What exactly is the human race for?

‘Society shouldn’t be organised around child protection.’

– Claire Fox, Newsnight, 23rd October 2012

One of the courses I took in my biological sciences degree was called behavioural ecology. It’s the study of animal behaviour, and how that behaviour helps an animal to live its life (pretty much). One of the main things we’d talk about with any animal was mating and how it cared for its young.

Swans, of course, mate for life, and both male and female help build the nest, keep the eggs warm, and feed the chicks. Female dunnocks, by contrast, will mate with as many males as they can get away with, and get food to feed chicks from all of them.

Let me tell you about lions. When lionesses are on heat, they’ll have sex as often as every 15 minutes. And they’re on heat for about four days. Sounds fun, but exhausting. There will be several adult males in a lion pride – the theory is that lionesses mate frequently so that any particular shag isn’t that likely to produce offspring. This means there’s no point the males fighting over it. It reduces conflict within the group.

Lionesses do most of the hunting, while the males stay at home and watch the cubs. They are wise to be on the look-out – every so often the males in a pride get ousted by a group of other males (these will be a group of brothers and half-brothers, who’ve left their home pride when they reached adulthood). New males will kill any cubs under two, as this makes the mothers come into heat, ready to bear more young.

It’s all fascinating stuff, if you like that sort of thing (and I do), but do you know why we spent so much time studying mating and child-rearing? It’s because, in biological terms, passing on its genes is the POINT of all organisms.

Some animals – like most frogs – go for the scattershot approach. Have loads of eggs (often thousands) and leave them to it, and some of them will survive to adulthood. Some animals – like elephants, King penguins and humans – will usually have only one offspring at a time, and invest a lot of care in getting it to the point where it can look after itself. Their social groups are organised entirely around rearing their young.

In fact for all animals, how they rear their young is a massive deciding factor in how they live their lives. Are they solitary? Do they live in pairs? In groups? What kind of groups, organised in what ways? Child-rearing plays a big part in explaining why in each case.

Human children are helpless for years, they require a huge investment in resources before they are old enough to reproduce successfully themselves. And that’s why humans have always lived in large groups.

Which brings me to professional contrarian Claire Fox’s appearance on Newsnight last night. It was a discussion about child protection, in the wake of the Savile revelations. Ms Fox doesn’t seem to have any expertise in child protection (which is ironic, given that her sister Fiona, at the Science Media Centre, constantly bangs the drum that we should only listen to scientific experts on every single matter).

I guess though they’d got Fox in because Camila Batmanghelidjh was on, arguing for protecting vulnerable children. Claire was probably the only person they could find to take the opposite position, who wasn’t actually Gary Glitter.

As quoted above, Ms Fox said, ‘Society shouldn’t be organised around child protection.’

I just couldn’t disagree more with that statement. Yes! Yes, it should! That’s exactly what society should be organised around! What on earth should it be organised around if not that?

Organising our society around protecting children is the biological norm for complex animals. Are we so much smarter than dolphins and elephants, because we’ve organised our society around making the most money and fucking up the planet instead?

Maybe you’re not a breeder, for whatever reason. Odds are, you’ve got relatives or friends who are though. You maybe give them presents or help out with baby-sitting or pick them milk up from the shop during the weeks (months?) of new-parent-hell.  Or maybe you’ve just been a shoulder to cry on for an exasperated parent at the end of their tether.

Biologically, whether you breed yourself or not, the human community you belong to helps raise children, because it’s too hard for one person (or one couple) alone. Even ignoring biology, personally, I think socialising the next generation of humans and turning them into happy, functioning adults, is pretty much the point of the human race. What is it we hope for for the future, if not that? Otherwise we may as well all give up now and let the cockroaches take over.

If humanity was organised in a rational way, it seems to me that this is what all our resources would be focussed on. Looking after kids and turning them into happy, stable adults who realise their full potential. I’ve met too many people whose childhoods fucked them up completely. Never mind all the people who are doing kind of OK, but could have been that bit happier, more secure, more fulfilled, with the right help at the right time.

