Another dismissal of biological facts that go against ideology: The NYT claims that “maternal instinct” is a misogynistic myth.

August 28, 2022 • 11:00 am

UPDATE: In a comment below, Randolph Nesse, one of the founders of “Darwinian medicine,” cites a book I’d forgotten:

If only everyone interested in this topic could read “Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species”, Sarah Hrdy’s 2020 book on the topic. And if only the NY Times would review such excellent science books so people would know about them! I am tempted to send Conaboy a copy.

Hrdy is a highly respected anthropologist, and you can order her book by clicking on this screenshot:

I highly doubt that Hrdy sees maternal instincts as pure social constructs designed to hold women down. I’m going to read it, and I hope Conaboy does, too.  Then we can expect her to retract her article (LOL).


Lately there have been a lot of articles trying to deny scientific evidence because, the authors claim, that evidence buttresses inequality. (One example is the widespread denial that sex in humans is a binary.)

The recent article below, from the New York Times (of course), is one of the worst of the lot. It bespeaks a lack of judgment on the part of the author—who ignores biology because of her ideology—as well as on the part of the newspaper, which failed to hold the author’s feet to the scientific fire. Let this post be my rebuttal.

Click on the screenshot to read.

Author Conaboy, who apparently hasn’t done enough scientific research, maintains that “maternal instinct” doesn’t exist, but is a social construct devised by men to keep women subordinate.

The immediate problem is that Conaboy never defines “maternal instinct”. It could mean any number of things, including a greater desire of women than men to have children, a greater desire of women than of men to care for those offspring, the fact that in animals mothers spend more time caring for offspring than do fathers, a greater emotional affinity of women than of men towards children (including offspring), or the demonstration of such a mental difference by observing a difference in caring behavior.

I will define “maternal instinct” as not only the greater average tendency of females than males to care for offspring, but also a greater behavioral affinity towards offspring in females than in males. The term involves behavioral response, not “feelings”, which are demonstrable only in humans. Thus one can look for difference in “parental instincts” across various species of animals. 

But even in this sense, Conoboy is partly (but far from wholly) correct when she discusses humans. It’s undoubtedly true that women were socialized into the sex role as offspring breeders and caretakers, with men assuming the “breadwinning” role. It’s also true that women were often denied access to work or education because their vocation was seen as “reproducer”, or out of fear that they would spend less time working and more on children, or even that they’d get pregnant and would leave jobs. Further, it’s also true that this role difference was justified by being seen as hard-wired” (i.e., largely the result of genes, which, I argue below, is true), and that “hard-wired” was conceived as “unable to be changed.” The latter construal, however, is wrong, and that is what really held back women. The socialization of sex roles, which still occurs, goes on from early ages, with girls given dolls and boys toy cars, though, as society has matured, we’re increasingly allowing girls to choose their own toys and their own path through life. I of course applaud such “equal opportunity.”

But to claim that women don’t have a greater desire than men to care for offspring, or have a greater emotional affinity towards offspring, is to deny biology, and evolution in particular. (I freely admit that many men love their kids deeply, and that some men care for them as much or more as do mothers, but I’m talking about averages here, not anecdotes.)

There are two reasons why Conaboy is wrong, and both involve evolution.

The first is theoretical, but derived from empirical observations. It thus explains the second, which is wholly empirical and predictive.  How do we explain the fact that, across the animal kingdom, when members of only one sex do most of the childrearing, it’s almost invariably the females? (Yes, in many species males share the duties, and in a very few, like seahorses, males provide more parental care; and there are evolutionary reasons for that.)

The reasons for the statement in bold above involves the biology of reproduction. It is the female who must lay the eggs or give birth, and there is no way she can leave her genes behind unless she does that. It’s easier for males to take off after insemination and let the females care for offspring. Given that females are constrained to stick with the fertilized eggs, their best strategy is to take care of the gestation and resultant offspring, which of course allows males to seek other mates. Not only must females carry the fetuses, lay the eggs, and so on, but they are also constrained to see out the pregnancy until offspring are produced and then suckle or tend them in other ways.  In some cases it’s the best evolutionary strategy for a male to stick around and share the child-rearing, but often it’s not.

This disparity in behavior holds not just in humans, of course, but in many animals: it’s a prediction—largely verified—of evolutionary psychology.

The difference in the amount of parental care given by females and males is seen throughout the vertebrates, as well as in many invertebrates (squid and some insects come to mind; see here for a summary in the latter group).

It is the female lion who takes care of the cubs (and hunts for them) while the males are indolent; most often it is the female bird who not only incubates the eggs but feeds the offspring; it is the mother elephant who tends to her young; it is the female primate who holds, cares for, and nurtures her offspring. This difference alone, caused by the constraints of different reproductive roles, will, over time, select for mothers to be more attentive to offspring than are the fathers, more worried about them, and more attached to them. As all of us know, it’s the mother bear who tends her young, and woe to those who get between a mother and her cubs! But where is Papa Bear? Well, he’s long gone. In my ducks, if you approach a young brood, the mother will attack you, but the father, even if he’s around, does nothing.

Note that I am just talking about behavior, not “feelings” here, as we can’t really know what a mother bear or a mother duck experiences in her brain. But these behaviors are clearly seen in primates like gorillas and chimpanzees, and here we can start advancing hypotheses about emotions.  Since I’m using maternal instinct as a behavioral phenomenon, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that there is a strong regularity of behavior across the animal kingdom, one so pervasive that it demands explanation. And since animals don’t have humanlike culture, you can’t explain it by socialization. But can you deny, watching a female chimp cradle her young, that she feels something akin to love?

Of course to claim that a difference in sex and sex roles can cause a difference in behavior or emotions is anathema to “blank slaters” and those on the Left who flatly reject evolutionary psychology. And although Conaboy doesn’t go into the biology, this appears to be her view: there is no evolved difference in caregiving between men and women. Rather, differences in maternal and paternal behaviors must be the result of socialization.

And this brings us to the empirical point. Why, if “maternal instinct” is due entirely to socialization, is it is nearly ubiquitous among animals, causing female-specific nurturing and protective behaviors of offspring? Why, if Conoboy be right, are we the only species of animal in which those sex differences are due entirely to socialization? The parallels between humans and other animal species—especially other primates—is so strong that it would be foolish to deny that it says something about evolution. What it says is that human “maternal instincts” are partly hard-wired, and only partly socialized. As far as human emotionality is concerned, there are plenty of studies showing a difference in maternal vs paternal care due to hormones (here is one example), and they’re in the direction that evolution predicts.

