Monday, March 19, 2012

Perspective

I've been reading Mother Nature, by Sarah Hrdy. Actually, I've stalled out on it recently, not because it isn't excellent (it is), but because a cold has sapped my energy and my reading has therefore tended towards decidedly more fluffy fare. I also know what she will be covering in the upcoming chapter, and no matter how many times I read about the experiments with the baby monkeys and the wire surrogate "mothers", the description never fails to make my heart ache and make me want to run and hug my children. (If you haven't read about these experiments, you can go read about them now- but don't say you weren't warned. In fact, if you're feeling fragile, you probably shouldn't click on any of the links in this post.)

Don't get me wrong- I'm glad the experiments were done. They provided the evidence needed to overcome some truly dangerous theories about what constituted good parenting. But the description of the sad little monkeys breaks my heart. And I think the fact that they needed to be done stands as a warning to scientists and those of us who look to science to guide our parenting: human development is a complex thing, and we do not understand anywhere near its full complexity. We should be humble, and careful not to over-interpret our data.

One of the things I'm really enjoying about Hrdy's book is how she describes mothering in other species, and uses this to challenge some of our myths and misconceptions about what is and is not natural for a mother to do. I haven't gotten far enough yet to see how she pulls this all together to explain "maternal instincts" in our own species, but I've already found plenty of things to think about.

For instance, I have heard people say that humans are the only animals that murder each other. From Hrdy's descriptions, this is just not true. The stories of infanticide in other species put that idea to rest.

Still, it seems that our species goes about murder with particular gusto. At least in other animals, we can usually understand the violence in terms of competition for resources and the pursuit of the biological definition of success- i.e., producing living progeny who themselves produce living progeny. Our large brains give us the capacity to make a better world for ourselves- and for the most part, we have done that. I do not regularly have to fight other mothers for the food to feed my children, for instance.

But then, I clicked over to CNN today, and saw the news of the shooting in Toulouse. And, of course, there were still stories about the soldier who gunned down innocent villagers in Afghanistan. I can barely stand to read the stories about Trayvon Martin. And I almost cry whenever I think about Syria.

I cannot fathom how we do not do better at protecting our children. But then, I think of the infanticidal apes in Hrdy's book, and I remember the revulsion I felt when I read about an ancient seige in which live children were used as fodder for catapults (found in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World- but it wasn't the Mongols doing the child-flinging), and I think that maybe we've come a long way already, and just need to summon the will to finish the job. That doesn't really make me feel better, though.

I don't really know where I'm going with this post, other than to say that sometimes, my little problems seem almost wonderful to have. Which is not to say that they aren't real problems, and that I won't try to solve them- or complain about them from time to time. But I wish everyone in the world had no problem bigger than a nasty cold made worse by some mild asthma, a vague sense of dissatisfaction with a well-paying career and some annoying mold that keeps cropping up on the outer walls of the house.

19 comments:

  1. That's depressing. :(

    I couldn't get through What's Going on In There after she talked about the visual experiments they did on kittens. Not cool.

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    1. Yeah, there is some research that I can intellectually see the value of, but emotionally have a hard time handling.

      But as depressing as the wire monkey mom research is, the description of how they used to separate babies from their mothers in hospitals- because they thought that cross-contamination from the moms was making the babies sick- is even more depressing. A lot of babies died because of this treatment. So sad.

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    2. Ugh, I can't read any of these things either. I skipped a lot of the animal experiment stuff in What's Going on In There as well.

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  2. I always tell student that if the historical does nothing else for you it will put your life into perspective! The one time I almost cried in class was teaching something that would be considered "child abuse" now but "good parenting" in the past. I was pg with fMhgirl and it all hit home too much

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    1. I have a really hard time reading about that sort of thing, too. But it does remind me that we're a pretty resilient species, and that probably the fact that I lose my temper in front of my kids every now and then isn't doing them any lasting harm.

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    2. This is my exact thought process as well.

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  3. Ah, perspective... Some days I need the reality check that my problems AREN'T world-shattering, like so many of the ones you've listed here.

    Also, this book by Sarah Hrdy has been on my "should get to reading that sometime" list for a bit, but I haven't done anything about it... But this post pushed me to take the step and actually reserve it at the library! ;)

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  4. Human development is a complex thing and we should be humble. Two very good thoughts for today.
    Seeing monkeys at the zoo and thinking about how limited a life that is compared to wild in the jungle makes me sad. And yet I still go with Tate and say, See the monkeys! People are full of contradictions.

