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There is hardly any construct more immutable in scientific discourse than the notion of "the maternal instinct." For centuries, the self-sacrificing mother who places her child's needs and desires above her own has defined womanhood. Designed by nature for the task of rearing offspring, women are "naturally" tender, selfless and compassionate where their progeny are concerned. Those who reject childbearing or fail to nurture their offspring directly are typed as pathological, "unnatural" women. In traditional Darwinian evolutionary biology, the female of any species has evolved to produce and nurture the species; one could say it is her only role.

Feminist treatises have long argued against the necessary conflation of "woman" with "mother," and classics such as Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born have cogently argued that such altruistic maternity is a cultural construct and not a biological given.

With Mother Nature, U.S. anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy strides into the minefield, examining motherhood across cultures, historical periods, evolutionary tracts and biological species to better understand human maternity. Hrdy's book resides in that rare space between academic disciplines -- a professor emerita at the University of California-Davis, she has been schooled in anthropology, primatology, evolutionary theory, history and feminism -- and her work can be situated somewhere between specialist treatise and popular biological science. Hrdy's unique placement enables her to combine the best of Darwinian evolutionary biology with feminist cultural theory, without falling into the political entrapments of either camp.

The first half of Mother Nature assesses the most recent findings on motherhood from the animal kingdom (most of this groundbreaking research, interestingly, undertaken by female scientists). One fact alone emerges as absolute in Hrdy's exhaustive inter-species research: There are as many types of mothering behaviours as there are species, and rarely are they self-sacrificing.

There are exceptions, of course. The most selfless mother award has to be given to the matriphagous (literally "mother-eating") spider of Australia, which breeds one time only, since her childrearing duties involve preparing her living body for consumption by her new offspring. At the other extreme, prairie dogs estimate the survival chances of their young, and losing litters are subsequently consumed by the mother and other members of the group in a cannibalistic feast.

Infanticide is common in the natural world, given the correct circumstances: The zealously monogamous California mouse will kill her pups if her mate dies; langur monkeys will permit their infants to be killed if a new dominant male emerges in the group; a wide range of bird and mammal species will choose to nurture one infant over another, thereby selecting which will survive.

Abortion, too, is not unknown in a variety of species. Lemmings, voles, hamsters and some primates (baboons, langurs, geladas) have the ability to spontaneously abort their fetuses if they fear (outsider) male violence; wood lemmings and various species of birds are known to "bias sex ratios," bringing only the preferred sex to full development.

Nor is maternal nurturing guaranteed once infants survive. In the majority of reptiles, fish and insects, the mother lays her eggs and leaves her offspring to their own devices. In many mammal and bird species, co-operative breeding is common; shared care between members of an animal community means that the bulk of the parenting is not done by the mother, but rather is taken over by other members of the community or by the fathers.

Non-"mothering" behaviour does not stop with animal species. Hrdy discovers, through a wide-ranging, though sometimes erratically selected, examination of historical and anthropological docu- ments, that human mothers, too, rarely follow the self-sacrificing model of maternity as it is narrowly defined. Throughout history, women have often chosen to remain childless; they may opt for abortion over childbearing, adoption over childrearing, a wet nurse over breastfeeding. Women with children may choose to work outside the home, leaving infant care to family, friends or paid strangers. At the extreme, maternal behaviour may manifest itself in the form of child abandonment and infanticide: "The decisions that mothers make do not always conform to our conventional expectations about innately tender, selfless creatures," Hrdy writes.

But Hrdy says that not all maternal actions can be easily categorized; often what is good for mother is good for baby, too. Hrdy takes "working moms" as a case in point; she demonstrates that media coverage often depicts career aspirations and maternity as antithetical and irreconcilable goals. The mother who decides to work outside the home is seen as selfish and uncaring -- an aberration of the "natural" model of motherhood. However, as she notes, "Working mothers are not new. For most of human existence, and for millions of years before that, primate mothers have combined productive lives with reproduction." Only in recent history, and only in middle-class populations in the West, have working for a living and maternity been relegated to separate realms.

Guilt-ridden working mothers take heart: Hrdy also notes that throughout history in primate and human communities, mothering techniques involve "allomothers": the delegation of child caretaking to other members (male and female) of the community. "Mothers have worked for as long as our species has existed, and they have depended on others to help them rear their children." Stay-at-home mothers are rare in the historical and evolutionary archives; community caregiving is age-old model of childrearing.

Hrdy argues that career ambition and maternity are not polar opposites, as commonly believed, but instead are "inseparably linked" and a product of evolution. That is, a good mother is an ambitious mother and nothing is more "natural" than a working mother. Hrdy found in her studies of primate communities that the social ranking of a mother directly determines the safety of her infant, making it possible for her to protect the infant from attackers and provide enough sustenance for its long-term survival. Status-seeking by mothers today, via jobs and incomes, Hrdy argues, is an evolutionary product of ensuring long and safe lives for their progeny.

Mother Nature is Hrdy's magnum opus (weighing in at almost 800 pages), a culmination of 30 years of scientific work on motherhood that has carried her from Radcliffe and Harvard to her current post at the University of California-Davis. One could say it is also the product of Hrdy's own mothering experience, after having reared children of her own while maintaining a rigorous and luminous research career. These two occupations -- scholar and mother -- are both in evidence in Mother Nature, making it an interesting and accessible text, with the meticulous (some may say all too meticulous) scientific data illuminated by lucid prose accounts of her own mothering experiences.

In the end, Hrdy does not so much refute mother nature or maternal "instincts" -- which she asserts are always conditional (that is, a mother's behaviour is not guaranteed and is contingent upon personal and familial gains) -- as refute the Leave it to Beaver model of motherhood. A colleague of Hrdy's was once asked to comment on her work. He responded, "My own view is that Sarah ought to devote more time and study to raising a healthy daughter." It is my own view that this same colleague ought to devote more time and study to examine Hrdy's magnificent text. If he pays close attention, he just might learn a thing or two about what natural mothering is all about.

Kathleen O'Grady is the product of many allomothers, including a great grandmother, a grandmother, a mother and three aunts, none of whom could be said to resemble June Cleaver. She is a lecturer at the University of Calgary, the co-author of Sweet Secrets: Stories of Menstruation and editor of two forthcoming books on French feminism and religion.

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