This article is from the Sunday New York Times Magazine that will appear April 4. It’s an extended discussion about recent findings about same-sex pairings in the animal world. It’s recurrent focus happens to be female-female pairs of albatross who appear to 1) mate for life and 2) manage to raise chicks.
I’ve written before about the ways in which people invoke nature when discussing parenthood. Indeed, some would argue that parent is first and foremost a natural category. What I mean is that parents are defined by nature and not by law or by cultural practice. I think this view lies behind the assertion that a genetic connection is what should define us as parents: “Natural parents” generally is understood to mean those with a genetic connection.
The article discusses the different ways in which what is natural can be used in discussions of political or cultural questions. Some will say that perhaps it is okay to be lesbian/gay because it is natural. (This is the flip side of the argument that lesbians and gay men should be condemned because they engage in unnatural acts or commit crimes against nature.)
Alternatively, others might say that animal nature is something we as civilized entities rise above. Hence, the fact that animals may engage in same-sex sexual activities demonstrates the base nature of these activities. Just as we transcend our violent animal impulses we must transcend these.
I think the article nicely outlines both usages of nature. And thus, it ties in with my earlier discussions of nature. Beyond that, and more specifically focused on my topics here, it is interesting to think about human parenting and what we might learn about it from animal parenting. I’m rather inclined to say the answer is “not much.”
It seems obvious to me that parenting behaviors are deeply shaped by culture. One has only look to changes in child-rearing practices over time to see that. Where once it was seen as quite reasonable to send a 13-year-old out to work, now we think 13-year-olds should mostly be in school.
It also seems pretty clear to me that parenting is something we learn to do, although some may begin with a greater inclination than others. I say this thinking particularly of two things.
First, newborn humans are incredibly helpless and need a great deal of care. First-time parents who have not had previous infant-raising experience are pretty routinely overwhelmed. It takes time to learn the routines. The second child, by contrast, is so much easier. I think that must be because you learn so much the first time round. And the operative word for me there is “learn.” You don’t just know this stuff.
Second, there are way too many cases of parents who, for a variety of reasons, horribly mistreat their children. I don’t mean parents who have a child-rearing philosophy I might disagree with. I mean parents who act in ways that are undeniably abusive.
Much as I regret that behavior, I fear it is often a natural (and I use the word deliberately) response to the situations in which people find themselves. I don’t by any means want to suggest that because it is a natural response it is a good response. To the contrary, because it is (in my view) both a natural response and a bad response, it is something we need to teach people to resist. It’s natural to want to hurl something against the wall when it’s making you crazy, but you need to learn not to do that
Maybe the most important point I take from the article is that there’s incredible complexity and variation in the world, and we’re probably a part of that.