite a few feathers along the way. In her one of her first books, The Langurs of Abu: Female and Male Strategies of Reproduction (1977), she described the langurs as practicing infanticide. That description led one (male) colleague to snipe,

“Sarah Hrdy’s monkeys are deranged.”

Hrdy had seen male langurs attack and kill infants sired by rivals, so that they could induce estrus in the females and then mate with them. Female langurs had their own defenses against marauding males. When a male took over a troop, pregnant females would fake being in estrus and let him mate with them. The male would then believe himself to be the father of her offspring and protect them accordingly.

In her next book, “The Woman That Never Evolved (1981), Hrdy argued that female primates had developed many strategies for coping with dominant males, including forming alliances with other females. She also maintained that Darwin’s belief in sexually passive females stemmed from relatively new social mores that most primates, including some humans, did not abide by. Hrdy also described polyandry, the practice of mating with more than one male, as advantageous to females and their young. Most or all of the males that had mated with a given female were likely to believe that the resultant offspring was theirs.

Cooperative Breeding and Parental Care

1999’s “Mother Nature” was a synthesis of her earlier work, and it also described why humans developed infanticide and polyandry in the first place. Hrdy views humans as cooperative breeders who need a village to raise a child.

Throughout history, humans have used allomothers to help with parental care. Despite the name, an allomother can be male or female, and they are usually a relative of the mother who helps her raise a child. Women need allomothers to successfully rear children, and Hrdy also argues that the lack of allomothers in modern human societies has caused such problems as child abandonment. If a mother feels overwhelmed and helpless, she may well decide to abandon her child— or worse. In an interview, Hrdy described the case of a woman who had drowned her five small children in a bathtub. Hrdy argued that probably would not have happened if the young mother had had some kind of support.

The Limits of Maternal Love

Hrdy also maintains that the so-called maternal instinct doesn’t exist. A female primate’s capacity for parental care depends largely on her access to resources like food, shelter and a supportive mate.

Women do indeed bond with their infants, and those bonds can have a biological basis, like certain hormones. Those bonds, however, can be overridden by the wrong set of circumstances.

Contrary to what many people believe, maternal love is conditional, and that’s especially true with humans. Human women are virtually the only female primates that commit infanticide, which is generally the province of males in other primate species.

Furthermore, infanticide is not as rare as people want to believe. Hrdy describes times and places in which infanticide was extremely common. A village in Bolivia was plagued by both war and extreme poverty during the 1930s, and practically all the women in it killed their newborn children. Far from being heartless or insane, these women recognized they did not have the resources to give good parental care to their children. Hrdy reported that, after their situation had improved, many of the women went on to have children who they treated very well.

Extended Families Versus Nuclear Families

2009 saw the publication of Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, in which Hrdy returns to the topic of allomothers or alloparents. She argues that the development of extended families had a profound influence on human evolution.

Cooperative breeding helped make it possible for families to successfully rear children that took two decades to reach maturity. Hrdy argues that human beings are supposed to live in extended family groups and that the nuclear family is an aberration that does not provide sufficient support for its members. Consider what often happens if one parent in such a family dies or is incapacitated. In an extended family, the surviving adults would help both the children and their parent(s). An extended family shares the duties of parental care, thus reducing the odds of any one adult becoming overwhelmed.

Unlike Hrdy, most psychologists and authors on books about parental care take the nuclear family for granted, a stance she disagrees with.

One of Hrdy’s colleagues, Hillard Kaplan, calculated that a human child needs 13 million calories of nutrition during the first 18 or 20 years of its life. That is far more than a single woman or couple could provide on their own, so humans must have evolved to be part of extended families.

The assumption of the nuclear family’s primacy

Hrdy points out that the assumption of the nuclear family’s primacy has affected research. Most research done on families simply compares married couples to single parents, rather than comparing either one to an extended family. Researchers have also not compared the various types of extended families to each other. That means there is so far no way of determining which familial arrangements might be optimal for raising children: parents working with grandparents, siblings raising children together, or some other arrangement. Determining which arrangements would be most beneficial for parents and children would only help society in the long run.

parental care

July 10,2015  |

Slow Social Change

Darwin, The Empowerment of Women and Slow Social Change

Empowerment of women definitely took a nose dive in the 19th century and slow social change for women followed. Most of us are familiar with the creation vs. evolution theory which is almost always associated with Charles Darwin, a scientist of the 19th century. While there were other scientists who supported his views even earlier than Darwin, he remains the predominant scientist of evolution.

