The Tending Instinct, a review

by Sidra M. S. Vitale

The Tending Instinct: How Nuturing is Essential to Who We Are and How We Live
by Shelley E. Taylor
Times Books, Henry Holt and Co, LLC, New York, NY, USA. 2002.

Probably, the most precise summation I can make about reading The Tending Instinct is that I didn't really want to, and I'm glad I did. It is a seminal work, tying together ideas and data from difficult-to-quantify areas such as the psychology of stress, the emotional and physical aspects of the act of nuturing, and its [especially long-term] effects, and the biochemistry of stress response in humans and other primates, in both the long and short term. She also discusses tending in society as a whole -- that is, the nurturing infrastructure of a society, those elements of day-to-day life that make it easy to tend or be tended. Ease of access to trusted caregivers for working parents, or medical care, educational or mentorship opportunities, for example.

Why didn't I want to read The Tending Instinct, initially? Because I was suspicious. I worried it would be filled with soft uneven science -- assertions made without supporting data, anecdotal evidence or untrustworthy statistics[*]. Or, worse, an overt right-wing ideology that See! Women should go back into the kitchen and restrict themselves to being Wives And Mothers (tm). Or, equally worse, a stereotypically 60's feminist ideology trumpeting that women are nurturers and men aren't, and we need to socialize medicine/money is evil. Or some patched together combination thereof.

Instead, I found a large amount of anecdotal data as lead-in to more detailed discussions, which were, in turn, buttressed and refined by the results of substantial studies appearing in major peer-reviewed journals. (Reports by stress researchers, primate researchers, developmental psychologists, etc.)

Taylor starts by discussing research in the late 1940's on war orphans in Germany. When Elsie Widdowson, a medical researcher at Cambridge University, was responsible for monitoring the nutrition of two group homes of orphaned children, approximately 100 orphans aged 4-14, these children were noticeably below the expected norms of height and weight. While at the orphanages their nutritional needs were met better than during wartime, their rations were still inadequate. Widdowson and her colleagues tried an experiment, scraping together a higher ration for one of the homes and leaving the other unchanged. They expected to observe a superior growth rate in the children with a higher ration.

Against their expectations, the children with the unchanged rations had a superior growth rate.

Upon investigation, Widdowson and her colleagues found that the effect of the changed rations was secondary to the effect of one caregiver who genuinely cared for and about "her" orphans, in sharp contrast to another responsible for the other home, who frightened the children under her care.

One caregiver, showing affection and generating affection in her kids, had a bigger impact than the food the orphans ate.

One caregiver. 50 children. And a bigger impact than food.

From that beginning, Taylor deepens her gaze to examine the origins of tending, chemical and behavioural responses in men and women to stress, the evolution of a large social brain in humans, the effect of tending in developing emotional responses to life, and the long-term impact of poor stress response on health and life expectancy. Separate chapters are devoted to discussions of the physical, social, and emotional benefits of tending in women's groups [that is, groups of women, not women's movements], tending in the marriage partnership, and tending in men's groups [again, groups of men, not men's movements]. Parental tending is discussed early and often.

One thing Taylor points out specifically [and revisits this theme later when discussing working life] is that successful primates, in strict dominance hierarchies or not, are successful because they build coalitions, not because they're the biggest, most aggressive baboon in the bunch.

Taylor then ventures into a short discussion of tending-related causes of altruism, and the last two chapters of The Tending Instinct examine tending on a broader scale and in the context of society. In particular, Taylor discusses the relationship of social class to health, ponders work relationships and the interpersonal skills that make a good boss/employee, and suggests directions we can go in the future with a better understanding of our need both to nurture and be nurtured.

With The Tending Instinct, Taylor is synthesizing, spanning disciplines to draw together different strands of research in biochemistry, psychology, and other arenas, to propose they demonstrate human beings are overridingly a tending species, a nurturing species. Success, for h. sapiens, is existing in a strong network of support, giving and taking as one's needs require. Our most successful humans are those who inspire, those who persuade, those who build coalitions to achieve a good for the entire group.

Taylor as author, has two habits that I didn't like. Stating an assertion and then providing supporting data -- I prefer data first, conclusion second -- and I think she left too much in her footnotes that could have been in the body of the text. No doubt the latter was an editorial decision to maintain an easy reading flow, and it was probably the right decision. However, I strongly recommend reading The Tending Instinct with two bookmarks: one for where you are in the text, and one for where you are in the footnotes. Some of them are a half-page or a full page in length. That's a lot you don't want to miss.

[*] An artifact of running into some popular yet not-terribly-substantiated statistics appearing elsewhere.

Copyright © 2002 by Sidra M. S. Vitale

02/05/06 at 1:9