Female hormones

The Chemistry Of Emotion: Female Hormones and How We Habit Our Body – part 2/3

It is said that modern endocrinology was born when the German zoologist and physiologist Arnold Adolph Berthold (1803-1861) carried out experiments in the 1800’s.  He set out to determine what role the gonads, the ovaries and testicles, played in the development of secondary sex characteristics.

He saw that castrated cockerels never developed wattles (the reddish lobe hanging from the head or neck)  or combs (the crest that grows on the crown), the way cockerels should. The cockerels also did not show typical male behavior after castration. I am thankful that we have come a long way since then.

The female hormones of the endocrine system help to regulate and maintain the health and functioning of the reproductive system as well as other areas. Part 1/3 explained that the female hormones produced by the ovaries are estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.

They play actually a variety of different roles in developing secondary sex characteristics, controlling fertility, and regulating menstrual cycles.

Sometimes problems cause a female hormone imbalance. These usually are associated with the ovaries, such as ovarian cysts, ovarian cancer, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. The differing levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone throughout the month can cause mood swings and other behaviors.

Female Hormone, Estrogen

Female hormonesEstrogen is the most widely known hormone.  Estrogen is actually the name for a group of three very similar hormones:

  • estrone,
  • estriol, and
  • estradiol.

Uniquely responsible for reproduction: The estrogenic hormones are uniquely responsible for the growth and development of female sexual characteristics and reproduction in both humans and animals.

Estradiol in high volumes: Estradiol is the most highly produced of these hormones during the reproductive ages.  The anterior pituitary sends follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) to the ovaries, which causes them to release estrogen into the blood stream.

The pituitary and hypothalamus receive the message that estrogen and progesterone are being produced by the ovaries, and it slows or stops the release of LH and FSH. FSH causes some of the ovarian follicles to mature. A burst of LH is released from the pituitary, called the preovulatory LH surge, causing ovulation of the mature follicle in the ovary. The cells left around the released follicle form the corpus luteum.

Production location: The ovaries produce most of the estradiol and estrone, and the placenta produces estriol. The adrenal glands and fat tissues also produce some estrogen.

Estrogen targets cells that are located in areas that include the uterus, breasts, brain, heart, liver, and bone.

Estrogen is responsible for

  • the female shape by controlling factors, such as
    • limiting muscle mass and height, and
    • plays a dominant role in breast formation during puberty and pregnancy.
  • controlling the uterine lining growth during the first part of the menstrual cycle.

Moodswings: The differing levels of estrogen and progesterone throughout the month may cause mood swings.
Allopregnenolone, the body’s relaxation hormone, disappears in the days before the menstrual period. This is one of the causes of PMS.

Female hormone, Progesterone

One goal: Progesterone has actually only one goal and that is to thicken the uterine lining to prepare it for receiving a fertilized egg after ovulation has occurred. But is has several consequences when lacking as we see further.

Mechanics: As the mature egg travels through the fallopian tube on its way to the uterus, progesterone is released from the corpus luteum. We gave two options:

  • If the egg becomes fertilized, it implants in the uterus. In this case, the corpus luteum continues to produce progesterone. LH is necessary for the continued growth and functioning of the corpus luteum. The placenta also begins to produce progesterone, which maintains the uterus during pregnancy. Progesterone helps to protect the fetus from the mother’s immune system. It keeps the mother’s body from rejecting the fetus as foreign. Women who have many miscarriages may need progesterone therapy to prevent this from happening.
  • If pregnancy doesn’t occur, then progesterone levels quickly drop. Pregnant women’s progesterone levels are 10 times higher than non-pregnant women.

Contraception pills contain a compound that mimics progesterone, and is often combined with estrogen. The preovulatory surge of LH that causes ovulation doesn’t happen when on birth control, because these circulating hormones inhibit LH secretion.

And Female hormone: Testosterone

Although usually considered a male hormone, testosterone is also a female hormone. Comparable to estrogenic hormones that are sometimes mistakenly referred to as exclusively female hormones when in fact both men and women produce them. However, the role estrogen plays in men is not entirely clear.

Role: Testosterone is commonly known as the responsible hormone for our sex drive. Testosterone is indeed responsible for much of the female libido. In a more general way, it gives a supply of sassiness and a zest for life. Androstenedione is the precursor to testosterone. It slows at menopause and perishes along with the ovaries. After menopause, testosterone levels drop as well as estrogen levels. Testosterone levels fall to 50% of their prior level, and they are completely absent in some women.

