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Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

4.44  ·  Rating details ·  753 ratings  ·  82 reviews
Maternal instinct--the all-consuming, utterly selfless love that mothers lavish on their children--has long been assumed to be an innate, indeed defining element of a woman's nature. But is it? In this provocative, groundbreaking book, renowned anthropologist (and mother) Sarah Blaffer Hrdy shares a radical new vision of motherhood and its crucial role in human evolution.

Paperback, 752 pages
Published September 5th 2000 by Ballantine Books (first published 1999)
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Average rating 4.44  · 
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 ·  753 ratings  ·  82 reviews

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Jan 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
A feminist Darwinian! Bring it on. If you want to know about the biology of motherhood, this is the book for you. True, it's kind of long and full of scientific and anthropological detail. But it's also well written, interesting, and even funny. I really appreciated that the author is committed to understanding what it means to be a mother (and, to a lesser extent, any parent) without getting sentimental or making assumptions. At times, she shares her own anecdotes of being a mother (including b ...more
Lynne Williamson
Mar 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing
All human animals should read this book about real (not Victorianized) maternal nature.

Looking realistically at "mother nature:" For a human mother, the survival goal includes an evolved capability for weighing the odds for survival of her current children when faced with a competing newborn. Will she have enough resources to feed and protect the children she has as well as for the newborn given the environmental circumstances - circumstances which include the whole cultural milieu as well as he
Bob Nichols
Drawing heavily from sociobiological theory and evolutionary psychology, Hrdy argues that (1) the mother at some deep level calculates the benefit/loss ratio that's involved in parental investment, and (2) the infant/child employs various evolutionary strategies to ensure maternal investment in its survival and well-being. There are no guarantees in this business. The mothering "instinct" is not unconditional and the infant's and child's sense of security is not assured. Hrdy strips the parent-c ...more
Cara Pulley
Jul 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book. This frickin book. I love it. I love that it challenges our perceptions.

I don't know why human society believes that women are all programmed to want to birth and nurture the kids. Perhaps people believe it out of convenience or wishful thinking.

This book talks about mothers and babies of different species and about human mother roles historically. The other species portion is to illustrate that humans are not alone in doting over their babies and that babies are genetically programm
Dec 26, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: monkeys
"Mother Nature" changed my life, bridging evolutionary theory, feminisim, and pragmatism in a way that touched a deep core in my beliefs. In the most mundane sense this book is interesting. Whether you are an anthropology buff or a spiritualist you should read this. ...more
Oct 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is a big book, and it requires a big review. There is so much I learned from it that I may struggle to get this review to resemble anything less than a rambling string of interesting facts and theories. But I'll try.

Written in 1999, this book explores a feministic perspective on evolutionary theory. It is an account of how both mothers and infants have shaped one another's biology and psychology over the eons in the struggle for survival. Since before Darwin published his Origin of Species
K Flewelling
Jul 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
At 500+ pages, Mother Nature was the geekiest and least directly practical read that I undertook when I first became pregnant. It is an anthropological tome of motherhood from bees to birds to primates. Aside from the first couple chapters that discuss how the cultural view of motherhood came to be as part of a deeply patriarchal system of thinking, humans do not even make an appearance until around Chapter 9. This was a book that really helped me situate my perspective of motherhood from a spec ...more
Dec 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you want to scream every time some unenlightened jerk gives you some kind of "Men are from Mars" crap, then this is the book for you! Dispelling myths, bullcrap, and outright lies about the evolution of motherhood in sentient beings, I highly recommend this book. ...more
Jul 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
My bible. I read this book when I was pregnant with my second child - and was convinced by Blaffer Hrdy's arguments and facts. Nature is cruel, mother is not nature. Or mother is cruel, nature is not mother? Some very controversial theses in there, but at least they make you think. ...more
Jun 09, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
my friends will be relieved to know that i will no longer be spouting interesting facts about infanticide every 5 minutes.
Dec 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: abandoned
abandoned it, but an excellent read
Mar 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: get-from-library
This was a labor of love to read. It's fascinating subject and so well researched. I will say though that it can get very in depth into science that leaves the causal reader's head spinning a bit. All in all though a wonderful tome about mothers. ...more
Jan 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, science
No spoilers, just hiding this part b/c it's about bad things happening to babies, and I don't want to drop it in my friends' feed with no warning!

(view spoiler)
Nov 11, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I have long been extremely leery of evolutionary or biological explanations for differences between the sexes. Just the words, "mothering instinct" make me break out in a rash. Why? Because "biological" explanations, which are more often than not based in pure speculation, always seem to conveniently rationalize the superiority of men and reduce women to their reproductive capacity. Don't even get me started about this, you'll never hear the end of it.

Which is why this book totally rocked my wor
Jane Night
Sep 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Review also appears on my blog:
I really enjoyed this book. Some non fiction books can get really bogged down and beyond the understanding of someone who is only a bit familiar with the subject matter. This was not one of those books. This book was easy to understand and everything was explained in layman terms.
Being a mother but also a woman interested in women’s issues I really liked the subject matter. It also was a book that brought questions (and extra
Jun 22, 2008 rated it really liked it
Fascinating read takes takes an evolutionary approach to gender roles and how/why society has 'evolved' the evolution beyond its actual gender roles into socially conditioned (namely, patriarchal) ones. Conclusion: maternal instincts are in fact a concept of social conditioning and not a scientific fact. Men are no less capable of caring for young than are women.

