Written by Sophie Scott

In The News

The nature of older mothers

A lot of people have used the word unnatural to describe the birth last week of quads to a 65-year-old German woman. But, says Professor Sophie Scott, in actual fact, in the rest of nature it happens all the time.

baby elephant standing between two grown onesIt’s brilliant being human. Upright gait, hands that can manipulate all kinds of crazy stuff, big brains we can fill up with important information, like the surprising news that a 65 year-old woman has given birth to quadruplets.

These stories always dominate the news, along with the sense that it’s a strange, unnatural event. The really weird thing about old women and babies is that among the rest of the animal kingdom, it is the norm. Other animals, male and female, have babies throughout their adult lives. Elephants and blue whales haves babies up until their 90s. THEIR NINETIES. (My main 90-year-old role model was my grandmother and she drank gin all day and watched the racing and tried to get me to place bets with her. I’m trying to square that with her having a baby, but then I was only about eight.)

In fact, only humans, killer whales and short-finned pilot whales go through menopause, meaning there are older female humans, killer whales and short-finned pilot whales knocking around and not looking after young offspring. Really, we should all hang out more. Imagine a splendid organisation like Growing Old Disgracefully, then add in some killer whales.

Why is menopause such a rare event in nature? Why aren’t loads of human females having babies at 65? There are a couple of converging theories. One is that older females, unencumbered by babies, are essential to have around when younger females are giving birth, and in helping them raise their families. And if that sounds ridiculous, bear in mind that the twin constraints of walking upright and our huge brains converge on female pelvises, which need to be big enough that we can deliver the babies and not so big that we can’t walk.

“Before we could write things down, we relied entirely on older members of social groups to know about stuff, from family history through to what the hell to do when there’s a drought or a cyclone.”

This means, in turn, that human females have a lot more difficulty giving birth, and unlike all other animals, they need help. The first medical professionals would have been midwives and those midwives were almost certainly other women. Does the menopause ensure a group of women are around who know roughly what to do?

More generally, in social groups like humans, killer whales and short-finned pilot whales, older females seem to play a critical social role. With killer whales, mothers are important to sons’ survival and mothers are even more important to their sons after they’ve gone through the menopause.

orcaOld women, killer whales and short-finned pilot whales may also be essential repositories of knowledge. The writer Jared Diamond pointed out that in human history, before we could write things down, we relied entirely on older members of social groups to know about stuff, from family history through to what the hell to do when there’s a drought or a cyclone. A menopause means older women avoid the huge health risks of pregnancy and childbirth – which kills 800 women every day worldwide.

Having a menopause results in many more women surviving to be around, have their children’s backs and share their knowledge than there would be if they were still having babies and dying.

So yes, it’s unusual for an older woman to have babies, but it’s not unnatural – in the rest of nature it’s quite ordinary. Maybe instead of getting windy about older women having babies (alongside a general tendency to not be that bothered when older men do), we should start thinking of older women as magnificent beasts, freed up from babies to lead their social groups, support their tribes, and be expert hunters of salmon. Sorry no, that’s killer whales.

http://www.growingolddisgracefully.org.uk

http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2012/09/13/why-do-killer-whales-go-through-menopause/

http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/05/why-killer-whales-go-through-menopause-but-elephants-dont/

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Written by Sophie Scott

I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott