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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!

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!

The Philandering Gene

12 Nov

Let’s play with a hypothetical question concerning genetics and philandering, if we may. Let’s also use time frame rather liberally, and say that the prevalence/allowance of abortion in society preceded the prevalence of divorce.

In the pre-abortion and contraceptive period, this gene would be allowed greater license to spread as males sow their seed in many different women and women have no choice but to give birth to these children, with the males bearing this gene.

Because the pregnancy and nurturing period for women is long and eggs limited, we understand that the amount of offspring women may have is considerably limited. We also know that this gene would not affect the population ratio when it exists in women due to this fact – women who sleep with multiple men could not have more children than women who have only one mate each.

However, for men, this is different. Men who have a tendency to settle with one woman would be disadvantaged progeny-wise compared to men who do not feel such an impulse. A society pre-abortion/contraceptive would be conductive towards increasing people with the philandering gene among the entire population.

Then abortion and contraceptives came along. This gave men and women the choice of not having children.  Women can now decide to abort children they cannot support on their own, who are not the progeny of their husband, or never conceive them in the first place. Philandering men usually  don’t bear in mind the goal of having a lot of children, so they are likely accept contraceptive use as well. This would be inductive towards increasing the non-philandering gene from males in a population.

However, assuming that divorce as a widely acceptable practice came along after abortion, the balance would be tipped back again. Men with the philandering gene are less likely to object to marriage since it is not a constant. In marriage, women don’t tend to object with having children. When men with the philandering gene decide to leave their legal mates and form other mates, they increase the chance of spreading their gene with a new family/woman. We must consider this with the fact that philandering men tend to go for younger women, this quality usually means they are physically more capable of having children. We might say that the wide acceptance of divorce in society increases the spread of the philandering gene.

Of course, philandering may be a polygenic inheritance (an additive effect of two ore more genes on a single phenotypic character), not limited to the Y chromosome, multifactoral (triggered under certain environments), or cultural rather than genetic.

On another note, we don’t have to follow the time frame (birth control predates wide-spread divorce) set in the hypothesis to follow the logic of this.