Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Maternal Evolution

*WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead.*

Though I'm making a film called Women's Studies, the issue of motherhood is one I've sort of avoided. There's "sisters" and "daughters" aplenty, but the mothers get a bit of the short shrift.

I'm not in any way implying that motherhood and womanhood have anything to do with each other, but from a purely Darwinian, biological point of view, giving birth is what a woman's body is designed to do. Before any ladies out there get offended, keep in mind that from a physical standpoint, the importance of males drops far more considerably. At least women are biological incubators with intricate layers of child-bearing hardware. Dudes are the evolutionary equivalent of a garden hose.

The human infant isn't well designed for survival on it's own. Spiders are all but abandoned by their mother days after they're born. Snakes hatch from eggs and never meet Mom. Even kittens and horses are pretty much ready to do what they need to survive after a few weeks. Yet even a year after it's born, a human child can't do more than walk around (poorly) and shit itself. (I'll admit they do that pretty well.)

To increase the chances of survival, humans have evolved in a behavioral sense to be able to rear and care for human children. You see this in the higher primates as well as elephants and other large mammals as well. The babies are reared for a considerable period of time by at least one individual or animal, but often two parents or even in a group situation before going off by themselves to make more babies.

Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is a discipline which theorizes that much of our behavior is hardwired into us instinctually. For example, one theory states that for partners, women tend to seek out men who are attractive and intelligent because on a sub-conscious, instinctual level, they want the highest genetic material to pass on to offspring. The same theory states that men are attracted to women with larger breasts and wider hips because those are physical attributes that lead to successful bearing of a healthy child. Other evolutionary theories attempt to explain why men are more prone to infidelity than women, (Males are physically designed to disseminate their genetic material as widely as possible. Think of cats.) as well as why women tend to initiate most divorces. (If a male can't adequately provide food and protection, what good is he? Think of a pride of lions.)

Evolutionary psychologists theorize that early civilization's social structures evolved from these instinctual needs. Men and women chose each other on the merits that would allow the fragile human infant the chance to survive long enough where it could continue the genetic line. Leagues of royal families continued the same blood lines for centuries to a similar end. Was it due to ego or instinct?

(What does all this blather have to do with the weird feminist horror film I'm making? Hang on, I'm getting there.)

Gender roles and social structure also evolved this way, according to EP. Early civilizations worshipped female deities for woman's "magical" ability to create life. Males quickly realized that due to the biological requirements to bear children, women were physically weaker. Males also realized that while a male counterpoint was often better to assist the women in directing the child's life, it wasn't necessary for the woman. Remember, males are hardwired to keep their blood line going, not only in the physcial sense, but in the social sense.

Therefore, they invented male gods and myths to relegate woman to a subservient "mother" role for thousands of years in order to control the fates of their children. Yet even when these later civilizations banished woman's role in matters of politics and religion, she was still revered for her role as a child-bearer. In fact, for centuries that was considered her only role. After all, he didn't want her to use her evolutionary instinct for sniffing out a man who has outlived his usefulness.

The thing about evolution is it always continues. Here in the twenty-first century, strength is measured in different ways, and that whole idea of the "delicate child-bearer" who needs to be protected by her male companion is about current as hoop skirts. (Though sadly, there's still a great deal of that cro-magnon mentality swirling around in the ether.) The idea of the strong, independent mother has gained a lot of currency in the past few decades, mostly because a lot of males are too deadbeat to take responsibility for the kid they helped create. The term "Single Mom" used to be a mark of shame. Now it's a badge of honor.

Which brings us back around to Women's Studies and the character of Sharon, a Ross-Prentiss academy girl who is nine-months pregnant with a male baby. But as I said, "pregnant" doesn't equal "delicate." Sharon is tough and street smart. She could take care of this kid by herself without any problem, if only her "peers" would let her. Remember, Women's Studies is all about sisters, daughters, and even mothers. Sons however . . . Well, let's just say that the concept of "late term abortion" isn't one these ladies shy away from.

Sharon's plight mirrors Mary's. Both are pregnant with a child that they don't particularly want though each have different reasons for not doing do. Sharon's, we find out, are far more dire than Mary's. Sharon is afraid of going through what she has to alone. However, it's not someone else Sharon needs to find, but rather the strength in herself, which somehow the academy girls of Ross-Prentiss have managed to suck out of her, the same way they're trying to do to Mary.

Mundy SpearsMundy Spears, the actor playing Sharon, has electric eyes that can convey the strength, fear, and confusion Sharon is supposed to be feeling. She comes off tough and resolute even when weeping with despair. It'll be a challenging role for her, so thank god/dess she has years of evolution on her side.

(If you're interested in reading more about Evolutionary Psychology, I highly recommend Robert Wright's The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology.)


Anonymous said...

We are the way we are, because we have a cognitive mind. What we do with it is as diverse as the sands in a desert wind storm. The scale ranges for those who hate everyone to those who love everyone.

Our 'instincts' begin to rapidly vaporize shortly after breast feeding has run it's course.

For example, people eat because they enjoy doing it, and people have sex because it' fun too.

PS: Life is really not all that complicated. We make right choices and wrong choices, all without the help of supposed inherited or innate urges
J. C.

Anonymous said...

Sorry J.C., but you're that's really not accurate. Few evolutionary psychologists speak in terms of "instincts", but rather view many behaviors as facultative.

Yes, we enjoy eating...but why? Sex is great fun too...but why? The answer to both of these questions is that we are the products of our ancestors - who ALSO enjoyed these activities. How many offspring would result from a person who declined available food? Not many, but certainly not as few as those who disdain sex.

Have fun with the film!