Another example are studies showing that, when given a choice of toys, young female rhesus monkeys have a significantly greater preference for human “female” toys than do young male rhesus monkeys. (The toys are dolls vs trucks.) This preference of course is seen in human children, yet that could be, and has been, dismissed as a result of socialization. But rhesus monkeys don’t have that kind of socialization! The most parsimonious explanation is that monkeys, like us, have an evolved sex bias towards maternal instincts.

As I said, there are good evolutionary reasons to expect differences in maternal and paternal behavior, and we see those differences. While we can’t suss out “feelings”, it is likely that these behavioral differences are due to hormones, and in other apes we can guess that their “feelings” are not completely different from ours.

Conaboy, however, cavalierly dismisses the Darwinian explanation because of Darwin’s own sexism, as well as that of other evolutionists. Yes, it’s true that Darwin shared the sexism of his time, as have other evolutionists, but do we dismiss phenomena completely because of this? That would be foolish. Nonetheless, Conaboy does:

In the 1800s, Charles Darwin and other evolutionary theorists upended how we thought about human nature, shifting the focus from faith to biology.

And while one might have expected such a shift to dispel longstanding chauvinistic ideas about women and motherhood, the very opposite happened. Within his revolutionary work, Darwin codified biblical notions of the inferiority of women and reaffirmed the idea that their primary function is to bear and care for children.

“What a strong feeling of inward satisfaction must impel a bird, so full of activity, to brood day after day over her eggs,” Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex” in 1871Observant as he was, Darwin apparently ignored the hunger of the mother bird and the angst of having mouths to feed and predators to fend off. He didn’t notice her wasting where wing meets body, from her own unending stillness.

Women are specialized to care for other humans and men to compete with them, he explained. By that basic fact, he argued, men achieve “higher eminence” in virtually all things, from the use of their senses to reason and imagination.

As more women demanded their own identities under the law, social Darwinists seized on this idea as justification for continued male dominance. Among them was the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who wrote that childbearing extracts “vital power” from women, stunting them emotionally and intellectually.

Note that Conaboy challenges Darwin by pointing out the travails that beset a mother as opposed to a father (this is also a big part of her objection to “maternal instincts” in humans). But she fails to point out that there are costs to child-rearing, but there are also costs to abandoning or ignoring children, and the former costs are greater than the latter. Yes, a mallard hen loses up to 30% of her body weight while incubating her eggs over a month, but she gets a healthy brood from that behavior. If she leaves the nest to eat and drink, she loses her brood entirely.  Genes that favor maternal care and concern will be favored. The notion of evolutionary tradeoffs—that a behavior can have costs and benefits, but will evolve if the reproductive benefits outweigh the costs—is something that apparently didn’t cross Conoboy’s mind.

Why is Conaboy so dead set against the idea of a “hard wired” (i.e., partly genetic) difference between men and women? For the expected reasons: she sees such differences as buttressing sexism, and so biological facts must take second place to her ideology. And, as I said, it is the case that scientists and others have used biology to justify sexism. But that doesn’t mean that the facts are wrong, or don’t give us insight into the evolution of sex-role differences.

Here are a couple of Conaboy’s statements showing the ideological basis of her objection to biologically based maternal instincts:

Where did the idea that motherhood is hard-wired for women come from? Is there a man behind the curtain?

In a sense, there is a man behind the curtain. Many of them, actually.

The notion that the selflessness and tenderness babies require is uniquely ingrained in the biology of women, ready to go at the flip of a switch, is a relatively modern — and pernicious — one. It was constructed over decades by men selling an image of what a mother should be, diverting our attention from what she actually is and calling it science.

Yes, sex role differences and behaviors, like the existence of two sexes themselves, must be dismissed because they go against what is an antiscientific, liberal, blank-slate ideology. When the facts are inconvenient, deny them and invoke bigotry.

Conaboy brings in religion, too, which of course has buttressed sex-role differences:

Modern Christian archetypes of motherhood were shaped by two women. There was Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit and in doing so caused the suffering of every human to come. And there was the Virgin Mary, the vessel for a great miracle, who became the most virtue-laden symbol of motherhood there is, her identity entirely eclipsed by the glory of her maternal love. Mary’s story, combined with Eve’s — unattainable goodness, perpetual servitude — created a moral model for motherhood that has proved, for many, stifling and unforgiving.

But religion’s own stereotypes aren’t independently contrived, but themselves come from sexism built by humans into a faith that is seen to create a harmonious society.

Others to blame for the “myth” of the maternal instinct are conservatives, another reason to dismiss the reality of that instinct:

Today, many proclaim that motherhood is neither duty nor destiny, that a woman is not left unfulfilled or incomplete without children. But even as I write those words, I doubt them. Do we, collectively, believe that? Maternal instinct is still frequently invoked in science writing, parenting advice and common conversation. And whether we call maternal instinct by its name or not, its influence is everywhere.

Belief in maternal instinct and the deterministic value of mother love has fueled “pro-family” conservative politicians for decades. The United States, to its shame, still lacks even a modest paid leave policy, and universal child-care remains far out of reach.

. . . Belief in maternal instinct may also play a role in driving opposition to birth control and abortion, for why should women limit the number of children they have if it is in their very nature to find joy in motherhood? A 2019 article published by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a Christian anti-abortion policy group, claimed that “the ultrasound machine has been the pro-life movement’s strongest asset in recent years” because once a woman is informed of her pregnancy, “her maternal instinct will often overpower any other instinct to terminate her pregnancy.” Why, then, should the law consider the impact of pregnancy on the life of a person who has the full force of an instinct stronger than “even fear itself” to gird her in the task?

I am course am not defending these statements, which do derive from sexism and misogyny. What I am saying is that Conaboy uses this kind of ideological and political argument to dismiss biological explanations for maternal instincts.

I won’t go into Conaboy’s description of the difficulties attending human childbirth, including postpartum depression, physical pain, and sleeplessness. Every mother knows what Conaboy is talking about. But it has no bearing on whether maternal instincts are a myth or a social construct of the patriarchy.

Finally, I want to bring up one other misrepresentation by Conoboy: the idea that there’s a big difference between “hard-wired” differences between the sexes versus differences that emerge later, after life experience. Here’s what she says:

The science of the parental brain — much of it now the work of female scientists who are mothers themselves — has the potential to pull back the curtain, exposing old biases and outdated norms, revealing how they are woven throughout our individual and societal definitions of mother or parent or family, and offering something new.

Using brain imaging technology and other tools, and building on extensive animal literature, researchers around the globe have found that the adaptation of the human parental brain takes time, driven as much by experience — by exposure to the powerful stimuli babies provide — as by the hormonal shifts of pregnancy and childbirth.

