From Homo Superpredator to Homo Ecologicus

It is quite usual to claim that the solution to our ecological crises will require changes in scientific research, in technology, in economical activities, in social and political structures, in our values and in our philosophical systems. It has not yet been recognized that the solution of the conflict between mankind and planet Earth depends, first and foremost, on the way Homo evolves(1). We need a sort of non-genetic mutation initiated by necessity, reason and scientific knowledge if the planet is to sustain human life in the future.

If the planet remains inhabitable – a hypothesis we must not eliminate – it implies that “Homo Superpredator” will eventually be overtaken by “Homo Ecologicus”. Homo Ecologicus will be characterised by a propensity to unite and establish a global awareness, and also by an ability to develop a fundamental respect for Mother Earth. Finally the most urgent problems Humanity has to face are all related to different aspects of the capacity to love, including a compassionate interest for the unborn generations. That is why the ‘scientification of love’ must be recognized as a vital aspect of the scientific revolution.

In 1979, when I published ‘Genese de l’homme écologique’, it was obviously premature to raise such questions. Even those who were already well aware of the Earth’s vulnerability and qualified themselves as ‘ecologists’ were not ready to associate the word ‘ecological’ with the term ’human being’. The French publisher tried (unsuccessfully) to convince me that the concept of ‘homme écologique’ was not marketable, compared with the term ‘childbirth’, which should be the keyword in the title. The German publisher took the initiative of translating the original title by ‘Die Geburt des Menschen’ (the birth of humanity).

During the first decade of the twenty first-century, there are urgent reasons to reformulate the same questions. Ecological awareness is getting stronger and stronger, as a result of a great number and variety of symptoms of ‘planetary overload’. The problems humanity has to face have been seriously analyzed. The current scientific and technological contexts indicate solutions. More than ever we must first wonder what sort of human being will eventually be able to focus on the health of the planet, as a new priority.

The first decade of the twenty first-century is also the time when an accumulation of scientific data gives answers to paradoxically new questions such as: “how does the capacity to love develop?” Today, when combining data provided by disciplines as divers as ethology, animal experiments, the study of behavioural effects of hormones (particularly oxytocin) involved in different episodes of our reproductive life, and ‘primal health research’, the period surrounding birth appears as the critical link in the chain of events on which it is possible to effectively act. It is also the critical link that all known societies have routinely disturbed.

Homo superpredator appeared when our ancestors started to turn the strategies for survival upside down. They started to transform the environment and to adapt it to their needs. Up to that time, all animals, including human primates, had survived by adapting to an environment. The emergence of Homo superpredator cannot be dissociated originally from the domestication of plants and animals. Since this barrier with the rest of the animal kingdom raised and developed, the most successful societies are those that have developed the human potential for aggression, while moderating the development of the capacity to love. This is how we can explain the evolutionary advantages of the control of childbirth by the cultural milieus, and the widespread beliefs and rituals that interfere with the physiological processes and routinely disturb, in particular, the vital interaction between mother and newborn baby (for example beliefs about the “bad colostrum” and the “dangerous first eye-to-eye contact”, and rituals such as cutting the cord and washing urgently the baby).

Today the history of mankind is at a turning point. The domination of nature has reached its extreme limits. Homo superpredator may be presented as the only living creature intelligent enough to destroy the planet (or to give it back to the viruses). The history of childbirth is also at a turning point. Although all known societies always had a tendency to interfere in the birth process, however, until recently, a woman could not have a baby without releasing a complex cocktail of “hormones of love’. For the first time in the history of humankind, most women, in many countries, become mothers without having their brain impregnated with such hormones. They can rely on pharmacological hormonal substitutes that are not “love hormones”. For example an epidural anaesthesia can replace the release of endorphins, and a drip of synthetic oxytocin can replace the natural hormone. Furthermore a great proportion of babies are born by caesarean section. We are in a position to understand that this particular aspect of the domination of nature should be placed on the first page of the planetary agenda.

Obstacles

The priority is to radically and urgently reconsider how babies are born in order to create such situations that most women give birth thanks to the release of a complex cocktail of love hormones. The most important obstacle is a deep-rooted cultural misunderstanding of the basic needs of labouring women and newborn babies, shared by medical circles and natural childbirth movements as well.

To demonstrate the widespread lack of understanding of birth physiology, we just need to summarize how the birth process can be interpreted in modern physiological language. Then we’ll realize that the most common recommendations transmitted by popular books and the most common attitudes in birthing places are unacceptable in the current scientific context. Physiological data are not well assimilated, particularly in the natural childbirth movements.

Our understanding of birth physiology is first based on the adrenaline – oxytocin antagonism: when mammals release adrenaline, they cannot release the main component of the flow of hormones that make uterine contractions effective. In other words the prerequisite for the labour to establish itself properly is that the skeletal muscles are at rest. When all the skeletal muscles are at rest, such as when the mother is lying on her side or is passive on all-fours, the energy expended is slight, and the need for carbohydrates is minimal, insofar as glucose is the favourite fuel of skeletal muscles. Yet it is commonplace to compare labouring women with athletes who are advised to consume large amount of carbohydrates, protein and fluids before starting extreme physical exertion(2) Authors of articles about nutrition during labour have suggested that we should learn from sports medicine.(3) Many birth attendants are influenced by these comparisons and encourage women to eat food such as pasta at the onset of labour, and drink something sweet when labour is established: ‘You need energy!’. Comparing labouring women to marathon runners is misleading and potentially dangerous. The side- effects of sugar during labour are well documented.(4). Birth attendant should know that pure sugars tend to lower both the pain threshold and the maximum level of pain tolerated.(5). Moreover, there is evidence that when the mother has been given an infusion containing glucose, the intensity of jaundice in the newborn baby is greater(6). Physiologists can explain why.