Mechanics: Approximately 40% to 50% of the testosterone in a woman is produced in the ovaries and adrenal glands.

Hormonal imbalance

Female Hormones

Overproduction of testosterone: A female hormone imbalance causing overproduction of testosterone results in physical changes that include a decrease in breast size, changes in body shape, excess hair growth, oily skin, and lack of a menstrual period. This could be due to an ovarian tumor, in which case the tumor is removed, and the symptoms usually disappear. These tumors are usually not cancerous, and they will not come back once removed. In the case of polycystic disorder, careful monitoring is necessary. There is no prevention known at this time, but maintaining a proper weight and exercising will help.

Estrogen drop: At the same time the testosterone levels are falling after menopause, estrogen levels also fall. A drop in estrogen causes symptoms that include

  • Bone loss or brittle bones. After menopause your body breaks down more bone than it rebuilds. In the years immediately after menopause, women may lose as much as 20 percent of their bone mass.
  • Vaginal dryness,
  • Decreased sensitivity of the clitoris, and
  • Thinning of the walls of the vagina. This may cause sex to be painful.

Estrogen replacement therapy after menopause not only addresses sexual dysfunction, but it helps to protect against osteoporosis and heart disease.

When a uterus is present, it is a good idea to also add progesterone to keep it from becoming cancerous. If estrogen replacement doesn’t correct the loss of interest in sex, then testosterone may be added. Extra estrogen does increase the risk of breast cancer by promoting breast tissue growth, however not everyone agrees on the degree of risk.


Female hormones

Oxytocin is another female hormone released by the pituitary, and is often called the “love drug.”

Here are some examples of love:

  • Suckling by the infant during breast feeding releases oxytocin, which causes milk ejection.
  • Oxytocin is also released when the cervix dilates and it causes the uterine contractions.
  • When the female hormone oxytocin is released by the mother during labor, it sends oxytocin across the placental wall to calm the baby while it is being born to protect against injury.
  • Oxytocin increases a variety of good feelings :
    • security,
    • contentment,
    • trust,
    • empathy, and
    • it plays a role in bonding.

Paul Zak, PhD, a researcher at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, says the higher the oxytocin levels of a women, the happier she is. He commented that

“Those with higher oxytocin had more sex with fewer partners.”

Oxytocin and Bonding

Bonding is an important behavior necessary in forming relationships between a child and mother and between people, such as men and women. A 20 second hug between partners causes the release of oxytocin in their brains. Oxytocin triggers trust.

Its release is not caused by hugs but by positive emotional interactions, like:

  • gazing into another’s eyes,
  • touching,
  • kissing, and off course
  • orgasm.

The female hormones estrogen and progesterone also increase the effects of oxytocin and dopamine for a feel-good euphoria of sorts.

However, stress can turn off these happy chemicals. But is nice to know that oxytocin supplements in the form of a nasal inhaler do exist. They are actually often used in oxytocin research.

So, here you go. The female hormone, estrogen, along with progesterone, testosterone and others, play a large part of our daily lives for our entire lives. A female hormone imbalance could cause distress or physical illness. Knowledge about how to re-balance hormones has come a very long way. Luckily for women today, there are female hormone therapies to replace the lost hormones and regain functioning in all areas of life.

To know about these hormone replacement therapies, we have another article coming up: part 3/3!

Female hormones

The Chemistry Of Emotion: Female Hormones and How We Create Life – part 1/3

Hormones! From PMS to menopause, these messengers of womanhood can affect your mood, your weight, your food cravings – even your desire for sex. For many women, it’s smooth sailing, but for others, it’s a shipwreck at every turn of the hormonal bend,” said Colette Bouchez an award-winning medical journalist.

Women’s bodies are chock full of hormones, and they don’t always cheer us up! Often, it is the opposite. Many of these female hormones are crucial to fertility. We know the beginning of the reproductive years starts with puberty, and  the end of the fertile years is called menopause.

Most women often struggle with issues such as PMS and hormonal fluctuations throughout the month. Menopause is no cake walk, either. But if we understand our hormones, it may make it easier to cope. There are off course ways to ease the symptoms of these troubles through diet, exercise, and if necessary hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

But a better understanding of these hormone fluctuations throughout our lives will help deal with them, as well as help women who are trying to become mothers, because in the end, female fertility is in fact the sole purpose of several female hormones.

The Basics on Male and Female Hormones

Female Hormones

Hormones are often referred to as “chemical messengers,” hormones carry information and instructions from one group of cells to another. But let’s dive deeper.

