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
tamarin animal mother

Back to the Future: What Primates Can Teach Us about Parenting

“I’m certainly not advocating that we should behave like monkeys and apes. I’m saying that understanding the basic primate way will help us make more informed choices about the kinds of parents we want to be.”

–Harriet J. Smith

A practicing clinical psychologist and former fellow at the National Institute of Child Health and Development, Harriet J. Smith she has published many journal articles over the years. In her book, Parenting for Primates, she offers parents valuable knowledge gleaned from the four months she spent in the Peruvian rain forest observing primates as well as the 30 years that she managed a colony of tamarin monkeys in her own home. She became interested in primate parenting and realized that human mothers could benefit in many ways from her study of the tamarin animal mother. Some of the topics in the book include the roles of mothers and fathers, single parenting, weaning babies, baby-sitters, independence and dealing with an empty nest.

Maternal Instinct and the Tamarin Animal Mother

Her experience with the tamarin animal mother began with two orphaned monkeys, which were bottle-fed and hand-raised. When these monkeys became parents, they displayed very little interest in caring for their young. In fact, their reactions to them were often hostile, and included sticking out their tongues and making threatening gestures.

In an article, Smith describes how the infants were fostered and cared for by a tamarin animal mother named Rachel, who had been captured as an adult after having been raised in a primate family group in the wild. This experience led her to conclude that rather than being the product of maternal instinct, parenting consists of a complex set of learned behaviors. After Rachel taught them those behaviors through example, the natural parents were able to develop those skills.
One of her goals for writing the book was to alleviate the sense of guilt experienced by mothers who question their own maternal instinct. Guilt is often experienced by women suffering post-partum depression. It can also be the result of an overwhelming sense of inadequacy by new mothers who question the value of skills learned from their own mothers. Evidence that parenting skills can be learned is a potent antidote.

The Social Support System of the Tamarin Animal Mother

In tamarin primate families, the males care for the babies from an early age, providing as much, and sometimes more, care than the females. Just as the females were able to learn parenting behaviors, the males were also able to learn adequate parenting skills. Tamarin animal mothers without a mate often rely on other adult males as well as female relatives for assistance. Smith points out that in the primate realm, parenting does not take place in social isolation. The degree of social isolation that parents in industrialized societies experience is one of the most difficult challenges they face.

Tamarin animal mothers also utilize baby-sitters for their young. Those who provide care are usually related to the mother or socially subordinate to the extent that they recognize her ultimate parental authority. The mother never goes so far out of range that she cannot return and immediately take charge upon hearing a cry of distress. Babysitting in the simian world is carried out on an individual basis, rather than a single adult supervising a group of young tamarins.

Applying Lessons Learned from the Tamarin Animal Mother

According to one article, “Parenting for Primates” has generated some controversy. The book received critical acclaim from several sources such as Publisher’s Weekly and favorable reviews from colleagues like psychologist Jay Belsky, London University’s director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues. However, others such as Georgia State University’s Dr. Emily D. Klein, believe that it may add to the guilt of mothers in industrialized societies who, due to economic realities beyond their control, are unable to implement many of the suggestions.

In response to her critics, Smith offered the reassurance that “My message is not that mothers shouldn’t work, but that they should be thoughtful about how much time they spend away from their children and about who will care for them in their absence.” Rather than working mothers feeling guilty about the need to rely on professional day care, she counsels parents to develop good relationships with their child care providers. Another way to enhance the child’s experience of being cared for by others is for the parent to remain in the area for a period of time during the transition. An example of this would be to invite the child care provider into the home to develop a relationship with the child while the parents are present.

