musings on the history of infanticide in Europe

1 Jun
   I happened across this nice summary of Hrdy’s rather shocking chapter on infanticide.
   This is apparently a little know history of Western civilization. It makes me wonder what the history was for people who did not make these sorts of records, how they dealt with birth control.
   One interesting clue might come from Grazyna Jasienska’s research into female hormone and metabolism. In Jasienska’s book The Fragile Wisdom she notes that when energy intake is balanced by extensive activity in a consistent way, this represses fertility. This implies that for cultures where there was no ‘settlement’ and ‘wintering in’ (pre-agricultural), the frequency of childbirth was balanced by resource availability – which was transmitted biologically through mother’s activity levels and nutrition intake.
   Hrdy notes that mothers throughout time have always been working mothers, and the challenge has always been how to maintain a good social network (tribe of child carers) to allow her to do the work needed to sustain the nutritional needs of her family.
   I would suggest that the litmus test for infant appearance differs between peoples who have generations of settled, agricultural activity in seasonal areas, and peoples who live in places where food acquisition is a continuous activity throughout year – peoples with long history of boom & bust intake will have more extreme measures of managing fertility (through abandonment/infanticide), and do not need to carry their infants long distances soon after birth. Consequently, babies who are plump and show all signs of “cuteness” may be more prevalent among long-settled peoples. And babies who are easier to carry around and are efficient in their energy intake will be more prevalent in nomadic or tropical peoples.
   But the question remains: how can we gather evidence from nomadic and tropical people about their history of having unwanted babies and their cultural practices relating to this? If anyone happens across any sources I would be interested to hear of it!

And the best students are those who obsess…

16 Nov

I hate talking about exams. Outside of knowing what’s going to be tested, and possibly reviewing what you didn’t know afterwards (ok, that’s something I don’t do but probably should)… I hate having protracted conversations about tests.

It’s just a stick or carrot. It’s just a tool to make you go forward.  If you were the donkey, why would you waste a single minute of your life talking about the tool? It’s inevitable, so talking about it won’t make it go away. They’re going to use it regardless, because it would be unfair to the other donkeys if they don’t use it. And yeah, it is kind of useful. Otherwise I’d have beaten my own track into isolation and starvation at this point (ie., a place with no resources and thus no means of feeding myself – or in the long term, a job). But outside of that, really? You would talk about the stick?donkey1050x700.jpg

The stick is a fact of life. I’m not going to give another minute of my life to talking about the stick. Since we’re here, might as well talk about more interesting stuff, he? Like why are we donkeys different? What makes you an individual? Do you perceive me the same way I perceive you? And why do the humans prefer certain facial features? The human women all look the same to me, so why are some women more valuable mates than others? How many donkeys can I make without lowering my productivity as a pack mule? Would it make sense to be sterile donkey? And why that dude such an aggressive, stubborn mule? Hey, have you noticed that it’s mostly dudes? I wanna be an aggressive, stubborn female mule! Why not? Why is it so unacceptable for both me and everyone else for me to be a bitchy mule? And why is being a bitch such a derogative?

Talking about the stick naturally makes you defensive. That’s not a nice way to be. The stick is there, it’s there for a purpose. It’s fulfilling it’s purpose. We don’t need to give the stick more power than it already has. Chill. You are the master. It’s rather nice to be alive. Time to Braaayyy.


A pathway towards sense of well-being/happiness

9 Nov



Happiness/sense of well being is composed of several parts. A good portion of which is comparative. We compare externally and internally. If we have a bias to compare ourselves externally with those who are worse off than us (based on our mental construct of what worse off means), then we are more likely to be happy than those who compare themselves with those who are better off. Internally, if we are inclined to compare ourselves at this moment to a time when we are worse off, this also elevates our sense of happiness.

I would argue that the standard or information from which we derive our concept of ‘worst off’ sets the standard for how likely we are able to derive happiness even when our situation dips. Something to consider in the development of resilience. This requires both theoretical concepts (things we have not experienced but we know that others have), and constructs that are based experientially.

aside: (So I could say that my bad (or suboptimal) cooking is setting a standard for which my children can appreciate a better standard of cooking.)

