Monthly Archives: March 2013

Geeking Out on Mothers’ Milk

Debbie says:

One of the many good things about Nicholas Day’s article in Slate about the science of breast milk is that, pretty close to the beginning, he goes out of his way to say that “conversations about lactation always seem to require disclaimers,” and his is that lack of breast milk

has never been a death sentence. Hundreds of years before halfway-decent formula, infants were fed gruesome substitutes for breast milk (mushed bread and beer, say)—and although many more died than those who were nursed, many also survived. So the lesson of the new science of milk isn’t that formula is some sort of modern evil. (It isn’t modern or evil.) It’s that milk is really complicated—and evolutionarily amazing.

Of course, this is important because of how intensely mothers (at least white, middle-class American mothers) can blame themselves if they can’t nurse or don’t like it or don’t do it for two years or whatever the current thinking is. In my history, the story was the opposite: my mother wanted to nurse and it was thoroughly unfashionable. Her doctor wished her well but said, “I can’t help at all; I don’t know anything.” And nursing is, contrary to many people’s beliefs, often neither simple nor intuitive. So when she ran into trouble, she went to the African-American women waiting on the corner for the bus to take them (to? from?) their jobs as maids (this is Baltimore in 1951) and got their advice. I’ve always admired that–and wondered why she didn’t ask her own mother, who almost certainly nursed all three of her children.

But I digress.

In the article, Day relies mostly on the work of Katie Hinde, a Harvard assistant professor who studies breast milk in humans and rhesus macaques, and writes an occasional blog called Mammals Suck … Milk (Day shortens the name, which I think is a pity). According to Hinde, breast milk is not very well understood. L. Bode at the University of California San Diego recently published a paper demonstrating that some of the carbohydrates in breast milk are indigestible by babies … instead, they feed the bacteria in the baby’s gut, and perform a wide variety of health protection tasks in the process.

Hinde, whose field is evolutionary biology, focuses more on what she calls “milk as signal.” In rhesus macaques, “The composition of early milk seems to mold infant temperament. But—and here’s the twist—the males were much more sensitive than the females. Roughly, the more cortisol, the more bold and exploratory the male rhesus macaques were.”

Although evolutionary biology is a more sophisticated and scientifically defensible field (by far) than evolutionary psychology, nonetheless this is probably very simplistic gendering and might not withstand a more nuanced examination. There is so much data, beginning with the now almost 15-year-old Biological Exuberance, undermining binary descriptions of animal sexual/gendered behavior that I can’t trust statements like:

In rhesus macaques, daughters stay in their social groups their whole lives,” Hinde notes. “They form a bond with their mother that only ends when one of them dies. So it might be that mothers are nursing their daughters more frequently and that helps establish this bond.” In contrast, the sons end up leaving the group—and fattier milk means they nurse less often, which means they can spend more time playing with strangers, developing skills they’ll need later in life. The milk, in other words, reflects and cements the social structure of rhesus macaques.

And, of course, Day (if not Hinde) feels perfectly free to hint that these findings will illuminate human behavior.

Nonetheless, there’s more in the article about the complexity of the content of mother’s milk, and the whole thing is worth reading. I only wish that, as a culture, we were able to extend our observation of chemical/biological/hormonal/tactile substances and experiences that we know we don’t understand without trying to fit them into our extremely reductive concept of two immediately identifiable, vastly different, and non-overlapping genders.

Thanks to boingboing for the pointer, and to whatever link list got me to boingboing to find it.


War Photographs: Disturbing Images

Laurie says:

Trigger warning: Photos in this post are of war and its effects. They are disturbing.

I’ve been thinking about beautiful photographs of dreadful things for a long time. They make me viscerally uncomfortable. I’ll look at the front page of a newspaper and react positively to a beautifully composed photograph, and then I realize it’s of fighters shooting guerrillas and someone is dying in the corner of the photo and I react with quick anger. Not all of this kind of work is beautifully composed, but I’m reflecting on the work that is. There are many exceptions.

Malian soldiers fight while clashes erupted in the city of Gao on February 21, 2013 and an apparent car bomb struck near a camp. (Frederic Lafargue/AFP/Getty Images)

This is also one of those times where lots of things are true at the same time. The people who take these photos are courageous. Sometimes they are doing important and useful work. Sometimes they are creating dangerous lies.

I saw this photo at an exhibition and didn’t realize the subject until I saw the title. Here the artist is playing with horror and beauty and that’s a different thing – although I am not any more comfortable with it.

Enrique Metinides, “Rescate de un ahogado en Xochimilco con público reflejado en el agua,” (Retrieval of a drowned body from Lake Xochimilco with the public reflected in the water.)

In war photography and its equivalents, the beauty of the composition can distance the viewer from the horror of the images, making them easier to view. Perhaps for some photographers, some distance also makes taking these photos less difficult.

This is from the war in Biafra. I couldn’t find the photo credit.

It is the very rare viewer that wants to experience the reality of theses images. Creating “manageable” images gives the viewer a “taste” of the horror.

And photographers are trained to thoughtfully compose. And work that is too “real” is less likely to be bought and published. So I expect there is both conscious and unconscious self censorship in the genre. (And it is a genre.)

This is not only about photography per se. The censorious reactions to Goya’s painted War Series are a historical example. A few years ago, Botero’s paintings of the tortures of Abu Ghraib were exhibited here at a university library, because no museum would show them.

At this point I’m not sure that my reactions are simply an extension of the ethics of my own work. The work I’m discussing feels to me to be dehumanizing and separating, but I’m not sure that my thoughts are more broadly applicable. I’m still thinking about it.