He had other influences on social science besides evolution and two that still affect us to today are eugenics and the inferiority of women. Because of his huge and lasting influence slow social change for women was an indirect result. It is still hard to believe, but his beliefs about women and eugenics elucidated in his writings were not challenged until the 1970s in the scientific and public arenas. His beliefs have greatly influenced all theories, including the ones on childcare, motherhood in general and more particularly our concepts of the Ideal Mother.

Darwin’s Scientific Approach

One of the last things on the mind of Charles Darwin was the empowerment of women. While raised Unitarian (one of the Christian theological movements, known for its rejection of the doctrines of the Trinity, original sin, predestination, and biblical inerrancy) due to the early death of several family members, Darwin became and stayed an avowed atheist. Since his work led him to disavow the Genesis account in the Bible, this made it easier for him to support his work. However, unlike Genesis which states that

“Then the lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”

Darwin finally established that if evolution was the survival of the fittest, then certainly man was the ultimate goal of evolution.
Darwin felt the following,

“My object … is solely to show that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.”

Comparing an assortment of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic arguments, Darwin placed Savages, who were said to possess smaller brains than the higher races, and whose lives were led by instinct and less by reason in an intermediate position between animals and man. Darwin extended this placement to include children, congenital idiots and women, whose intuition, perception and imitation were

“characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation.”

Darwin, then felt that empowerment of women was only gained by serving under their master or caretaker. His view of marriage was that a wife did not set to be her husband’s intellectual companion, but rather to amuse his leisure hours and look after his person and his house, freeing and refreshing him for more important things. Although he had revolutionary thoughts on many levels, and accepted the social consequences pf these thoughts, on other matters social change was slowed down because of him.

Darwin’s theory was picked up by Carl Vogt, an anthropologist of the time who wrote,

“hence we should discover a greater [apelike] resemblance if we were to take a female as our standard… and because her evolution stopped earlier, a woman was “a stunted man.”

Vogt felt that the gap between males and females increases with civilisation’s progress, and is greatest in the advanced societies of Europe. There were other scientists who wrote papers along a similar viewpoint. The fact that their country was ruled by a queen during this time seemed to be of no mind to the scientific community, nor the other female rulers during this time including Catherine the Great.

Darwin’s Theories Spread in the Scientific Community

Moving along on this path, Darwin’s main point was that women were essentially a stilled part of the evolutionary tree. Further, Darwin felt males were not only

“more powerful in body and mind than women”

but had even

“gained the power of selection”.

Evolution was in the males’ hands. Women, consequently, were less evolved and this is why instinct and emotions dominated women, her “greatest weakness”. 

Clearly, Darwin had no knowledge of genetics as it relates to inheritance of genes from both parents. He seemed to feel that since all evolution was taking place through the male, the female was merely passing on the results of evolution as determined by the needs of the male of the species. Once genetics was more thoroughly understood (see here), it underscored the difficulties with Darwin’s theory on women, people of color and his theory of evolution itself.

Slow social change for women as a result

Why were such easily disprovable theories clung to for so long? The answer is and has always been a loss of power and fear of the unknown. During the early 20th century, most of the world was at war, experienced several economic collapses and other disasters which led to a changed world. Many people associate change with chaos, slow social change with stability and history does bear this out to some extent.

A review of the history of the Mideast or Asia bears this out. However, in the 1970s, most longstanding views were being challenged, including the view of women as inferior. Study after study refuted the long held views on brain size, emotions and intelligence. Yes, men and women do look at things differently, but there is no proof one way is better than the other in every situation.

Thus, we have arrived at where we are today, where women can do many things that their grandmother’s or parents generation could not. This does not mean all is settled. Empowerment brings responsibility along with choices. It is clear that empowerment of women will empower the rest of the human race as well.


Slow Social Change
Charles Robert Darwin by John Collier

June 12,2015  |

genetic mutation

Hugo de Vries: Genetic Mutation Theory’s Role in Modern Motherhood

It is hard not to notice that children often look and act like their parents. For centuries, people have been aware, for example, that a man and woman with blue eyes generally produce offspring with blue eyes. Let that same couple produce an heir with brown eyes and rumors swirl.

Only in the last 150 years or so has science dared, or been able, to ask why. One person to thank for that is Hugo de Vries. He was a botanist and one of the first geneticists. In 1889, he postulated that different characters have different hereditary carriers. He specifically postulated that inheritance of specific traits in organisms comes in certain particles….