An aspect of this equation mentioned above is the bias, or our inclined tendency. The formation of mental bias has both inborn propensity, and the effect of habit. When we are used to expressing, or defining to ourselves, a situation in a positive construct, we are more likely to do so even if the situation is not optimal. Increased exercise of this positive explanation increases our likelihood of effortlessly utilizing this pathway in the future. We can say this pathways has been dug deeper, or strengthened. The converse holds true for negative bias.

This bias can also be nuanced – it can be situational! It is possible to have a positive bias towards self, and a negative bias towards others. However, one must consider the fact that very often external measures will reflect back on oneself. So it is possible to view this situational nuance either as discerning (when the habit entrenchment is functional, such as we do have a higher standard for policy makers who ostensibly operate under a system that is optimized for public good than individuals), or pathological – such as when we do not have the same standards for our own work ethic as we do for our colleagues. The pathology of such soft traits are usually situational. At the bare bones level of functionality, we can say that the individual’s survival and procreation is the key goal. In this scenario, many things that are pathological in a stable society are quite functional in a disrupted society. The return of homeostasis in the individual’s approach after stabilization in society is reflected in both the innate (both born and learnt) flexibility exists, how much reality the individual in in contact with.

The reality that the individual is in contact with is another interesting dimension of this phenomenon. There is objective reality, which includes such cultural/situational constructs (such as whether the society is a flat structure or a hierarchal structure, where certain portions of society are ‘sheltered’ or overexposed from more immediately reality), and there is the individual filter of reality, which is within the individual. How reflective of the real situation is the individual exposed to? How objective and functional can the individual assess this reality? We cannot, of course, escape the positive or negative bias in this scenario. Which shows development not as a linear progression, but as an interactive system.

One specific aspect that would be interesting to determine is whether the individual’s ability to accurately objectively assess reality, and then their subsequent ability to inculcate this into their functionality, is a factor for happiness. The first part of this question would then make a good argument for exploring further Montessori’s theory of exposing young children to more reality-based experiences (instead of mainly offering fantasy) so that people have a good (subconscious) basis (based on experience) to assess reality as they mature.

A member that loses its function will cease to thrive…

17 Nov

I am concerned about initiating institutions that, in an attempt to heal those seriously injured/violated or forced into abusive industry, it fails to allow the industry that is an essential component of a healthful life.

It is not the artifice of the environment precisely that is injurious… rather it is its lack of connection to anything else – a life support system that presumes extreme resources must be devoted to healing – but fails to supply it with the usual ingredients of life at the crucial moment when the life-forms within it are ready.

Some of these places believe that they must try to supply the lost of affection that the child had failed to receive. Yet the individuals they have before them are no longer children – and their CURRENT self is also in need of nourishment.

It is then that individuals fall into a state of enforced rest, yet the vital energies available in the individual continue running. Running on nothing, these vital energies instead turn on the self. Becoming destructive forces as the individual sinks into fantasy, acquisitiveness, self-doubt, physical abuse of self and, occasionally, on others.

The need for industry can even be seen in the Taiwanese man who wrote a book of his abusive experiences at the hands of his nanny, from when he was 3 years old. Upon recollection, and following narration to his wife, he first regressed into an infantile state, and then used writing as a means to heal. In fact, he wrote a book that was published. Everyone I know who has read it find it a shock to the system.

I do not see anything restful about writing a book. The expression of psyche may be cathartic, but it was definitely industry. In fact, I would say that the industry of writing was itself therapeutic.

I believe that it is necessary, as soon as feasible after removing an individual from a traumatic environment, to discover ways in which the individual can be effectively useful and involved in a new community which was formed for that purpose. Even more importantly, these works must be real.

Vignettes of ADHD

30 Jun

Just the day before I described to a group of mothers how I felt, as a child, as if I were surrounded  by a thick fog that only gradually cleared as I grew up. I used this to describe what I believed to be a child’s experience of his/her surroundings.

Then I re-read the part describing ADHD in Dr. John J. Ratey’s book A User’s Guide to the Brain, and realized why the mothers gave me polite, blank looks…I guess this was not something that every child has experienced growing up. Reminds me to be careful from extrapolating my own memories and experiences of childhood to all children.


