Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

by Sarah Blaffer Hardy


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Did we like it?

Yes & No

For Feminist


Book Review

After a few months of reading, we started to feel that our books were disconnected.  We decided to start reading books according to larger themes over the course of a few months.  The first theme we chose was motherhood, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s book was the perfect introduction as Hrdy looks at motherhood and maternal instincts from her anthropologist, primatologist, and evolutionist lenses.  She buries old doctrines that prescribe women as passive participants in evolutionary processes. Instead, she shows how females in animal species are not only actively engaged, but are constantly making decisions for the sake of the whole species about how and when to procreate.   She discusses female sexuality, intuition, and choice as central to ensuring “genetic representation in subsequent generations” (79).


Motherhood requires so many variations and considerations across species that pigeonholing maternal instincts is nearly impossible in the animal kingdom, especially when looking at the tough decisions females make in the wild to protect and raise offspring or to abort or kill.  According to Hrdy, these decisions are made based on social politics, resources, and greater chances for survival for the many. Hrdy also discusses the concept of allomothers, which is the community that supports mothers in the wild, especially visible among primates. She also discusses lactation and gives an in-depth look at the industry of wet nursing in humans that has been lost to modern women.

Why these ratings?

The book is a yes, because it provides copious information that is foundational to any discussion of motherhood or maternal instincts.  For example, I did not know that queen honeybees determine each bee’s gender based on the needs of the hive. Some spider species fatten themselves up only to become their newborn babies’ first meal.   Female primates may stop ovulating to support the alpha female’s reproduction when resources are limited...and on and on. Its whopping 541 pages provides so much research and material to consider with any debates about reproductive rights, female sexuality, maternal instincts, mothers and work/life balance, and supporting mothers with resources.   Just make sure everyone is fully aware of the book’s length before voting. It should be broken into two months at least, so that everyone has time to get through the material and digest it all.


It might be a NO for your bookclub, because the book is incredibly dense and overwhelmed some of the women in the group.  The layout is all over the place and somewhat disjointed, making the information more difficult to process.  Despite reading over the summer, many women did not make it past the preface, whereas others started with an earnest interest in getting through the whole book, but could not finish.  A dedicated scholar might be rolling her eyes at this point, but Amaya and I learned the hard way that consideration does need to be taken when trying to manage different levels of reading skills and interests in a book club.

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