We must add that when a labouring woman does not feel the need to stand up and to walk, it is a good sign, since it means that her level of adrenaline is probably low. This is the prerequisite for an easy labour. During the first stage of an easy and fast birth, women are often passive, for example on all fours or lying down. Yet it is commonplace to advise them to walk, and to transmit the simplistic idea that gravity will help the descent of the baby. To suggest any sort of muscular activity at that phase can be counter-productive, even cruel.

A reduction of the activity of the neocortex (the brain of the intellect) is another important aspect of birth physiology among humans. This is the solution Nature found to protect women from multiple inhibitions related to cultural conditioning; when a woman is giving birth by herself, without any medication, there is a time when she has an obvious tendency to cut herself off from our world, as if ‘going to another planet’; she dares to do what a civilized woman would never dare to do in her daily social life, for example scream or swear; she can find herself in the most unexpected primitive, often quadrupedal, posture, making the most unexpected noises. When the mother-to-be is as if ‘on another planet’, it simply means that the activity of her neocortex is reduced.

This necessary reduction of neocortical control leads us to understand that a labouring woman needs first to be protected from any sort of stimulation of her neocortex. Yet birth attendants, without any caution, constantly use language, the specifically human stimulant of the neocortex. In the age of electricity few birth attendants seem to realize that light is another well-known stimulant of the neocortex. Our neocortex is activated when we feel observed. Yet privacy is not recognized as the basic need of a woman giving birth. Books about ‘natural childbirth’ are full of standardized pictures transmitting the wrong message: a labouring woman surrounded by two or three people watching her (plus a camera!). Our neocortex is activated when there is a possible danger: to feel secure is a basic need during labour. This need has been traditionally met by being close to an experienced mother (or grand-mother). This is the root of midwifery. The midwife is originally a mother figure. In an ideal world our mother is the prototype of the person with whom one feels secure…without feeling observed or judged. Yet, in countries where the midwife has not completely disappeared she became one of the members of a medical team. In the natural childbirth movement the birth attendant became a ‘coach’. The basic needs of labouring women will be more easily met when authentic midwifery is rediscovered. Rediscovering the basic needs of labouring women will lead to rediscover the specific role of the authentic midwife as an independent mother figure.

In terms of physiology, it is also easy to recognize the basic needs of mother and baby during the short phase between the birth itself and the delivery of the placenta. During this short phase the different hormones released by mother and fetus during the last uterine contractions are not yet eliminated. Each of them has a specific role to play in the interaction between mother and baby. Then the main event, from a physiological perspective, is the vital peak of oxytocin mothers are able to release just after the birth of the baby. This peak of oxytocin is properly speaking vital, since it is necessary for a safe delivery of the placenta without significant blood loss, and because oxytocin is the main component of the flow of hormones responsible for maternal love. This oxytocin release is highly dependent on environmental factors. First the place must be as warm as possible. Also the mother must not be distracted while discovering her baby. Yet I heard many anecdotes of mothers who had been shivering just after the birth, obviously because the place was not warm enough and because there were no warm blankets immediately available. Furthermore it is as if we constantly invent new reasons to distract the mother just after the birth of the baby. Cutting the cord before the delivery of the placenta is one among thousands. Because the needs of mothers and newborn babies are not understood and cannot be met in conventional birth environments, it is necessary to routinely block the release of the natural hormone of love by synthetic oxytocin in order to prevent hemorrhages. The main characteristics of the industrialization of childbirth (need for drugs, need for cesareans(7), decline of authentic midwifery, routine participation of the baby’s father, etc.) are visible consequences of the cultural lack of understanding of birth physiology.

There are many other obstacles to the evolution towards Homo Ecologicus, and finally towards ecological societies. However the focus should be on the period surrounding birth, which is routinely disturbed. This period is considered critical at a time when scientific advances help us to formulate new questions and to understand how the capacity to love develops. Scientific knowledge can induce awareness. The advent of “Homo Ecologicus” is not utopian. In the age of the Scientification of Love there are reasons for hope and optimism.(8) Humanity has got the keys to invent new strategies for survival. We might be approaching the day anticipated by Teilhard de Chardin as early as 1934. Then he claimed that after mastering space, winds, tides and gravity, humans will learn to master the energies of Love. Then, for the second time in the history of the World, Man will have discovered fire.(9)

Michel Odent

References:

  1. Odent M. Genèse del’homme écologique. Epi. Paris 1979
  2. Odent M. Laboring women are not marathon runners. Midwiferytoday 1994; 31: 23–26.
  3. Cram Elsberry C, Shulman J, Moore DS. Nutrition in labour. Paper presented at the International Confederation of Midwives 23rd Congress in Vancouver, 1993.
  4. Lawrence GF, Brown VA, Parsons RJ. Foetal maternal consequences of high dose glucose infusion during labour. Br J Obstet Gynaecology 1982; 89: 27–32.
  5. Morley GK, Mooradian AD, Levine AS, Morley J. Mechanism of pain in diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Am J Med 1984; 77: 79–82.
  6. Kenepp NB, Shelley WC, et al. Fetal and neonatal hazards of maternal hydration with 5% dextrose before caesarean section. Lancet 1982; ii: 1150–52.
  7. Michel Odent. The Caesarean. Free Association Books. London 2004.
  8. Michel Odent. The scientification of Love. Free Association Books. London 1999.
  9. Teilhard de Chardin. Les directions de l’Avenir. Le Seuil. Paris 1973 (p92).