The Social Necessity of Nurturance

By McCollister, Betty | The Humanist, January 2001 | Go to article overview

The Social Necessity of Nurturance


McCollister, Betty, The Humanist


Man is born of love and exists by reason of a love more continuous than in any other form of life.

--Loren Eiseley

Clinical investigations of man show that the lack of a normal interpersonal environment may be devastating to the developing individual.

--S. L. Washburn

Andrew Hartman, in his chilling Humanist article "U.S. Prisons Mean Money" (November/December 2000), describes prisons as a profitable growth industry in the United States--a nation with 5 percent of the world s population but 25 percent of its prison population. We can somehow find money for jails but not for measures that could give our babies and children a good start in life and thus drastically reduce the need for such institutions.

Is this the wave of the future: more juveniles committing more crimes at ever earlier ages? Will the nation follow California's lead, as it so often does, and ultimately spend more on jails than on education? Aren't the Draconian measures used to address crime as violent as the crimes themselves and thus part of the problem rather than the solution? Is there no other option?

Of course, there is. To find it we must first learn two fundamental things about our species: how we evolved into the large-brained Homo sapiens we are; and the nature of a mother's role as primary caregiver. Once we understand these two factors we will be better able to determine how best to support her during pregnancy and lactation and how to enable her to give more of herself to her infant at least during the crucial first year, when the child's brain doubles in size, and preferably for the first five years, while the brain trebles in size to attain three-fourths of its final growth.

How did we become human? What brought our ancestors to the threshold between our animal ancestors and our hominid selves, which we crossed about four million years ago? We can't even begin to solve in any meaningful way our multiple, interlocking social pathologies except from the perspective of our evolution.

In the 140 years since Darwin published The Origin of Species--which overturned comfortable certitudes and showed a new and expanded view of life--accumulated evidence from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, anthropology, genetics, microbiology, and every other scientific discipline has confirmed that evolution is the unifying principle that makes elegant sense of our planet's intricate web of life. To deny that life evolved is as disconnected from reality as to deny that the Earth is round and circles the sun.

Evolution binds us to the biota that engendered us and which, in our ignorance, we are ravaging. It explains how we descended from our ape ancestors. It offers us clues as to what is going amiss and why.

Our humanity doesn't sever us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We are the johnny-come-lately product of 200 million years of mammal evolution, sixty-five million years of primate evolution, and four million years of hominid evolution. Our ancestors lived in closely knit tribes in which cooperation and loyalty were essential. It was within that matrix--with devoted infant care and strong interpersonal links--that the brain enlarged from the size of a chimpanzee's to double that in Homo erectus and quadruple that in our Neandertal cousins and ourselves.

This astonishing advance begins with our mammalian heritage. All mammal mothers by definition gestate, bear, and suckle their offspring. In some species, mothers tend their young on their own. In our species, a societal context is integral. This is especially true of our suborder, the anthropoids, and our family, the hominids. Clearly, then, leaving mothers to cope entirely on their own flouts everything inherent to our nature and risks disastrous results.

A look at our hominid past helps us to understand our pathological present. About four million years ago, one line of apes assumed bipedal posture. …

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