Secreted chemicals that travelling in the bloodstream: Hormones are chemicals secreted by specialized cells, groups of cells, or a neuron (then it’s called a neurohormone) into the blood which travel to a distant and specific target. Collectively, the secreting cells and the target cells are known as the endocrine system.

Really tiny: Hormones exert their control at very low concentrations: nanomolar concentrations (10-9 M) to picomolar concentrations (10-12 M).

Three types: A hormone can be

  • an amine (derived from amino acids),
  • a peptide (derived from proteins), or
  • a steroid (derived from cholesterol).

Hormones from the pituitary that target the gonads (ovaries or testes) are called gonadotropins, and are peptide hormones. The sex hormones synthesized in the ovaries and testes are steroid hormones.

Receptor Binding mechanism: A particular hormone binds to specific receptors on the target cell and initiates further responses from that cell. Since hormones affect only their target cell’s receptor, they illicit no response from a cell lacking the correct receptor.

Limited time frame: Hormones act only for a limited time, and their levels must be controlled to be effective.

Negative-feedback system: All of the gonadotrophic female hormones are controlled by negative-feedback, except for oxytocin that uses positive feedback control.

The Hypothalamus and the Pituitary

Female Hormones

Master switchboard: The hypothalamus is located above the pituitary gland and is called the “master switchboard”. It signals the pituitary, the “master gland” to synthesize and release hormones that regulate many bodily functions. The hypothalamus synthesizes two hormones in the neuronal cell body and sends them to the posterior pituitary through an axon. The two hormones are the anti-diuretic hormone and the female hormones oxytocin (OT).

The posterior pituitary then releases it into the blood stream. The anterior pituitary gland synthesizes and releases the other trophic  female hormones. Trophic hormones cause the release of a different hormone at another location. In the case of female hormones, the target cells are in the ovaries.

The hypothalamus and the pituitary are intimately linked and in very close proximity. They are separated by a portal system of capillaries and neurons.

The pituitary is really two fused glands, called the anterior and posterior pituitary. The anterior pituitary secretes trophic female sex hormones. These are luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and prolactin. The posterior pituitary secretes the female neurohormone oxytocin.

  • LH and FSH target the ovaries (testes in males) to control various sex characteristics and reproductive actions.
  • Prolactin targets the breast tissue and carries the signal to begin milk production.
  • Oxytocin triggers breast milk release during breast feeding, is responsible for uterine contractions during childbirth, and plays a role in maternal nurturing behavior and other kinds of bonding, such as emotional bonding with a partner.


Female hormones

The placenta also secretes hormones, but only when a woman is pregnant.

  • Estrogens from the placenta ultimately prepare the uterus for the birthing process.
  • Progesterone keeps the placenta in the proper state for fetal development, prevents the secretion of LH and FSH from the anterior pituitary to prevent ovulation, and suppresses uterine contractions.
  • Chorionic somatomammotropin (CS), also called placental lactogens, is believed to control mother and fetal metabolism.
  • Chorionic gonadotropin (CG) is produced by the fetus. It tells the body it is pregnant and prevents luteal regression. CG is the first chemical in the body that signals pregnancy.
  • Relaxin is thought to work with progesterone for pregnancy maintenance, and also helps the ligaments in the pelvic region relax at the end of pregnancy to aid in the childbirth process.

This introduction to female hormones touches on the basics of the endocrine system, as it relates to reproduction. I find it helpful to start at the very beginning and work your way through the intricate mechanisms for a full understanding of what is happening in your body every month and when you are pregnant, or trying to become pregnant.

For further reading I highly recommend these books for a better understanding of female hormones: “The Female Brain“, by Louann Brizendine, reviews and prices here and “Human Physiology: An Integrated Approach, 4th Edition” by Dee Unglaub Silverthorn, reviews and prices here.

But if you have no time for reading these, then a further article (part 2) will focus on the functions of female hormones produced by the ovaries, the emotions and behaviors they may cause, and ways to possibly ease negative symptoms.

instinctive behavior

On What the Founding Father of Ethology, Konrad Lorenz Has To Say On Human Instinctive Behavior

“One asks, which is more damaging to modern humanity: the thirst for money or consuming haste… in either case, fear plays a very important role: the fear of being overtaken by one’s competitors, the fear of becoming poor, the fear of making wrong decisions or the fear of not being up to snuff.”

