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Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection Hardcover – September 21, 1999

4.6 out of 5 stars 50 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection should be required reading for anyone who happens to be a human being. In it, Hrdy reveals the motivations behind some of our most primal and hotly contested behavioral patterns--those concerning gender roles, mate choice, sex, reproduction, and parenting--and the ideas and institutions that have grown up around them. She unblinkingly examines and illuminates such difficult subjects as control of reproductive rights, infanticide, "mother love," and maternal ambition with its ever-contested companions: child care and the limits of maternal responsibility. Without ever denying personal accountability, she points out that many of the patterns of abuse and neglect that we see in cultures around the world (including, of course, our own) are neither unpredictable nor maladaptive in evolutionary terms. "Mother" Nature, as she points out, is not particularly concerned with what we call "morality." The philosophical and political implications of our own deeply-rooted behaviors are for us to determine--which can be done all the better with the kind of understanding gleaned from this exhaustive work.

Hrdy's passion for this material is evident, and she is deeply aware of the personal stake she has here as a woman, a mother, and a professional. This highly accomplished author relies on her own extensive research background as well as the works of others in multiple disciplines (anthropology, primatology, sociobiology, psychology, and even literature). Despite the exhaustive documentation given to her conclusions (as witness the 140-plus-page notes and bibliography sections), the book unfolds in an exceptionally lucid, readable, and often humorous manner. It is a truly compelling read, highly recommended. --Katherine Ferguson

From Publishers Weekly

Our culture's exalted view of motherhood, argues sociobiologist Hrdy in this iconoclastic study, is sentimentally appealing but fails to take into account the wide range of responses that comprise maternal "instincts," including many that may seem counterintuitive to reproductive goals. Using data from her own primate research as well as new evolutionary theories, literature and folklore, Hrdy, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California-Davis, shows that animal mothers make constant "trade-offs" to negotiate conflicts between their own needs and those of their offspringAoften based on the odds of their progeny's survival. Ironically, reproductive success has exacerbated pressures on human mothers, who must often care for multiple older offspring while simultaneously accommodating newborns. To cope, they may resort to the sexual selection of offspring, the use of helpers or various levels of withdrawal from particular babies, ranging from mild neglect to abandonment to infanticide. Hrdy's engaging though repetitive argument offers provocative new analyses of wet-nursing, the culling of offspring of the "wrong" sex (sometimes, surprisingly, boys) and even the adaptive behaviors newborns use to ensure their mothers' attachment. Though she is intent on rectifying male biases in biology, Hrdy rejects strident gender politics. Ample support and access to quality day care, she concludes, are essential to achieving the ideal that every infant be loved and nurtured. Agent, Mitchell Waters, Curtis Brown Inc.; 7-city author tour. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (September 21, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679442650
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679442653
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.8 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #90,008 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
As a wildlife biologist by training, I have often been leery of sociobiologists and the analogies they draw between human behavior and that of, say, ducks. With this in mind, I devoured this book until I had to return it to the library. I then haunted the library until it had gone through all 13 holds before I could get it back, several months later. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy takes a cross-cultural, historical and biological look at human and primate mothers. She makes it very clear that humans have used many, many ways to solve problems of childcare and the conflicts for resources between mothers and their infants and other older children. She uses other primate species not as proof of human ways so much as to re-evaluate and reflect on those human ways. She is a biologist, and she is very clear about not confusing what some primates do as proof for what humans do, whether closely or distantly related. "Mother Nature" gave me great insight into my relationship with my mother, my two younger brothers, my male partner, and my decision to delay reproduction. I enjoy my designation as an "allo-mother" (someone other than the mother who helps with childcare), and am pleased to learn that the level of protectiveness that I feel for the girls and young women in my Girl Scout troops have been biologically based: those who care for children, beyond the birth mothers, will have elevated levels of the hormone prolactin. I find it fascinating that my enjoyment of environmental education has a biological base!Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
The reader of Mother Nature is in for a thorough treat. In its most fundamental essentials, the game of life comes down to competitive reproduction: which individuals--which lineages--produce the most young that also survive and reproduce. Sara Hrdy presents fascinating facts relating to motherhood, many little known or appreciated, that reveals the essentials of the human struggle to produce offspring and keep them alive. How has striving for power and status by females been critical to the survival of their lineages? Why does breast-feeding prevent pregnancy sometimes but not others? What about genetic changes affecting reproductive behavior in humans? There have been roughly 400 generations of humans since the Neolithic, and it has been proven (in fish, for example) that significant evolutionary changes can occur in the DNA of a species in only 40 generations; what sorts of changes may have occurred in reproducing humans? What are the causes of infanticide, by males and mothers? By presenting the research behind such facts in roughly historical sequence and because of her personal acquaintance with many of the primary researchers and theoreticians, readers get not only answers to the questions, but a wonderful sense of how science works and a feeling for the personalities who have toiled to find the truth as opposed to myth. SEX: Is it true that "Women are from Venus. Men are from Mars?" Hrdy's brilliant synthesis of over a hundred years of primarily biological and anthropological study explains how and why this catchy generalization does capture deep truth about the sexes.Read more ›
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By A Customer on November 24, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Fantastic book that combines science with literature, history, HUMOR (great illustrations), personal stories, feminist critique, science critique, speculation, political polemic, and weird facts. I especially recommend the book for people interested in biology, history of humanity, feminism, and parenting. Hrdy is sure to win a major award for this book. I read every page.
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Format: Hardcover
Sarah Hrdy demolishes many long-held cultural icons with this wide-ranging study of the nature of motherhood. She is not, however, merely a nullifier of perceived wisdom. Her aim is to encourage fuller knowledge of where humans are placed in the realm of the animal kingdom. Motherhood, the essential point of how evolution works, is examined here as fully as current research can achieve. Hrdy shows how the role of "mother" and "woman" have been inextricably linked through much of Western history. Unlike other animals, humans can set ideals for behaviour, ordaining how mothers "ought to behave." Deviance from these perceived "norms" has led to various social disruptions, including the famous witchcraft scares. Ignorance of the evolutionary roots of motherhood have led to a mind-set Hrdy sets out to dispel in this excellent work. She addresses motherhood with a mind almost unfettered by myths. Almost, because she is quite candid about her own feelings and experiences. Not all her emotions were faced with total detachment.
Motherhood, she declares, is anything but the simple mythology of unrestrained devotion. Across all Nature, mothers and their offspring wage ongoing competition. The issue is resources. Infants, all infants, demand as much as a mother can give, and more. Mothers have to support their infants, but inevitably are occupied with other responsibilities, not the least of which may be the infant's siblings. There are others beyond the mother-infant tie to which she must respond. If her species is male-dominated, she may face his abuse. Worse, she may be confronted by invasion by an outside male. In some species, that spells the doom of her infant.
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