Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Dark Shadow From Our Ancestral Past: Infanticide

Chef de Bedouins Pasteurs" (Head of Shepherd Bedouins),
by Félix Bonfil (c. 1880s)

They make for God daughters;- celebrated be His praise!- and for themselves they like them not. When any one of them has tidings of a female child, his face is overclouded and black, and he has to keep back his wrath. He skulks away from the people, for the evil tidings he has heard;- is he to keep it with its disgrace, or to bury it in the dust?- Aye! Evil is it that they judge!
-- Koran Sura 16:59-61 (The Bee), condemning the pre-Islamic Bedouin practice of burying infant daughters in the sand.

The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man…

``There,'' resumed the sable form, ``are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here are they all in my worshipping assembly. This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds: how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows' weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers' wealth; and how fair damsels -- blush not, sweet ones -- have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant's funeral. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places -- whether in church, bedchamber, street, field, or forest -- where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot.
-- Nathaniel Hawthorne (in
Young Goodman Brown)

One of the things that has always puzzled me about the abortion debate is how people of good will on both sides can see the basic fundamentals of the issue so differently. How is it that some compassionate and well-meaning people can put the reproductive rights of the mother over the right to life of the fetus developing within her body, while other equally compassionate and well-meaning people consider the very term "fetus" to be a euphemistic and rhetorical dodge for what is the destruction of a baby?

Also, having witnessed several births first-hand and up-close, I've also found it to be a curious thing how post-partum depression can set in, and that not all parents bond with their newborns right away. It seems counter-intuitive. If you looked at it strictly from an evolutionary perspective, you'd think that parents who were able to bond with their offspring immediately and without delay would more likely ensure their survival, and therefore, the survival of their own genes.

I'm wondering if it all has something to do with the psychology bequeathed to us by our ancestral past.

2008 - The Envira, one of the last few uncontacted tribes left in the Amazon Rain Forest, aim their weapons at a helicopter flying overhead.

In our comfortable post-modern existence, it's not too difficult for us to lionize and become sentimental about our hunter-gatherer forebears. This is often most visible in our popular attitudes towards Native Americans, Australian Aborigenes, and the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari in Africa (as portrayed in The Gods Must be Crazy). I'm not villifying them, there has certainly been too much of that in the past, but following Rousseau we have a tendency to glorify the "Noble Savage," and to ascribe superior qualities to him, such as a greater sense of holistic and integrated spirituality, a greater respect for creation and stewardship of the earth and its natural resources, and a non-possesive, communal sharing of resources that made violence and war unnecessary. Some ethnographers and anthropologists point out that our hunting-gathering and foraging ancestors were highly successful for hundreds of thousands of years living the way they did, and that their remains indicate that they were taller and better-fed than their farming competitors who first came upon the scene some 10,000 years ago. Certain field studies done on contemporary hunting-gathering groups have led some to claim that historically, they spent less time working per day than farming and industrial peoples did.

It may very well be that none of these things are true. Sometimes, the good old days just weren't, as much as we, living our hectic and complicated lives, would like to make them so.

Harvard archaeologist Steven A. LeBlanc is the Director of Collections at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (a very cool museum, although not as cool as it used to be... a lot of neat exhibits and dioramas have been dismantled and replaced in recent years by collections of baskets and pottery... when I was a kid, the prospect of seeing weapons and shrunken heads from the South Sea Islands was much more appealing than looking at painted bowls). He is also the author of Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage.

According to LeBlanc, war, far from being an isolated sort of game-like incidental "raiding", has been a constant throughout human history. In addition, humans have never been consciously conservationist - we have always had a tendency to hunt other species to extinction, and to degrade and go beyond the carrying capacity of our environments. Far from being consistently well-fed, hunter-gatherers were often hungry and one small disaster away from starvation. One dirty little secret that is not often heard in respect to hunting-gathering, foraging, and nomadic groups, is the means by which they kept their populations from outstripping what their environments could provide - infanticide.

