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Birthing Process Forces Cultural Evolution in Humans

Christina Cunnane's picture

Birthing Process Forces Cultural Evolution in Humans


            Most anthropologists and sociologists believe that cultural evolution exists and that “human beings have natural social tendencies and that particular human social behaviors have non-genetic causes and dynamics,” (sociocultural).  This type of cultural and social evolution is termed sociocultural evolution and it describes how “cultures and societies have developed over time,” (sociocultural).  The jump from ordinary biological evolution to cultural evolution is not a far leap; biological and cultural evolution are often intertwined.  The birthing process, as it evolved from monkeys to humans, is an example of how biological evolution and cultural evolution are linked.  Childbirth in humans is an extremely difficult and dangerous process that is a result of human bipedalism and encephalization.  Birthing difficulties forced cooperation among humans, resulting in the formation of social interactions and the beginning of culture among early humans.  Thus, the beginnings of cultural evolution were an indirect result of the biological evolution of bipedalism and encephalization.

            Human birth, ignoring the bipedalism, is closely related to that of monkeys.  Surprisingly, chimpanzees and gorillas have less in common with human birthing than monkeys do.  This is largely due to the fact that monkeys have a more closely related stature and a narrow birth canal compared to infant head size.  Despite these similarities, the lack of bipedalism makes the birthing process much easier for monkeys.  The birth canal in monkeys has the same cross-sectional shape throughout and allows the infant to pass without the complicated twists and turns human infants must perform.  The monkey birth canal is oval shaped and allows the infant to be born headfirst, facing its mother.  The face-forward orientation is extremely beneficial for the pair because the mother is able to guide the infant from the birth canal and into her arms (Rosenberg 82-83).  Monkey “infants are strong enough to take part in their own deliveries.  Once their hands are free, they can grab their mother’s body and pull themselves out,” (Rosenberg 83). 

            Human births are much more complicated and dangerous than monkey births.  “The evolutionary modifications of the human pelvis that enabled hominids to walk upright necessitate that most infants exit the birth canal with the back of their heads against the pubic bones, facing in the opposite direction as their mother,” (Rosenberg 83).  The face-backward position of human infants presents a problem in that the mothers are not able to guide the infant, regardless of the pose she takes during labor.  This position also inhibits the mother from being able to lift the baby, clear the nose and mouth of mucous, and remove the umbilical cord if it is around the baby’s neck (Rosenberg 83).  In addition to the awkwardness of the delivery position, the infant and mother undergo a laborious route during the journey through the birth canal.  During the evolutionary process, humans evolved large brain sizes and as a result, infants have an extraordinarily large head to body proportion.  Encephalization makes it extremely difficult for the infant to fit through the birth canal considering the adaptation of a skinnier bipedal pelvis.  The infant must make a series of twists and turns in order for it to fit through the varying widths of the birth canal.  These twists and turns result in the infants head emerging first facing the mothers back (Rosenberg 82). 

            The painful and dangerous complications that arose as a result of bipedalism were lessened by the development of assisted births.  “Today virtually all women in all societies seek assistance at delivery,” (Rosenberg 83).   There are a few exceptions to this rule, but assisted delivery greatly alleviates the physical stress associated with childbirth.  Assisted delivery also reduces the mortality rate among humans.  The high mortality rate with unassisted human births almost outweighs the benefits of encephalization and bipedalism; the species would die out if it could not successfully reproduce.  It was, therefore, evolutionarily necessary for birthing mothers to seek assistance during childbirth.  Karen Rosenberg and Wenda Trevathan suggest that this behavior was favored during natural selection because it decreased the mortality rate (Rosenberg 85).  The assistance seeking behavior is attributed to the fear, anxiety, and pain experienced by expecting mothers.  “Psychiatrists have argued that natural selection might have favored such emotions…because they led individuals who experienced them to seek the protection of companions, which would have given them a better chance of surviving,” (Rosenberg 85). 

            The necessity for assistance provides a basis for the development early human culture.  The presence of multiple people during a delivery brings up issues of communication and trust.  The delivery assistants are there to provide physical and emotional support for the mother.  This is done in different ways across cultures and is evident of the obligatory culture that has been produced.  There is an obvious element of trust with assisted deliveries; a stranger could run off with the new infant while the mother was incapacitated.  A complex web of culture is derived from the simple need to cooperate in order for the species to flourish.  The dangerous process of birthing sometimes results in the death of the mother.  Assisted births dramatically increase the survival of the infant in these cases as opposed to births that occur in seclusion.  It is also thought that “witnesses of a birth find themselves bonded to the mother’s infant, with an urge to take care of the newborn if the mother happens to die,” (Physical 13).  These interactions promote the unique living and caring culture found in humans.