But surely environmental cues, like exposure to one’s own child, which is “experience,” can also activate hard-wired genetic differences between male and female behavior. (Let me emphasize that by “hard-wired” I do not mean that a behavior is always seen in one sex or the other; what I mean is that there are influences of genes on an average behavioral difference between men and women.)  It is entirely possible that the sight of one’s own infant can activate other evolved pathways that produce “maternal instincts”. (See here for one paper on this topic.) This is similar to human children born with the genetic ability to learn semantic language, but they can’t express that ability until they actually hear spoken language. Thus we have an evolved trait that requires experience to be expressed.

In the end, in her attack on sexism and its attendant limitation of women’s opportunities (a view I share), Conoboy is forced to deny all the facts of biology, even dragging in the much beleaguered Darwin for a good drubbing. But she hasn’t done her homework. If she had, she’d see that maternal instincts are not limited to humans, but are widespread among animals. And she’d see that there are good evolutionary reasons for such instincts—reasons that, in our species, could lead to a difference in feelings towards infants.

I’m sick to death of people either ignoring or denying the facts of biology when they’re ideologically inconvenient.  But that whole strategy fails for two reasons. First, the truth will out. In fact, we already know that Conaboy is wrong.

Second, it’s a terrible strategy to dismiss empirical data on ideological grounds. Far better for Conaboy to admit that sexism plays a role, but so does biology. There is nothing shameful in admitting that much of the “maternal instinct” is evolved. That admission does not force us to view women as inferior, nor to treat them as inferiors.

Finally every woman who chooses not to have a child because she has other priorities demonstrates that evolved tendencies need not compel our behavior. They can explain it, but that’s different from making it into an “ought”.

101 thoughts on “Another dismissal of biological facts that go against ideology: The NYT claims that “maternal instinct” is a misogynistic myth.

  1. Thank you for this excellent analysis and take-down of Conaboy’s article. Shameful that the NYTimes would print such garbage, I hope everyone here writes to the editor.

  2. They can explain it, but that’s different from making it into an “ought”.

    The problem here is that the woke are steeped in the moralistic fallacy (“if something ought to be the case on moral grounds, then it must be the case, and any decent person will necessarily assert that it is the case”).

    It follows (in their eyes), that anyone asserting that, no, that’s not how things actually are, can only be motivated by a rejection of the woke moral utopia, and must be a bad person.

    The whole basis of science, that it’s about describing how the world is, not how we might like it to be, is just alien to their way of thinking.

    1. “The problem here is that the woke are steeped in the moralistic fallacy.”

      Exactly. This is also the explanation for that deplorable “Nature Human Behaviour” editorial emphasizing possible “harms” from some studies, questions, or observations. If it’s morally desirable for women and men to have the same behavioural tendencies then one shouldn’t study or compare the two sexes. And if a researcher does study those differences then an editor should decline to publish the results if they support a possible sexist interpretation (and the rest of the world should pretend the differences do not exist).

    2. To be alert to injustice and discrimination in society (the very definition of, woke), does not necessarily mean one resorts to the moralistic fallacy. There are respected scientists who are actively attentive to the facts and issues of racial and social justice.

      The woke – a term I dislike – are not a monolithic group made up entirely of the stereotype you suggest.

      1. The problem with the woke (I’m not keen on the term either, but it’s what we have) is their singular lens to view the entire world through discrimination and injustice. Too often they are looking for offense (and finding everywhere) as well as being offended on the behalf of others. They engage in campaigns to shame and drive anyone identified as problematic off of every platform, often with death threats, particularly against women (not to “woke” after all). This goes back to the days when they would walk into a presentation and just start shouting over everyone rather than engage in open, honest, and peaceful discourse. That was before they protested to get speakers dis-invited. As much as I hate the term “cancel culture,” that’s what it really is (and it’s practiced by the right as well).

        Discrimination and injustice do exist, but it doesn’t drive everything in society, it’s not everyone’s secret motive, except for them, of course, they’re awakened. We do need to weed out and identify it where it happens (like black people homes being devalued up to half) and deal with it. The assumption that because someone in my past may have been a slave owner therefore I am guilty of their crimes is garbage ideology.

        Equality is the goal we should lift everyone up to, not tear everyone down to. When a rising tide lifts all boats, not everyone has a boat. Too often they seek to destroy the boats, which is easier than putting in the hard work into fixing the problem.

        With woke on the left and Satanic panics on the right, we’re stuck in the middle.

  3. It seems from your synopsis and comments (I couldn’t access the article itself) that one of Conaboy’s most basic errors is succumbing to the either-or fallacy. She seems to consider only the “biologically determined” and the “social construct” options, actually never considering what should probably be assumed from the outset as the most likely option, i.e. a biological and evolutionary basis that is strengthened through various cultural norms. (Indeed, like most of our behavior.) Why is this so difficult to understand? Why is this not strikingly obvious? Well, like you say, probably because of the dominant ideology in some circles. Quite unfortunate.

    1. One of the few recent books by an academic sociologist of any real value is entitled Toward a Biosocial Science: Evolutionary Theory, Human Nature, and Social Life (2021). Unfortunately, the author (Alexander Riley, Bucknell) is less well-known than many of his far less impressive colleagues.

  4. Any academic using the sophomoric argument that requires the evasion “social construct” should not be worth engaging with. Unfortunately, the increasingly intellectually deskilled and uninformed world of the human sciences seems to have a lot of these humbugs, and they need to be challenged, a lie being around the world before truth has it’s boots on. But note a position of irrationality cannot be refuted by reference to facts and reason. The very name of this blog is incomprehensible to the infantile who would simply say, mock-gnomically, “what is ‘the truth’?”

  5. Error: “young female rhesus monkeys have a significantly greater preference for human “male” toys than do young male rhesus monkeys.”

  6. Minor edit (no need to allow this post to appear):
    “Another example are studies showing that, when given a choice of toys, young **female** rhesus monkeys have a significantly greater preference for human “male” toys than do young **male** rhesus monkeys. (The toys are dolls vs trucks.) ”

    should be;
    “Another example are studies showing that, when given a choice of toys, young **male** rhesus monkeys have a significantly greater preference for human “male” toys than do young **female** rhesus monkeys. (The toys are dolls vs trucks.)

    Thanks for the solid rebuttal. I saw this article yesterday and rolled my eyes.

  7. Interesting article. But do you have this point backwards:
    “Another example are studies showing that, when given a choice of toys, young female rhesus monkeys have a significantly greater preference for human “male” toys than do young male rhesus monkeys.”

    I would think this goes against your argument. If hard-wired then shouldn’t the female monkeys play with the female toys more often?

      1. Don’t the female monkeys have variable interests and the male monkeys prefer the ‘male’ toys?

        “Within each sex, boys typically show strong preferences for stereotypically masculine toys, while girls often do not show a statistically greater preference for one toy type over another (Berenbaum and Hines, 1992; Carter and Levy, 1988; Eisenberg and Wolchik, 1985; Frasher et al., 1980; Perry et al., 1984; Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg, 1963; Turner et al., 1993).”