You may think that space exploration, or composing symphonies, or baking really amazing cakes is more important for humanity. But the way to get the most space exploration and symphonies and amazing cakes in the future is prioritising kids today. Because that’s how you get amazing adults tomorrow. Anything else is just shortsighted. And shortsighted, as it happens, seems to be a description of the civilization we find ourselves in.

Why are children hungry, in one of the richest countries in the world, while we pay footballers millions of pounds a week? We pay nursery nurses £15k a year, while people doing useless jobs with no benefit to society like advertising execs and commodities brokers are on tens of thousands more. While Claire Fox appears on Newsnight saying that we shouldn’t over-react to Savile. Do we really, as a society, value adverts and financial speculation that much? And children so little?

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  • MarinaS (@marstrina)  On October 24, 2012 at 8:22 am

    I can’t say in words how much I love this.

  • Siren of Brixton  On October 24, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Quite frankly I’m amazed that this needs to be said, but you said it very well!

    • matriarchalutopia  On October 24, 2012 at 10:03 am

      Thanks. I know what you mean, I’m amazed too. Except you look around and realise we live in a world that’s not arranged around child-rearing at all.

  • thebristolblogger  On October 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    I’m no fan of Claire Fox but (!) I think you may have misread what she said. She didn’t say, “Society shouldn’t be organised around children.” She said, “Society shouldn’t be organised around child protection.” By which she means we shouldn’t devise endless rules, regulations. strategies and plans that limit ordinary people’s ordinary contact with children. The Savile revelations are all about state institutions allowing and covering up child abuse on a mass scale. That’s what needs to be addressed. Not your or my contact with children. We need major reform of our institutions so that cover-up, denial, the targeting of whistleblowers and the kneejerk defence of management and executives is no longer tolerated or the norm. Generalised child protection rules aimed at the population in general are a cop out and a con. This is an institutional problem that goes right to the top. It’s typical that this problem will now be deflected on to the population as a whole as they are largely innocent.

    • matriarchalutopia  On October 24, 2012 at 12:57 pm

      Thanks for stopping by. I don’t think I did misread what she said. She said, ‘society shouldn’t be arranged around child protection’. I disagree with her.
      I don’t mean society should be arranged around CRB checks and that sort of nonsense. CRB checks wouldn’t have stopped Savile.
      I mean society should be arranged around making children safe, loved, nurtured. What went wrong with Savile was that too many kids had no-one to turn to, or weren’t believed if they did try to tell someone. And even all his hiding-in-plain-sight, nudge-nudge comments about teenage girls were just laughed off as *normal*.
      I think society should be arranged so that there’s no kid who has no-one to turn to. And that kids who do try to tell someone are believed and supported. That’s what will make the difference – not meaningless arse-covering bureaucracy.
      This stuff is still happening to plenty of kids today – most of them not being abused by creepy celebrity DJs, but by ordinary everyday people.

      • thebristolblogger  On October 24, 2012 at 1:25 pm

        But our society and its communities are organised around child protection. Try going to my local toddler group and inveigling your way in to molest children. You’d last five minutes and if you didn’t get lynched, you’d get dealt with by the law sharpish. No-one would cover it up or laugh it off.

        However, set up a paedophile ring at the heart of the establishment or in our state institutions and you’ll get away with it for a generation even though “everyone knew”.

        It’s not a question of rearranging society. It’s an institutional problem. It happens time and again. You can have all the rules and policies you like around it but if these institutions are allowed to cover-up and sign-off confidentiality agreements every time the rules are broken they are pointless.

        That is what consistently happens. This is what needs to be rearranged.

