Birthing Process Forces Cultural Evolution in Humans
Birthing Process Forces Cultural Evolution in Humans
Most anthropologists and sociologists believe that cultural evolution exists and that “human beings have natural social tendencies and that particular human social behaviors have non-genetic causes and dynamics,” (sociocultural). This type of cultural and social evolution is termed sociocultural evolution and it describes how “cultures and societies have developed over time,” (sociocultural). The jump from ordinary biological evolution to cultural evolution is not a far leap; biological and cultural evolution are often intertwined. The birthing process, as it evolved from monkeys to humans, is an example of how biological evolution and cultural evolution are linked. Childbirth in humans is an extremely difficult and dangerous process that is a result of human bipedalism and encephalization. Birthing difficulties forced cooperation among humans, resulting in the formation of social interactions and the beginning of culture among early humans. Thus, the beginnings of cultural evolution were an indirect result of the biological evolution of bipedalism and encephalization.
Human birth, ignoring the bipedalism, is closely related to that of monkeys. Surprisingly, chimpanzees and gorillas have less in common with human birthing than monkeys do. This is largely due to the fact that monkeys have a more closely related stature and a narrow birth canal compared to infant head size. Despite these similarities, the lack of bipedalism makes the birthing process much easier for monkeys. The birth canal in monkeys has the same cross-sectional shape throughout and allows the infant to pass without the complicated twists and turns human infants must perform. The monkey birth canal is oval shaped and allows the infant to be born headfirst, facing its mother. The face-forward orientation is extremely beneficial for the pair because the mother is able to guide the infant from the birth canal and into her arms (Rosenberg 82-83). Monkey “infants are strong enough to take part in their own deliveries. Once their hands are free, they can grab their mother’s body and pull themselves out,” (Rosenberg 83).
Human births are much more complicated and dangerous than monkey births. “The evolutionary modifications of the human pelvis that enabled hominids to walk upright necessitate that most infants exit the birth canal with the back of their heads against the pubic bones, facing in the opposite direction as their mother,” (Rosenberg 83). The face-backward position of human infants presents a problem in that the mothers are not able to guide the infant, regardless of the pose she takes during labor. This position also inhibits the mother from being able to lift the baby, clear the nose and mouth of mucous, and remove the umbilical cord if it is around the baby’s neck (Rosenberg 83). In addition to the awkwardness of the delivery position, the infant and mother undergo a laborious route during the journey through the birth canal. During the evolutionary process, humans evolved large brain sizes and as a result, infants have an extraordinarily large head to body proportion. Encephalization makes it extremely difficult for the infant to fit through the birth canal considering the adaptation of a skinnier bipedal pelvis. The infant must make a series of twists and turns in order for it to fit through the varying widths of the birth canal. These twists and turns result in the infants head emerging first facing the mothers back (Rosenberg 82).
The painful and dangerous complications that arose as a result of bipedalism were lessened by the development of assisted births. “Today virtually all women in all societies seek assistance at delivery,” (Rosenberg 83). There are a few exceptions to this rule, but assisted delivery greatly alleviates the physical stress associated with childbirth. Assisted delivery also reduces the mortality rate among humans. The high mortality rate with unassisted human births almost outweighs the benefits of encephalization and bipedalism; the species would die out if it could not successfully reproduce. It was, therefore, evolutionarily necessary for birthing mothers to seek assistance during childbirth. Karen Rosenberg and Wenda Trevathan suggest that this behavior was favored during natural selection because it decreased the mortality rate (Rosenberg 85). The assistance seeking behavior is attributed to the fear, anxiety, and pain experienced by expecting mothers. “Psychiatrists have argued that natural selection might have favored such emotions…because they led individuals who experienced them to seek the protection of companions, which would have given them a better chance of surviving,” (Rosenberg 85).
The necessity for assistance provides a basis for the development early human culture. The presence of multiple people during a delivery brings up issues of communication and trust. The delivery assistants are there to provide physical and emotional support for the mother. This is done in different ways across cultures and is evident of the obligatory culture that has been produced. There is an obvious element of trust with assisted deliveries; a stranger could run off with the new infant while the mother was incapacitated. A complex web of culture is derived from the simple need to cooperate in order for the species to flourish. The dangerous process of birthing sometimes results in the death of the mother. Assisted births dramatically increase the survival of the infant in these cases as opposed to births that occur in seclusion. It is also thought that “witnesses of a birth find themselves bonded to the mother’s infant, with an urge to take care of the newborn if the mother happens to die,” (Physical 13). These interactions promote the unique living and caring culture found in humans.
The cultural process of childbirth has been evolving since the first assisted delivery. Many different societies have different rituals and processes associated with the delivery of a newborn. In Western society, most women give birth in a hospital, either by Cesarean section or “naturally.” There is also a recent influx of hydro births in which the birthing process takes place in a pool of water. In the Navajo culture, there are religious ceremonies, the umbilical cord and the placenta are buried ceremoniously, and the child is introduced to the world by a baby shower. The mother is honored and is given a special diet before the baby is born in the Bangalore culture. After birthing, the mother is required to stay home and be pampered for twenty-two days. In the Balinese culture, the mother is purified and placenta is buried after childbirth. It is also required that the child does not touch the ground for the first one-hundred and five days of life; it must be held continuously by family members. In the Thai culture, various religious practices are performed in order to keep evil spirits away from the child. Newborns are seen as reincarnations of past souls in the Hmong culture and after three days, the infant is given a soul and a silver necklace to keep it from wandering (Grice). Almost every unique society has different birthing and after birth practices. These societies, however, have at least assisted births in common.
The biological evolution of bipedalism and encephalization has contributed to the enormous evolutionary success that is humans. However, these evolutionary processes have created great difficulty during childbirth for human females and infants. The decreased size of the birth canal due to bipedalism and the increased infant head size due to encephalization require that mothers seek assistance during labor. Assisted births provide the necessary interactions that form human culture. Since the beginning of the first assisted birth, human birthing culture has evolved into a wide variety over many different societies. The evolution of the morphology of humans has produced the need for culture and has subsequently resulted in the formation of these complex cultures over societies.
Grice, Linda E. “Indigenious Birthing Rituals.” Accessed 20 Mar 2007 http://www.chatham.edu/pti/Latin%20America%20&%20U.S.Pop%20culture/Grice_02.htm
“The Physical, Physiological, and Biocultural Evolution of Birth.” 19 Nov. 2002. Accessed 20 Mar 2007 http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/bindon/ant570/Papers/BioculturalEvolutionofBirth.pdf.
Rosenberg, Karen R. and Wenda R. Trevathan. "The Evolution of Human Birth." Scientific American May 2003: 80-85.
"Sociocultural evolution." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 18 Mar 2007, 04:13 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 Mar 2007 http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sociocultural_evolution&oldid=115945999.