Mandrill Seeking Mom

Associate Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Center for Evolution and Medicine, Arizona State University

In this image, “Mandrill Seeking Mom”, I see an intricate negotiation between mother and infant. The photo captures a moment of the here and now, but implicitly anchored to a cascade of evolutionary pressures. Laid bare is this transitional moment in this youngster’s life when she exerts to gain her mother’s attention.

Mandrill - SEEKING MOM

Mandrill – SEEKING MOM

Natural selection has shaped mammalian mothers to nurture and nourish multiple infants across a whole reproductive career, not to optimize the outcome of any one infant. As a mother liquefies parts of her body— such as fat stores and skeletal minerals— to synthesize milk, she faces trade-offs between herself, her future reproduction, and the infant’s growth and development. This is the essential tension of parent-offspring conflict, in the midst of coordination and cooperation. Mom’s priorities and kiddo’s priorities overlap, but the priorities are not identical.

For the newborn infant, the mother’s body is warmth and sustenance, comfort and security. In this neonatal period, a mother is frequently generous in lavishing this tangible love. But as an infant ages, each drop of milk becomes less precious, less essential to survive and thrive. And so begins the weaning process.

Among primates the weaning process is the behavioral negotiation between mother and infant for physiological support. A mother nurses less frequently. Whereas she once nursed on demand, a mother begins to turn away, to block, to reject nursing contact. The primate infant objects, as anyone who has tangled with a weaning tantrum can attest. Whereas the mother once chased after the exploring infant to keep her close at hand, now the infant trails after mom. During these transitions and tribulations, the infant begins to find her own food. Intervals between nursing bouts lengthen. The infant becomes more independent.

But in the drizzling rain, this mandrill daughter on the cusp of juvenility still seeks maternal comfort, desires the warmth and the milk of mother’s kindness. In light of the recent months of more frequent rejection, the potential of maternal aggression, the increasing conflict of the weaning process, the older infant can grow to be cautious. Now the infant sometimes double-checks what she once took for granted. She works to catch her mother’s eye, seemingly to infer the likelihood of succor. In this moment of beseeching negotiation, we see mandrill seeking mom, infant seeking welcome.

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