Mother Nature

Dame Nature!

What is the "maternal instinct"? Does it even exist? There is a stereotype of the ideal mother as someone who expresses unconditional love, who sacrifices all for her children, and who is ferocious and unstinting in defense of her children. Women who compromise on this behavior, who express some reservations and perhaps some self-interest, may be labeled "bad mothers" or perhaps even worse, "feminists".

If self-sacrifice is the ideal maternal characteristic, though, then we should be asking our women to aspire to this biological pinnacle of mother love:

The prize for "extreme maternal care" goes to one of the various matriphagous (yes, it means mother-eating) spiders. After laying her eggs, an Australian social spider (Diaea ergandros) continues to store nutrients in a new batch of eggs—odd, oversized eggs, far too large to pass through her oviducts, and lacking genetic instructions. Since she breeds only once, what are they for?

These eggs are for eating, not laying. But to be eaten by whom? As the spiderlings mature and begin to mill about, the mother becomes strangely subdued. She starts to turn mushy—but in a liquefying rather than a sentimental way. As her tissue melts, her ravenous young literally suck her up, starting with her legs and eventually devouring the protein-rich eggs dissolving within her.

That story is from Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mother Nature, a book that discusses the meaning of motherhood and how it fits into biology and natural selection. I think we'd all agree that it is a little creepy, and perhaps too extreme—we should expect human mothers to love their children unconditionally, but carving off bits of flesh to make their sandwiches would probably be a bit much.

There are alternatives in the continuum of maternal commitment. Hrdy's book makes the point that motherhood is far, far more complex than any caricature of a blind maternal extinct can encompass. Being a mother is a difficult and pragmatic affair, and the lesson of biology is that Nature is solidly pro-choice...or that the answers are never simple and straightforward.

Continue reading "Mother Nature" (on Pharyngula)