        And then the rheus monkey study found the same. I agree with a lot you’ve said here but I think you’re shifting what the data actually says with wrt to the body of work around toy preference.

        1. Excuse me? I am perfectly aware of the data and described it correctly:

          Another example are studies showing that, when given a choice of toys, young female rhesus monkeys have a significantly greater preference for human “female” toys than do young male rhesus monkeys. (The toys are dolls vs trucks.) This preference of course is seen in human children, yet that could be, and has been, dismissed as a result of socialization.

          What I said above is perfectly correct. The males prefer male toys, the females have no strong preference, and therefore considering all the data, the females have a significantly greater preference for female toys than do males, who have almost none.

          Normally I’d just correct you for not being able to read, but since you’re accusing me of distorting the data, I’m going to kick you out of here.

  8. also a bit of a mixup here: “Given that females are constrained to do this, often their best strategy is to let femal do the offspring tending while they males other mates.”

  9. “It is the female lion who takes care of the cubs (and hunts for them) while the males are indolent.” Maybe the male lions aren’t exactly indolent, but rather spend all their time davening and studying Talmud, as in the stereotype of one kind of family in the shtetl. In fact, even in our time there are human families (like that of one cousin of mine) who are rather lionlike in this regard.

    1. There are plenty of cultures today (most obvious in SSA) where this is the norm. A woman provides for herself and makes dinner, but the big man still gets the lion’s share of the meal and can beat her up if he is dissatisfied.

      The idea that a man should exhaust himself working seems more typical where agriculture requires that for the family to survive. Ironically, this means more patriarchy, with the upside that men who don’t hang out in men’s houses all day (they got to do something) tend to be less destructive.

  10. Both articles make good points, but miss the mark. Both men and women exhibit caregiver instincts. If they didn’t we wouldn’t have survived as a species. Since what is obviously profitable drives the decision making by our leaders, I doubt if we will ever have fully funded child and adult care.

  11. I agree that ““maternal instincts” are partly hard-wired, and only partly socialized in humans.”” As someone who studies animal behavior for a living, I don’t like the word “instinct” at all, because it suggests an unchangeable behavior completely dictated by genes, which virtually never occurs.

    But I also think a lot of confirmation bias and, yes, sexism, goes into the studies of sex differences. For example, those toy preference studies in both humans and monkeys — I looked at these for a book I wrote.

    With children, as you might expect, studies showed that boys preferred, or at least chose, boy-targeted toys such as trucks and girls chose plush toys and dolls. The differences between the two get larger as older children are tested, and they are consistent across many studies. But toy preferences also depended on how they were measured; the biggest difference between boys and girls is seen if the children are asked to choose only one toy from among several in front of the investigator doing the experiment, rather than when children are playing freely amongst themselves. One problem with interpreting these results is that toys are defined differently depending on who is doing the experiment, with stuffed animals sometimes being classified as girl-related and sometimes as neutral, while blocks are sometimes said to be boy toys and sometimes neutral.

    The picture gets even murkier when one looks at the preferences of the monkeys, which were captive rhesus macaques presented with a variety of toys in their enclosure and then observed by the experimenters. The study’s authors concluded that since the males played more with the wheeled toys, while females liked more feminine toys, such as a red cooking pot or a plush animal, such gender-typical preferences must be innate. But again, it isn’t clear how a female monkey would know that a pot is used for cooking in the first place, much less that females are expected to take on this chore. One could make a similar argument about male monkeys having little or no awareness of driving. Additionally, some studies classified the stuffed toys as female-typical and sometimes as neutral, making an interpretation of preference difficult.

    1. That is funny! My daughter was about four when a friend gave her a tiny matchbox Porsche with doors that opened and closed. She took it to daycare where little Antonio Morales took it, saying, “You can’t have that; it’s for boys,” which is also funny on several levels.

    2. I don’t know which study you are referring to, but the one referenced in this post ( did not use any pots for toys. Only plush (stuffed) toys for female preference and wheeled toys for male (from the methods section in the paper);

      Because we hypothesized that some aspects of sexually differentiated toy preferences reflect activity preferences, we categorized our toys not by traditional gender assignment, but by specific object properties that made our categories comparable, though not exact matches, to stereotypical gender assignments. Thus one set of toys was “wheeled,” most comparable to the masculine vehicle toys and the other was “plush,” most comparable to the feminine doll and stuffed animal toys. The seven plush toys were: Winnie-the-Pooh™, Raggedy-Ann™, a koala bear hand puppet, an armadillo, a teddy bear, Scooby-Doo™, and a turtle. The sizes ranged in length from about 14 cm to 73 cm. The six wheeled toys were: a wagon, a truck, a car, a construction vehicle, a shopping cart, and a dump truck. These ranged in length from 16 to 46 cm. Plush and wheeled toys varied considerably in shape and color as well.

      Can you point to the one with the cooking pots? A quick google didn’t bring it up, but my google-fu is really poor.

      1. I’m not ignoring your comment, but I don’t have a chance to look for the paper right now — there was a cottage industry of these studies a while back, so it would take a bit for me to find it. It’s out there, I promise!

    3. “I don’t like the word “instinct” at all, because it suggests an unchangeable behavior completely dictated by genes, which virtually never occurs.” Oxford defines the term as “a natural quality that makes people and animals tend to behave in a particular way using the knowledge and abilities that they were born with rather than thought or training.” I like the fact that they used “tend to”, which allows for people to behave otherwise, if they choose to do so.
      I still think the behaviors are hardwired. In one sense that makes them unchangeable. You could enlist all of humanity to behave in a way opposite to those discussed here. You might even completely stamp out those behaviors, as long as you have control. But something will happen, and your power to enforce the rules will wane. And people will just go back to normal.

      1. Surely anyone here who has held their newborn child has experienced that sudden, unthinking conviction that you would do anything, including dying, just to protect that little bundle of cells? That’s not reasoned, nor a social construct. Pure, and powerful instinct. My wife noted that she felt driven to keep smelling the baby, for no purpose she could understand. No doubt this too was instinctive, and likely part of forming that tight maternal bond. Just as the fetal cells now lodged in her brain (as happens after all pregnancies, if you are unaware) no doubt also had some effect on improving the babe’s survival.