Every mother knows this fear of which Konrad Lorenz, one of the founding fathers of ethology, speaks. In a highly competitive world, mothers everywhere want to know that they are doing everything possible to insure their child’s ability not just to survive, but to thrive. Unfortunately, this fear is often expressed by mothers competing rather than co-operating with one another to achieve maximum benefits for themselves and their children. Conflicting guidelines offered by “experts” often result in more stress as parents struggle to differentiate instinctive behavior from learned behavior.

Too often, this stressful competition takes the form of using general developmental guidelines established by experts to compare themselves with others. For example, if the guidelines say that the average child learns to walk at a year old, mothers whose children learn to walk at ten months may imagine that their children are extraordinarily gifted, while those who don’t learn to walk until 15 months of age are considered developmentally delayed. Mothers often suffer unwarranted shame as well as pride in comparing their child’s development to both the guidelines and the development of their friends’ children.

Konrad Lorenz is best known for his study of instinctive behavior in Greylag geese and his elaborate description of the principle of attachment, called imprinting. Born into a family of physicians, after completing his M.D. degree at the University of Vienna in 1928, he earned a Ph.D. in zoology in 1933. He observed that certain behaviors of ducklings and goslings were triggered by visual and auditory stimuli from the parent object. Further, he observed that the following response elicited by either the parent or a foster parent continued to affect their adult behavior.

His observation of the interbreeding of species of birds and the resulting hybrids led to his belief that similarly, human racial interbreeding could cause dysgenic effects. These scientific beliefs helped justify Nazi eugenics policies against “race mixing”. Of his writings during that time, he later said

“I regret those writings not so much for the undeniable discredit they reflect on my person as for their effect of hampering the future recognition of the dangers of domestication”.

After the founding of the German Society for Animal Psychology in 1936, Lorenz became the editor of the ethology journal “Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie”. From 1937 to 1940, he lectured in animal psychology and comparative anatomy at the University of Vienna. He was head of the psychology department at Albertus University in Königsberg, Germany from 1940 to 1942. His lectures on instinctive behavior included his theories on the function of positive and negative social feedback mechanisms that serve to help override impulses.

Lorenz is equally well known for his extensive research on the roots of aggression and wrote the book “On Aggression”. He had the opportunity to personally experience the effects of aggression when he was drafted into Hitler’s army. While there, he served as a psychologist in the Office of Racial Policy from 1942-1944 before being captured by the Soviet army and being held as a prisoner of war until 1948. Upon his return to Austria, he served as director of the Institute of Comparative Ethology in Altenburg until 1951. He became a co-director at the Max Planck Institute for Behavior Physiology in 1954, and remained there as director from 1961 to 1973.

In 1973, along with his colleagues Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch, he was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “for discoveries in individual and social behavior patterns”. Today, the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, relocated in 2013 from the family mansion in Altenberg to Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, still plays an important role in the university research community. A second institute named for Lorenz is located in Grünau.

In addition to his gift for detailed recording of the instinctive behavior of animals, he also rigorously avoided any form of animal cruelty during his research. He was also one of the first to warn of the ecological dangers of market economics. His thoughts upon receiving the Nobel Prize reveal that perhaps because of the role that his research played during the Nazi regime, he recognized the moral and ethical problems associated with the misuse of scientific research.

He concluded that

“The competition between human beings destroys with cold and diabolic brutality…. Under the pressure of this competitive fury we have not only forgotten what is useful to humanity as a whole, but even that which is good and advantageous to the individual….”

Perhaps that’s why he advocated choosing mates based not on looks or wealth, but the quality of kindness, as the best hope for the future of mankind. His research proved that while we, like animals, possess instinctive behavior, as humans we also have the capacity to override our instinctive behavior and choose cooperation.

If you are intrigued by Konrad Lorenz, like I am, you can find here another article posted earlier on Konrad Lorenz and how he proved the “biological mother” can be utterly ignored.

instinctive behavior
Lorenz and Tinbergen. Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons
natural instincts

About The Natural Instincts That Determine The Way We Are Mothers

Forces of Nature

As a result of the nature versus nurture debate, most experts now agree that both natural instincts and environment are important factors in understanding human behavior. The debate now centers around determining the ratio of each. While we might like to believe that our behavior is based on conscious choices, there is some evidence that suggests that like other members of the animal kingdom, we too possess innate patterns of behavior. For example, like other species, humans too transmit chemical signals through pheromones, which contribute to eliciting behaviors such as dating and marriage.