The fact of the matter is, infanticide was widely practiced among the aforementioned groups. It was not unusual for them to kill an infant if the paternity was unsure, if the baby was deformed or diseased, if it was a twin, or for sex selection (female babies were more often killed than males). Hunter-gatherers, foragers and nomads were constantly on the move, looking for sources of food. Mothers could carry only one infant on their backs at a time, and suckling children were often not weaned until the age of three or four. This is not to say that these people were any more or less evil than we are today. These were often very painful decisions being made by people on the edge of survival. And, as is so often the case throughout history, these decisions were often made by dominant males instead of mothers... Now, in case farming, industrial, and post-industrial people like ourselves feel superior, we should take into the account the existence of the foundling hospitals that existed up until the 19th century. LeBlanc writes:
Infanticide is a factor in forager demography that must be considered. Infanticide was common among all foragers for whom there is relevant information, including most forager groups in Australia, where scholars estimate that the number of children was reduced by 30 percent. Infanticide was common among all Eskimo groups and was significant among South American foragers like the Ache, 14 percent of the boys, 23 percent of the girls...

The fact that infanticide was such a common practice in the past can come as a shock to many people today. Anthropologists have found that the practice occurred in a variety of forms, some direct, and some indirect… Male and female babies are born in almost equal numbers. When there are far more young boys than girls in a society, we can assume that some kind of infanticide was being practiced, even if it was only selected neglect. Since in the past abortion was much more dangerous for the mother than was childbirth, infanticide was a less risky approach – and one that selectively allowed a baby of a particular sex (usually a boy) to survive.

In some societies – Eskimos (Inuit), for example, the couple would make a very public decision and simply place the baby outside. If another couple wanted the baby, they took it in. If not, the infant died. In the 1700s and 1800s, Europeans developed institutions to give this practice the appearance of propriety. Foundling hospitals were established, after the leadership became upset at the sight of so many abandoned babies along streets and roads. These hospitals had special doors designed to allow an adult to leave a baby anonymously. Allegedly orphanages, these institutions spelled death for the majority of infants that crossed their thresholds. Most scholars believe that about 90% of all babies soon died. Hundreds of thousands of infants were admitted to foundling hospitals; one estimate had seventy-five thousand babies per year in France alone…

Infanticide was practiced in the ancient states of Rome and Greece and in more recent times in Europe, as well as China, Japan, and India, with estimates of 10 to 25 percent of all births being affected from various countries… This level of infanticide is a continuation of that found among foragers and tribal farmers, where even very small-scale societies, such as the Australian Aborigines or Eskimos, had equivalent rates to those found in many (chiefdom) states. Some states officially outlawed the practice of infanticide, but it continued under disguised forms. In England, prior to the previously mentioned foundling hospitals in the mid-1700s, many abandoned infants were raised in workhouses. In the thirty years after 1728, of five hundred thousand abandoned infants in England, less than 40 percent survived to age two. These numbers do not include the thousands killed by being given drugs, like the opiate laudanum, being “overlain,” or being abandoned outdoors… When European missionaries reached Melanesia and Polynesia in the 1700s and early 1800s, they attempted to stop the common practice of infanticide, while the very same thing was taking place at home.
What I'm not trying to say here is that prochoice people are genetically more receptive to infanticide than others. I'm just saying that due to our evolutionary history, our feelings toward children carry more ambivalence and complication than we might otherwise be inclined to believe at face-value.

Just the same, this legacy of infanticide does manage to make its way into our contemporary culture wars.

When certain moral philosphers such as Peter Singer and Steven Pinker look to apply this kind of information to the field of ethics, and who seem to accept that certain evolutionary features indicate not just how things were, but how they should be, then we move into the area where evolutionary psychology ceases to be merely interesting and becomes rather frightening.

For example, Steven Pinker writes in his article Why They Kill Their Newborns:
Killing a baby is an immoral act, and we often express our outrage at the immoral by calling it a sickness. But normal human motives are not always moral, and neonaticide does not have to be a product of malfunctioning neural circuitry or a dysfunctional upbringing. We can try to understand what would lead a mother to kill her newborn, remembering that to understand is not necessarily to forgive...

It seems obvious that we need a clear boundary to confer personhood on a human being and grant it a right to life. Otherwise, we approach a slippery slope that ends in the disposal of inconvenient people or in grotesque deliberations on the value of individual lives. But the endless abortion debate shows how hard it is to locate the boundary... The only thing both sides agree on is that the line must be drawn at some point before birth...

