The Experiment, April 2017
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
This is the second book by Jennifer Verdolin, a long-time student of—and expert in—animal behaviour. Her previous one, Wild Connection, which took a wide-lens view of sexual attraction, mating and bonding across the animal kingdom, had the dual aim of (a) enlarging our awareness of the infinite variety of patterns and practices that Nature has evolved and (b) seeing what light this may cast on our own human patterns and practices. This book, which looks at pregnancy, birth and parenting, is a natural follow-on and has similar aims.
The variety—like so much else in Nature—is staggering. Pregnancy can last anywhere from twelve days to two years, depending on your species. Babies can be born quickly or slowly, head first, feet first, in a nest, in the grass, on the seashore, in a cave, up a tree or even from the mother’s mouth. The possibilities are endless. Some mothers like to give birth alone, others prefer company. And we humans are not the only species to be assisted by midwives; there are bats who do that too, just as there are other species in which the male actively assists his partner in the childbirth process.
When it comes to child-rearing, Nature has an infinite variety of parenting styles. If you are born a gosling, you quickly learn to follow whoever you first see when you emerge from your egg, for your survival and learning entirely depends on following and copying that individual and your time of infantile dependency is measured in mere weeks. Whereas if you are a whale, you may well stay in the bosom of your nuclear family for the rest of your life. Yet there are some interesting commonalities. For example, no matter what the species, parents can almost always recognize their own offspring, whether by sight, by smell or by sound. And parental concern in response to a distress call is pretty much universal.
I noticed one error in this book. It cites Dr Benjamin Spock as the main influence behind the harsh, ‘let them cry it out’ attitude of parents who maintain that to pick up a baby when s/he cries is to risk ‘spoiling’ the child. Spock definitely did not believe that. The true culprit was Truby King, whose harsh methods of child-rearing had been so popular through the 1920s and 30s. Spock, whose Baby & Child Care became the bible of every parent (including me) through the 1960s and 70s, had exactly the opposite idea. He had a gentle, much more permissive approach to parenting and always advised parents to follow their natural instincts and respond to the distress call of an infant. And certainly it appears from Verdolin’s research that there are few if any species who do not do this. Those parents of today who practise ‘attachment parenting’ (a school of thought which maintains that if a child’s dependency needs are fully met in those very early years the child will be better able to achieve independence later) will find most of their ideas validated here.
For me, there are three take-aways from this book. Firstly, all of us members of the animal kingdom have a similar range of emotions. Although the details vary tremendously, we share a lot more than we realize. Studies like this help us understand why we sometimes find ourselves doing or feeling something that is at odds with our beliefs. Such as ‘playing favourites’ when we believe in treating our kids equally. Knowing, for instance, that bluebirds give preference to the chick with the brighter plumage because for a bluebird bright colours confer an evolutionary advantage can help us recognize the biological substrate of such behaviour. We don’t have to emulate the bluebird but at least we might feel less guilty!
Secondly, it must surely come as a relief to new parents to learn that there is no one ‘right way’ to birth and raise a child because so much depends on the situation and the circumstance. There are far more choices than our cultural conditioning might have led us to believe.
Thirdly, despite the vast variety of parenting styles, there is one basic principle we can derive from studying them. Which is, whether you are a gorilla, a shark, a Mexican free-tailed bat or a member of the genus Homo sapiens, in most situations the best thing you can do for your baby is to follow your animal instincts.