Instinctual behavior

The limbic system controls much of our instinctual behavior by processing emotions related to external stimuli such as sight, touch, sound, and smell, that prompt a behavioral response. Some instinctive behaviors include aggression, defense, social hierarchy and care. In rats, when the olfactory system detects pheromones from the opposite sex, the signals are sent to the medial amydala, which then sends other signals to other parts of the brain. This complex process involves pathways of innate circuitry between organs and sensory receptors.

Qualifying Characteristics of Natural Instincts

Innate behavior can be defined as behavior that is determined by our nervous systems.

For a behavior to be classified as one of the natural instincts, it must demonstrate the following seven qualifying characteristics:

  1. automatic
  2. irresistible
  3. occurs at some point in development
  4. triggered by some event in the environment
  5. occurs in every member of the species
  6. cannot be modified
  7. governs behavior that requires no training

One example of instinctive behaviors or natural instincts with regard to motherhood that is actually scientifically proven according to this definition is the rooting and suckling of newborn infants.

A Study of Natural Instincts

The idea that the psychology should be a science separate from biology and focused on the study of human consciousness was introduced by Wilhelm Wundt in the 1870s. Natural instincts were thought to play a very small role in determining human behavior. In 1951, Dutch biologist and Nobel Prizewinner Nikolaas Tinbergen published “A Study of Instinct”, which proved to be highly influential. He classified behavior based on natural instincts as that which was not affected by the learning process.

However, while his theories remain the foundation for current studies on child development, others define innate behavior differently. For example, in his book “The Language Instinct”, psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker theorizes that language acquisition is an instinctive behavior. Richard Herrnstein, author of “The Bell Curve” presented a mathematical formula he called the “matching law” which expressed his findings that human behavior is controlled largely by social reinforcement.

The Power of Learning and Our Learning Instinct

Abraham Maslow believed that humans no longer have innate behaviors because they are able to override  natural instincts towards a certain behavior. He referred to biologically based behaviors as “drives”.

In her 2010 book “Information Behavior: An Evolutionary Instinct”, Amanda Spink refers to child rearing as an “evolved psychological mechanism” with a basis in natural instincts.

Michael McCollough, a positive psychologist, believes that social environment plays a bigger role than natural instincts in determining important socially reactive behaviors such as revenge or forgiveness.

Fortunately, even though parenting may consist of some innate behaviors based on internal chemical reactions, it also consists of many learned behaviors. New parenting behaviors are continually being introduced into the social lexicon as humans adapt to technological innovations. For example, the child rearing “instinct” has been applied primarily to women due to their physiological ability to give birth and nurse an infant. It has even been termed the “maternal instinct”. Now, however, the term “paternal instinct” has been introduced and is growing in popularity.

Thankfully, we no longer believe that parenting skills are the biological result of maternal natural instincts. Women are no longer expected to be ideal mothers just by virtue of having been born female. Increasingly, they are no longer shamed for enlisting support in parenting or for choosing not to become mothers at all. That means an increase in the number of children who are truly wanted in the world.

We haven’t even begun to study the full extent to which we are all affected by innate patterns of behavior. Part of the reason for this is the most studies are funded by governments or corporations with specific agendas. An overview of what is currently being taught reveals that we still have a long way to go towards healing the schisms that result from building cultural structures without sufficient scientific information about our own humanity. As our knowledge about what it means to be human increases, our social institutions too will become more humane.

natural instincts
Blessed Art Thou among Women, Gertrude Käsebier, 1899, Credit Line Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933
Biological Clock

About Delaying Motherhood and The Imperative of The Biological Clock

“I often think about a saying attributed to the Dalai Lama, that goes something like this: we sacrifice our health to make money and then we spend our money to take care of our health. How do we reject the expectations foisted on us to excel at everything in work and in life, to drive ourselves to the limit, while we try to be happy, healthy human beings? Of course, both women and men confront this question, but women have some different concerns because they have had to fit into a world largely constructed by and for men.”

Some feminist authors spark controversy without even trying. That can be said of Tanya Selvaratnum. Even the title of her book, The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock, invites debate. In her book, she describes her personal experiences as well as presenting the thoughts and experiences of others, on the subject of delaying motherhood.

In 2013, it made front-page headlines when the average age of a new mother in Britain reached 30 for the first time. Similarly, the average age at which a woman had her first child in the United States reached 26 in 2013, compared to age 21 in 1970.

Most people can agree that the increasing trend towards delaying motherhood is primarily the result of financial considerations, rather than a matter of keeping time with the female biological clock. Increasingly, more years of education and experience are required to earn an income sufficient to provide for the material needs of a child.