          1. Correct. It’s just that the commenter seemed to be somehow interpreting it to support your thesis.

  12. Conboy article: Bollocks. Yawn.A NY Times reviewer gushed over a book whose author thinks that maternal care of infants is socially constructed. The author might be surprised to learn that not only are humans animals but that all these other animals take equally conscientious care of their offspring! Sometimes with males, sometimes not, sometimes sharing tasks. No, Virginia, oversight of helpless young is not socially constructed! Evolution and natural selection are responsible for the sense of responsibility towards young. This has worked like clockwork for eons. The offspring of the animals that were careless or lazy or indifferent to the condition of their young didn’t survive! Surprise! But the offspring of those of exerted care did! And it is THEIR genes that have allowed the human species to expand its numbers. Duh.

    Being ignorant of evolution is now routine among the cultural studies people and the left. Genes? Bah. Genetics and inheritance? Bah, invented by racists and
    capitalists. Nature can be nasty and brutish but those who ignore her are

    1. What? Humans are animals? Don’t we know that a biological category (such as species) is merely “assigned at birth”? Why, we can be anything we feel like being, after consulting Foucault, DEI manuals, and socially progressive comic books. Why, then humans can be plants, clouds, or spirits of pure, un-biological ideology.

      1. This is exactly what some religions claim: humans are somehow “above” or superior to nature; that we have dominion over the heavens and Earth; that we can “conquer” nature. So much of wokeness is a nontheistic religion as McWhorter, Andre Doyle, and others have written.

        I’m reminded of this quote: ‘Every time there is a claim that humans are special about something, once we start having more data, we realise we’re not that special.’ — Isabella Capellini, an evolutionary ecologist at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland

        1. Re “So much of wokeness is a nontheistic religion …” Well, there’s a word for “nontheistic religion”, i.e. “ideology”. Some like to call phenomena like wokeism or communism “religions”, inter alia because of their zealotry and immunity to reason, and thus, understandably, but religion with no element of theism or the supernatural is not religion, but ideology, including its proclivity for zealotry and immunity to reason. Another example of unhelpful word inflation.

  13. Intellectual honesty demands we accept that some of our behavioral proclivities reflect biological differences brought about by natural selection—as observed in so many other organisms. At the same time, we can demand that society not place limits on people (of any gender) based on those proclivities. We can have truth and justice at the same time, but can we really have justice based on falsehoods?

  14. The following sentence from the last paragraph of PCC(E)’s text seems to be in need to revision:
    “There is nothing wrong in admitting that much of the “maternal instinct” is evolved that forces us to adhere to an inferiority of women, or to mandate treating them differently.”
    How about:
    “There is nothing wrong in admitting that much of the “maternal instinct” is evolved. That does not force us to view women as inferior, or to mandate treating them differently.”

  15. I’ve been reading a good bit of Ray Dalio lately whose first principle is to ‘fall in love with reality.’ His advice? Deal with it. Wise words for many, and not just the woke.

  16. Professor Coyne notes that one possible definition of “maternal instinct” is a greater desire of women than men to have children. And that in fact is how the term often is used in ordinary conversation. But how could an instinctive species-wide desire to have children ever have developed in animals other than humans?

    If a female chimp feels a powerful desire to have a baby chimp, what action can she take? A chimp presumably doesn’t know that, to have a baby, she must first copulate with a male chimp. Without that knowledge, however, a desire to have children can’t lead to any useful behavior. (Of course, she could try to steal the baby of another female, but that seems a very dangerous strategy for achieving motherhood”).

      1. But what sort of desire would lead a chimp (or a horse, or a cat) to mate (by which I mean copulate)? A desire for sex certainly, a desire for companionship possibly. But why would a desire for children lead a chimp to copulate, if the chimp doesn’t understand that copulation may lead, months later, to the birth of a baby?

        There is a cognitive pre-requisite, it seems to me, for this sort of “instinct” to develop: an understanding of how to produce babies.

        1. This will end the conversation. Any instinct that makes an animal want to mate will be selected for. A desire for pleasure of an orgasm, or whatever impels animals to copulation. The “instinct” to have children is as simple as that. You don’t have to know that babies will follow. Even some early humans didn’t connect copulation with reproduction, I think.

          If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand natural selection. This is the end of our discussion.

          1. Even some early humans didn’t connect copulation with reproduction, I think.

            The Catholics finally got it in 2003. It took some effort to beat their killer argument: If sex is connected to babies, then why don’t altar boys get pregnant?

          2. Sounds like this could have been stolen from Bill Maher. If not, submit it a writer’s fee.

        2. I don’t think you should have been dismissed so cavalierly. There is something to your observation.

          Maternal instinct (MI) and sexual desire (SD) are two very, very different things. It’s not so odd to imagine that MI is only something that appears after the child arrives, hitting the parent(s) like a bolt of lighting as one commenter described, and likely the result of hormones, fetal cells and smells, and other mysterious causes.

          The weirdness is that MI often appears *before* the child does: for instance, some women become desperate for a child, and often take extreme medical measures to ensure pregnancy. And in fact, some girls seem born obsessed with dolls and babies while they are still a tiny child themself. This MI clearly has less than nothing to do with SD.

          There couldn’t be an animal analogue for this pre-pregnancy MI…perhaps for the intellectual reason you suggest. But it seems likely to relate to the different fertility regimes. Humans are unique in constantly being “in heat”.

          It’s interesting to think about how MI could have evolved like this.

  17. It is bizarre that many on the (religious) right deny evolution but believe in human nature (e.g. sex differences), whereas many on the (woke) left hold evolution to be true but do not believe in human nature.

    1. Clifford Geertz famously believed that the human animal has no universal nature, but only many different and diverse cultures. He had, without question, a very great influence indeed on the development of the social sciences.

      1. Yes, if we are not blank slates they cannot write upon us and make us exactly what they think we should be.

  18. It is not only across the animal kingdom that we find that when one sex does most of the child rearing it is invariably the females, but also across humanity. When ‘first contact’ has been made with peoples around the World (e.g when European explorers first reached the Americas and more recently when undiscovered tribes in Amazonia or New Guinea have been contacted) it has invariably been the case – as far as I am aware – that child-care in the newly discovered societies has been provided primarily by females. If maternal care was a purely social construct would we not expect to find that in at least some cases the roles would be reversed and there would be paternal care instead? The fact that this never seems to have happened suggests that biology is an important factor.

    As pointed out in the original post the fact that there is a strong biological component to maternal instinct does not of course mean that we are slaves to that – our behaviour has also evolved to be flexible and is determined both by our genes and by our environment/upbringing. Sexism and the limitation of women’s opportunities are absolutely unjustified but recognising this does not justify or require denial of biological facts.

  19. I think Conaboy’s NYT article is severely deficient in not pointing out who suffers most from the myth of maternal instinct: disabled, non-white, obese, poor, indigenous trans women. Why is she silent about this???

