Women who don’t want babies are DENYING BIOLOGY!

Here we go again: Jerry Coyne is flogging another dead dichotomous horse. All it takes is for anyone to say that sex isn’t binary, and he charges in over all those people who demonstrate that it really isn’t so simple to say it is too! Now it’s the NY Times, which published an op-ed titled, The Maternal Instinct is a Myth that Men Created. Dr Coyne is not alone — it set the racist and misogynist internet on fire (Go ahead! Google it! I sure see a lot of links I wouldn’t post anywhere.) How dare the NY Times question the purity of women?

Let’s take a look at that article first. I didn’t find it at all objectionable, but then, I am an SJW soy-boy. It points out that simplistic notions of a maternal instinct are invalid — some women are uninterested in, or even repelled, by the idea of pregnancy, childbirth, and raising a child (and some men, obviously, are thrilled with the joys of parenthood). It can’t be a simple matter of inheriting a chromosome that makes you want babies — there’s a complex continuum of maternal behavior, and it’s not only exhibited by people with two X chromosomes, or a vagina, or certain hormones, or whatever excuse conservatives have been making for an intrinsic female nature for the last century. There’s a peculiar impulse that makes some human beings want to cast everything in a black/white light, though.

The myth of maternal instinct places a primacy on biological mothers, suggesting the routes to parenthood fall into two categories: “natural” and “other.” It sustains outdated ideas about masculinity that teaches fathers that they are secondary — assistants, babysitters — and encourages mothers to see them that way, too. It undermines the rights and recognition of same-sex couples and transgender and nonbinary parents, whose ability to care for their children is often questioned.

That’s the message: human behavior isn’t binary. The idea of everything about people being the product of simple either/or switches has failed. And if you want to know how such a notion has taken over, we ask, “Cui bono?” It’s men who benefit from enforcing this arrangement.

Coyne doesn’t like that, and he has a rather silly argument against it. It first relies on typological thinking — the average defines the individual.

But to claim that women don’t have a greater desire than men to care for offspring, or have a greater emotional affinity towards offspring, is to deny biology, and evolution in particular. (I freely admit that many men love their kids deeply, and that some men care for them as much or more as do mothers, but I’m talking about averages here, not anecdotes.)

Women (aggregate noun) have greater desire (uniformly, it appears) to care for offspring. OK, what about people who don’t? Are they not women? We’ve seen this flavor of argument before from people who want to claim that some universal characteristic is an unambiguous and unmistakeable marker for sexual identity. Yeah, some AFAB women have wombs. So? Why should that one character define the totality of the person, and why should its absence likewise define other people?

I’m not impressed by his argument — it’s basically the idea that animal females can have babies, therefore we get to associate a whole lot of culturally determined other attributes on them — but I was amused by one thing. He sorta half-assedly cites Sarah Blaffer Hrdy to support his ideas.

UPDATE: In a comment below, Randolph Nesse, one of the founders of “Darwinian medicine,” cites a book I’d forgotten:

If only everyone interested in this topic could read “Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species”, Sarah Hrdy’s 2020 book on the topic. And if only the NY Times would review such excellent science books so people would know about them! I am tempted to send Conaboy a copy.

Hrdy is a highly respected anthropologist, and you can order her book by clicking on this screenshot:

I highly doubt that Hrdy sees maternal instincts as pure social constructs designed to hold women down. I’m going to read it, and I hope Conaboy does, too. Then we can expect her to retract her article (LOL).

He hasn’t read it? I’ve read it. It’s a very good book. It doesn’t support his binary reductionism, though, and nobody sees human behavior as pure social constructs — that’s a Pinkerish straw man. She asks hard questions and comes up with complex answers that are entirely compatible with evolutionary theory, but don’t support the kind of binary reductionism Coyne is peddling. She writes, for instance:

Is a mother born instinctively nurturing? (“She is a motherly type,” I’ve sometimes heard it said.) Does something inside her change during pregnancy that makes her maternal? (“Before the baby was born, her nesting instinct really got going.”) Is the increased responsiveness due to stimulation from the infant? (“She just fell in love with her new baby.”) Is a female gradually primed to be a mother by experiences?

For mice at least, the answer to these questions is: all of the above. “Instinctive” is a reasonable way to describe her maternal behavior, as long as it is understood that mother mammals do not necessarily exhibit automatic, full-blown commitment to infants immediately after birth. Rather, her “maternal instinct” unfolds gradually, in “baby steps” in which infants, too, are implicated.