Many educators also believe that parents in industrialized societies can benefit from the parenting lessons provided by the tamarin animal mother. For that reason, a 7 credit continuing education course designed for parents has been developed based on the book. Perhaps some ancient history, in the form of successful parenting tips provided by our distant tamarin cousins, may be worth repeating to create a better future for our own children.

tamarin animal mother
Vase in the Shape of a Mother Monkey with Her Young, Old Kingdom, Dynasty 6, Reign of Pepi I, 2289 2255bc, Egypt
blended family life

How Creating a Blended Family Life Is A Work of Art in Progress

“One of the great enemies of a blended family is the fact that we live in the age of instant everything. It’s natural for Mom and Dad to assume that they’ll have “instant success” with their new marriage and the new family it creates. Sometimes they naively assume that because they love each other so much and because they’ve found the “right” mate “this time,” marriage is going to be so much more wonderful the second time around, and the kids will gladly come along for the ride. The truth is, however, that the term blended family is a misnomer. It’s much more accurate to say that a step family is blending.”

— Dr Kevin Leman

The Modern Prevalence of Blended Family Life

Statistics show that the number of blended families continues to rise. In fact, currently, 40% of all U.S. families are blended families, and that percentage is only counting those who are legally married. There are also many “unofficial” blended families. While divorce statistics have risen steadily over the last decade, the majority of divorced parents marry again. For women under 45, 63% of their remarriages result in a blended family.

Blended families are also commonly created by previously unmarried parents as well as those who have lost a spouse. It is estimated that step-families are created in approximately one third of all U.S. marriages. While the circumstances that lead to a blended family life may differ, the one constant is that an adult makes a commitment to assume a supportive or parental role to the children of their romantic partner.

Challenges of Blended Family Life

With the right tools, many of the unique challenges that blended families face can become opportunities for both personal growth and building strong mutually supportive relationships. Blended families often experience conflict during the process of learning about one another and forming emotional attachments and working relationships. Among common conflicts are children having difficulty sharing. Whether they are adapting to sharing a parent’s time and attention, their personal space, or their toys, learning to share what was previously theirs alone can take time. To help make the transition to blended family life a smooth one, it’s important to have some conflict resolution strategies in place.

Another common source of conflict lies in the process of the step-parent assuming parental authority. Experts suggest that while authority must be given by biological parents as soon as possible, they further suggest that it be exercised only as an extension of the biological parent’s authority until a mutually respectful relationship has been developed. Consistent enforcement of rules that have already been agreed upon and put into place is a good way to build a child’s trust.

To avoid the common occurrence of children of divorced parents attempting to divide them in order to gain more freedom or privileges, parental unity is important. Rules, and the consequences for breaking them, should be negotiated by parents and step-parents in private, then communicated to the children by the parent with the step-parent present in a supportive role. This helps avoid power struggles that end with a child refusing to follow a rule on the grounds that “you’re not my father”.

Another challenge of blending two families is the continued presence of a former spouse in the children’s lives. Agreeing upon and maintaining consistency with rules and consequences is difficult even for two parents, and can be even more so with three or more. This is especially true if one of the causes of the divorce was irreconcilable differences—in parenting. Studies have proven that maintaining relationships with non-custodial parents is important to children’s well-being. Luckily, there are online resources as well as in-person support groups to help smooth the transition, or even provide ongoing emotional support.

Some Benefits of Blended Family Life

Financial and Emotional Support
Of course, far fewer people would accept the challenges of blended family life if it didn’t also offer beneficial and richly rewarding experiences. One of those benefits is economic. Sometimes it means adding an additional income to the family, which can make the difference between a child receiving music lessons or receiving free school lunches. Good day care for working parents is expensive, and when one parent can remain home to care for young children, both the children and the family finances benefit.

Many of the benefits of blended family life for children are of the mental and emotional variety. Personality traits that result from having more adults in their lives, such as increased flexibility, will serve them well throughout their adult lives. They are also more likely to develop superior negotiation skills, partly as a result of having observed that skill being modeled. With more adults in their lives, they are exposed to more interests, talents, skills and abilities, which can have the effect of making them more creative, interesting and popular adults. Finally, they have the opportunity to learn a greater variety of communication styles.