Consequences of ignoring the biological clock

However, according to experts on women’s natural biological clocks, their fertility peaks during their twenties. Delaying motherhood can often result in difficulties in conceiving and carrying a child to term. One reason for this is that although by puberty, women’s bodies contain 300,000 to 500,000 eggs, only about 300 of them are released by the ovaries, part of a woman’s natural biological clock, throughout her reproductive life cycle.

The risk of miscarriage grows slightly with each passing year, beginning at 10% in the twenties, rising to 18% by the late thirties, reaching up to 53% by age 45. While few women struggle with infertility in their twenties, the choice to ignore the natural biological clock has biological consequences. For example, a full two-thirds of women over 40 experience infertility problems.

The inability of a woman to conceive during her twenties is only 6% but that percentage skyrockets to 64% by age 40. There are other risks to delaying motherhood as well. For example, the risk of having a child with Downs syndrome is one in 2000 in a woman’s twenties, increasing to one in 900 by age 30 and to one in 100 by age 40.

Not only are there consequences for delaying motherhood, but there are other benefits to women having children in their twenties as well. Women in their twenties generally have a higher energy level and a greater ability to function on less sleep. As any mother of an infant can testify, motherhood requires a woman to adjust her own biological clock to accommodate that of her child.

Biological clock and Economic benefits

Conversely, while the study of the natural biological clock has provided ample biological evidence of the consequences of delaying motherhood, the benefits of delaying it are primarily economic. This means that our economic system was created, and is maintained, without taking the reality of female biology into consideration. This sad fact has resulted in a great deal of anguish for many women who found that delaying motherhood meant never being able to experience motherhood at all.

Those who are able to overcome the physical challenges associated with delaying motherhood must deal with the challenges faced by working mothers. Although many have solidified their careers, which allows them to afford good child care, working mothers are expected to achieve a constant balance between motherhood and their careers.

In an article in which she describes her goals for her book as well as for her life, she says

“One lie, or myth, to be more precise, is that there is work/life balance. I believe true balance might be unattainable, but we can achieve moments of it. One of my goals for 2014 is to have those moments happen more often and last longer.”

All mothers, and mother-to-be can look forward to the day when economists take women’s biology into consideration when making policy. Until then, mothers will just have to continue to support one another as much as possible.

Here you you will another article on the ticking clock…

Biological Clock

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
nurturing genetics

Nurturing Genetics of Humans and Chimpansees: Commonalities of Mothering

“We’re so closely related genetically, yet our behavior is so different. This [study] will allow us to look for the genetic basis of what makes modern humans different from both bonobos and chimpanzees.” — Janet Kelso of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The Beginnings of Genetic Similarities

In 2012, an international team of researchers sequenced the genome of the bonobo. They found that it, like the chimpansee, shared around 99 percent of its DNA with humans. The team also found small differences in the genomes of the three species that could explain why chimps and bonobos don’t look or act like humans.

Closest Living Relatives: the Chimps

Back in 2005, researchers had sequenced the chimpansee genome and discovered that it was our closest living relative.

The discovery of the bonobo’s close relationship with humans has prompted scientists to speculate about the ancestor of chimpansees, bonobos and humans. They wonder if it looked like a chimp or bonobo or something else. They also want to know more about the evolution of all three species. Ancestral humans split off from ancient chimps and bonobos between 4 and 7 million years ago. Chimpansees and bonobos split off from each other about one million years ago. They are still very closely related and share about 99.6 percent of their DNA.

Genetic ties between chimpansee, human, and bonobo

The research team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany found that humans and bonobos shared 1.6 percent of their DNA with each other, but not with the chimpansee. Similarly, they found that humans and chimpansees shared 1.6 percent of their DNA with each other, but not with bonobos. That points to a large and genetically diverse population of ancestral apes with perhaps 27,000 reproductive active adults.

Scientists have also been learning why humans, chimps and bonobos are so different despite having over 98 percent of their DNA in common. Part of the reason is simply due to the numbers of genes involved. Each human cell has three billion base pairs in it, and 1.2 percent of that equals 35 million base pairs. (Base pairs, which are always bonded pairs adenine and thymine or ctyosine and guanine, join together to form the DNA double helix.)

