I From Biocultural Evolution to Human-Technology Co-Evolution
BIRTH AND THE BIG BAD WOLF: Biocultural Evolution and Human Childbirth
Melissa Cheyney and Robbie Davis-Floyd
Introduction: Let Us Tell You a Story
Folklorists, anthropologists, and oral historians have long understood that myths and folktales can condense millennia of historical events into stories that are transmitted from one generation to the next; they are, in essence, forms of stored and transmittable collective memory. Many myths are creation or origin narratives that explain—for the people who experience their cultural lives in terms of those stories—who they are, where they came from, what values they hold, and how they are to live their lives. Myths give coherence and meaning to the lives we live by situating our existence within a larger, cosmological context (Davis- Floyd and Laughlin 2016).
For example, Robbie, trained in both anthropology and folklore, figured out many years ago that the Genesis creation myth could be interpreted as an encapsulation of the transitions made by many human groups from foraging to large- scale agriculture. In The Power of Ritual (Davis-Floyd and Laughlin 2016), she argued that this myth conveys the stories of hunters and gatherers who, metaphorically speaking, lived in the Garden of Eden—an abundant natural environment. Eventually hunter-gatherers over-foraged in some areas, thereby straining their environmental carrying capacities, so adapted by cultivating, planting, and plowing. This much more labor-intensive agricultural lifestyle is metaphorized in the story of Adam and Eve being “cast out of the Garden,” with Adam then having to live “by the sweat of his brow” as he planted the fields, while Eve was forced to give birth in pain as punishment for her “original sin” of eating fruit from a forbidden tree. Eve’s story reflects the intensely patriarchal structure of early Hebrew society, passed down through millennia, and of other subsequent similarly powerful and patriarchal religions.
Because myths and stories/folktales have played central roles in human cultural development, we begin our exploration of evolutionary perspectives on childbirth with a creative re-telling of a well-known folktale, “The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.” We use this story to convey the major cultural transformations in human subsistence strategies that have occurred around the world over time, and thus were encoded in collective memory and preserved through storytelling. Below in our own re-imagining of the “Three Little Pigs,” we place particular emphasis on the role of the Wolf, whom we have employed as a metaphor for the uncontrollable, and therefore often frightening, aspects of the natural world that ritual, storytelling, and technological innovation attempt to keep at bay. We have gendered the Wolf as male in keeping with how he is traditionally depicted, but also to challenge the powerful cross-cultural binary that often equates women with nature and submission, and men with culture and dominance (Martin 1987; Ortner 1974). Events attributed to nature such as diseases, floods, droughts, storms, and normal healthy processes like childbirth can all be experienced as challenges or threats “knocking at our doors.” Human culture shapes how we respond to and attempt to understand and control unpredictable and uncontrollable aspects of our natural world, and these attempts have implications not only for how we subsist, but also for how we give birth.
Our re-telling of this ancient folktale diverges from the traditional story in that we describe six little groups of pigs who represent each of the basic subsistence strategies engaged in by humans: (1) foraging/hunting-gathering; (2) horticulture; (3) agriculture; (4) pastoralism; (5) industrialism; and (6) technocracy—all of which have to deal with the Big Bad Wolf/Nature as their members navigate their daily needs and give birth to the children upon whose existence their future depends. We base our re-imagined story on anthropological findings about the lives of people engaged in these subsistence strategies. While many anthropologists might list only the first five, we have included the post-industrial technocratic societies many live in today as a sixth subsistence strategy because we believe they are qualitatively different from earlier periods or stages of industrialism. We do take some liberties with over-simplifications and over-generalizations, as our aim in this retelling is not to covey the complex and context-dependent details of global subsistence transitions, but rather to highlight the dramatic shift in birthing practices that accompanied the Industrial Revolution and further intensified as technocratic societies emerged. So please, sit back, and let us tell you a story.