What is ‘natural’ and how do we know?

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I have been teaching a university course in Human Cognitive Evolution these past few months. As a class, we’ve been taking a deep dive into human history and what makes us so unique.

How did parenting look in the past?

And this makes me reflect on my life as a parent. It makes me wonder how I would be raising my children if I lived in some other time. What did parenthood look like 300 000 years ago? Under what conditions did our children develop? What did they eat? What did they play with? And how did they sleep?

Many sources claim that it is essential to look into our deep-rooted evolutionary history for guidance on how we are meant to behave. Upon what basis we should structure our parenting decisions? We are, after all, a reflection of our past. Our origins are nested in the protection of caves and in the social ties that we made with the village surrounding us. Shouldn’t we be trying to reconstruct these roots and raise our children under the most natural conditions possible?

This seems logical. And there’s merit to this approach. As an evolutionary biologist, I am compelled to uncover the foundation for our human behavioural repertoire. To understand the environment within which our species was initially shaped. We can learn a lot about who we are as a species if we strip away our industrialized walls and glimpse into the world that humans have been occupying for hundreds of thousands of years. This is, of course, our natural state right? And don’t we want to take the most natural route when it comes to doing what’s best for our babies?

But without fully realizing it, taking this approach may set us some pretty unrealistic expectations.

Carrying mammals?

Let’s take, for example, the incredible baby-wearing industry that has emerged in recent decades offering every type of carefully constructed, and beautifully patterned, carrier under the sun – slings, wraps, front carriers, back carriers, all-ways carriers, backpacks, hoodies with baby pouches – in an attempt to mimic the fact that we come from a lineage of carrying mammals.

You see, primate infants cling to their mother’s body hair with their grasping hands and feet, allowing mom to continue moving about and securing essential energetic resources from the environment, all the while nurturing, nourishing, and protecting her infant from potentially lethal falls. In this regard, it seems reasonable to argue that humans are naturally carrying mammals.

But some time around 2 or 3 million years ago, the ancestors of humans began to shed their body hair. Today, we are the naked cousins of the primate world. The anchor to which our babies would have clung in the past has been cast away.

Even if we were still covered in hair, our babies are not developed enough at birth to be able to take advantage. Our big brains (that have tripled in size since we diverged from our ape-like ancestors), necessitate that we give birth to relatively underdeveloped young. Our neonates do not have the strength or dexterity to cling to mom like we see in other primate species.

The Move to Baby Wearing

And so we wear our babies instead. And there are incredible benefits to this. Baby-wearing can help establish the bond between mom and baby. Aid in thermoregulation. Allow baby to learn about the world through the eyes of experience. Babies that are attached to a caregiver have been shown to cry less. And, of course, it’s practical, since mom can continue to use her hands to do all the daily tasks that are required of her.

When it comes to baby-wearing then, are we attempting to reconstruct the clinging behaviour of our primate ancestors? Or perhaps using cloth and other materials to physically connect our babies to us is what we deem natural. And what of the mother that cannot or desires not to wear her baby at all times? Is it any less natural an approach to put baby down or hand her over to someone else from time to time?

It takes a village

Anthropologists actually believe that we’ve been turning to our village to make up for the physiological shifts – loss of hair and highly dependent infants – that humanity has experienced since the early days of our species. Mom still needs to obtain the energy to support herself and her nursing babe, and so, at times, it would have been absolutely necessary to have some separation between mom and baby.

“With highly dependent babies that mature slowly and cannot cling to their mothers, humans care for offspring through pair-bonding, grand-parenting, and alloparenting”.  – Dunsworth et al., 2012

So perhaps handing baby off to other caregivers when mom needs a restorative reprieve is the natural way. How do we decide upon what condition to base our comparison?

What is Natural?

The trouble is that the word “natural” does not necessarily imply the root of all things. Let’s take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary definition of

Nat-u-ral
(from the Latin natura meaning birth, nature, quality)
In accordance with the nature of, or circumstances surrounding, someone or something

Nature” and “circumstance” are inherently fluid notions. They change with the passing of time, just as we do.

Let’s look at another example, my personal favourite topic, sleep. Much of the polarizing discourse surrounding sleep habits suggests that it is completely unnatural for a baby to sleep on his/her own. We came from cave dwellers, after all – a condition under which babies likely slept nestled close to mom for warmth, on-demand nourishment, and protection from predators. 

This is a reasonable assertion. And likely contributed to higher survival for vulnerable infants exposed to the natural elements. But the environment that humans live in has changed substantially. And for many in the now heavily industrialized world, this threatening nocturnal environment is no longer a reality. It is possible to achieve a safe sleeping condition with a little physical separation. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ safe sleep guidelines recommend that all babies sleep on their own firm sleep surface (this can be an arm’s reach co-sleeper, bassinet, crib, side-car sleeper etc.) and never bed share. Vulnerability has shifted in our highly controlled environments and the historical state actually now poses a greater risk.

So what is natural? The condition of lower risk or the condition that is nested deeper in our history? If we move towards a new approach when it comes to baby’s sleep location, are we somehow sacrificing the way it is “meant” to be?

A New Natural

You see, humans are arguably the most adaptable species on the planet, and it is this flexibility that has enabled us to flourish throughout our history. As a result, finding some origin, some beginning place upon which to compare our current behaviour is inherently problematic. And if we set ourselves the expectation that we are trying to strive for some arbitrary starting point, we are bound to feel that we cannot possibly live up. Perhaps it’s time to let go of the obsession of mimicking the way it “should” be – the way nature intended – and instead parent based on our own unique set of circumstances, personal values, and priorities. Birthing, breastfeeding, babywearing, sleep…. let’s stop feeling guilty that we are somehow missing the mark on that ideal natural state and work toward embracing the here and now and all the beautiful individualism nested within.

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