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Wherein we discuss the biological and evolutionary imperatives of human breastfeeding over the last 80 million years.

Read Dr. Martin's book "How We Do It" to learn more about the history of human reproduction:
And check out his blog at Psychology Today:



Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Editor, Camera:
Tom McNamara

Theme music:
Michael Aranda

Created By:
Hank Green

Production Assistant:
Katie Kirby

Thanks to Dr. Robert Martin for taking the time to chat with us about his book!

Special thanks to Cassie Pontone in Anthropology for helping with archival research!

Filmed on Location and Supported by:
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL

Photo credits:
[1:17] Evolution Theory at a Glance, from Ward's Natural Science Establishment, 1934. © The Field Museum, A78545.

[1:27] Monkey and its young, mounted specimen, Drawer 782, 1940. © The Field Museum, Z81329.

[2:04] Woman with baby and another in bag, Pacific Papua New Guinea, 1911. © The Field Museum, CSA37889, Photographer A.B. Lewis.

[2:28] Orangutan Pongo pygmaeus mounted specimen before installation. First application of Walters Method of taxidermy using cellulose acetate process of reproduction of a hairy mammal, 1930. © The Field Museum, CSZ77467.

[2:34] Lower [jaw] mandible of female. 18-year-old Magdelenian girl skeleton. [human remains], Magdalenian Europe France Dordogne Cap Blanc, 1957. © The Field Museum, A96043.

[2:59] Dairy Shorthorn Cow, Lily Charter 2nd. Bronze sculptures of British Champion animals, by Herbert Haseltine. Hall 12, 1934. © The Field Museum, Z78434.

And as always, thanks to our incredible translators, including Jose Taveras, Tony Chu, Seth Bergenholtz, and Martina Šafusová for working on the captions for this episode.

Emily: So today we're sitting with Robert Martin and we're going to talk about Chapter 6 in his book, titled "How We Do It." And Chapter 6 is all about feeding babies and breastfeeding. It's great.

Biological Vs. Cultural Anthropology
E: A good way to determine a biological anthropologist versus a cultural anthropologist is that you can tell us why we breastfeed, and you can tell us the biological imperatives behind that, and a cultural anthropologist will tell us why there's a social taboo against breastfeeding beyond a certain age.

Robert: And the real difference is that all biology depends on the theory of evolution. That is the foundation. Cultural anthropology may take account of evolution, but usually doesn't.

An Evolutionary History of Breastfeeding
E: During the Industrial Revolution, policy makers started working in conjunction, perhaps, with scientists who were publishing papers saying, "it's okay for women to not breastfeed on demand," which is,evolutionarily, how breastfeeding was done in mammals — at least some mammals.

R: That's a beautiful example, because primates started evolving 80 million years ago, and every single living primate — there are 400 of them including us — the mother suckles her offspring on demand. It's the baby that decides when it wants to feed. This is because primates, throughout their evolutionary history, have carried their babies around and the baby can then just move to the breast when it wants to be fed. And yet, we have these medics telling women that they should put the baby in a separate bedroom, thus eliminating physical contact during the night, and that they should feed according to a rigid schedule. And they said, maybe "every four hours," or whatever, and that they should stick to the schedule. This is totally and utterly in opposition to our biology.

Breastfeeding in Humans
E: Given that humans are the size that we are and our babies are at a certain stage of development when they're born, they still have a long way to go. So, another thing that comes up is why are we stopping breastfeeding around 6 months to a year when it seems like biologically we should be breastfeeding our kids until they're 6 or 7?

R: You can look across primates and take body size into account, you can look at archaeological evidence. They all point to that a woman should breastfeed for at least 3 years, if she were behaving naturally. I do want to emphasize that this is not exclusive breastfeeding. So at some point, you start mixing complimentary foods. So probably exclusive breastfeeding, where that's the only food the baby is getting, is about 6 months to a year.

E: Human breast milk is closer in relation to horse milk than it is to cows' milk. So considering we diverged from cows around 100 million years ago, why are we drinking cow's milk?

R: It's purely the accident of domestication. It so happened that we domesticated cows, and they're easier to milk than horses. A cow's milk has higher fat content, but they're the wrong fats. They're not really adapted for brain growth, which is really important for us. Horse milk is much more similar to human milk. It's more diluted. So if I had to choose an artificial milk, I would try to get horse's milk rather than cow's milk.

The Modern Woman and Breastfeeding
E: Women have to go to work. I mean, they can't stop midway through, they can't go home and breastfeed. So what kind of solutions would you suggest as to how we can do a better job of accommodating working women who are also fostering their young children?

R: The last thing I want to do is to make any woman feel guilty because she can't breastfeed. My message is not that we should go back to being hunters and gatherers. That isn't going to happen. What we need to do is recognize what we would be doing if we were living as hunters and gatherers and if we're doing something different, then find ways to compensate. So if we replace breast milk with something else, let's make sure that the composition is correct and that it's provided to the baby at the right intervals and all of that kind of thing. And mother-infant contact has been very important for 80 million years in primate evolution, so we need to maintain that as well. Telling mothers to put their babies away somewhere else is not a good idea. Part of that respect means society trying to provide optimal conditions for mothers. We're talking about investment in the next generation. Instead of providing them with stress — which is what we're providing at the moment by not providing mandatory maternity leave in the United States, which I find appalling. It's one of the few places in the world where this is not done. To me, it's unimaginable that a modern society anywhere could be throwing the mothers to the wolves along with their infants when they have the resources and the know-how to do it far better.

E: Well, thank you so much to Robert Martin for sitting and talking with us today. I never thought I cared so much about breastfeeding. Be sure to pick up his book called, "How We Do It." So thanks again, Robert.

R: It was a pleasure. Thank you, Emily.


E: It still has brains on it.