Mammals

“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?”
Silly Love Songs, Paul McCartney

 

The evolution and maintenance of life on this planet has relied on the dual adaptations of competition and cooperation. Both characteristics are displayed in the behaviors of every living thing from the simplest single celled amoeba to the most complex neural networks found in the human being. Complete analysis of the whole recognizes that cooperation is the necessary context for the acts of competition, after all there is far more time spent resting, feeding and foraging than fighting and these are acts of cooperating with the environment.

One form of evolutionary cooperation is the myriad ways by which living creatures relate to their offspring. The spectrum here is fascinating and right out of a surrealists’ fevered dream.

Among the insects it is not uncommon encounter items like a spiders nest with thousands of tiny spiders suddenly sprouting from the little white fuzzy ball that had been their nest. Those tiny spiders all run hither and yon to fates dictated purely by their environment. The mother spider is never going to deliver a meal or a lesson. She chose the place the birth event would take place guided by her own form of intelligence embodied in her own form of consciousness. The spider branch on the evolutionary tree could be said to embody an awareness of the world designed to successfully place these egg nests as the final step of their reproduction recipe.

Birds also utilize nests but for them it holds only a few eggs and the birth event is accompanied by the parent or parents providing the young with the food and warmth they need to live. This providing will continue for quite some time during which the behavior being displayed indicates that there is nothing more meaningful to the parents than the well-being of their offspring. This is not an anthropomorphic projection, it was stated carefully. Whatever ‘meaning’ might ‘mean’ to a bird, it is something guiding their moment to moment choice-making that is purposeful.

With reptiles, if not giving live birth, we also find there are fewer eggs yet generally the same lack of parental care we observe among the insects. Indeed when we say someone is cold-blooded like a reptile what we mean is that they are displaying a lack of caring for other individuals.

Something fascinating began with the evolution of mammals. The prime evolutionary imperative of life – to survive long enough to reproduce – was couched in terms of extensive nurture offered to only very few offspring. The exploration of evolution’s probability space here turned away from the strategy of the spider’s thousands to concentrate on the success of one or two. Whereas the algorithm the spider is taking to the probability game of survival is one of quantity, the algorithm of the mammal is one of quality. Each is viable. They are simply exploring different aspects of possible genetic expression, different branches of the evolutionary bush.

It is extraordinary that the caring for individuals as individuals, which we humans christen love and value above all things, is first found in a form we recognize as similar to our own in the evolutionary story of the mammals. With the mammals we recognize that the behaviors seen are reflecting something new in the world; caring for another’s well-being as much as one’s own. In a word, acts of compassion become not just possible as an exceptional rare occurrence, as we occasionally see among all animals species, but becomes the operating procedure guiding nurturing behavior.

The necessity for parental units to tend to the needs of their young came about as the young remained  longer and longer in a helpless stage of continued development after being born. This was one of those evolutionary breakthroughs that has proven to hold exquisite promise. By allowing the Evo-Devo activities to continue during the period in which the newborn is processing sensory signals from the environment in which it will live, evolution hit on a functional bootstrapping of information content.Using this interplay between developing biology and the environment the development of the individual organism can be guided into unprecedented structural complexities.

Numerous environmental signals are known to influence genetic expressions. The best documented seems to be the differences that unfold between those raised in environments that are experiencing lean times versus those capable of providing resources in abundance. That malnutrition molds nervous systems is a well-known fact. Less obviously physical factors are also recognized as having the potential to leave long term imprints on the developing nervous system. It is not just psychotherapy that claims early childhood experience can influence adult behavior; research has shown the same thing in laboratory conditions using our genetic kissing cousins.

Among mammals it is the primates that offer us the invaluable opportunity to compare ourselves with a species that is very similar to ourselves genetically. Time and again characteristics found in the lives of monkeys and apes have also been teased out of the history of human behavior. Our ways of war are not wholly dissimilar to those of the chimpanzees and our ways of love not wholly dissimilar to those of the Bonobos – not to mention the pecking order hierarchy, alpha males, postures of submission and dominance and the whole host of other deeply rooted behaviors the evolutionary psychologists are busy researching.

This lends poignancy to the rather cruel experiments of Dr. Harry Harlow in the 1950s on the mother-child bond found among primates. At this time the common consensus in the West was that physical contact between mothers and their children would spoil them, leading to stunted development and debilitating character flaws. Against this sterile doctrine Dr. Harlow demonstrated that the physical contacts between mother and infant are absolutely essential for the proper development of the young. The role of “contact comfort” was given scientific standing.

He worked with Rhesus macaques in a number of experiments designed to investigate the mother-child bond. His most (in)famous is the surrogate mother series. By constructing surrogate mothers out of wire and wood he was able to discover a need for tactile contact much stronger than anyone had previously suspected. In the basic surrogate mother experiment an infant is removed from his or her mother at birth and placed in the vicinity of models of monkey mothers constructed out of wire and wood. They found that each monkey recognized and showed preference for their own model, quickly learning to recognize its distinguishing features from all the others.

In one experiment some of the model mothers were covered in cloth and others were not. Inevitably the cloth covered ones were the ones the infants clung to. Taking this experiment one step farther they then added a bottle of food to the model without cloth yet still the monkey infant would cling to the model with the cloth, only visiting the other to quickly eat. Basically, science was able to prove that there is much more going on in the mammalian mother-child bond than just a sharing of milk.

rochat_wired-vs-cloth-motherThe experiments continued to investigate the differences between behaviors of monkeys that had access to their surrogate mothers and those that did not. In one setup the infants were placed in an environment populated with new and unknown objects. The monkeys who could embrace the mother were much more likely to eventually wander in an exploratory mode, curiously investigating the new environmental features. The monkeys without the mother surrogates tended to cower unmoving, sucking their thumbs. A similar finding occurred when a fear inducing stimulus was presented.

These different responses were not only found in the behaviors but also were reflected in the physiology of the infants. Those without access to the cloth covered surrogate mothers frequently had diarrhea and other signs of poor digestion which has been attributed to the psychological stress of lacking “contact comfort.”

At a time when behaviorism was the dominate psychological theory these were explosive findings. The behaviorists dismissed the effects of emotions, for them the mother-child bond was just the result of being fed. Pavlov’s dogs were their paradigmatic experiment; feeding and starvation were their keys to understanding and controlling behavior. Now here comes along measurable proof that mammals are not quite so overly mechanical after all. This war of ideas was not lost on Dr. Harlow who first presented his findings at the sixty-sixth Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association on August 31, 1958. He entitled his address “The Nature of Love.”

It was also in the 1950s that the molecular structure of oxytocin was mapped. This magical chemical, both a hormone influencing the brain through the blood stream and a neurotransmitter, was considered the pregnancy drug because it induces or augments labor and is produced during nursing. With the discovery of oxytocin receptors in the brain and heart as well as in the uterus an expanded research program was started. Today oxytocin is recognized as a major player in the chemistry of the brain. It is associated with social bonding in a number of forms, including the most intimate bonding of all; levels of oxytocin peak during orgasm in both men and women. Its molecular structure was mapped in 1953 by Vincent du Vigneaud who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work in 1955. Although it would be decades before biochemistry fully replaced the cruder material reductionism of the behaviorist, the same mechanical dismissal of the power of love as nothing more than an illusion among robots is not hard to find. As if because love is as real as chemicals, it is somehow less real in fact.

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