To be a purist in the most essential questions of your faith…

3 Feb

A main function and attraction of religion is how it serves to develop community. It binds people together and makes them feel safe as they are able to trust and work with each other within a common, well-delineated culture.

I have found the arguments for and against purism in religion very murky water indeed to tread. If I were to believe in something, I believe that most of us do have an inner guide that can be developed to foster positive relationships with ourselves and with others. Many people have noted the existence of this inner guide. The monotheists tend to believe that it is the voice of God talking to them, whilst the animalists/spiritualists tend to structure such around a notion of give-and-take/ecosystem perspective of our role on earth.

There is a statement I once heard, which has yet to be proven, but may serve as something worth considering: “Those who are drawn to the study of psychiatry often feel that they have something wrong with themselves that they wish to understand.”

I would say that a similar situation holds true for religion. There are some very kind, thoughtful religious leaders who truly do their best to foster health, peace and love within their communities. And then, there are those who are drawn to it because they feel themselves lacking a moral compass, and perhaps by studying religion this thing called ‘a conscience’ should become clear to them.

The problem is that most of us, at one point or another, feel unsure or inadequate in understanding the scripture. We require leaders to set the pace, inspire our continued sense of shared purpose and feed this vein. This has made authority necessary in religion.

And this has made groups of people vulnerable to leaders who are perhaps not as well formed as they profess to be.

The problem with religion is that, because it is inherently a group activity, majority rules. This applies to various scenarios where group-think (or lack of judgement) prevails: You are in a meeting and someone says something erroneous. You look around, no one is voicing dissent. You leave the meeting and whisper to a friend : “By the way, when X said Y, I think there was something wrong with that statement?” and your friend says “Oh! I thought so too! But I thought everyone agreed…” but the decision has been made.

Often-times, this conversation never happens, because questioning is written into the unspoken creed as possibly blasphemous. And for the average believer, unless authority is gleaned through a life-long study of the holy writ, one does not have the right of  consulting one’s own conscience.

And when it behooves the faithful to be true to the scripture, even the objects within the text that go against our basic, innate conscience MUST be incorporated – often at the cost of our humanity.

I feel (at great offense to some friends), that in communities where the sectarian social mores are less secure, a higher percentage of people look to religion as the moral guide. In places where you feel no recourse to being leered at, from being touched without permission, from being spoken to disrespectfully and having the right to call out people on it… I am also talking about places where authority is abused regularly and is not called abuse – by policemen, by insurance companies, by teachers, by parents. This acceptance of authority poisons our ability to truly respect individuals, nor can we treat each other kindly. For if we cannot hold that everyone can be flawed, then how can we treat each other with charity? It is by suspending belief in the frailty, and strength, that each of us is capable of, are we able to elevate certain individuals over others.

 And if we attribute our own failings constantly to an outside source: “the devil made me do it.”, then we are never personally responsible for the necessary acts of restitution.

You know what makes me happy? Remembering, each day, that I have only one life. You know what pushes me to treat others carefully? Knowing that they, too, only have one life. There are transgressions beyond which I cannot pass, because I would be destroying the opportunities for others to experience their living with as much of the privilege I myself feel in the facts of being human and alive. So mine is not a state of insecurity, staring into the abyss. My understanding of life makes me treasure the very fact of it. My situation in life allows me to be generous and wish happiness for others. This for me is adequate. I do not like to complicate it by attributing acts and intentions to a separate entity, and feel so insecure of my understanding of His/Her intentions that I must seek a middle-man to elucidate what should be spoken directly to my heart. Nor spend my days spreading the message that is spoken to me which I ought rightfully to attribute to my own inner voice, and not mislead people by giving it the authority of a higher power.

And as much as we may all be hypocrites and fail to recycle. We may be able to strive within our limits to keep the sanctity of living intact.