Neonaticide forces us to examine even that boundary. To a biologist, birth is as arbitrary a milestone as any other. Many mammals bear offspring that see and walk as soon as they hit the ground. But the incomplete 9-month-old human fetus must be evicted from the womb before its outsize head gets too big to fit through its mother's pelvis. The usual primate assembly process spills into the first years in the world. And that complicates our definition of personhood.

What makes a living being a person with a right not to be killed? Animal-rights extremists would seem to have the easiest argument to make: that all sentient beings have a right to life. But champions of that argument must conclude that delousing a child is akin to mass murder; the rest of us must look for an argument that draws a smaller circle. Perhaps only the members of our own species, Homo sapiens, have a right to life? But that is simply chauvinism; a person of one race could just as easily say that people of another race have no right to life.

No, the right to life must come, the moral philosophers say, from morally significant traits that we humans happen to possess. One such trait is having a unique sequence of experiences that defines us as individuals and connects us to other people. Other traits include an ability to reflect upon ourselves as a continuous locus of consciousness, to form and savor plans for the future, to dread death and to express the choice not to die. And there's the rub: our immature neonates don't possess these traits any more than mice do.

Several moral philosophers have concluded that neonates are not persons, and thus neonaticide should not be classified as murder. Michael Tooley has gone so far as to say that neonaticide ought to be permitted during an interval after birth. Most philosophers (to say nothing of nonphilosophers) recoil from that last step, but the very fact that there can be a debate about the personhood of neonates, but no debate about the personhood of older children, makes it clearer why we feel more sympathy for an Amy Grossberg than for a Susan Smith.

So how do you provide grounds for outlawing neonaticide? The facts don't make it easy. Some philosophers suggest that people intuitively see neonates as so similar to older babies that you couldn't allow neonaticide without coarsening the way people treat children and other people in general. Again, the facts say otherwise. Studies in both modern and hunter-gatherer societies have found that neonaticidal women don't kill anyone but their newborns, and when they give birth later under better conditions, they can be devoted, loving mothers.
Of course, Pinker's article evoked a strong reaction in First Things. James Nuechterlein writes in Infanticide for Beginners:
Pinker's whole analysis would lead to the conclusion that neonaticide is not the “immoral act” he called it at the outset but rather, at worst, the “unavoidable tragedy” that the hunter-gatherer women endure. But at the brink, Pinker blinks. Just as the reader steels himself for a proposal for “infanticide reform,” Pinker retreats to a dying fall. “We will probably never resolve” the dilemmas surrounding neonaticide, he lamely concludes...

Just why Pinker pulls back from the brink one cannot tell. Perhaps because he recognizes that his argument has led him further than he originally intended. He wants to maintain a clear distinction between neonaticide and filicide. But consider the “morally significant traits” he invokes as necessary to a claim of a right to life: “a unique sequence of experiences that defines us as individuals and connects us to other people . . . an ability to reflect upon ourselves as a continuous locus of consciousness, to form and savor plans for the future, to dread death, and to express the choice not to die.” Those are traits unavailable not just to mice and newborn babies, but to all people up to several years of age. From such a brink only a moral idiot would not pull back.

But no doubt future moral explorers will venture where Pinker, for now, fears to tread. That's the sort of thing that happens when you start “thinking the unthinkable.” Which is a good reason for people possessed of moral common sense politely to refuse invitations to such thought experiments.

Abortion on demand, neonaticide, filicide. Next thing you know—to echo Everett Dirksen in a different context—you're talking real people.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord

Which brings me finally to a contemporary example. Last year, controversy erupted between a group called the Hakani Project, sponsored by a Christian missionary organization called Youth With A Mission, and Survival International, a group that advocates for the protection of tribal peoples and their right to live unencumbered according to their own customs and traditions.

The Hakani Poject claims that a certain Amazonian tribe (the Suruwaha) practices infanticide, and that a young girl named "Hakani" was saved from this fate. They are pushing for Brazilian authorities to intervene and remove the children and/or the parents when children's lives are at stake. In the video shown below (warning - nudity and disturbing content), the Hakani Project shows such an incident in a docu-drama.

Survival International (who put the captions on the Hakani video shown above) claims that what the Hakani Project presents as a "re-enactment" is in fact a "fake," claims that infanticide among the tribes of the Amazon is rare, that presentations such as this stoke hatred and bigotry against the tribes, and that Youth with a Mission is using this issue as a ploy to subvert native cultures and to advance their missionary goals.

