Stripping away all stereotypes

Stripping away all stereotypes

maternal INSTINCTS

Stripping away all stereotypes

In this excerpt from acclaimed science writer Stefan Klein’s latest book, We Are All Stardust, anthropologist Sarah Hrdy shares a vision of motherhood and its crucial role in human evolution. Sarah strips away stereotypes and gender-biased myths to demonstrate that traditional views of maternal behaviour are essentially wishful thinking.

How do you remember your mother?

She was a very beautiful, very smart, and very ambitious woman.

You once described her as “by some standards, an appalling mother”...

Well, her position in society was more important to her than her kids. For us, there was a constantly changing succession of nannies, plus she subscribed to the view then common among educated mothers that babies were born blank slates, needing to be shaped. Picking up a crying baby would just spoil her, conditioning the child to cry more. Unquestionably though, I loved her and later in life, felt very close to my mother, having learned to understand the constraints she herself confronted and how she herself had been reared — in a long line of mothers gradually losing the art of nurture.

On maternal love...

Under some circumstances, a mother can devote herself completely to her children. But often the mother herself lacks support, or she has to divide her love among several children, or she has other things she needs to do. Human mothers have
always confronted such trade-offs. Maternal ambivalence is as natural as maternal love. Yet, it’s been hammered into us that unconditional and self-sacrificing maternal love is ‘normal’, ambivalence considered pathological. It’s assumed that mothers should readily turn their lives over to their little ‘gene vehicles’.

You have two adult daughters and a son. How has the experience been?

It’s not only as a mother that I’ve felt as if my family might eat me alive; I sometimes felt that way as a daughter as well. The Texas I grew up in was still extremely patriarchal, not to mention racist. Of course, as a young girl I didn’t have the faintest idea of what this fixation with controlling girls was about. It was the same for my mother: she wanted to be a lawyer, but my grandmother insisted that she first make her debut in Dallas society. There, she met my father — a great catch, heir to an oil fortune. And that was that.
You don’t lead the life people expect from a wealthy heiress of several oil companies...

Well, as the third daughter in a family desperate for a son, I was the heiress to spare. Because I loved horses, I was allowed to go off to a boarding school known for its riding programme. Fortunately for me, that school also took women’s education very seriously. From there, I went to Wellesley College, where my mother and grandmother had gone. I embarked on a novel about contemporary Mexicans of Maya descent, and it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to learn more about Maya culture.

So, I transferred to Radcliffe, then the women’s part of Harvard, to study under the great Mayanist Evon Vogt. The novel never got finished, but I ended up as an anthropologist. It’s hard to believe how naive I was, but after summers working in Guatemala and Honduras as an undergraduate volunteer on medical projects, I gradually came to understand just how oppressive the political situation was. Continuing as an anthropologist in that part of the world would turn me into a revolutionary — something I was temperamentally unsuited for.

Instead you went to India in 1971 to study langur monkeys...

I vaguely remembered from an undergraduate course that there was this species of monkey in India called langurs, and that, supposedly due to crowding, the males would occasionally kill babies of their own species. Naively, again, I imagined that langurs would provide a scientific case study for how overpopulation can produce pathological behaviour.

By the end of my first field season, I realised my starting hypothesis was wrong. Female langurs live in groups with overlapping generations of female kin accompanied by a male who enters from outside. Every so often, a new male from one of the roving all-male bands manages to oust the resident male and take his place. Babies were only being attacked when new males entered the breeding system from outside.

Scientists are not supposed to intervene in the process they are studying...

Right. Plus even if I had tried, I could not have stopped what was happening. And yes, I was also fascinated. After all, this was the bizarre phenomenon that I had come to India to try to understand — why were males doing this? Why, instead of sexually boycotting the male who killed the infant, were mothers going along with it? Because a female who boycotted the infanticidal male would be at a disadvantage in relation to other females in her group who bred faster. Plus, to the extent that the infanticidal trait was heritable and advantageous, her sons would inherit it.