Trust yourself – recent things I’ve learnt about learning

12 Jan

These few days have been very interesting as I’ve come across a few disparate nuggets about learning:

Time management: read Two Awesome Hours by Josh Davis. I tend not to spend my time on self-help books as I find a lot of it written by people whose careers are based on the self-help consultancy. This book was recommended as offering neurology-based practical advice. I found the first portion of it amazing, and the end basically a recap. But a few takeaways I found particularly useful:

  1. Take the time to consider your next move: this is something my husband does. He’s amazingly efficient at entering fields he has previously little knowledge about and learning the job. Part of this is due to his strategic use of time: instead of just taking the tasks that he comes across (such as slogging through 80 unread messages in his inbox), he actually tries to be aware of what would be the best use of this next segment of time he has coming up. This is probably why he finds my way of working around the house rather bewildering – I would stop on my way to do something I had determined as important – to do a little cleaning up here, a little crafting there – and leave partially finished projects all over the place, whilst my main work is disregarded. My husband actually plans ahead what he’s going to use this segment of time to do (ex: “I need time to cleanup X’mas tree + tie up loose travel plans for vacation Saturday evening”). This has also made our partnership easier as I am informed that this time I’m expected to mind the kids.
  2. Notice what effects your energy level and mood: If I do small crafts and chores in the morning, when I’m more alert after coffee, I hit an energy lull that pretty much dumps my afternoon for productive mind work down the toilet. However, if I study in the morning, I can do small crafts and chores when I hit my energy lull, because it requires much less alertness, and at that point I’m usually buzzing with the studying endorphins I got in the morning. I’m also becoming more aware of how social media taps my attention so that I might feel falsely refreshed whilst physically being really exhausted. Plus, that’s also a large segment of time that I’m not actually making progress in the things that matter. Besides social media, there are other rabbit holes I have to be aware of: I now know that reading about child abuse and mass murders can be very emotional and absorbing for me, so now I’m consciously trying to avoid clicking on these headlines or looking into the history of these things. If I know I’m going to be picking up the children next, I have to make sure that I’ve achieved something in the day so I don’t (irrationally) resent them for interrupting my time, and the things I do just before I pick them up have to be something I can just drop at the moment.
  3. The environment: Sitting upstairs vs sitting downstairs. I’ve always found myself more alert when there’s good lighting. Turns out the color of the lighting also matters: lightbulbs on the blue spectrum foster productivity, lightbulbs on the yellow spectrum foster creativity.

    Info from other sources I found useful:

  4. Staying challenged with new material/hobbies/levels: As a child, I’ve been pretty lackadaisical about practicing, because I was required to. Now that I realized I actually want to play piano, I’m finding out that I need to make sure I’m working on something harder while recapping pieces I’ve become more fluent at. This keeps me challenged and wanting to keep practicing.
  5. Recapping things to oneself instead of simply reading. Simply reading, underlining, and making notes from the book only gives one a sense of accomplishment. When I was studying for Organic Chem and Biochem, I was drawn to sitting in front of a blank note pad (interestingly, I even found that it had to be a certain size and placed horizontally), where I would recap what I had learned. I was particularly inspired by how this lady presented the information. It’s definitely something she learned well enough to explain so methodically. A delight to listen to.

    When studying for Immunology, I was drawn to making my own flashcards to test myself. And I wouldn’t be writing the flashcards out from the textbook, but from what I’d recalled I’d just read. After finishing a ‘set’ of flashcards, I would then refer to the textbook to make sure I’d gotten everything right. Usually by the time I’d prepared the flashcards, I only needed them for as refreshers when I felt I had gone foggy on the specifics. Writing out the flashcards on a notebook format was so slow though that I stopped doing it after a few chapters. Recently, I read about two online programs that let you create your own flashcards for free! Will have to try them out next time! ( & )

    Recently playing with duolingo, I’ve found myself gradually drawn to writing new vocab down, from memory, as I find my recall of new vocab slipping when I simply learn from the program (what I’ve heard people call the saturation point for new information). It’s a pretty awesome program btw. Which brings me to:

  6. Not telling people about your big goals: You know as a kid you often get asked what your dream is? When you’re applying to programs? My parents have often found me “noncommittal” when I chose not to tell them about certain goals that I was actually working for. It appears my instincts were right. The more you tell people, the more gratified you feel about it in the moment and the less likely you will work towards your goals.