There's a question that is not often considered, at least in this country... How should the rights of indigenous tribes to maintain there own cultures be balanced against the lives of children, if in case they do conflict?


Brother Charles said...

Tough post. It brings up in me two things my experience in ministry has taught me, but have been hard for me to accept:

First, it's true that mothers do not always 'bond with' or 'love' their newborns. This has been shocking to me, but it's a hard fact.

Second, one of the fundamental injustices of this fallen world is that children are born into it without reference to the willingness of those responsible to care for them, or even whether anybody has the internal or external resources to do so. If I have found this to be a sad reality in this age of birth control, how much more must it have been the case before!

Am I shocked by the acts simulated in the video? Am I indignant? Then what am I doing about the crowds of children and young people in my own neighborhood who are buried under abuse, neglect, poverty, and the culture of criminality, many of whom will spend their lives in and out of prison and will never be o.k.? On the spiritual level, what is the difference between them and the baby buried in the video? Only that for the former ones, I will be held responsible at the Judgment.

Thanks for the post, and for the push.

Jeff said...

Brother Charles,

Thanks for the comment. In your ministry you see things on a day-to-day basis that a lot of us are sheltered from. Unfortunately, there's more than one way to bury a child.

The God of Abraham matters.

Garpu said...

Every time I try to respond, my comment disappears with some sort of site error. Hopefully it'll work this time.

I'm really not OK with the Hakani Project people. What they're doing is way too much like what would happen to First Nations children up to this century.

Were the missionaries advocating taking the children away preemptively? That's a really slippery slope. If it's OK to take children away in perceived cases of abuse (that is without cause or evidence), then what next? Because a child wasn't raised in a proper denomination? Because a child wasn't raised with any religion? Plus it's almost like crying wolf to those situations where children *should* be taken away.

Don't really want to get into a fight, but I think a lot of violence against children and the like could be avoided if there weren't such demonization of people who don't want children. The pressure to have children is immense, which leads to people who shouldn't be parents being forced into it.

Jeff said...

Hi Jen,

Sorry about the Blogger posting issues.

I'm really not OK with the Hakani Project people. What they're doing is way too much like what would happen to First Nations children up to this century.

I'm sure that Youth With a Mission/Hakani have goals that go far beyond this particular issue. In a world where a child dies from starvation every five minutes, this whole tribal issue can get blown all out of perspective, as disturbing as it is. I wonder how common the infanticide is nowadays, and I also share with Survival International a concern that this sort of video breeds disgust and resentment towards native peoples, and makes them out to be monsters. I see great value in preserving tribal cultures as undisturbed as possible... Just the same, I see no reason for children to die when it can be prevented. The tribe isn't proud of the infanticide, it makes them miserable as well, and I'm sure they'd prefer an alternative if it was made available to them. If there was an unobtrusive organization that the native children could be handed over to when the tribe feels that it's outstripped its resources, I guess that would be preferable.

I'm not sure if tribal cultures can really survive unencumbered and intact once they come into contact with the modern world. It certainly hasn't worked out well with the Native Americans in the lower 48... I wonder how successful Alaska and Canada have been in dealing with this kind of thing with their Inuit populations? I think the Inuits been able to enjoy a certain measure of autonomy and an adherence to traditional ways while at the same time benefiting from certain things that the modern world has to offer. I don't think it's been perfect, but it sounds like it's been better than what has occurred on Native American reservations in the US.

Don't really want to get into a fight, but I think a lot of violence against children and the like could be avoided if there weren't such demonization of people who don't want children. The pressure to have children is immense, which leads to people who shouldn't be parents being forced into it.

You're right. They shouldn't be demonized. The DINK stereotype is usually inaccurate. Parenthood isn't for everyone, and people shouldn't be caricatured as being self-indulgent or cold if they don't want to have children, but don't want to spend their lives alone either.

The thing is, children are too often treated like another commodity in our society. You're supposed to have the 3,000 sq foot house in the 'burbs, the two careers, the SUV and the smaller car, the two kids and a dog... Aspiring to anything else is considered a bit bizarre. If people get demonized for having no children, they can get demonized for having the poor taste to have too many children as well, and leaving too big a carbon footprint. If you have more than two, you can get the snipping-gesture and the question "Are you done yet?" not only from family, friends, and acquaintances, but from complete strangers too.