In addition, even identical genes can work differently. Gene activity or expression can be turned up or down like the volume on a radio. Chimpansees and humans have many of the same genes regulating their brains, but the human genes are more active which is why humans have bigger and smarter brains than do chimpansees. In fact, geneticists have identified a gene that stimulates development of the cortex in both chimps and humans, and they have also found that humans have an extra copy of the gene. They believe that humans gained that extra copy after their family tree diverged from that of chimpansees.

Chimpansees Nurturing Genetics

The genetic similarities and differences between humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos can be seen in their reproduction, nurturing and mothering. Hence nurturing genetics. For example, studies show that all three primates have gestations lasting nine months, and all three usually have single offspring that are born helpless. In all three species, the young take years to reach adulthood and need nurturing genetics to survive. Chimpansee mothers, like their human counterparts, protect and nurture their babies and are primed to do by their nurturing genetics.

On the other hand, baby chimpansees usually develop their first teeth between the ages of three to five months, while a human infant usually doesn’t start teething until they’re around six months. While chimpansees generally mature faster than do humans, they paradoxically nurse for a longer time.  Their nurturing genetics seem to be more central in their lives. A chimpansee may continue to nurse until it’s five years old, and its mother will also gather food for it. After the chimp turns five though, the mother stops feeding it or letting it nurse, as the youngster is now old enough to get its own food.

Just as girls might play house, chimps begin making sleep nests like their mothers when they’re around six months old. So both young humans and chimps both learn by imitating adult behaviors.

These shared nurturing genetics contribute to the fact that chimpansees are indeed our closest living relatives.

nurturing genetics
Chimpanse with Young, -source Wikimedia
Worst Animal Mothers

Worst animal mothers – Pandas and Hamsters Do What to Their Babies?!

Some animal mothers do some admittedly horrible things to their young, from abandoning them to letting an older sibling beat them up to outright killing them. As a lawyer might put it, there are usually “extenuating circumstances” behind these behaviors. Animal mothers want to increase the chances of their strongest, fittest offspring surviving — even if it means disposing of a weaker juvenile.

Neglect/Abandonment with the Worst Animal Mothers

Some animal mothers apparently just don’t take very good care of their kids. Pandas, for instance, only take care of one cub — even if they have two. The mother panda feeds and cares for one cub, and leaves the other one to its fate. It takes eight or nine months for panda babies to get fully weaned, and it’s doubtful that the mother could successfully nurse them both. Pandas live on bamboo, which is not the most nutritious of foods. From the mother panda’s perspective, it’s better to have one strong and robust cub rather than two weak ones.

The hooded grebe outright abandons younger chicks. She will lay two eggs and take good care of the first one that hatches. The second egg is simply insurance in case there’s something wrong with the first egg. Once the mother grebe is satisfied that her first chick is perfect, she has no interest in the second chick and abandons it.

Brood Parasitism

Some of the worst animal mothers that engage in brood parasitism can’t even be bothered to raise the kids themselves, but foist the job on someone else. The European Cuckoo, for example, lays her eggs in another bird’s nest. Generally, she lays one egg per nest, and her eggs resemble those of her victim. The cuckoo mother will ensure there’s room for her egg by disposing of at least one of the other eggs. The young cuckoo typically hatches before its host’s chicks do and will quickly shove their eggs over the side of the nest, thus ensuring that its hosts feed it and only it.

Brood parasitism is generally associated with birds, but has been seen in fish and insects. Cuckoo bees and wasps lays their eggs in the nests of other insect species, and they will often kill any host larvae they find to ensure their young get taken care of.

The Worst Animal Mothers and Siblicide

Siblicide means one sibling kills another sibling. It happens a lot in the animal world, and the worst animal mothers generally don’t do anything to stop it. In fact, in a lot of cases, the mother just watches as one juvenile kills another.

Birds, especially birds of prey, are notorious for this. The black eagle mother, for instance, will just sit and watch while her oldest chick kills its sibling. Bird species that practice siblicide often show hatching asynchrony, in which the eggs hatch at different times. The chicks that hatch first quickly gain an advantage over their younger siblings in terms of size and strength. Since there are often more chicks than the mother can really feed, the younger, weaker chicks either starve or get killed by their older siblings.

The black eagle is a case of “obligate siblicide,” for the older chick always kills the younger one even when there’s plenty of food. The black eagle mother had never planned on raising both chicks, but had laid the second egg as an insurance policy in case something happened to the first egg. Once it becomes obvious that the first chick is going to be fine, the second chick or egg is considered superfluous and treated accordingly.