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  5. @mom2boy, my husband boycotts the zoo for precisely that reason. We generally boycott all forms of animal-forced entertainment (Sea World, I'm looking at you!), but I take the kids to the zoo because I'm more ambivalent about it, since they do education and breeding and stuff. But yeah, it's still really sad. No wonder the elephants lose their minds sometimes.

    I can't read the stories about the baby monkeys. It's too much for me.

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    1. Yep, that's why we're not frequent visitors to the zoo as well. I'd be happy skipping it entirely, but my hubby likes it, and of course, so does my child.

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    2. I don't get anti-zoo sentiments. Zoos do so much for conservation of species and research. Yes, we prefer the big ones where you are less likely to be able to see the animals, but we're definitely not anti-zoo.

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    3. I don't really have any problem with a well done Zoo, either. Sea World... well, it used to be different. They do still do some research and they are where distressed sea animals rescued in San Diego go for rehabilitation. So I'm mostly OK with them, too. To me, zoos and ocean parks are one of those complicated things that I don't have complete moral clarity on.

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    4. Most of the zoos I've been to don't have much space for the big animals. To its credit, the one in Seattle is remodeling a lot of the habitats to make them bigger. I feel better about the ones where the animal was born in captivity, but I feel about the zoo the same way I did when I went to the British Museum and saw all the stuff they ripped off from India. Things just weren't where they belonged. Simplistic, maybe, but I also feel weird about animals being our entertainment. (Our very pampered pets aside.)

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    5. I feel bad about all the animals who aren't safe in their natural habitats because either they're being hunted by poachers or we're destroying their natural habitats. Without zoos, some of these species will be lost forever.

      I also feel bad about the abused illegally poached pets who often end up in zoos. But I'm glad the zoos are there to protect them too.

      We've mostly been to larger zoos where it is obvious that the animals are the main priority, not people's viewing of them. I'm fine with seeing large landscapes and trying to pick out the animals.

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    6. I have some concerns about zoos but not enough to stop going. I saw a documentary about killer whale/dolphin killings in Japan and I believe that Sea World and similar institutions were also part of the problem because these round-ups were used to select animals for performance. The rest were slaughtered for food. Does anyone else remember this documentary?

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    7. Alexicographer6:37 PM

      @Oilandgarlic I haven't seen the film but did run across a reference to it recently and did a little googling; it is called The Cove.

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  6. I'm amazed at how many dumb things people believed - like that babies don't feel pain. It's like, um, have you ever been around infants?

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  7. Alexicographer6:49 PM

    I'm glad you're enjoying the book (I think I recommended it?). It's true there's plenty of horrid stuff in there ... it sounds like you haven't gotten to the pictures (which are in a concentrated section as I'm sure you know though if memory serves they draw on/illustrate different points made in the book), but there is one in there that just destroys me every time of the boy/girl twins of an (east) Indian woman whose MIL took the daughter and fed her formula while the boy baby got all the breastmilk (spoiler alert: the daughter died of disease/malnutrition while her brother thrived; the physical differences between them in the photo are ... what? Well, huge, and noticeable, and of course because of the girl's condition depressing. It is also a good reminder of how decision-making for many humans isn't an individual-level or maternal-level thing, i.e. it was the MIL not the M who decided).

    Resource-poor environments are part of the difference of course, and every time I look at my son's phenomenal energy level I think (picture my fatigue in the face of his energy!) "in ... a ... resource-poor ... environment ... this [energy] ... would ... make ... evolutionary ... sense." And then I fall over from exhaustion while he spins around the room.

    But beyond resource-poor and its effects on nutrition and development I think we are (science is) becoming increasingly aware of the ways in which exposure to certain kinds of trauma, especially for the very young (I'm thinking here of e.g. attachment disorder in babies who truly lack stable caregiving -- returning, I guess, to the baby monkeys), really does mess our mental development up in deep and sometimes permanent ways. I'm not saying every evil act (murder, etc.) can be explained away, but I do wonder to what extent that phenomenon (trauma's impact on neurodevelopment, development of empathy, etc.) has contributed to some of the more horrible acts committed over history (and today).

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