The full title of the book is “Our Babies, Ourselves. How Biology and Culture shape the way we parent” by Meredith F. Small, Anchor Books, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland, 1998
I have to return this book to the public library today, which explains why I am braving a second book review in less than two days. That this book is available from the publick library here in the US, points to the fact that it is a kind of “science” (both social and biological) book written for popular audiences. And it has been quite well received too.
Written by a biological anthropologist Meredith Small who teaches at Cornell University and is interested in the way biology intersect with culture, “Our Babies, Ourselves” is about the way evolution has shaped human infant and parent relationship, but also about the part culture plays in it. Dr. Small introduces in her book the new field of Ethnopediatrics, which aims to understand child rearing as a cross-cultural and constantly evolving practice.
Essentially, the premise of the book is that human infants developed the skills necessary for survival because their large brains that got their present shape about 50 thousand years ago were too big to fit into the pelvises squeezed when human ancestors developed bipedalism 4 million years ago, so they had to finish developing outside the womb, rendering the new-born fairly helpless in comparison with other animals. Dr. Small then goes into the different cultural responses to this phenomena, starting with cultures that still practice hunter-gatherer life-style such as !Kung San of Botswana, Africa and Ache of Paraguay, South America to different “industrialized” societies such as Japan and the USA.
Dr. Small shows that every culture has its ideal of a “smart, well-functioning” child, that grows from historic, social and political roots. Moreover, she provides great examples of how these ideas are among the least questioned in the particular society, accepted by those with children and without. She also goes on to argue that some of the aspects of the “Western” parenting style (such as separate bedrooms for newborns and being left for a long time in car-seats, baby bouncers or similar places, that are not in a close proximity to the adult, and even sleeping through the night) are contrary to the way infants were designed by evolution.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to parents and non-parents alike, but I most certainly recommend it to the medical professionals, who work with children and their parents.