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Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species Paperback – September 5, 2000
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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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy convincingly shows that females are locked in their own brutal status-seeking competition. Females are bigger and stronger than the males in many species such as mole rats, jackrabbits, marmosets, and bats. Among solitary species these "big mothers" are able to control a larger territory than their smaller and weaker rival females. That means more food for their offspring. Among social animals such as hyenas the alpha females are able to claim a larger share of the group's food for herself and her offspring. The lower status females have to make do with the scraps. In some species the alpha females don't even let the low-status females breed. They are forced to wait for the alpha female to die, at which time they may become the new alpha and gain the power they need to breed.
Hrdy also shows that infanticide isn't just for males. Chimp females do not let rival females hold their babies because they may not get them back alive. Killing a rival's children mean more food and higher status for her own offspring. That's why babies often have stranger anxiety - it is the baby's defense mechanism against infanticide. Babies know perfectly well that they are not safe with strangers. In fact, females have a good reason to kill their own offspring. A popular slogan from sociobiology is that "sperm are cheaper than eggs", which means that procreating takes a smaller investment for males than females. That's what leads to the myth of the coy female and promiscuous male. But a corollary would be that "eggs are cheaper than caring for offspring." It doesn't make evolutionary sense for a female to invest her time and energy caring for a weak, sickly, or disabled infant. Better to kill it and try again. Killing healthy offspring also makes sense if the female doesn't have a high enough social status to secure food for it. Better to cut her losses early than to waste time trying to feed it. In our Judeo-Christian culture we expect mothers to attach immediately to babies but that is actually unnatural in most human cultures. Attachment (and therefore love) is conditional on having a healthy baby and the status needed to care for it.
A lot of people will find these revelations shocking. Hrdy agrees. The traditional picture of sociobiology is that "males do a lot of ugly things to get ahead." Hrdy points out that females do a lot of ugly things to get ahead too. But don't confuse explaining the facts with a moral stand. That is the logical fallacy of the appeal to nature - basing morality on the way the natural world works. The best solution would be to bring about a detente in the status-seeking arms race. In one of the more poignant quotes Hrdy writes: "Sociobiology is not a field known for the encouraging news it offers either sex. Yet its most promising revelation to date has to be that over evolutionary time, lifelong monogamy turns out to be the cure for all sorts of detrimental devices that one sex uses to the exploit the other." Indeed.
This book is pretty dense so I would start with something a bit easier if this is your first exposure to sociobiology. Start with The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People by David Barash to get an overview of sociobiology. The Triumph of Sociobiology is also good.
The first 2 chapters (3 if you count the preface) ARE pretty political and deal a lot with how bad mothers/women had it in the 60's when the author was in school (can you tell i am not a feminist?) but after that, the book becomes much more scientific while still keeping its narrative style. The author writes very well and there is very little of the stuffiness that often occurs in books written by advanced scientists. Sometimes her sentence structure is a little confusing but its nothing that detracts from the book.
The author does a great job at explaining terms and topics that might not be familiar to non-behaviorists while also being careful not to over explain things. Both students and experienced scientists would enjoy this book. The author references very interesting studies to explain motherhood in a variety of animals.
My only real critique is that the author is very repetitive when it comes to certain themes. Some readers might enjoy this because it really solidifies the point the author is trying to make but it did cause me to slow down my reading of the book because I started to feel like I was rereading the same things said in different ways over and over again. However, the studies and research the author references to make her point are all very interesting so this repetitiveness is far from a waste of time.