    So Imma gonna go shut up now. : )


Generational health and welfare – from The Fragile Wisdom

31 Dec

I’m really enjoying this book right now. Jasienska studies anthropological hormone levels and women’s health. She carefully builds up her cases through studies and develops her ideas in a detailed, nuanced manner that gives comfort and confidence. This passage


We know that fetuses who are nutritionally deprived during development, or who have mothers who are nutritionally deprived, but who are later raised in nutritionally sufficient environments, are more at risk for developing cardiovascular diseases. obesity and diabetes. Jasienska proposes that the mismatch between expected conditions (as from the signals the fetus receives during gestation, or from the mother’s primed signals) and actual life conditions is the reason why these children present with a metabolic mismatch with their environment. As these children, if living in nutritionally deprived environments while growing up, would be better physically adapted (than their better fed foetal peers) to conserve resources for survival.

Here Jasienska builds the case for the hypothesis that generations of good nutritional maternal conditions (including in childhood) prime the body of infants to ‘expect’ a nutritionally deficit environment after birth. Despite the fact that the French and British diet have similar animal fat content and blood cholesterol (25.7% of all consumed calories & 6.1nmol/L vs 27% & 6.2nmol/L in males over age fifty), a British man is four times as likely to have heart disease than a French man. This has been called the “French Paradox”.

To explain this, Jasienska looks to historical evidence of better maternal conditions among the French, particularly concerning consistent nutritional welfare for women.

1. 1820s established Public Nurseries (entirely free of charge regardless of parental income); 1881 law passed that guaranteed free public primary education to all children (including the ecole maternelle)

2. 1882: Legislation require all towns and villages to have a school fund to support educational expenses for poor children, including meals at school for all children. This was free for families that were not able to afford it.

3.1892 Pierre Budin in Paris/1894 Dr. Leon Dufour in Normandy: established baby welfare clinics that promoted breastfeeding and gave mothers who could not breastfeed a daily supply of sterilized milk. Also provided continuous medical care for babies during first year of life.

4. 1904 In Paris, L’Oeuvre du Lait Maternel provided free meals for nursing mothers. A year later, the government & charitable organizations contracted with 5 restaurants in Paris to provide free meals for nursing mothers.”Any mother is welcome to come in. She will have to give neither name nor address nor reference of any kind. She has but to show that she feeds her baby”.

5.  1945 established Protection Maternelle et Infantile, a program that kept records of all pregnancies and babies, provided assistance for women and children, and identified pregnancies at risk.

6. 1991: Beginning at the 3rd month of pregnancy, regardless of income or number of children they already have, all women receive a fixed payment until the child is 3 months old. Must follow schedule of free, compulsory medical examinations.

Similar programs in England did appear following the French model, but were less consistent, implemented on a smaller scale, and had more strings attached.

Below is an excerpt from page 100 :

Many countries attempted to follow the French model of maternal and childhood welfare but with mixed success. Medical practitioners and social workers active in London between 1870 and 1930 observed that malnutrition and poor health were common among women, and East London mothers living in poor neighborhoods were portrayed as “haggard and worn” (Marks 1992, 48). Susan Pedersen, describing the differences between the French and British family welfare systems, wrote:

French policies reflect what I have termed a “parental” logic of welfare while British choices exhibit a “male breadwinner” logic since, in the former, some portion of the earnings of all adults was forcibly expended in the support of all children, while in the latter both wage and benefit income was directed disproportionately to men in the expectation that some would use it to support dependent wives and children. (Pedersen 1993, 413 – 414)

It is likely then that some British children did not benefit much from family welfare.

In following the logic of “fetal programming,” we may conclude that due to many generations of improved nutritional conditions French babies came into the world “physiologically programmed” that their future life conditions will be good. This prediction of future conditions is base don the intergenerational experience of past conditions. In France, thanks to a long history of many programs aimed at improving maternal and child nutrition and health, this experience indicates that life conditions, mostly in terms of availability of metabolic energy, are of good quality. In these circumstances, the fetus develops its physiology “ready” for a nutritionally adequate environment – that is, no physiological and metabolic adjustments prepare the physiology of the fetus for poor conditions.