  20. Thank you for this excellent rebuttal.
    Astounding misinformation spread to all the readers of the NY Times.

  21. Oh how f-ing tiresome: NY woke Times again. Note, of COURSE, it is all linked to white supremacy. Tiresome and dumb.
    NYC (unfortunately, sometimes)

  22. If only everyone interested in this topic could read “Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species”, Sarah Hrdy’s 2020 book on the topic. And if only the NY Times would review such excellent science books so people would know about them! I am tempted to send Conaboy a copy.

      1. What a treat to see you here Professor Zuk! I included you on a poster I made in defence of evolutionary psych, detailing all the female pioneers who inspired me, yourself included. The poster is here

        On maternal instincts, I know Maryanne Fisher has has the term “maternal instinct” on her sights for a couple of years but it’s not to insist it’s ALL a social construction, rather that it social learning is a large part of it and not all women are “naturally” good mothers. I have even speculated that in some scenarios, infanticide may be part of this “instinct”. It’s a while since I read Mothernature & I’m not sure if Hrdy goes this far. It’s just a thought of course – not a justification (invoke nat fallacy, etc etc). I attended one of Maryanne’s seminars online and was a bit dubious at first as the title of the seminar series (the uni called it this not her) was “Decolonialising Psychology.” The title of her seminar might give some people the idea she’s saying something more radical, like maternal instinct doesn’t exist at all, she’s just querying the definition of “instinct” however, as in 100% genetic. She talks about that here

        I haven’t read the whole NTY’s essay yet & may write my own response. I am deeply disappointed that women – seem to be leading this anti-science – woke, progressive, whatever people call it – charge. 15 years ago myself and people like Griet Vandermassen were hopeful that feminism, the social sciences and the natural sciences could achieve Wilson’s vision of consilience. I have long given up on that idea. Young people are graduating from the social sciences parroting the critiques of Lewontin & the Roses, without knowing who they are! There is no good will there and I’m not going to insult them by thinking they are stupid. Therefore, it must be wilful ignorance.

  23. Wait, how does a rhesus monkey even know what a toy truck is? Isn’t this around three different layers of abstraction? First, have they ever even seen a truck? Second, do they make the connection between a real truck they might have seen, and this smaller object, one representing the other? And third, do they have the idea of “toy truck” itself – not “play”, but a specific kind of play which involves the truck-representation?

    This is where I think feminist or woke critics do have a point. There seems to be a huge number of very dubious assumptions piled on here, directed to getting to the result that a political opponent is a damned dirty blank-slater.

    1. You (and, with respect, Dr
      Zuk above) are missing the point of the monkey study*.

      No, the monkeys were not hypothesized to understand what trucks and cooking pots were for. Precisely the opposite. The study specifically replicated a previous study in young children, which concluded that gender-role socialization influences toy preferences.
      By showing that monkeys (which explicitly could not have been socialized vis-a-vis pots or trucks) showed similar sex-specific preferences, the authors argued that there could therefore be other, more ‘innate’ causes of human preferences as well. That’s it.

      Unfortunately, to my knowledge there has been no follow-up to assess exactly what aspects of the preferred objects might have appealed to the monkeys and/or children (color, shape, size, texture, etc.). But the whole point of the monkey study design was explicitly that it could NOT have been pot-ness or truck-ness.

      Nevertheless, in my experience, criticism of the macaque study (by discussants at Phar*ngula, Cordelia Fine, and others, including, above, Dr
      Zuk, whose work I respect) consists nearly entirely of sneering about ‘cooking pots’. The truck thing here is the flipside. And it’s irrelevant. People should read the paper for comprehension.

      *Alexander and Hines 2002, Evolution and Human Behavior 23:467-479.

      1. Thank you for the explanation. However, I’d say the sneering is understandable. It certainly seems like the political message which is heavily implied is something roughly “Males like trucks and females like pots, and this is so heavily biologically hardwired it is seen in young monkeys who don’t even know what those are, so take that, blank-slater!”. I tried to read the linked material, and there was so much in terms of details I’d have to dig through, that it’d be an enormous time-sink. My take-away remained, there seemed soooo much hypothesizing and assumptions, that feminists or wokes have a point talking about how this can be a modern version of science as politics. Even though I disagree strongly with an overall anti-science attitude, at times like this I can see where it comes from.

    2. That is an interesting facet of the issue. It seems related to the old discussion about the fact that even if you keep your kids away from gun toys, they will use sticks or even dolls as guns. That leads inevitably to the question of what kids did before guns were invented. The answer is that they pantomimed whatever weapon systems were common to their era.
      As for the truck, I suspect it is just mechanically interesting. They had to try to pick an option that was less likely to be used as a doll, to make the intention of the subject’s choice clear.

      It is really interesting how someone can draw the sorts of conclusions that Ms. Conaboy does, while presumably having been around other people to some degree in her life. Most of us would likely conclude that little girls, if not given dolls, will either make some sort of doll or just treat a completely non-doll object as one. Not because we require them to do so, but they seem drawn to them.
      I don’t think the discussion is about “all” of either sex, so the boy who likes dolls or the girl who loves motorcycles do not disprove the point.

      1. Interesting. A funny story. A friend was determined that her young son should be brought up to show that boys are ‘the same’ as girls and, without societal influence, would develop in a similar manner. She insisted that her little son carry a Barbie doll around for a toy despite his insisting on a gun. The unfortunate Barbie was dragged around by its filthy and tangled hair, totally naked and looking as if it had been in ‘the wars’. After a time we encountered our friend again and her son was happily firing a machine gun at every visitor. She gave us a wry smile. Not conclusive or scientific? No, but so reminiscent of the 70’s when this ridiculous attempt to alter our childrens perception and choices began. We are animals. Basically, the male animal’s task is to impregnate the female and the female’s task is to invite, or tolerate that act – and produce from her body an infant of the species. Females are built and programmed to carry the infant and to nurture and feed that infant until it is able to fend for itself. The male, not so encumbered, will defend and protect the female in many species. Practically, hard-wired.

        1. As beings that have evolved to be social, this anecdote proves the power of outside social influence, such as interacting with other boys “happily firing a machine gun at every visitor.” (When was the last time you saw a boy rolling a barrel hoop with a stick? Guns and Barbies are cultural phenomena, not biological.)

          We have evolved to be social creatures. To ignore that is to ignore part of our biology. Being herd animals, more so than we are willing to admit, we will imitate those we identify with the most. A little boy is going to imitate other boys. The underlying biology is akin to a network cable. The cable (or WiFi) is essential to the network, but doesn’t define how the network gets used. There are layers between the hardware (biology) and the software (the mind).