Parents in families expanded by commitment also experience those benefits—plus smiles and hugs from children.

blended family life

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
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

nurturing primates

Motherhood Among the Trees: Nurturing Primates and Parenting

Orangutan babies look straight into your soul and are just like human babies, helpless,

said Willie Smith, a Dutch scientist. In many ways these higher primates are much alike. These higher primates are actually the Nurturing Primates. For example, their gestation periods are between eight and nine months, so female orangutans understand big bellies and swollen feet just as much as anyone in lamaze class. But they approach motherhood in ways that are also dissimilar to humans.  Orangutans have to teach their children how to hide from pythons, something I’ve never taught my kindergartner how to do. Orangutans can also breastfeed for up to eight years. Can you imagine?


According to the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), orangutans have one of the longest and most slowly-maturing life cycles of any animal. Females don’t become sexually active until they’re 12 or so, which is a long time for higher, nurturing primates, and most don’t become mothers until 15 or 16. For comparison’s sake, marmosets only live an average of 15 years.

As previously stated, orangutans are generally pregnant the same amount of time as humans. They also give birth to a single baby in the way that most humans do. There are only a few recorded instances of Sumatran orangutans giving birth to twins.

Infancy and Child Rearing with Nurturing Primates

Baby orangutans are utterly dependent on their mothers for the first 2-3 years of their lives. While they can grip, sit and even roll around on their own, they spend the majority of their early years riding on their mother’s back or clinging to her stomach as she moves.

Most of the orangutan childhood is spent learning how to survive. Moms teach their kids how to find food, create shelter, groom themselves and move gracefully from tree to tree. This learning usually takes place until they’re 10 or so and the child is mature enough not to need constant supervision. It’s worth noting, however, that mothers act as parents and protectors even after that. They sleep with their offspring in the same trees and defend them against predators no matter how old they are.

Bonding Among Nurturing Primates

Why do orangutans grow up so slowly? Experts suggest that it’s a combination of socialization and pragmatism. On one hand, there’s a lot to learn about being an orangutan. Mothers act as teachers first and foremost, and a bond develops after years of guidance.

There might also be a more emotional aspect to it. Orangutans aren’t hugely social creatures once they’re fully grown, so they may be “stretching out” their adolescence to enjoy that bond with mom while they still can. Young females have been known to come back and visit their mothers even when they’re fully mature and self-sufficient.

Occasionally, however, tragedy can strike between parents and offspring. Do you remember those rare twin orangutans? One such pair was born in Indonesia to a female Sumatran orangutan named Gober. After a period of observation, conservationists released Gober and her babies back into the wild, but they were left stunned when Gober abandoned one of them just hours later.

“She barely tried to keep (the twins) together,”

explained the head of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.

“The mothering instinct is really strong, but in hindsight, seeing how difficult it was for Gober to travel around with one twin, expecting her to do that with two of them was probably a little bit ambitious.”

Nature or Nurture?

Would Gober have taken care of both babies if she could? Did circumstances force her to make a decision against her instincts as a mother? According to the personal reports of a primatologist on the scene, Gober abandoned the weaker twin, the boy, after he repeatedly fell behind his mother and sister. Was the ruthlessness of the animal kingdom at fault? Or did Gober abandon him with sadness in her heart after deciding to expend all her energy on her daughter, the one child she thought could make it in the wilderness?

There’s simply no way of knowing what went on in her mind as she left, and this is one of the reasons it’s so important to study higher and nurturing primates when considering the question of motherhood.

What Motherhood Means

At the end of the day, nurturing primates aren’t so different from the rest of us. Orangutan mothers carry their children for nine months and raise them until they’re teenagers. They bond; they socialize; they love. You might be asking yourself why you should care about motherhood among higher primates. But what if the orangutans have something to teach us?

Motherhood is a complicated and many-varied thing, and we can only hope to understand it through a critical examination of motherhood as experienced by all species. Higher primates or the nurturing primates are simply one type of mother to study.

Plus, the next time your kid complains, just remind yourself: It could be worse. I could be an orangutan mother still breastfeeding him.

nurturing primates