IS THE MATERNAL INSTINCT JUST A MYTH?
This weekend, the New York Times had an opinion piece by Chelsea Conaboy arguing that the maternal instinct is a myth invented by men (August 28, 2022).
In a way it’s true, but not in the way the journalist intended.
It is true that we don’t use the term instinct much anymore, certainly not for humans, but also not for other animals. This is because the term suggests that a behavior is simple and automatically comes up in every member of the species, which is rarely true. This applies particularly to maternal care, which is complex behavior and requires example and training. A gorilla female at a zoo who is pregnant and has never watched other mothers care for babies is bound to fail with hers. She has missed opportunities to learn. Her baby is likely to die from starvation or mishandling.
Young female primates are extremely eager to learn, though, and far more attracted to babies and dolls than are males. They actively seek the maternity training they need. As soon as a mother primate arrives with a newborn she will be surrounded by young females, not males, who all want to hold and cuddle the infant. When these young females grow older, they will turn into babysitters. And when they are adult, they will know what to do with a baby and how to bring it close to their nipples.
The immense female attraction to infants extends to dolls. When experimenters have introduced toys to monkey groups, the movable objects (like balls, cars) ended up with the young males, the plush toys, such as dolls and teddy bears, with the young females. In the wild, young female chimpanzees pick up wooden logs to carry them on their back or belly like an infant. They make their own dolls. Our children are similar. When experimenters have left them alone in a room with an infant, girls show a lot more interest and care than boys.
These examples are described and documented in my book “Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist” (Norton, 2022).
In short, maternal skills are learned most eagerly by young females. This is universal in human society, it is something we share with the other primates, and it is entirely logical given that females are and males are not equipped to grow a fetus and nourish it right after birth. This is a mammalian pattern, not invented by men, but evolved two hundred million years ago. It is supported by prolactin, oxytocin, certain brain circuits and of course by physical features that set females apart from males. Nothing mythical about any of this.
This doesn’t mean that every female is maternal, or that maternity is destiny, especially not nowadays with effective birth control. It also doesn’t mean that males are incapable of caring for the young. My book describes primate males who end up adopting orphaned youngsters. Often fully adult males, sometimes alpha males, may care for and protect a baby orphan for years. Nice footage can be seen in the Disney documentary: "Chimpanzee."
In other words, primate males have excellent caring capacities even if they rarely use them in nature. I call it a potential. Nowadays, while society is reshuffling the gender roles within human families, this potential requires attention.
Instead of sweeping human biology under the rug, as the NYT opinion piece tries to do, we should respect it and get to know it better. Biology is far more flexible than most people realize, which is why the “instinct” label is a red herring.
FEMALE APES & DOLLS
As explained in my previous message (about the maternal instinct), young female apes love to take care of dolls. In the wild, immature females handle wooden logs and rocks like dolls.
If you give dolls to apes in captivity, as here in a sanctuary, it is the females who will pick them up and care for them for sometimes weeks on end, whereas most males are either uninterested or take them apart.
This is not to say that all females are like this, or that no male is ever interested. Sex differences are statistically bimodal with overlapping distributions.
Well, I could have expected that not everyone would be happy with my comments on the maternal instinct! But let me quickly correct those who object to “biological essentialism” and resent any comparisons with other primates.
I don’t believe that biology is destiny. My wife and I are childless by choice. Our species has quite a few degrees of freedom in how we design our lives and societies.
We are a highly cultural species with enormous individual variability, hence biology doesn’t offer us laws to live by but rather suggestions and probabilities. But it remains true, as it is for all mammals, that the probability that a female is attracted to young members of the species exceeds the probability for a male.
In this regard, I recommend a book by Sarah Hrdy, a prominent feminist anthropologist: “Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species” (Firebird, 1999).
There exists the idea that if we look at other primates we see biology and if we look at humans we see culture. But we also see culture while looking at other primates and we also see biology while looking at humans. I even consider that apes have genders, too, because they learn a lot during a lifetime, including sex-typical behavior. They also have more gender diversity than you’d think, including individuals who deviate from typical gender roles.
My book “Different” shows that nothing is simple when it comes to the biology of gender. Moreover, our two closest ape relatives (bonobos and chimpanzees) have very different societies, with one being male-dominated and the other female-dominated. I try to pay equal attention to both.
I am thinking of clarifying my ideas in a series of short essays in the coming weeks/months around questions such as “Is male dominance natural?” “Are we the only primates with genders?” and “What kind of gender diversity do we find in the apes?” I will post these reflections on this FB site and will not remove any commentaries so long as people remain civil with each other and don’t veer off into overly partisan fights.