Botanist to Geneticist to Gene

Born in the Netherlands in 1848, de Vries studied botany at the University of Leiden in the Hague. While there, he discovered Darwin‘s “Origin of a Species” and became curious about variations in species and the role those variations play in evolution. After graduating with a doctorate in plant physiology in 1870, de Vries continued his studies in Germany. His experimental work shifted to heredity and in 1889 he published “Intracellular Pangenisis”, a work that used Darwin’s term “pangene” and defined it as a particle of heredity that produced the individual traits of an organism. Today, we know the term simply as “gene.”

Genes, Heredity and Genetic Mutation Theory

De Vries, as a pioneer geneticist, was widely-known in his time for the introduction of genetic mutation theory. Noticing that individual plants of the evening primrose, Oenothera lamarckiana, growing in his garden were different enough to be a separate species, de Vries began to cross-pollinate them. The resulting variants of the plant he called “mutants.” In his 1901 work, “The Mutation Theory”, de Vries proposed that his mutational jumps better explained evolution than Darwin’s natural selection theory.

De Vries Got it Wrong

There are no fancy monuments to de Vries and, with little mention in literature and no standard biography, he has largely faded into oblivion. Partly, that is because de Vries got it wrong. He thought that the mutations he saw in the evening primrose represented a large genetic mutation rift and thus could explain evolution differently from Darwinian theory. It turns out that is not true. The evening primrose differences that de Vries noticed are now known polymorphisms, a genetic mutation that occurs in more than one percent of a population. Polymorphisms are responsible for normal individual differences like eye and hair color.

The Foundation of Modern Genetics

Although de Vries’ theory was wrong from an evolutionary standpoint, his work, along with others, laid the foundation for modern genetics. He is partially responsible for the term “gene” and the recognition that such a particle determines the characteristics of an individual. His studies also showed that a genetic mutation can be inherited from a parent and that same genetic mutation can be passed to future generations.

Genetic Mutation Theory Today

Today, genetic mutation is defined slightly differently. According to the National Library of Medicine, Genetics Home Reference, genetic mutation is a

“permanent alteration in the DNA sequence that makes up a gene, such that the sequence differs from what is found in most people.”

Thanks to de Vries, much is now known about the human genome and the specific role of genetic mutation in disease and birth defects. Genetic mutations are now known to be either inherited (hereditary mutations) or acquired (somatic mutations). Both can cause disease or genetic disorders and both are off course of concern to motherhood.

Genetic Mutation and Motherhood

Knowledge is power. Potential mothers need to consider the risk of both inherited and acquired genetic mutation. Testing is available for many inherited diseases. Often a quick blood test can determine if the mother carries a certain gene and its risk of passing to future offspring. Once pregnant, other tests can determine if the fetus is healthy allowing the mother to be proactive in healthcare.

But inherited genetic mutation is not the only concern to mothers. Environmental factors play a role in acquired genetic mutation. For that reason, mothers are cautioned about smoking and drinking during pregnancy as both alcohol and tobacco can cause acquired mutations. Nutrition also plays a role in acquired genetic mutation. New mothers are urged to take folic acid, for instance, to avoid known birth defects.

Recent studies have also shown nutrition in motherhood is even more important than previously thought—and not just during pregnancy. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine published a study in “Nature Communications” that revealed, for the first time, mother’s diet has a permanent effect on her offspring’s genetics. In the words of Dr. Branwen Hening, Senior Investigator Scientist involved in the study,

“Our results represent the first demonstration in humans that a mother’s nutritional well-being at the time of conception can change how her child’s genes will be interpreted, with a life-long impact.”

Thank you, Hugo de Vries, for starting the marvelous trip into genetic mutation.

genetic mutation
A Mother’s Pearls, Thomas Seir Cummings, 1841

June 5,2015  |

Maternal craft

Maternal craft in 1850-1900: Disciplinary education

By the end of the nineteenth century not only medicine and science would have an impact but political and social changes as well. The imperial nations were in need of healthy and educated children. Maternal craft was essential. Social and racial progress was important for the welfare of its country.

The idealization of motherhood was strengthened. And moral reform came around the corner. Now women needed to stay virtuous and religiously dutiful but now also sentimental. Passivity and altruism were the virtues of a good wife. Open expression of feelings and emotions were condemned. Women became frail and sickly because they were educated this way. A day in bed when menstruating was a minimum. Prudery was an obsession. Not a coincidence this came in a time where paternal authority were promoted by state and church. Not a coincidence this came with total submissiveness of women to husbands and maternal craft expertise.

