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The Tending InstinctReview - The Tending Instinct
How Nurturing is Essential to Who We Are and How We Live
by Shelley Taylor
Times Books, 2002
Review by Chris Staheli
Jun 16th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 25)

In her book, The Tending Instinct, Shelley Taylor provides a new look at how nurturing is vital to the health and wellbeing of every human being.† She successfully contradicts the current views in biology-based psychology that women play little role in the cohesion of society and that aggressive males are the dominant impetus behind society.† Her ideas, hypotheses, and arguments are well thought out, original, and validated by scientific fact.

Taylor opens her book with a comparison of two groups of orphans and how the two groups developed both physically and emotionally according to the treatment afforded them by the women who acted as their caretakers.† The comparison illustrates the discordant development of the two groups, according to the personalities and tending of the two headmistresses at the orphanages the children were placed in.† The children under the care of a cold, cruel headmistress failed to develop and thrive, physically and emotionally. On the other hand, children under the care of a patient, attentive, and loving headmistress fared much better emotionally and had higher body weights, despite the fact that they received lower food rations than the other group.

†The author then goes on to challenge the predominant paradigm of primate psychology, which presents a violent struggle between males vying for dominance.† This idea of a male dominated society leaves little room for nurturing or supportive social ties.

She shows that the close ties between female primates, their tendency to group together in the face of threats to one another or to their young leads to the preservation of their species.

†Presented is the evidence, skeletal hominid remains, that human beings cared for their sick and elderly since prehistoric times.

†Taylor makes the point that environmental factors, like tending, can influence the way genetic patterns, particularly those of illnesses, emerge or not.

†† In Chapter Two, unsurprisingly, it is acknowledged that women are the primary caregivers of children, and that the way that they respond to stressful situations differs from the male's fight or flight response, so as to protect their offspring from harm. This enables the mother's genes to be passed on. Taylor also postulates that women's response to stress is more social than men's. She backs up her theory by presenting thirty studies with thirty unanimous conclusions, that women fall back on systems of social support in times of crisis.

†† The mother-child bond is examined in biological terms, stating that hormones, primarily oxytocin, released after labor play a strong part in the mother's bonding with her newborn. Interestingly enough, when experiments with female sheep were conducted by injecting them with oxytocin the sheep display more nurturing behavior towards their offspring. Oxytocin is also credited with sexual behavior, and may be the force that drives women to bond with men.

Taylor cites studies about support groups for women suffering terminal illness that showed women who participated in these groups lived longer than women who received only medical care.

Infants' failure to thrive is ascribed to neglect and failure on the part of caregivers to provide affection.

One recurrent theme in this work is that of women's friendships serving to protect them and their children.

Tending in marriage is explored, and it shown that married men tend to benefit considerably through the tending instincts of their wives.† Married men also have higher life expectancy than unmarried men.† As a stark counterpoint to married men, a study of post Communist Russian and Eastern European men showed a sharp decline in their life expectancy, because they could not marry because of the poor economic situation, and enjoyed none of the benefits of married life.

Taylor goes on to challenge the idea that in primate and human society the most aggressive males dominate the society, by presenting the idea that this is not so, that in fact it is the males with the most social skills that dominate.

Another study showed hierarchies in groups of elephants in which older elephants helped to check the aggressions.

†Interestingly enough, it has been shown that boys without fathers or father figures are more prone to acts of violence. It is suggested that this is so, because male fathers teach their male offspring how to control their aggression. This holds true in primate society because mature primates check younger primates violent tendencies, because the younger primates know they stand little chance in a fight with an elder.

†† It has also has been observed that if a particularly abusive primate comes to power within a troop, the females will support attempts to dislodge him from said position.

† Reiterating her train of thought in regards to unmarried men's tendency to have lower life expectancy, she turns to male baboons without female companionship.† These young baboons live on the edge of their society, in this case, a troop, and are extremely violent, inflicting injury on one another.† Without social support and living on the margins of a troop they are easy targets to predators.

This is a well-written book, with its central themes well developed, and backed up with scientific fact and common sense. In conclusion, any one with an interest in human nurturing should read this book.

 

© 2003 Chris Staheli

 

Chris Staheli is a student of psychology at QCC in New York. His interest in psychology was piqued by a high school course. He also studies philosophy. In his spare time, he writes poetry, weight lifts, and plays jazz and classical guitar.


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