Human birth is a singular thing in the animal world. Among the primates, human babies are the only ones born facing downward and away from the mother. They’re also the only ones who seriously threaten the lives of their mothers as they come down the birth canal. That’s because our heads are big. Very big. Freakishly big. One of the very recent evolutionary adaptations in Homo Sapiens is a pelvic gap in women that creates a larger birth canal, at the expense of a woman’s ability to walk. Women walk differently from men – much less efficiently – because they give birth to such large-headed children.
There’s two notable side-effects of this big-headed-ness. The first is well-known: women used to die in childbirth, regularly. Until the first decade of the 20th century, about one in one hundred pregnancies ended with the death of the mother. That’s an extraordinarily high rate, particularly given that a women might give birth to ten children over their lifetime. Now that we have survivable caesarian sections and all sorts of other medical interventions, death in childbirth is a hundred times rarer – perhaps 1 in 10,000 births. Nowhere else among the mammals can you find this kind of danger surrounding the delivery of offspring. This is the real high price we pay for being big-brained: we very nearly kill our mothers.
The second side-effect is less well-known, but so pervasive we simply accept it as a part of reality: humans need other humans to assist in childbirth. This isn’t true for any other mammal species – or any other species, period. But there are very few examples of cultures where women give childbirth by themselves (even in these cultures, solitary childbirth is considered aspirational). Until the 20th-century medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth, this was ‘women’s work’, and a thriving culture of midwives managed the hard work of delivery. (The image of the chain-smoking father, waiting nervously outside the maternity ward for news of his newborn child, is far older than the 20th century.)
For at least a few hundred thousand years – and probably a great deal longer than that – the act of childbirth has been intensely social. Women come together to help their sisters, cousins, and daughters pass through the dangers of labor and into motherhood. If you can’t rally your sisters together when you need them, childbirth will be a lonely and possibly lethal experience. This is what it means to be human: we entered the world because of the social capabilities of our mothers. Women who had strong social capabilities, women who could bring her sisters to her aid, would have an easier time in childbirth, and would be more likely to live through the experience, as would their children.
After the child has been born, mothers need even more help from their female peers; in the first few hours, when the mother is weak, other women must provide food and shelter. As that child grows, the mother will periodically need help with childcare, particularly if she’s just delivered another child. Mothers who can use their social capabilities to deliver these resources will thrive. Their children will thrive. This means that these capabilities tended to be passed down, through the generations. Just as men had their social skills honed by generations upon generations of resource warfare, women had their social skills sharpened by generations upon generations of childbirth and child raising.
All of this sounds very much as though it’s Not Politically Correct. Today, men raise children while women go to war. But our liberation from our biologically determined sex roles is a very recent thing. Yet behind this lies hundreds of thousands of generations of our ancestors who did use their skills along gender-specific lines. That’s left a mark; men tend to favor coordination in groups – whether that’s a war or a football match – while women tend to concentrate on building and maintaining a closely-linked web of social connections. Women seem to have a far greater sensitivity to these social connections than men do, but men can work together in a team – to slaughter the opponent (on the battlefield or the playing field).
The prefrontal cortex, that part of our brain sitting immediately behind our foreheads, and freakishly large in human beings when compared to chimpanzees, seems to be where this magic happens, where we keep these models of one another. Socialization has limits, because our brains can’t effectively grow much bigger. Big brains already nearly kill our mothers. Big brains consume about 25% of the energy in the food we eat, and our big brains aren’t even done growing until five years after we’re born – leaving us defenseless and helpless far longer than any other mammals. That’s another price we pay for being so social.
But we’re maxed out. We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. If our heads get any bigger, there won’t be any mothers left living to raise us. So here we are, caught between war and womb, power and affection, coordination and affiliation. Ten thousand years ago, human tribes covered the planet, with each tribe circumscribed within population boundaries determined by the limits of our minds to know the minds of those around us. Caged by our capacity, it might have seemed as though humanity had reached a steady-state. The generations passed, but the social order never changed.
Then someone built a city.