This is the time where extreme disciplinary education of children came to be.

The Beginning of the Maternal craft

Mothers read Elizabeth Chesser’s books on Mothering craft where the ideals of personal vocation and racial and national progress were put together. To provide morality, chastity and a desire to be a superior race were to be provided by the mothers only and nobody could do that task better. Women were born to do so.

Motherhood now a ‘science’ was thought through maternal craft courses

A scientific interest was omnipresent and Child Science and The Mothering or Maternal Craft was born. Motherhood was for the first time a ‘science’ that could be thought through courses. Important to note that the notion of maternal instincts, or natural bonds can not be further be removed.

The Child Study Movement, the Child Study Association, the Childhood Society, and the Parents’ National Education Union were all bodies that emerged in this period. They emphasized for the first time the importance of the first year of a child and the possibilities within a child to be realized according only to specific childcare methods and the mothering or maternal craft.

Now,  the mother role…

James Sull for example said that

“fathers rather than mothers should do most of the important observations of the development of the child. Mothers were likely to be  too involved, too sentimental and eulogistic.”

In America there was G. Stanley Hall the first American psychologist and also president of Clark University. He was the one who brought Freud to the US for his first visit and wrote many childcare manuals. He stressed the different development stages of children and the managerial tasks of the mother.

Women had fought their way into college and the first college educated women started to graduate. And it was at the same time that society believed it was absolutely crucial to be college educated to be a mother. And so the diploma of ‘mother’ or the maternal craft was invented. The demands of education were getting so high one needed to study four years to prepare for motherhood.

‘Women cannot conceivably be given an education too broad, too high, or too deep to fit them to become the educated mothers of the future race of men and women born of educated parents. The pity is that we only have four years of the college course to impart such knowledge to women who are to be mothers.

said Martha Carey Thomas, the American educator, suffragist, linguist, and President of Bryn Mawr College, in 1908.

Of course it was too good to be true to be both educated and be a mother and stay at home. Nothing in a woman’s life was more important than motherhood. The cult of motherhood was peaking. The reasons were multiple but are imbedded in its society. There were Darwin’s ideas: The Origin of the Species was published in 1859. And colonialism and the ideas on quality of race to begin with. But the Romanticism and the importance of religion had an equally important influence on the matter of Motherhood.

If you want to move  into the first part of the 19th century, head over to the spiritual education style during 1800 and 1850.

Maternal craft
Joseph Highmore by Joseph Highmore – The Yorck Project 10.000 Meisterwerke der DIRECTMEDIA Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

April 24,2015  |


One of the many misconceptions of biology is the passivity in maternal mothers

The ideal of the maternal mother

One of the many characteristics of the ‘ideal maternal mother’ is her passivity. When we look at art depicting maternal mothers this quality is often shown. This state of maternal calmness has been taken for passivity. It is with certainty one of the many myths about maternal motherhood.

The french evolutionist, Paul Topinard, student of Paul Broca, taught that males have

all of the responsibility and the cares of tomorrow [and are] . . . constantly active in combating the environment and human rivals, and thus need] . . . more brains than the woman whom he must protect and nourish . . . the sedentary women, lacking any interior occupations, whose role is to raise children, love, and be passive (quoted in Gould, 1981:104).

Passivity means insouciance, calmness and peacefulness. Although it is clear that those characteristics are quite beneficial for newborns, babies and maternal women, it is wrong to think this is natural beyond the lactation period. And often comparisons with the animal kingdom are given to illustrate . There are indeed the male hormones and males might be more aggressive because of them. This does not imply that maternal females are more passive.

Passivity and primal choice

There is also cultural belief that males in the animal world males are really the more active sex and more interested in sex. More so that males will decide when and who and how, make the primal choice. The male doings are far more visible. And it is all about how males are rivaling for the possession of certain female. But  Charles Darwin himself actually agreed to the contrary. But our society was not ready to hear this at the time and so he was far less known for this discovery than for his others.

It is true that the male is often showier both in behavior and in looks. But it is really female animals that are often the active sexual pursuer. In certain species they are insatiable ones. They very often make the choice or the primal choice. They will decide who they prefer as father of the offspring. They will device their own selection criteria and that can be the looks of the male, but with other species the choice will be made after the inspection of nests or territories, or after a chase to check out the vigor and healthy perseverance of a male. It can also be the quality of the food the male provide during courtship or she will simply go for the more aggressive or powerful male of the group.