Most modern French citizens do indeed encounter such good conditions during their entire postnatal lives. Therefore, following the logic of the hypothesis of Gluckman and Hanson (2005, chapter 4), we can say that the French people do not experience any mismatch between the predated and the encountered environments. This “mismatch hypothesis” suggests that poor in utero conditions lead to an increased risk of metabolic diseases in adults only when developmental conditions and adult conditions are different. A lack of such a mismatch in the French population may lead to the low risk of cardiovascular disease despite their high fat diet and the resulting high blood cholesterol levels.

In this case, I find the correlation between consistent supportive welfare policy and improved generational health fascinating.

I happened across this book in our local library. It is a book that I would not have happened across otherwise, and I feel so grateful for an awesome community library!

Vive la bibliothèque!

And why do they matter, these folks of no consequence?

27 Oct

Was reading The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. It is so nice. You know, they used to believe that you could tell whether a book was written by a man or a woman. I do feel it sometimes too – when a book is written by a very sloppy man, or a rather effusive woman, or an angry confused, and it shows. It does.

And sometimes you can feel the author is trying to hold her gender in check. And writes in intentionally clinical tones. This particularly refers to women. We do have a good deal of baggage on that front. Such as – we still apparently test poorly in maths when in co-ed situations. And it is indeed a biological need, for us females to be aware of men, and of power, and how best to gain favor and care for ourselves and offspring. We are aware even in our sleep. But this is another topic.

Anyway. This is one of those fine books where I was not even aware of the author’s gender or preferences, until I looked for the author’s name to note it here.

In the chapter concerning arsenic, a little story cropped up concerning a 16 year old boy who was filling cans with benzene solvent in a small garage in the Bronx. He expired from the fumes. The city toxicologist had invented a means to extract benzene from various organs of the dead boy. Due to this evidence, a public warning was issued that garage owners should ventilate their building when handling benzene.

I wondered idly whether people in the year 1923 should have been in any way bothered over the death of an unnamed 16 year old working in a garage.

And then, I realized with shame, that yes, indeed they should be. Ought to be.

It is hard to care, for one or for millions, when we are constantly bombarded with news of tragedies. It is hard not to feel numbed. It is hard not to want to put one in one cubby hole and the other into a lesser cubby hole.

But if the folks of no consequence were never given consequence, even in their death, why, what a stinking hellhole we all would be living in.

Public discourse/discussion: What is not profitable

25 Jun

Madame Josse: Paloma, tu es une petite fille très intelligente, mais on peut être très intelligent et très démuni. Très lucid et très malheureux.

Paloma: Je ne vois que la psychanalyse pour concurrencer les religions dans l’amour des souffrances qui durent.
Père Josse: Qu’est-ce qui te fait dire ça?
Paloma: Que ma mère nous annonce comme si c’était un motif pour faire couler le champagne à flot que ça fait dix ans pile qu’elle est en analyse.
Père Josse: Ben oui. Oui. C’est très bien, non?
Paloma: Non. Ce qu’elle ne dit pas, c’est que ça fait aussi dix ans pile qu’elle prend des antidépresseurs. Mais visiblement elle fait pas le lien. Elle fait le lien entre ses dix années d’analyse, ses trois heures par jour à pulvériser des plantes vertes et son impressionnante consommation de substances remboursées par la sécurité sociale.
                                                                             from  L’Élégance du hérisson , FILM
Madame Josse: Paloma, you’re a very intelligent girl, but you can be intelligent and helpless. Very lucid and very unhappy.
Paloma: Only psychoanalysis rivals religion for love of suffering.
Father Josse: Why do you say that?
Paloma: My mother wants to break out the champagne to celebrate ten years in therapy.
Father: But yes. Yes, that’s good isn’t it?
Paloma: No, she’s been on antidepressants for ten years too. But she doesn’t see the link. Between ten years in therapy, her love of her plants, and her mass consumption of prescription drugs.
Psychoanalysis is not profitable for solving problems of the public sphere.
(perhaps try Adler).
Paloma, from the Elegance of the Hedgehog

Paloma, from the Elegance of the Hedgehog

Edit: Recently came across a book by Julian Barnes that may illustrate a similar issue as above, called Talking It Over.