      • matriarchalutopia  On October 24, 2012 at 1:59 pm

        Ah, BB, you think the problem is institutional protectionism. I think the problem is patriarchy. Maybe to the person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail?:-)
        To be clear, I do think institutional protectionism is a problem – just look at care homes, the catholic church, etc.
        ‘But our society and its communities are organised around child protection.’
        I see what you are saying, but I don’t think the example you give shows that our society is arranged around *actually* protecting children. I think it shows our bureaucracies are arranged around people covering their arses. As I said, CRB checks wouldn’t have caught Savile. What would have caught Savile was people believing the kids who tried to tell someone what was happening to them.
        I completely agree that the paranoia around any adult contact with children is pointless and unhelpful. It cuts children off from positive relationships with adults. While predators will always find a way round it. More bureaucracy isn’t the answer. More care for children is.
        Do you think that *only* powerful people embedded in large institutions get away with child abuse? This isn’t the case – just look at Rochdale. The girls were disbelieved and dismissed. And they weren’t being abused by members of the establishment.
        Any number of people I know were abused as children. Often by a boyfriend of their Mum’s, or the father of a schoolfriend. They didn’t get protection and support because they didn’t know who to tell. Or how to tell. Or they tried to tell and weren’t believed. Not just because the establishment closed ranks.
        Also, we may have a system of stopping strangers wandering into nursery schools. But we still also have a culture where tabloids print pictures of female stars on their 16th birthday saying, ‘All grown up’. That kind of thing contributes to girls feeling like they’re prey, and paedophiles thinking what they do is OK, because they think all men feel and act the same way they do. This post on rape jokes really made that clear to me and I think it’s worth a minute or two of anyone’s time to read it, if you haven’t come across it before. http://dbzer0.com/blog/feminists-dont-think-all-men-are-rapists-rapists-do

      • matriarchalutopia  On October 24, 2012 at 2:07 pm

        PS, maybe where we can find some common ground is to say that hierarchies (and the ensuing power imbalances) are a big part of the problem?

  • Matriarcal  On October 24, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    I totally agree with you. Child protection is, in my opinion, the foundation of any matriarchal society.

    For our liberal and democratic society, the right of private property (now understood as the right to accumulate wealth without limit) is sacred, even more sacred than children’s rights. Male philosophers defended the right to private property many centuries before than children’s rights were even imagined!

    In my country, Spain, poverty rates among children are raising dramatically. In the U.S. there is also a high rate of child poverty. Are our “democracies” failing? Yes, I think so!

    Capitalism will not solve this. Communism won’t either. Both are patriarchal systems, led by selfish and oligarchic masculine hierarchies. Now, more than ever, we need maternal policies!

    A third way, non-patriarchal, is urgently needed. Our children deserve it.

    I understand matriarchy as a society without patriarchy. If an alternative should be imagined, it must be matriarchal in its essence.

    Congratulations for your blog!

    A matriarchal man.

  • Sarah May (@Sarah_May1)  On October 24, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Thank you for a lovely post. I think Claire Fox has done a common thing amongst ‘commentators’ used a phrase (‘child protection’) to mean something very narrow (CRB checks etc) and then pretend that a broader use (like yours) is simply the same as hers. I do think its worth pointing out that children need more than protection, but that’s not as important as getting the protection right.

    • matriarchalutopia  On October 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      That’s a very good point. I hope it was clear from my examples that I was thinking about nurturing children, in the broadest sense. Not just stopping them being sexually abused. But yes, I think ‘child protection’ is about a lot more than CRB checks.
      In fact I think CRB checks are worse than useless, because they give a false sense of security.

  • nyar  On November 6, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    I think the big issue is Stewardship. Stewardship of our species and our world. If we take breeding our young seriously then we have to include not just making them into happy productive adults but making sure that the whole process will stably continue generation after generation. That’s not going to be easy given the current mindset of personal acquisition and selfishness. And if we only look at our own species we’re missing the big picture. We have to integrate ourselves into the world life net our we’ll be breeding happy productive children…until the last tree is cut down. I’ve played with the idea of a genetically enhanced matriarchal hive society being the answer in fiction but achieving a productive progressive life affirming society in real life is going to be a lot more difficult.

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