Human Evolution from a New Perspective
By Elaine Morgan
Oxford University Press, 197 pp.

For all the attention we pay to infants and children, all the love we lavish on them and the ceaseless concern, Elaine Morgan points out that we seldom see things from their perspective. We do not, as it were, put ourselves in their booties.

Consider the single most miraculous event of life’s grand cycle, childbirth itself. We are all aware of how arduous and agonizing it can be, although we’re quick to add the proviso that no one who hasn’t given birth can truly appreciate what it’s like. But this is to forget that there are two people, not one, who experience the pain of delivery – the mother and the child. In truth, everyone alive has felt the agony of childbirth. It’s just that we pay scant attention to what the newborn goes through.

Perhaps it’s just as well. The last thing expectant mothers need to be reminded of is that they’re about to inflict sheer terror and pain on their innocent offspring. But look at it, as Morgan does, from the baby’s point of view.

For nine months, it has been floating in a warm, idyllic universe where all needs have been beneficently supplied. Then one day, the very walls of that universe turn against it. They convulse for hours on end, compressing the placenta and umbilical cord, depriving the child of oxygen and smashing it down toward the neck of the womb, which has to be forced open by the baby’s head.

Once in the neck of the womb, the contractions of the uterus and the abdomen squash the child into a ball, its chin pressed against its breastbone. By the time it reaches the pelvis, the slope of the pelvic floor wrenches its head around so that it’s now looking over its shoulder. A little lower, it encounters a kink in the vagina, which bends its head sharply backward so that it leads with its chin. Only at the end of the process, if all goes well, does the head come down to afford a “crown presentation,” as the mother’s pubic ring compresses its skull.

Just reading about it is discomfiting, but the charm of this delightful little book is how it makes the most familiar aspects of babyhood new and wondrous just by switching the usual perspective from parent to infant. The pattern of human procreation is so established that we tend to take it for granted. But Morgan, a gifted science writer and the author of The Aquatic Ape, takes nothing for granted. At every turn, she asks: Why should this be?

Why are human babies born so helpless when the progeny of other primates are not? Why are they born hairless, especially since at one point in their gestation they’re covered in a mat of hair called the lanugo? Why is human childbirth so painful? Why don’t newborns shiver? Why are they so fat? Why do infants in the womb hiccup? Why, between the ages of four and six months, does the human larynx drop from the back of the palate to the back of the tongue – an anatomical oddity that allows infants to inhale rather than swallow food and is clearly implicated in sudden infant death syndrome?

The answers to these questions are fascinating, and together they reveal an evolutionary strategy on the part of human young. If you want to know the answers, however, you’re going to have to buy the

  • Globe and Mail June 15, 1995