rhesus animal mother

The Importance of Extended Family and What We Can Learn From Our Distant Cousins

“In our study of psychopathology, we began as sadists trying to produce abnormality. Today, we are psychiatrists trying to achieve normality and equanimity.”

–Harry Harlow

The Rhesus Animal Mother and Her Contributions to Science and Motherhood

The rhesus animal mother has contributed more to our knowledge of human development than most people realize, and at a great cost. Harry Harlow, a contemporary of Abraham Maslow, conducted research using rhesus monkeys that demonstrated the importance of caregiving and companionship in social and cognitive development. In 1932, he began a breeding colony of Rhesus macaques in order to study their natural behavior. He then performed scientific experiments and noted how their behavior changed under certain conditions.

In nature, the rhesus animal mother is diurnal, and raises her young both in trees and on land. They are mostly herbivorous, feeding mainly on fruit, seeds, roots and bark. Females can outnumber males by as much as 4:1, and they have a separate hierarchy from that of the males. For breeding purposes, they exhibit philopatry, which is returning to the same breeding ground repeatedly. Females have very strong matrilineal hierarchies. Her rank depends upon the rank of her mother. A single group of females may have a number of matrilineal lines within the hierarchy. Unlike other species of monkeys, part of the ranking is based on fitness and fertility, which results in younger females often ranking higher than their older sisters.

Males provide resources and protection from predators, so the potential rhesus animal mother attempts to mate with larger males that are most likely to ensure the survival of their young. During the breeding period of up to eleven days, females mate with up to four males. The rhesus animal mother reaches sexual maturity at four years of age, and remains fertile until menopause at age twenty-five. Males, aside from their role as protectors and providers, do not participate in raising their offspring, but maintain peaceful relationships with them.

A rhesus animal mother with an infant and one or more older daughters that have not yet reached child-bearing age often delegate infant care to those daughters. These high-ranking females often reject their infants and mate earlier in the breeding season than usual after having given birth. Some even abuse their infants, investing little time in their development. These behaviors are associated with the increased stress of caring for multiple offspring.

In his study, Harry Harlow reared rhesus monkeys in a nursery setting, rather than with their mothers. This controversial study involved a high degree of maternal deprivation. The rhesus animal mother raised in isolation without its own mother has difficulty accepting contact with infants or exhibiting normal maternal behavior. During these experiments, monkeys were isolated for periods of time ranging from 3 months to up to 15 years, then placed in various settings where their behavior was observed. Abnormal behaviors that resulted from the isolation included blank staring, repetitive motion and circling, and even self-mutilation. Consequently, there was a loud public outcry against the cruelty of these experiments.

One of the reasons for the public outcry is that rhesus monkeys are so close to humans, sharing 93% of our DNA. They also have similar cognitive abilities, including the ability to understand rules, make judgments, and be aware of their own mental states. In 2014, it was reported in India that an unconscious rhesus monkey was revived by another giving it a crude kind of CPR. The results of these studies, although they were obtained in such a cruel manner, provide some important information.

For monkeys that were isolated for six months, it was found that they could achieve complete social recovery by being exposed to younger monkeys that provided peer therapy. It was also found that the experience of touch is extremely important. Monkeys that were touch deprived, in addition to abnormal behaviors, also displayed weakened immune systems. The studies showed an indisputable link between the amount of physical contact such as grooming an infant received in the first six months and its ability to produce antibodies by one year of age. Valuable research is still being conducted with rhesus monkeys, but using far more humane methodology.

One of the most important results of Harlow’s experiments was reducing the influence of childcare “experts” that advocated not spoiling children with too much affection. The human mother owes a debt of gratitude to her distant cousin, the rhesus animal mother, for her sacrifices in demonstrating the true power of a mother’s loving touch.

rhesus animal mother
Rhesus monkey, by Aiwok

November 18,2015  |

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

September 16,2015  |