          I’ll counter with another anecdote. There was a couple in Britain that refused to tell anyone the gender of their child, not friends, not family, not even the grandmother. She was quite upset about it. It was well over year before she was allowed to know the gender. In the interview about it, she said that she, having several other grandchildren, realized she would have treated the child differently had she known. Identity isn’t just about how we see ourselves, but how others see us, our place within the group, and our efforts to fit in. A boy with a Barbie is going to be teased and he’s going to pick up a toy gun to fire along with all his friends.

          1. The anecdote “proves” nothing, but could be the basis of further experimentation. I find it curious that although there are evolutionary/genetic AND social reasons for this anecdote, you immediately jump to the conclusion that it “proves the power of outside social influence.” This shows that you have a preference for the “socialization” experiment. Are rhesus monkeys differentially socialized so that females prefer plush animals while males prefer those animals less an prefer trucks more? Pray tell me how it works.

            I’m sorry, but your argument is obtuse because in the genuine sense, it begs the question: you are assuming what you have said is proven.

          2. Thanks for the response. Trying to stick to “Da Roolz” and keeping it short and sweet may be giving you the wrong impression. I don’t think socialization exclusively determines outcome. Nor do I think biology exclusively determines outcome. I believe each has differing effects in different areas and we should experiment in both arenas to get a fuller picture.

            This seems to be the rhesus experiment that you might be referring to:, it appears to follow on from one done in 2002. If this isn’t the correct one, please advise. What I think would be interesting is to use toys from non-Western culture, particularly indigenous.

            The article seems more an analysis citing several other papers rather than an experiment itself. It’s quite an interesting paper and makes me wonder if the male-driven tendencies mentioned might be encoded in the Y chromosome. It seems the paper mentions quite a bit how the male is activated by certain cues, whereas females aren’t as limited as males.

            Conversely, is there something encoded in the X chromosome for becoming a Primary caregiver? Men in a secondary caregiver role experience less parent-infant synchrony, but a male primary caregiver experiences about the same synchrony as a female primary caregiver ( Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t include females as secondary care-givers. It would make for an interesting comparison.

            If this really comes down to the nature vs. nurture debate, I think it depends on the area we look at. Nature has the strongest influence, but nurture can change the course of things. Then there’s epigenetics, but that’s a different beast entirely with its own set of confounding factors.

          3. About the rhesus monkey experiment – “Within each sex, boys typically show strong preferences for stereotypically masculine toys, while girls often do not show a statistically greater preference for one toy type over another (…). Thus sex differences in toy preferences are characterized by stronger gender-specific preferences in boys than in girls.”

            That seems in accordance to what I wrote bellow («Interesting, it seems almost all of theses stories “Parents tried to educate their child without gender stereotypes, but sooner the child was exhibiting the behavior expected from his/her sex”, are with boys…»)

            I suspect the reason is because in most mammals the males hunt, forage, etc and the females take care of the offspring AND ALSO do almost all others thing that males do (hunting, etc.) – then males don’t have the instinct to do stereotypicall female things, but females have at least some of the instinct to do stereotypicall male things.

          4. Just to follow up about “socialization” experiments. Here’s one about conformity in children: Conformity to Peer Pressure in Preschool Children (December 2011),

            (96 participants with a follow up of 72 participants)

            It states: “The current studies demonstrate that children as young as 4 years of age are subject to peer pressure, indicating sensitivity to peers as a primary social reference group already during the preschool years. They often conform to a unanimous majority of three peers in spite better knowledge (strong conformity) out of social motivations mainly.”

            By contrast here is a study that questions conformity at a young age:
            It had only 32 participants and appears to be more of a pilot study using a single child as the “target” child to see if they conformed. Due to the small size, the results could disappear in a larger study, but does show it’s worth looking deeper into childhood conformity to tease out more details.

            From various other studies I perused, the pressure to conform appears to grow with age.

            Also, I’ll refer you to religion’s ability for social conformity. A lot has been written by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens (aka. The Four Horsemen) regarding religious influence.

            So as not to flood the thread more (per Da Roolz), I’ll limit my response unless directly addressed.

        2. Interesting, it seems almost all of theses stories “Parents tried to educate their child without gender stereotypes, but sooner the child was exhibiting the behavior expected from his/her sex”, are with boys…

  24. I firmly believe in the reality of the nesting instinct. For all five of our children, my wife indulged in massive deep-cleaning of the house the day before she gave birth.

  25. Interesting that the wokeists claim belief in evolution, yet deny that the brain, of all things, evolved for any particular purpose, or that that purpose might just be related to the organism’s genetic success.

  26. Maternal behavior not genetic? Mutate just 1 gene in a mother mouse, and she will refuse to nurture her babies:
    This study from 1996 launched a series of follow-up studies. The main upshot was that mice with this (fosB) mutation are pretty much similar to control mice in all other respects. I defer to readers who might have specialized knowledge of this work. The photo of a normal mother and her babies next to a photo of the mutant mother and her babies is a stunner.

  27. «The immediate problem is that Conaboy never defines “maternal instinct”»

    Reading the article, she seems to be defining “maternal instinct” as something like “feeling pleasure in being a mother and caring for her children” (the part of “pleasure” is important, because her counter-examples to “maternal instinct” had much to do with females feeling displeasure in things related to motherhood); but I think that we can imagine situations where females have some kind of maternal instinct but without feeling pleasure in that (for example, imagine if females feel more distress than males if something bad or potentially bad happens with their children – is a kind of female maternal instinct, but not pass the “pleasure test”)

    1. Indeed. With my wife and I, a clear difference is that she can’t ignore the children. If the baby cries, she absolutely must respond right away, no matter how tired or busy. If my daughter calls “mama, mama”, my wife has to go see what she wants. The children know this and exploit it, and my wife knows they’re manipulating her, but she can’t bring herself to respond any differently. It stresses her out and makes her frustrated. But I’m sure this is part of her maternal instinct.

  28. There is too much emphasis place on “feelings” & not enough on what we do as mothers whether we feel like it or not. & honestly, you don’t think about it, you don’t even feel it, you just DO it. Has this woman had children yet? Maternal instinct has nothing to do with “pleasure”.

  29. Women don’t want kids more than men. Google “do men or women want kids more ” and check out the top result….

  30. “I highly doubt that Hrdy sees maternal instincts as pure social constructs designed to hold women down.”

    It’s hard to fathom how anyone might believe that the human brain, alone of all evolved organs and functions, evolved to be a blank slate to be “written on” by unspecified processes of social conditioning. That the human species (and all pre-human ancestral species) somehow survived without innate urges to protect and nurture children, particularly children so utterly helpless and dependent as humans.

