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.