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 1871. Observant 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”.