CALIFORNIA: In this excerpt from acclaimed science writer Stefan Klein’s latest book, We Are All Stardust, published by Speaking Tiger, anthropologist Sarah Hrdy shares a vision of motherhood and its crucial role in human evolution. Hrdy strips away stereotypes and gender-biased myths to demonstrate that traditional views of maternal behaviour are essentially wishful thinking.

Professor Hrdy, how do you remember your mother?

She was a very beautiful, very smart, and very ambitious woman.

You once described her as “by some standards, an appalling mother.” What did you mean by that?

Well, her position in society was more important to her than her kids. For us, there was a constantly changing succession of nannies, plus she subscribed to the view then common among educated mothers that babies were born blank slates, needing to be shaped. Picking up a crying baby would just spoil her, conditioning the child to cry more. Unquestionably though, I loved her and later in life felt very close to my mother, having learned to understand the constraints she herself confronted and how she herself had been reared — in a long line of mothers gradually losing the art of nurture.

Your books give the reader the impression that no human relationship is anywhere near as fraught with tension as the relationship between a mother and her children.

Under some circumstances, a mother can devote herself completely to her children. But often the mother herself lacks support, or she has to divide her love among several children, or she has other things she needs to do. Human mothers have always confronted such trade-offs. Maternal ambivalence is as natural as maternal love. Yet it’s been hammered into us that unconditional and self-sacrificing maternal love is “normal,” ambivalence considered pathological. It’s assumed that mothers should readily turn their lives over to their little “gene vehicles”. . . .

You yourself have two adult daughters and a son. Are you familiar with that feeling of paralysis—and the fear of being annihilated by your own children?

Oh, yes. But it’s not only as a mother that I’ve felt as if my family might eat me alive; I sometimes felt that way as a daughter as well. The Texas I grew up in was still extremely patriarchal, not to mention racist. Of course, as a young girl I didn’t have the faintest idea of what this fixation with controlling girls was about. It was the same for my mother: She wanted to be a lawyer, but my grandmother insisted that she first make her debut in Dallas society. There she met my father—a great catch, heir to an oil fortune. And that was that.

You don’t lead exactly the life people expect from a wealthy heiress of several oil companies. How did you break away from that background?

Well, as the third daughter in a family desperate for a son, I was the heiress to spare. Because I loved horses, I was allowed to go off to a boarding school known for its riding program. Fortunately for me, that school also took women’s education very seriously. From there, I went to Wellesley College, where my mother and grandmother had gone. I embarked on a novel about contemporary Mexicans of Maya descent, and it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to learn more about Maya culture. So I transferred to Radcliffe, then the women’s part of Harvard, to study under the great Mayanist Evon Vogt. The novel never got finished, but I ended up as an anthropologist. It’s hard to believe how naive I was, but after summers working in Guatemala and Honduras as an undergraduate volunteer on medical projects, I gradually came to understand just how oppressive the political situation was. Continuing as an anthropologist in that part of the world would turn me into a revolutionary—something I was temperamentally unsuited for.

Instead you went to India in 1971 to study langur monkeys. What drew you there?

I vaguely remembered from an undergraduate course that there was this species of monkey in India called langurs, and that, supposedly due to crowding, the males would occasionally kill babies of their own species. Naively, again, I imagined that langurs would provide a scientific case study for how overpopulation can produce pathological behavior. By the end of my first field season, I realized my starting hypothesis was wrong. Female langurs live in groups with overlapping generations of female kin accompanied by a male who enters from outside. Every so often, a new male from one of the roving all-male bands manages to oust the resident male and take his place. Babies were only being attacked when new males entered the breeding system from outside. …

Were you able to watch dispassionately?

No, I was distressed. Watching an attack, tears would roll down my cheeks.

Scientists are not supposed to intervene in the process they are studying.

Right. Plus even if I had tried, I could not have stopped what was happening. And yes, I was also fascinated. After all, this was the bizarre phenomenon that I had come to India to try to understand—why were males doing this? Why, instead of sexually boycotting the male who killed the infant, were mothers going along with it?

The killing of babies was conclusive evidence that what happens in nature can be even harsher than we thought. At the time, many people understood Darwin in terms of the idea that in social animals like primates, all the animals behaved so as to promote the survival of the group or the species. According to your findings, however, even among members of the same species, each individual is striving to maximize its own reproductive chances—even at the cost of its own offspring. But why would any mother then mate with the same male who had killed her infant?

Because a female who boycotted the infanticidal male would be at a disadvantage in relation to other females in her group who bred faster. Plus, to the extent that the infanticidal trait was heritable and advantageous, her sons would inherit it.

Sociobiology, which emerged at that time and advocated such theories, was not quite welcomed with open arms.

That’s putting it mildly. Back in the 1970s, opponents of sociobiology characterized it as sexist, racist, and worse—practically Nazi! We described the world in a way that was out of step with the times. Worse for me—because I was a sociobiologist among anthropologists who distrusted evolutionary perspectives, and was also trying to introduce a female-oriented perspective among evolutionists who regarded feminism as hopelessly suspect. I was decried as a double ideologue. However, in my opinion it’s simply better science to take into account Darwinian selection pressures on mothers and infants, and biased science to leave out half the species. …

While doing your field research on langurs in North India, you yourself had a baby with you, your little daughter, while your husband was working in Boston. How did that work?

I was going back and forth to Rajasthan. I hired a babysitter to accompany us, but the logistics were difficult, and there were diarrhea and diaper rash problems. I had specifically instructed the sitter to never give our baby, Katrinka, food near the monkeys, but of course one day she handed her a cookie, and the langurs were all over them, frightening Katrinka. Even worse were the political problems we encountered working in India at a time when the Nixon government was “tilted” toward Pakistan. Thereafter I decided to work closer to home in ways less disruptive to my husband and children.

Why did you want to have kids?

Not sure! But I am glad we did.

(Excerpted from We Are All Stardust by Stephan Klein; Published by Speaking Tiger; Pp: 265; Price: Rs 399.)

(Women's Feature Service)