gap with animal mothers

In Search of the Missing Link: What Is It That Makes Us Human?

“To imagine new events you need an open-ended system capable of combining old information into new scenarios. If mental time travel evolved for this purpose, then the price of this flexibility is that we may at times reconstruct past events creatively rather than faithfully—which explains some of the typical errors of episodic memory.”

Professor Thomas Suddendorf

Bridging the Gap With Animal Mothers

Thomas Suddendorf, the author of “The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals” grew up in Germany. He completed his postgraduate studies in New Zealand. Traveling the world in pursuit of scientific truths, he has earned awards from the Australian Psychological Society as well as the American Psychological Association. His book received critical acclaim and is already being translated into several languages.

A review of the book points to several phrases that help define its purpose, which is to determine exactly what it is that differentiate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. One of the focuses of his research is comparing the mental capacities of human children with those of animals to answer the elusive question of what lies between the gap with animal mothers as compared to human ones.

Among those differences are a “drive to connect with other minds” and “nested scenario building”, which is described as a form of mental time travel. According to Suddendorf, one aspect of the human gap with the animal mother is the ability to imagine what others may be thinking. While a sentence such as

“I think she thinks that I think that she likes me”

may be a little confusing, we are able to determine its meaning. For animals, such a sentence with a similar meaning would be literally unthinkable. Unlike our cousins, the apes, we are able to imagine scenarios without ever having experienced them, including dangerous scenarios, which we can rehearse from the safety of our armchairs.

Former Theories of Possible Differences

Professor Suddendorf isn’t the first to ask and attempt to answer the question of the gap with animal mothers. Mark Twain pointed out that the difference between animals and humans was the ability to blush, and added that humans were the only species that had reason to do so.

One answer to the question of the gap with animal mothers was the human ability to use tools, but researchers have discovered cases in which animals too have not only used, but invented, tools.

Others have suggested that it was cooking food, but Bonobos have been observed to be able to build a fire as well as cook. Of course, he did use matches invented by humans to do it.

The human ability to formulate language was once believed to be the difference between humans and other species. However, several other species have demonstrated the ability to learn both the sounds and meanings of many words in human language, as well as communicate through sign language.

Anthropologist and author Ernest Becker, in his brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Denial of Death” postulated that the answer to the gap with animal mothers is that humans are the only species with awareness of their own mortality. While researchers like Professor Suddendorf have conducted experiments which demonstrate that members of the ape family closest to humans are able to recognize their own images in a mirror, awareness of mortality would be much more difficult to determine.

According to Suddendorf, the major differences lie in the human desire to know what is in the hearts and minds of others and the ability to imagine things we haven’t actually experienced. These two traits resulted in humans being able to develop language and use memory to mentally visualize the future, a form of abstract reasoning necessary to survive within complex social networks. He also believes that being able to imagine what others may be thinking or feeling, or empathy, contributed to the development of morality. However, he concludes that we may never fully understand the gap with animal mothers because our closest living genetic relatives are quickly becoming extinct. If that happens, any future research that may hold the key to our genetic past, and perhaps our future, will be lost.

If you’ve ever wondered about the gap with animal mothers, or what made humans able to invent the wheel or control fire, you might enjoy Professor Suddendorf’s TED talk . It is as educational as it is entertaining.

gap with animal mothers
Human physiognomies next to animal physiognomies. Etching, c. 1820, after C. Le Brun. CC BY 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

December 14,2015  |

extended family

Moral education and the extended family governed Motherhood in 1800-1850, not Mother love

Motherhood was about creating the religious and dutiful house

Once the nineteenth century started things changed. There was increased concern with the children’s moral and spiritual development. Science and religion will much determine this century and this will have an impact on childcare. The ideal of domesticity was reinforced by the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars on the continent. These were times of patriotism, loyalty and reproduction of striding and defending soldiers and soldier wives.

Mothers needed to look after the moral and spiritual development and their good example would shape the mind and hearts of the children, less Mother love itself. The extended family played an important role. And propaganda towards a religious and dutiful house was what mothers left alone kept going. They were told that taking care of the children would be just as useful and sacred to society than their husbands fighting to defend the country.

The importance of the extended family and no mother love

However there is no mention at all of the emotional attachment from the child to the mother and dangers of separation of the mother were simply not an issue at the time. Members of an extended family did  often most of the work. Mother love seemed not to exist at all. That was not before Freud would arrive on the scene. Ideas of mothers have changed radically with the role of women in general. By that time mothers were needed to stay at home but not for sentimental reasons. Too much sentimentality and softness could even be bad for children. The mother did not only to look after the morality of the children but also had a responsibility in providing a safe haven and refuge for her husband who worked ‘outside’ in a corrupt and hard world. Yes, her responsibility was also making the home peaceful, harmonious and uplifting for husbands and children which is still different than the emphasis in Mother love we have today. She was the good spine for all relatives. With the help of the extended family, she ‘managed’ family life and children.

The appearance of childcare books

By the mid nineteenth century a massive amount of books in childcare debarked. All with a similar message: the moral and spiritual welfare. The books came with loads of good advice.

Mothers are the best teachers for their children and this job is the most rational and pleasing employments in which human mankind can engage’


‘It ought… to enter into the domestic policy of every parent to make her child feel that home is the happiest place in the world; that to imbue them with this precious home-feeling is one of the choicest gifts a parent can bestow

are two examples of two very popular childcare books in that time, Advice to the Teens by Saac Taylor of Ongar , from 2nd London ed., Boston, 1820 (p.64) and H. Montgomery Hyde. Mr. and Mrs. Beeton, re-edited in London, 1951 (p. 98).

Although this might sound similar to the advice experts would give today the reality is very different. Mothers were cold and intolerant to their children. They were very little with their children either because they were educated by nurses or extended family if they were at least middle class or the mother and sometimes the children would be working. Mother love would not be useful or provide the needed results. The duty to love was more prevalent than the love itself. Children were treated like guests when entering in the living room if there was one and could eat in the kitchen with the servants.

But all in all, the nineteenth century had been good to children in general because it was the first time since long that they were not seen anymore as small adults. It began to be less obvious to let them go to work for fourteen hours a day. Childcare, a new science, was for some interesting as a new fashion and for others a tool for a better soul or a way to be (seen as) a religiously good and faithful person. All good reasons really if this period ended up providing better living conditions for children.

Children and their needs appear in literature

Since the end of the eighteenth century there had never before been so many books about children. Literature in general was unconcerned with children. It did not exist as an important or continuous theme. It actually simply did not exist at all. But that changed. In the written world, the child became the symbol of creativity in an increasingly mechanical and industrial society. The child was pure and innocent in a world of bigger communities and alienation. The child represented escape and refuge because his world was smaller, simpler and perceived as happier. William Blake, Wordsworth, Dickens and Mark Twain all used these themes when writing about children our childhood.

The birth of the family unit versus the extended family

One could say that from the nineteenth century family and children took a bigger dimension in most parent’s lives. The unit “family” increased its significance in opposition to the “larger community”  or extended family of this industrial area. The family had never had such a big importance in society nor did it exercise such an influence on it. The economic dependence on a larger community or extended family had diminished and people organized themselves more around a few members and intimacy and privacy became important notions.

Sentimentality, feelings, small habits and routine, gave comfort and identity, were remembered at old age. Family’s idealization had started. The family before was loosely together and open and unprotective of privacy. A family (and not the extended family) existed no longer for only materialistic and economical reasons.

If you want to move  into the second part of the 19th century, head over to the more disciplinary education during 1850 and 1900.

extended family
Eleven Stages Of Womanhood 1840s. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Common

April 6,2015  |