    I was a grad student in experimental psychology back in the 70s when the sheen was coming off the behaviorist view that all human behavior would eventually be explainable in terms of operant reinforcement contingencies, the “social conditioning” of that era. It soon became clear that human behavior was far too complex, and too regular, to be the result of any form of conditioning, social or otherwise. For one thing, human children aren’t passive recipients of conditioning; they are informavores, active learners actively exploring their environment, observing and imitating others, remember filtering and organizing their experiences, forming and testing hypotheses. Their brains are shaped by natural selection to predispose the children to experiences and learning that will enable them to survive and thrive in a complex social world, in ways so critical to their genetic success.

    A beaver’s brain comes wired to enable a young beaver to quickly learn all it needs to build a dam so that, as Dawkins put it, the dam is just as much a part of the beaver’s extended genotype as the beaver itself. I would suggest that in the same way, learned human language, and all learned social behavior, is similarly part of the extended human genotype. The idea that somehow the capacity for complex social behavior evolved without all the necessary wiring to support that behavior, or that that wiring could have evolved without being subject to natural selection *for* that behavior is… well I would say laughable, but I’m not laughing.

  31. Did anyone else read Ms. Conaboy’s NYT piece? I did.
    It states:

    “New research on the parental brain makes clear that the idea of maternal instinct as something innate, automatic and distinctly female is a myth,…”

    (Notice that she didn’t say “Maternal instinct is a myth,” or “New research…makes clear that … [natural] maternal instinct … is a myth.” That would be taking her out of context.)

    JAC NOTE: Sorry, but your comment is not only about three times longer than I allow (did you read the Roolz? I did.), but it also gives your own extensive reinterpretation of Conaboy’s theory (“this is what she really meant”) which I consider inaccurate. It also doesn’t mention at all her neglect of the data from other animals, including primates, showing sex differences in paternal versus maternal care. Her (and your) neglect of the data from nature is shameful. Your message (and apparently Conaboy’s is that there is NO genetically based difference between men and women in how they deal with infants; any difference seen is due to socialization. That’s absolute nonsense.

    I suggest if you want to interpret Conaboy’s theory, you do so somewhere that will give you 1600 words. I don’t feel like spending a lot of time here rebutting 1600 words of politically motivated nonsense telling people what Conaboy really meant.

    I urge you to publish your screed somewhere else, and then let people judge the dispute themselves.

  32. *cringe* I’ll own my mistakes and apologize. I had started with something different and due to a bad edit, I came across in a way I didn’t intend. I also read Da Roolz. (I did!) If you’ll allow me to reply again, properly and curtly, I appreciate your graciousness.

    After reading Ms. Conaboy’s piece, it suffers from a few problems, though I think they differ from Professor Coyne’s observations. Firstly, the title of the piece is misleading. It’s designed to catch attention in our attention-deficit society and enflame the reader, an atrocious habit that the media has practiced since the days of yellow journalism.

    While she can’t control the title, she can control the content, which is poorly written, which doesn’t bode well for her book. Ms. Conaboy crams too much in (like I did), and the important points are lost between frivolous and belabored points. This discourages readers from engaging with it, leaving them to rely on the misleading headline, or insert their own context.

    The crux of the piece, I believe, is the following:

    “New research on the parental brain makes clear that the idea of maternal instinct as something innate, automatic and distinctly female is a myth,…”

    More properly worded, it should read: Scientific research on the parental brain shows that the social construct of maternal instinct is a myth.

    Buried in the weeds, she alludes to brain scans. She also speaks of parental instinct, meaning the father’s as well as the mother’s. She doesn’t stop there, anyone who takes on the parental mantle also experiences greater brain plasticity than normal. Yes, she doesn’t address the full nature of biological instinct. Had she written the piece better, she wouldn’t need to, that’s what the book is for.

    The concept she is trying to fight, which isn’t properly emphasized, is the socially constructed maternal instinct, which weaponizes natural instincts against women.

    It’s about 20% the original size, I hope this is more acceptable.

    1. Sorry, but I still disagree with you. Note that she doesn’t define “maternal instinct” but just characterizes one version of it: “the idea of maternal instinct as something innate, automatic and distinctly female is a myth,…”

      As I said repeatedly in my post, I don’t think it’s completely innate, but there is an evolutionary component. I don’t know what “automatic” even means. And of course I said that there were some men who had parental instincts stronger than those of some women. It is a differences in averages, and if you and Conaboy are saying that there IS NO AVERAGE BEHAVIORAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN BECAUSE OF EVOLUTION, then you should come out and admit it. Do you? You are curiously reluctant to state if you see any evolved behavioral differences between the sexes. Well?

      You and Conaboy fail to mention the pervasiveness (no, not ubiquity) of maternal “instincts” throughout animals, something that I quoted Hrdy on yesterday. That is a shameful omission on both of your parts. How do you explain greater maternal care and concern in primates and in most other mammalian species? You don’t. It’s partly evolutionary, Jake.

      The elision between “maternal instinct” and “maternal instinct as forced on women by men” occurs in her piece, so that by the end the reader thinks that simple sex differences in behavior towards offspring, in both humans and and other animals, do not exist. Note her frequent use of “maternal instinct” without qualifiers towars the end of the piece.

      You appear to have come here to clarify what you think Conaboy meeds. If she needs a factotum to explain what she really meant, then her piece was misleading and opaque in the first place.

      And, that is my reply to you. That’s the end of this discussion.

  33. There are a few very good non instinctive differences why females take care of young more than males:
    1) They know it’s their young, while the males don’t necessarily (no DNA tests in nature, none for most of human history). The males may not even be around at birth.
    2) Practically speaking, they are physically weaker, so less potentially successful if they were to take on tasks such as hunting, fighting off attackers, heavy agricultural work, heavy work of any kind. By default they get the less physically demanding work if childcare. (Which is lots of work, but if a different kind)
    3) They can nurse. Once they nurse, they usually become more attached to the child psychologically, and later care follows. (People usually have an easier time dismissing the needs of people they don’t physically see as often).

    So there may be maternal instincts that are stronger than paternal ones, I’d have to take a long look at studies. Or there may not be. But behaviors in nature and human history can be explained by the above as well.

    1. You’ve just buttressed the evolutionary argument for maternal care. Or would you say that maternal care in nonmammalian species, or those in which males are not palpably stronger than females, are due to socialization. And are you denying that the three factors you mention above could serve as selective pressures for greater caring behavior than females.

      Get back to us when you’ve taken that “long look at studies.”

  34. I think one of the main problems with Conaboy’s piece, which you have pointed out, is that she never defined ‘maternal instinct’. If she means ‘immediate set of knowledge and skills that magically becomes available to women once they become mothers’, then ok, that does not exist, and that’s a good thing – it frees us to learn from science and from observing our own unique children. If what is meant is ‘parental care motivation system’, or caregiving drive, then no, it certainly exists.

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