‘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?