            The cultural process of childbirth has been evolving since the first assisted delivery.  Many different societies have different rituals and processes associated with the delivery of a newborn.  In Western society, most women give birth in a hospital, either by Cesarean section or “naturally.”  There is also a recent influx of hydro births in which the birthing process takes place in a pool of water.  In the Navajo culture, there are religious ceremonies, the umbilical cord and the placenta are buried ceremoniously, and the child is introduced to the world by a baby shower.  The mother is honored and is given a special diet before the baby is born in the Bangalore culture.  After birthing, the mother is required to stay home and be pampered for twenty-two days.  In the Balinese culture, the mother is purified and placenta is buried after childbirth.  It is also required that the child does not touch the ground for the first one-hundred and five days of life; it must be held continuously by family members.  In the Thai culture, various religious practices are performed in order to keep evil spirits away from the child.  Newborns are seen as reincarnations of past souls in the Hmong culture and after three days, the infant is given a soul and a silver necklace to keep it from wandering (Grice).  Almost every unique society has different birthing and after birth practices.  These societies, however, have at least assisted births in common.

            The biological evolution of bipedalism and encephalization has contributed to the enormous evolutionary success that is humans.  However, these evolutionary processes have created great difficulty during childbirth for human females and infants.  The decreased size of the birth canal due to bipedalism and the increased infant head size due to encephalization require that mothers seek assistance during labor.  Assisted births provide the necessary interactions that form human culture.  Since the beginning of the first assisted birth, human birthing culture has evolved into a wide variety over many different societies.   The evolution of the morphology of humans has produced the need for culture and has subsequently resulted in the formation of these complex cultures over societies.


Works Cited


Grice, Linda E.  “Indigenious Birthing Rituals.” Accessed 20 Mar 2007


“The Physical, Physiological, and Biocultural Evolution of Birth.” 19 Nov. 2002. Accessed 20 Mar 2007


Rosenberg, Karen R. and Wenda R. Trevathan. "The Evolution of Human Birth." Scientific American May 2003: 80-85.


"Sociocultural evolution." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 18 Mar 2007, 04:13 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 Mar 2007


Serendip Visitor's picture

Positive feedback


I just wanted to let you know I've done a BSc, MSc and starting a PhD looking into this and ignore some of these comments they are very rude and I think you have summarirised the content and lines of reasoning very well. The vast majority of human births throughout history, and certainly 99% of first births require assistance for numerous physical and emotional/psychological benefits. this is a really interesting and understudied area so well done for highlighting it! Also to the previous commentor who brought God into this...really? if there really was a diety how cruel he/she/it is to have designed us so poorly and caused billions of people such pain and suffering. Anyway, well done dude!

Andrea Codega's picture

"resus" not "rhesus" by the way

My original comment included a reference to "resus" - referring to "resuscitation techniques". Not "Rhesus" as it seems to have been read.

Danny's picture

I am not going to sit here

I am not going to sit here and pretend that medical technology hasn't saved lives of babies and mothers who experienced complications. However, it is ignorant and self righteous to believe that we have outsmarted nature. A lot of complications during childbirth stem from the insistence of the physicians making the birthing mother lay on her back. This can cause lack of oxygen for mother and child alike as well as working against gravity and the natural shape of the body. This essay is simply one person's view who obviously hasn't given birth herself and for someone who is seemingly well educated, provides a vary ignorant and megalaminiacal point of view.

Jamie's picture

This Article

Infection control isn't needed if the attendant isn't sticking their hands up inside women's vaginas - and rhesus immunization is being argued by many midwives to have been caused by attendants - blood of both mother and infant during normal birth does NOT mix. When you pull on the cord and yank the placenta out, it does. God never cured us with pain in childbirth. By the way, I emailed Wenda Trevathan, she no longer believes everything quoted in this article since she has learned more about birth.

Andrea Codega's picture

Birthing Process Forces Cultural Evolution in Humans

What a load of rubbish. Birth is safe. Interference (ie "assisted delivery") with that delicate process is risky. Nature / God did not make a mistake. That is why human babies skulls can mould - to negotiate the shape of the pelvis. The slippery vernix on their skin, the shock absorbing bag of waters, etc are all important design features for birth. Women can birth safely if allowed to birth as nature intended. Emotional support is required because most complications are the result of fear - either on the part of the mother or the health "professional" attending her. Fear of birth is what has evolved to shape our birthing practices. Only a small percentage of births are truely in need of assistance. The mortality rate has decreased over time in line with our knowledge of infection control, resus techniques, and lately, with a renewed respect for natural birth - something which should not be feared.

moxyrox's picture

You wouldn't classify

You wouldn't classify infection control and "rhesus" (by the way) techniques interference? Mortality rates for not only child but mother have been, until recently, EXTREMELY high. God doesn't make mistakes, you're right, but he also cursed us with pain and problems with childbirth. How about your experiences with childbirth?