The research and studies are overwhelming in this area. Their subjects are all over and vary from chimpanzees, African wild dogs, Uganda kobs,  bongo fireflies, baboons, weaver birds, pigeons, marmots, chac-mas, rhesus monkeys, porcupines, roadrunners, jumping spiders, mountain goats, bower birds, squirrels, guppies, those most popular of aquarium fish to the most aggressive of all apes, the gorillas and many more.

In all these cases the female is the more active and in many cases males apparently have no choice but to play subordinate and even take on infantile behavior to have a share of the sexual satisfaction. One could say, males are an enormous but wonderful breeding experiment run by the females. The female choice was long dismissed as minor, even nonexistent however it seems that females are running the show and decide in most cases in what direction evolution takes off and which offspring will form the next generation. They do have the primal choice.

Passivity is also a lack of initiative. It is resignation or some kind of submission to people around them and outside influences; it is also unresisting capitulation. However babies and young children have many demands that come in a constant flow and to react to theirs can be a handful. Can we now say that any form of passivity might even endanger our species.

Poor mother and children during the Great Depression. Oklahoma, 1936, by Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress

April 14,2015  |

being a mother

Is there a biological instinct for becoming or being a mother?

Are we primed or urged into being a mother? One would think so.  The immediate answer is yes. If not our species would not continue. However, we can easily see today is that women are giving more thought to having children and being a mother then ever before. So in point of fact, the immediate answer might be wrong. Let us have a look at how the experts define the words.

Defining the word ‘Instinct’

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica,

“The words instinct and instinctive have borne a variety of meanings in the many different contexts in which they have been used. (…) For example, instinct can refer to reflexive or stereotyped behaviour, to an intuitive hunch, to a congenital aptitude or disposition, to a deep-seated impulsion (e.g., “maternal instinct”), to ways of acting that do not appear to have involved learning or experience in their development, or to knowledge that is inborn or subconsciously acquired. The concept of instinct is complicated by the fact that it ranges across behavioral, genetic, developmental, motivational, functional, and cognitive senses.”

Darwin was also well aware that the term instinct was used in several different senses. At the beginning of the chapter “Instinct” in his masterpiece On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin declined to attempt to define the term:

“Several distinct mental actions are commonly embraced by this term; but everyone understands what is meant, when it is said that instinct impels the cuckoo to migrate and to lay its eggs in other birds’ nests. An action, which we ourselves require experience to enable us to perform, when performed by an animal, more especially by a very young one, without experience, and when performed by many individuals in the same way, without their knowing for what purpose it is performed, is usually said to be instinctive. But I could show that none of these characters are universal.”

Prudency with ‘Instinct’

Darwin was prudent with the word ‘Instinct’ and so was Freud. Although Sigmund Freud wrote in German, he used the German word Instinkt infrequently (here is an interesting article on Helen Deutsch, a colleague of Freud). He instead relied upon the term Trieb. While Instinkt generally refers to an automatic, unlearned response to a specific stimulus and hence is close to the English reflex, Trieb connotes urge, impulse and desire—what in motivational psychology is called drive. Freud took early on the biological view that there are two basic instinctive forces: self-preservation and reproduction. In 1915 Freud published a paper titled Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” where the self-preservation instinct virtually disappeared and sexual appetite dominated.

Even today, behavioral scientists, if they use the word instinct at all, generally restrict its use to specific patterns of behavior of animals. They rarely use it for being a mother.

Urge for being a mother

So we know from Freud we need to dissociate sexual appetite and urge for being a mother. Women today have no longer children as an outcome of sexual intercourse.  This dissociation can best be illustrated with figures on delaying pregnancy. Figures published in the beginning of the 21st century by the UK Office for National Statistics indicate that the pregnancy rate for women aged 40 and over has risen by more than 40 per cent in the last decade. Over the same period, pregnancy rates for women under 30 fell by nearly 15 per cent. (Laurie Taylor & Matthew Taylor, What are children for?, 2003, Short books, UK, p.52). If there was a biological instinct that told women to desire children or being a mother, then somebody must have changed the hour of alarm with a couple of decennia.

Not only are women delaying their motherhood but they decide also to have less children. To replace the European population couples need to have 2.1 children. Spain leads the way in Western Europe with a rate of 1.22 per woman, followed closely by Italy with 1.25 and Greece with 1.30. The UK has 1.64. Although France is proudly leading with 1.89, in general the northern countries have a higher rate than the southern. This is not at all surprisingly because the northern countries give women with children a different social role and much more support, not only with childcare.  Being a mother  or the social role at least is defined differently. The fertility rate across Europe is now 1.5. Without any changes in the current rates, and without  massive immigration, the population of the European Union will shrink from its current 375 million to 75 million by 2200.