Nature cannot be compartmentalized from nurture, yet something about human imaginations predisposes us to dichotomize the world that way. Nature versus Nurture, innate or acquired. The persistence, decade after decade, of a nonexistent dichotomy puzzles me.

Me, too.

Here’s one of her conclusions.

Rather than some magical “essence of mother,” what makes a mother is that she is (invariably) at the scene, hormonally primed, sensitive to infant signals, and related to the baby. These factors lower her threshold for giving of herself to satisfy the infant’s needs. Once her milk comes in, the mother’s urge to nurture grows stronger still. Furthermore, compared to the father (who also shares at least half of his genes with this infant by common descent), there is a good chance that this infant represents a higher proportion of her reproductive prospects than of his (though not necessarily, if she has several, and this is the only child he ever sires). These factors make the mother the likeliest candidate to become the primary caretaker. But they do not constitute an unyielding prescription.

Well, that neatly answers what Coyne considers to be his definitive point: How do we explain the fact that, across the animal kingdom, when members of only one sex do most of the childrearing, it’s almost invariably the females? Consider it explained without resorting to a universal maternal instinct driving all women’s behavior. Your idea of what a woman is supposed to be and do is not an “unyielding prescription,” it’s neither a “should” nor a “must,” yet that’s how most of these authoritarian thinkers use the concept.

Maybe it would help to treat women as individuals and people first, rather than as avatars of a sex?


  1. Bruce says

    If ALL animals have universal forces that make mothers become nurturing, then why do some mothers in some species actually eat some of their newborn babies? Is that part of the supposed universal law of all of Nature that all animals do the same thing?
    What evil wizard persuaded sea horse fathers to all become nurturing parents? Eating too much sea-soy?

  2. drsteve says

    Oddly enough, my mind was wandering to a similar place while in the gym and shower this morning when I got to thinking about the high risk of death in childbirth historically, especially before modern medicine. I came to the hypothesis that flexibility in maternal roles, allowing for any relative to pinch hit for a mother who died giving birth to a live infant, would be positively selected behavior throughout hominid evolutionary history. Not sure how this could be quantitatively tested, though.

  3. wzrd1 says

    I find it fascinating that he’s interested in uncited “averages”, where everything else is merely anecdotes.
    Without a citation of the claimed average, he’s only provided his won anecdote and is as trivially dismissed – by his very own reasoning.

  4. sarah00 says

    As a cis woman who has absolutely no interest in having children, is actively repulsed by the thought of pregnancy (a parasite is growing inside me and I’m supposed to be happy about it?!) and has chemically stopped my periods for over a decade thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, this biological reductionism really bothers me. That it only seems to come from transphobes as a ‘gotcha’ to deny the reality of trans people is deeply disturbing. Feminists fought for decades to have women be seen as more than just their reproductive parts and I hate seeing these so-called feminists reducing us back down to them in order to justify the oppressive status quo and exclude trans people from society. Fuck that shit.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    @#3 wzrd1
    Coyne’s use of averages to define human behavior is particularly fascinating because he is a deeply weird human himself. For example, he once intentionally let a bot fly larva live and develop under his own scalp.

  6. says

    Life is not binary. People who say there are “two sides to every argument” are imbeciles. There are always more that two sides to every argument. Why do tiny-minded idiots always try to put everyone into one of only two possibilities??
    By the way, no matter how hard I try to be open-minded, I’ve never wanted to get pregnant. But, then I’m an esoteric old white hetero man (if you must try to categorize me).

  7. robro says

    I’m not a scientist so I don’t know about all mammal behavior, but I do know that for some bird species it’s the male who tends the chicks and the females do the foraging. And in some bird species, the loving mother puts her eggs in the nest of another species to be cared for.

    My first partner, a cis-woman, decided she was not interested in pregnancy and so had a tubal ligation shortly after we moved to California. As this was in the mid-70s, she had to go through some rigmarole to assure the doctor that she was serious, but she got it done. Later in her life, as we had separated, she had a relationship with a man who had a child and she enjoyed helping raise the lad but she never regretted her decision.

    As for my interest in being a father, in the mid-70s I couldn’t imagine such a thing. Later, I had a partner with a young son and I enjoyed that experience. Somewhat later, I met a woman and we decided to have a child together. It’s been quite a journey of 30+ years, and looking back I’m happy with our decision. However, if I told our story to a younger person considering parenthood, I could easily imagine them just saying no.

