Women and children first

For decades the science of child-rearing was guided by patriarchal ideas, but now the cradle rocks to an older rhythm. Eric Michael Johnson, in conversation with eminent evolutionary biologists Sarah Hrdy and Robert Trivers, explores how Mother Nature and the social network that nurtured our past have been remembered at last

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Model of efficiency: ‘hospitalism’ produced infants who were listless, apathetic and refused to eat – the result not of disease but of loneliness

Their children’s cries unheard, that past through fire

To his grim idol.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

The infants had been arranged into neat rows, swaddled in aseptic white cloth the way precision instruments would be secured for shipping. Masked, hooded and gloved nurses cautiously moved down the aisle to record vital functions and administer bottles of formula, closely adhering to the feeding schedule detailed in their log books. To eliminate the possibility of contamination, any handling of their charges was kept to a minimum and parental visits were strictly forbidden. It was a model of efficiency compromised only by the piercing screams of newborns in distress.

American infant wards in the first half of the 20th century were designed around two prevailing ideas, wrote Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University neuroscientist, in his book Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals (2005): “a worship of sterile, aseptic conditions at all costs, and the belief among the (overwhelmingly male) paediatric establishment that touching, holding, and nurturing infants was sentimental maternal foolishness”. But there was little doubt at the time that eliminating cross-infection was a medically necessary pursuit.

Well into the 1920s, according to statistics from Bellevue Hospital in New York, an estimated 30 per cent of infants died before they could go home with their mothers. Many more experienced a condition referred to as “hospitalism”, in which extended stays produced infants who were listless, apathetic and refused to eat. It wasn’t until 1941 that New York paediatrician Harry Bakwin, in a paper read before the American Pediatric Society, told a sceptical audience of his peers that they had been deceiving themselves all along: hospitalism was not the result of disease, he said. It was caused by “loneliness”.

There are few American cities that feel more like an incubator than Houston, Texas in the summertime. With its thick, stagnant air and searing heat, often reaching highs of 40degC in July, the city’s torrid atmosphere drapes over the coastal plain like the heavy fabric of an influenza tent. During the city’s post-war economic boom, fuelled by abundant petroleum reserves and an expanding military-industrial complex to supply, Houston experienced rapid exponential growth. Row upon row of identical white housing developments emerged almost overnight, spreading the metropolis outwards in all directions like bacteria filling an agar plate.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy was born on 11 July 1946 and grew up in an environment that epitomised an American exceptionalism that would define the second half of the 20th century - but only if you were male and white.

“This was a very segregated and really quite patriarchal society,” Hrdy tells me from her home at Citrona Farms near the University of California, Davis, where she held a chair in anthropology until her retirement. “Growing up in Houston was a lot like growing up in South Africa.”

When she later moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, first to attend Radcliffe College and then graduate school at Harvard University, Hrdy embarked on a distinguished 40-year career as a primatologist and evolutionary theorist who would come to challenge - and ultimately transcend - an interpretation of Darwinian biology still moored in Victorian attitudes about gender and the role of mothers in natural history. But it would be Hrdy’s early years in southeast Texas and her unconventional career path as she tried to balance work and family that would ultimately inspire her ideas and motivate her to persevere.

As the third daughter born into a wealthy family - Hrdy’s paternal grandfather, Robert L. Blaffer, was a founder of the Humble Oil Company, which later merged with Standard Oil of New Jersey to become Exxon - her surroundings were permeated by distinctly “Southern” genteel values, especially where women’s roles were concerned. But she was also subject to the prevailing attitudes in child psychology of the time, which regarded overt expressions of love and affection as a parental weakness that could spoil a child’s character.

“Educated women in my mother’s generation”, explains Hrdy, “thought that if you responded to a crying baby you would be conditioning that baby to cry more and to be more demanding. Of course, today we know the opposite to be the case.”

The most prominent advocate for this spartan approach towards parenting was another member of the Southern gentry, John B. Watson, the South Carolina-born psychologist and president of the American Psychological Association. Founder of the “behaviourist” school in psychology, Watson saw himself as engaged in nothing less than an all-out war against the evils of maternal love. His 1928 bestseller, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, sold 50,000 copies in its first year and remained one of the most widely read parenting manuals for decades to come.

Watson’s advice called for a draconian and emotionally restricted approach to childrearing. “Never hug and kiss them,” he wrote, “never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning.”

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