Women have changed and will continue to change in the next decennials without a doubt. They chocked us before. To delay childcare or to only want a singleton must have come close to bravery considering the social condemnation. Being a mother of only one child has become much more acceptable : one family out of five in the US has a singleton. Women will continue to chock traditional audiences when voluntarily having children alone, with another woman or not at all. They will continue to divorce men because he was unsupportive in family life and childcare, the number one divorce reason nowadays.

Maybe nature has only foreseen sexual desires to make sure our species continue. Once a baby is born, nature has foreseen physiological reactions to make sure it gets fed and survives. But anything beyond becomes much more blurry.

being a mother
Nursing area sign by Pete Unseth. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

April 2,2015  |

Ethology and Parenting: Can Instinct be Learned?

Ethology is the study of non-human animal behavior under natural conditions with the goal of learning about more about how species develop adaptive traits in response to changing social and environmental conditions. Charles Darwin’s work was instrumental in the development of the field of ethology. His theory of evolution enabled scientists to begin viewing mankind as a part of the natural world rather than a uniquely separate species. The knowledge obtained from studying animals and their behavior has contributed a great deal to understanding human behavior. Separating the myths surrounding the concept of mother’s natural instinct from fact has been an important aspect of this research.

The concept of imprinting was first studied by Nobel prize-winning ethologists Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinburgen, and Karl Von Frisch. By studying the behavior of birds, it was concluded that baby birds emerged with the ability to bond with their mothers within a matter of hours. In the 1960’s researchers began to apply ethology to research on child development. One of the most interesting questions ethologists have attempted to answer is whether a human mother’s natural instinct is a biological reality or a social construct.

Mother’s Natural Instinct and Biology

Research methods used in ethology were used to learn more about the human mother’s natural instinct and whether the same imprinting process took place in human infants. According to ethological theory, which focuses on genetics and biology, babies are biologically prepared to behave in ways that establishes a bond with their caregivers. Ethologists believe that these behaviors are evolutionary adaptations that improve the chances for survival. The ethological school of motherhood is one that subscribes to attachment theory.

Rather than imprinting like birds, human bonding has been termed “attachment”, a term used by John Bowlby to describe the process. He agreed with the ethological view that human babies are biologically programmed to form attachments that will ensure their survival. He stressed the importance of successful bonding with the mother above all others and theorized that the quality of the mother-child bond would serve as the model for all future relationships.

While Bowlby’s research and theories proved invaluable, later research revealed that biology may play a larger role in what is considered mother’s natural instinct than he realized when forming his attachment theory. Developmental psychobiologist Myron Hofer conducted experiments that challenged Bowlby’s theory of the internal working model of attachment. When rat pups were separated from their mother, they exhibited both physiological and behavioral changes. Changes were found in heart rate and body temperature, as well as exploratory behaviors. Hofer concluded that mother-infant interactions can actually control vital regulatory functions apart from cognitive factors.

Rat pups that received high levels of maternal licking and grooming had milder responses to threat and increased exploratory behavior – effects that lasted into adulthood, and more importantly, resulted in genetic changes that were passed on to the next generation. Individual differences in maternal behavior contributed to differences in the gene expression of their offspring. These findings proved important in changing the scientific view of mother’s natural instinct.

Mother’s Natural Instinct Versus Maternal Behavior

What has historically been viewed as the human mother’s natural instinct is actually a complex set of interactions between a number of biological and environmental elements. Bowlby’s original concept of attachment security has been expanded upon to show that attachment security is influenced by both biology and maternal temperament. Studies in which children have developed emotional attachments to various objects such as a blanket or a cuddly toy with which they comfort themselves when a parent is not available have provided further evidence of the human instinct to form attachments to that which represents safety as a means of survival.

The concept of mother’s natural instinct has resulted in a belief that all women are biologically equipped to provide adequate nurturing to their offspring. Effective parenting, rather than being the result of natural instinct, is in fact a complex set of learned behaviors. Future parenting behaviors are influenced by the type of parenting an individual has received in the past. Research that identifies the types nurturing behaviors that are most beneficial to children provides women with the opportunity to learn and practice those behaviors. Positive genetic changes result from those behaviors and can then be passed to the next generation. Providing information with the potential to improve the quality of life for future generations is perhaps the most important contribution science has made to mankind.

mothers natural instinct

January 6,2014  |