  8. raven says

    Declines in marriage and fertility and increased cohabitation in the general population are starting to be reflected in the lives of aging adults.
    Of the 92.2 million adults ages 55 and older in 2018, 15.2 million (16.5%) are childless, defined here as having no biological children.Dec 14, 2021

    No Kids, No Care? Childlessness Among Older Americans https://www.census.gov › library › stories › 2021/12 › no

    At present, 16.5% of older US adults are childless. Women and men are roughly equal with slightly more childless men. This is older adults so they are unlikely or unable to by that point to change their mind.
    It is also going up with time.

    This is despite the strong social pressures in our society to have children.

    It is also reflected in the developed world fertility, number of children a woman has in her lifetime, falling below replacement of 2.1.

    A huge number of people choose to be childless if given the chance to do so.
    This hypothetical maternal instinct or biological destiny doesn’t seem to be all that strong.

  9. christoph says

    “…it’s almost invariably the females?”
    “Almost” invariably means “not invariably.”

  10. opposablethumbs says

    … kind of puts me in mind the old feminist posters and badges saying something like:
    “Well if I get my ‘natural feminine instincts’ from my biology, how come you’re telling me how to be a woman?”

  11. John Harshman says

    I have full confidence that the mansplaining gene will be found somewhere on the Y chromosome.

  12. birgerjohansson says

    Despite living in Scandinavia, I feel no compulsion to bury a battle-axe in someone’s skull.
    Am I abnormal?

  13. birgerjohansson says

    It is easier to have children if there is subsidized health care, kindergartens, paid leave for child care, free education etc. You know, European stuff (no longer including tory-ruled Britain).

  14. Deepak Shetty says

    Coyne : All sheep are white
    SJWs : Here are some black sheep
    Coyne : All sheep are on average more likely to be white , or are almost invariably white
    SJWs : So ?
    Coyne : I dont know , I just want to criticise SJWs.

  15. says

    I thought that the whole point of evolution is that there are no such imperatives.

    I do wonder whar survival or reproductive value is gained by ageing male philosopher/scientists/skeptics that nakes them suddenly get all up in other people’s business? How does worrying about gender issues help them? It seems to be a sort lf intellectual menopause. It should be studied. Though I think the billionaires’ desire to get into orbit is also interesting. Maybe its all the effect of something like cordyceps that affects ageing men.

  16. birgerjohansson says

    “Ageing men”
    They should attack themselves to a big female, like anhlerfish males!

  17. silvrhalide says

    @1 “why do some mothers in some species actually eat some of their newborn babies?”
    Because newborns, if left unchecked, will eventually turn into hormonal, angst-ridden teenagers.

    Sign at local liquor store two months into the pandemic: “What goes with a toddler, a teenager and a husband? Red or white?”

  18. birgerjohansson says

    We are, on average, 51% female. But I still cannot feel any urgent desire to have children. Also my private parts are 100% male.

  19. says

    But to claim that women don’t have a greater desire than men to care for offspring, or have a greater emotional affinity towards offspring, is to deny biology, and evolution in particular.

    How does men having equal desire to care for offspring “deny” either biology or evolution? Is he saying men are biologically incapable of it? Or that natural selection somehow doesn’t favor men caring for offspring in addition to women?

  20. birgerjohansson says

    @ 18
    Spell check ruins everything.
    Should be “attach” and “anglerfish “.

  21. Ada Christine says

    @21 Raging Bee

    He’s saying that the patriarchy is good and that women should do what men want them to do, not what they feel like doing. That whole “deny biology and evolution” thing is a red herring to debate over and distract people from the totality of what he said.

  22. Tethys says

    Son opted to be the primary caregiver for his babies, and DIL is currently incubating granddaughter #3. It’s almost as if nurturing offspring is not exclusive to the ability to produce eggs!

    I wonder how the widespread ‘pagan’ practice of exposing unwanted infants fits into the holy mother Mary fetishized vision espoused by Coyne? Is it possible he has never heard of Oedipus Rex?

  23. Rich Woods says

    @birgerjohansson #13:

    Despite living in Scandinavia, I feel no compulsion to bury a battle-axe in someone’s skull. Am I abnormal?

    Yes, but please continue living your axe-less life. We still haven’t got all the blood out of the church from last time. Thank you.

  24. anat says

    How do we explain the fact that, across the animal kingdom, when members of only one sex do most of the childrearing, it’s almost invariably the females?

    Ahem. Across the animal kingdom? Quite a few species of fish and amphibians with males doing the childrearing. For the simple reason that species that breed by shedding their gametes into water, the individuals that make the smaller, lighter gametes are more at risk of losing their reproductive potential, so they wait for there to be large, heavy gametes around before spawning. Thus the females get to escape and the males are stuck with the babies.

