Post 9: Parental Infanticide

I would encourage you all to read the following book, or at least the chapter I cite:

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. “Mother Nature, Maternal instincts and how they shape the human species.” Ballentine books, NYC. 1999.

Chapter 12 starting page 288.

The chapter and the findings Hrdy discusses indicate that infanticide and abandonment “under certain conditions it was an adaptive rather than a pathological behavior.”(293). The rationality: a child born in impoverished circumstances taxes the resources of the mother. It is possible that if the baby isn’t discarded, both might die. If the mother lives, she may reproduce again when resources are more plentiful. Is this a form of self defense? The baby may die either way: keeping the baby is no guarantee of it’s survival in such trying circumstances. Hence this could be adaptive and evolution could select for this behavior.

She points to a body of animal studies that reflect this (and other evolutionarily adaptive reasons) and then turns to Human records and history.

“Many millions of infant deaths can be attributed directly or indirectly to maternal tactics to mitigate the high cost of rearing them. These tactics include leaving infants at foundling homes with terrible survival statistics…”(297)

“mothers don’t set out to commit infanticide. Rather, abandonment is at one extreme of a continuum that ranges between termination of investment and the total commitment of a mother carrying her baby everywhere and nursing it on demand. … Infanticide occurs when circumstances (including the fear of discovery,) prevent a mother from abandoning it. Although legally and morally there is a difference, biologically the two phenomena are inseparable.”

In Rome from AD0-AD300, historians have found abandonment rates around 20-40% of children born. (298) In the middle ages, to the 1800’s many foundling homes were opened and operated to handle or receive abandoned children. Infant mortality was atrocious at many of these places. They were often flooded with unwanted babies. Out of 15,000 children at one home, admitted between “1755 and 1773, two thirds died before reaching their 1st birthday.”(299). In St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1767, “99% of ,1,089 infants admitted that year failed to survive to the next.”(301) Historical records at these government run places was impeccable. These are not estimates.

There is also evidence that parents were not ignorant of these facts. Indeed in ‘Brescia, Sicily, of 72,000 infants abandoned between 1783 and 1809 about 20% survived.'(304) “the scale of mortality was so appalling, and so openly acknowledged, that the residents of Brescia proposed that a motto be carved over the gate of the foundling home: “Here children are killed at public expense.”(304). Abandonment provided a socially permissible way to kill children, and because they weren’t the one directly killing their child, they didn’t have to deal with guilt, (if they felt any). “a mother who abandons her infant to a foundling home- even those where mortality rates are in the vicinity of 90% – was regarded as unfortunate, but legally and spiritually blameless. Technically, her infant will die of malnutrition or dysentery, not neglect; she did not kill it.”(304-5).

Hrdy goes on to make a very compelling and interesting argument about the social construction of the concept of maternal instinct, questioning its existence, and distinguishing it from love, which is fatherly and motherly, and “produces feelings in the mother[or father] about her baby that make abandonment unbearable.”(316)

One her other interesting findings was “How a mother, particularly a very young mother, treats one infant turns out to be a poor predictor of how she might treat another one born when she is older, or faced with improved circumstance.”(314). This is significant since pathological behavior is considered to be a pattern of behavior that will occur repeatedly, enduring over time. With this in mind, If a mother kills her child, and it was pathological, one would predict that she will do it again. But since having killed a child as a young mother is a poor predictor of mothering with later children, this seems to contradict a clam of pathology. This combined with the prevalence of documented abandonment at various times in history, seems to indicate that infanticide is more common then one would think and that its occurrence, in relation to certain circumstances, is evolutionary adaptive.

Stuart Walker


~ by havok43v3r on December 10, 2009.

One Response to “Post 9: Parental Infanticide”

  1. Very interesting!

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