The notion of women being genetically predisposed to be natural nurturers and thus better suited for raising children (that is, the tra
Jan 29, 2011 rated it liked it
I liked this book a lot, but I found it hard to decide what the author's position was. I read it thinking it be a look at mothers from a feminist point of view - but based on hard science. It was very much based on hard science, but in the end, I wasn't sure what her point was - she seemed ambivalent about some key questions regarding a woman's role in mothering. However, all in all it was extremely interesting. it frames many of our behaviors, especially mothers and babies, in the light of evol ...more
Sep 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
Really deep and thought-provoking look at maternal ambivalence. Maybe I shouldn't have read it just weeks postpartum — or, then again, maybe that was the perfect time. It's a dense, often disturbing read, because Hrdy pulls no punches when describing maternal behavior across species, cultures, and times. But it's freeing as well, in dismantling the myth of the Perfect Mother by showing us how very conditional a mother's affections actually are. The end comes back around to describing what it is ...more
Feb 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating and, at times, unsettling. The book is riveting at first, but the focus begins to wander in the latter half. While this makes for a less enjoyable read, one can only appreciate that Hrdy was unwilling to whittle the complex and competing forces under discussion into a more palatable narrative.

my favorite quote: "One reason television is such a perilous medium is that even infants less than two years old imitate what they see on the screen, yet what appears there is determined by what
...more Publishing
Perhaps my single favorite non-fiction work. Hrdy comes at the preconceptions of anthropology with guns blazing, & it is a slaughter of scientific biases. This book came into my life at the perfect time, in undergrad as I was starting to become aware of logical fallacies in the sciences, borne from real world prejudices. Hrdy attacks them at the structural level through the simple act of viewing women-- & in her other books, females of other primate species-- as worthy of as much evolutionary co ...more
Jamie Marks
Sep 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Modern Family. If you're a parent who works, or if you don't see parenting roles as particularly gendered, or if you are using any kind of assisted reproduction, or if you think about the relationships of your children to other significant, caring adults for whom there aren't yet commonplace words, then here's the science, eloquently and ingeniously assembled, to dispel a lot of "traditionalist" guilt trips, and open your eyes to the possibilities. ...more
Amanda Banks
Dec 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: anthropology
I LOVED this book: very thought provoking and intellectually daring. It contains many highly controversial ideas, so the easily offended should probably avoid it. However, for anyone interested in history, anthropology or parenting (in the more theoretical sense: it is not at all a 'how-to' book) the book is fascinating and completely repays the effort required (it is very long and fairly intellectually challenging). Grade: A. ...more
J.P. Drury
May 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
What an amazing text! It engaged me wholly, making me re-examine many ideas I had already thought deeply about pertaining to culture, patriarchy, reproductive autonomy, and my own life. A read you will value forever. If you found yourself interested in the bits on primatology, pick up her earlier book The Woman that Never Evolved.
Jan 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
WOW! This book idolizes an amazing mother and how nature nurtures their young in a similar way! Where do we get our motherly instinct???? Nature of coarse! I will keep this book and read it again when (if ever) I become a mother!
Jul 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Textbook for Anthropology course: Sex, Evolution, and Human Behavior.
Mar 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is THE baby book for anyone with even a mild interest in natural science. For very good results, pair with the BBC series "Mammals". ...more
Aug 01, 2013 rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned
Feels like I'm reading an anthropology textbook, but without sufficient information on how it correlates to human's maternal behaviors and instincts. ...more
A favorite from by undergraduate days. A bit heady, but fascinating information nonetheless.
Jun 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book was fantastically interesting. I really enjoyed reading about evolution and biology from the female perspective.

However, the male-bashing, get-revenge sexism, the belief that men and women "should" be the same and act the same, and judging mother nature as "bad" for "acting ruthlessly against the weak" detracted from my overall enjoyment of the information.

Interesting Quotes:

"Researches engaged in long-term studies of orangutans in the wild have long been puzzled by the curious case of
Megan S
Jan 10, 2019 rated it liked it
Mother Nature - overall a somewhat long-winded yet fascinating read about the research surrounding maternity across species and, within homo sapiens, across time. This book dispels many myths that surround 'natural' motherhood - asking the questions "natural - when, and for whom?" These questions are the most valuable part of this book. For the mothers (and fathers, paternity is addressed as well) who feel the push and pull of loving parenthood and wanting to get away from it all. Ever been desp ...more
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Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is an American anthropologist and primatologist who has made several major contributions to evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. She has been selected as one of the 21 “Leaders in Animal Behavior.”

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20 likes · 2 comments
“One reason television is such a perilous medium is that even infants less than two years old imitate what they see on the screen, yet what appears there is determined by what happens to appeal or to sell rather than by what behavior helped individuals in a particular past environment to survive or prosper.” 3 likes
“Yet, as I will make clear, any Pleistocene woman who relied on looks alone to pull offspring through was not likely to be a mother very long or leave descendants.” 2 likes
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