MOTHER NATURE by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy


A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection
Email this review


An extraordinary body of scholarship that is as much a social and psychological history of women as child-bearers—and more—as a review of male and female biology and behavior across many species, particularly kindred primates. Hrdy (anthropology emeritus/UC Davis) creates an encyclopedia of data, interpretation, and speculation on what mothers and babies are all about. Leading with a wonderful remark by George Eliot: “Mother Nature—who by the bye is an old lady with some bad habits—’she notes that the dominant 19th-century patriarchal view saw women as baby-makers, inferior in all other ways to males. Hrdy’s theme, broader and less materialistic than that of The Woman That Never Evolved (1981), is that there has always been great flexibility in the living arrangements among social groups, particularly in mammals, but also in social insects. Evolving features of human biology have helped females improve their offspring’s chance of survival (concealed ovulation, continuous sexual receptivity, the enlisting of “allomothers” who can help in child-rearing). Further, there is no maternal “instinct” as such, but simply a concern that at least some offspring should survive, even it means the sacrifice of others. Indeed one of Hrdy’s more stunning chapters deals with infanticide, whether practiced at birth or by farming infants out to incompetent or inadequate wet nurses or placing them in foundling hospitals with appalling rates of survival. The latter parts of the book deal with survival and selection from the baby’s point of view: a kind of gamesmanship in which plump, pink-cheeked newborns charm their moms. In reviewing all these topics, Hrdy steers a path between extremists of every camp and projects her own, sometimes anxious, experience as wife, mother, and scientist onto the narrative. “Family values” camps will be shocked, ardent feminists irritated, and psychoanalysts dismissive. For the open-minded, however, this is a breathtaking feat of scholarship that will have enduring value as an encyclopedic source of hard data and inspired speculation. (Photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Oct. 6th, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-44265-0
Page count: 752pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1999


IndieThe Female Assumption by Melane Holmes
by Melane Holmes
IndieThe Attachment Bond by Virginia M. Shiller
by Virginia M. Shiller