Siblicide does occur in non-avian species. Spotted hyenas are an example of “facultative siblicide,” which means the siblings don’t always kill one another. Hyena siblings do, however, always fight each other for dominance within the litter, and the winning sibling gets the lion’s share of the milk and meat. When there’s plenty of food, all of the siblings may live, but when times are hard the weaker siblings starve to death, for the dominant sibling bullies them away from any food.

Or Maybe Cannibals Might be The Worst Animal Mothers

Quite a few of the worst animal mothers will kill and eat their own young. One example is the burying beetle, which owes its name to its habit of burying a mouse carcass that it then lays its eggs on. The mother beetle eats the meat and regurgitates it to feed her larvae who crowd around her begging. She can only regurgitate so much meat at a time which often means not everybody gets fed. The first larvae do indeed get fed, but any stragglers that are still begging after the mother runs out of meat get eaten.

The reason is that burying beetles often have more young that a mouse carcass can support, so she periodically culls the numbers to get her brood down to a manageable size. Doing so increases the chances of survival for the others by making sure that there is enough food to feed them until they’re old enough to get their own food.

Hamsters may be a lot cuddlier than beetles, but hamster mothers also produce more young than they can realistically raise, and they also eat some of them. Hamsters can’t predict how much food will be available, so they tend to have large litters in the hopes there will be plenty for them. A large litter also serves as an insurance policy. If some of the young have birth defects, the mother will eat them and concentrate on raising the healthy babies.

Animal mothers are plainly much less sentimental than human mothers. So in a sense can we talk about worst animal mothers. It does imply a scale f comparison. In their eyes, the strongest juveniles have the best chance of survival, especially in tough times, so they will devote most of their time and energy on caring for them. An animal mother might spare a weaker juvenile if there are plenty of resources, but she won’t do so if they’re scarce.

Here you you will find more about Mother Bear.

Worst Animal Mothers
Giant panda at Wolong Nature Reserve

Explaining Motherhood: Is it Instinctive?

Motherhood does not come with an instruction manual, yet somehow women take to their motherly duties seemingly by instinctive ability. Many who are thrust in this role by choice or by circumstance face a lot of anxiety but pursue their role tenaciously regardless of the self-doubt. Reflecting society’s high expectations for mothers, Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

“Men are what their mothers made them.”

Is Motherhood Instinctive?

In 2013, close to 4 million births were registered in the U.S., indicating a slight decline in birth rate. Even as women pursue high-flying careers outside the home, it remains clear that motherhood is a milestone integral to the story arc. While blazing new trails in the professional world, women have displayed their capacity to cope with the traditional role as nurturer and primary caregiver to young children.

An interesting study conducted by researchers in Tokyo used magnetic resonance imaging or MRIs to monitor the reactions of mothers shown silent films of their own infant in comfortable and under stressful situations. The mothers’ reactions to seeing their infant in distress were particularly strong, suggesting an instinctive biological response to certain infant care demands according to the authors of the study.

On the other hand, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Davis takes a different view based on her research. Instinctive maternal responses exist, but her research propounds that maternal instincts are more correctly described as biological conditioning rather than true instinct. Hrdy believes that a woman can care for any child regardless of biological connection if she had the existing desire to be a mother and was given time to be with the child. She has been involved in primate research for at least three decades and “Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection” discusses which maternal behaviors are biological, instinctive or wishful social constructs. For a more in-depth article on Hrdy’s views, go here.

Instinctive and Learned Strategies

It is understood that the tasks and responsibilities of mothers are varied, expansive and ever changing as the needs of the children evolve. Nonetheless, mothers are able to navigate this pathway with aplomb, adjusting to the demands on their time, physical, mental and social capabilities.

The so-called maternal instinct could best be described as a predisposition to a range of strategies and responses to certain circumstances. These responses could be learned from other mothers and mother figures. Personal experiences often provide social cues and the framework through which mothers can negotiate the tasks associated with being a mother.

Maternal behavior in the animal kingdom

One of the ways that scientists in various fields seek to explain the nuances of maternal behavior is by observing the behavior of mothers in the animal kingdom.

Giraffe mothers are known to sacrifice their own lives to lions that are after their calves. African elephants will attack vehicles that they perceive as dangers to their young. North American killdeer will lure predators away from the nest by faking a broken wing and sometimes losing their life in the process. There are also documented instances when mother animals would step in and take care of babies that are not theirs, which is something that human mothers do all the time.

Understanding what makes mothers tick is a fascinating subject as mothers have been romanticized and idealized in many ways. In the end, what matters most is that mothers are given ample opportunity and adequate support to define their own place in society.


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