  25. says

    what makes a mother is that she is (invariably) at the scene, hormonally primed, sensitive to infant signals, and related to the baby.

    I’m only going to say it once, so listen closely: FAMILY DON’T END IN BLOOD. Adoption (both official and unofficial) is A Thing.

  26. Tethys says

    The practice of exposing unwanted infants was not limited to ancient Greek or Roman cultures. Iceland specifically retained the right as a compromise when it was forced to convert to Christianity in 1000.

    The following day he announced that Iceland was to become Christian, with the condition that old laws concerning the exposure of infants and the eating of horseflesh would remain, and that private pagan worship be permitted. These sticking points related to long-established customs that ran contrary to the laws of the Church. Horsemeat is a taboo food in many cultures, and Pope Gregory III had banned the Germanic custom of its consumption in 732. Likewise, infanticide used to be widespread around the world, and the practice of exposing “surplus” children was an established part of old Icelandic culture.


  27. Becca Stareyes says

    @ anat

    Emu are another species where males do the child-rearing because the metabolic load of producing a clutch of emu eggs means Mama Emu is done as soon as those eggs are laid, and Papa Emu is left incubating and raising the chicks. Basically, for non-mammals, it’s less obvious why the female would be the one handling incubation or tending the young. (Like, I know chickens and ducks have female birds handling it, and penguins have both parents helping, but what’s the average for birds? No idea.)

    Really, for a biologist, Dr. Coyne is not very considerate of ‘species that are not mammals’. Which makes the post look sloppy, and more based on the source of ‘everyone knows’.

  28. silvrhalide says

    @13 “Despite living in Scandinavia, I feel no compulsion to bury a battle-axe in someone’s skull.”
    Work for the federal government or a federal government contractor. I’ll come to you quicker than you think.

  29. Tethys says

    @ silvrhalide

    I’m pretty sure wwheydt is referring to Oedipus Rex by Tom Lehrer.


    It’s funny to hear him say that disc jockeys tend to play “rock and roll, and other childrens music” as a joke. Rock and Roll has not died, but Tom Lehrer style high brow satire is rather rare in modern media.

  30. whheydt says

    Re: silverhalide @ #32…
    Quoting from memory…

    There once was a man named Oedious Rex
    You may have heard of his odd complex
    His name appears in Freud’s Index
    ‘Cause he loved his mother.
    I’d rather marry a duck-billed platypus
    Than end up like old Oedipus Rex.

  31. joep says

    Jerry Coyne is a silly, cranky old man who demonstrates his bona fides as a self-proclaimed ‘free speech absolutist’ by banning commenters at his blog who point out his nonsense and hypocrisy.

  32. raven says

    Coyne being really stupid:

    But to claim that women don’t have a greater desire than men to care for offspring, or have a greater emotional affinity towards offspring, is to deny biology, and evolution in particular.

    Where is the data for this assertion? And how do you measure “desire to care for offspring” and “emotional affinity towards offspring”. What are the units.
    There isn’t any data and I haven’t seen where anyone has actually measured those traits.

    These are assertions without proof or data and may be dismissed without proof or data.
    He is just wrong once again.

    You could easily argue that it is the other way around.
    It is men that are obsessed with being a father and raising children.
    It is called the Patriarchy.
    Men are obsessed with female virginity, obsessed with making sure their babies are really “their babies”, and obsessed with dominating and controlling women, .

    Much of society in fact, is set up by men to make sure women get married to someone, are in many cases owned by a male, that they get pregnant a lot, and that they can’t just choose to run away or go away.
    The Patriarchy is enforced by customs, laws, religion, all backed up by violence and the threat of violence.
    Men also spend huge amounts of time feeding their mothers and children, both historically and today, an activity known as “work”.

    OK. anyone. Tell me who is most obsessed with procreation in our species and our societies now? Males or females?

  33. silvrhalide says

    @34 & 35 Thanks! With the news coming out of Ukraine, all I could think of was “Who’s Next”.

  34. John Harshman says

    Say what you will about Jerry Coyne, but he wrote a great book on speciation. Of course I’m banned, so I can’t say that on his blog (yes, it’s a blog).

    Speaking of male parental care, all paleognath birds do exclusively male care except for ostriches, which share a bit. And don’t forget giant water bugs, in which the female lays her eggs on the male’s back, and he carries them around until they hatch.

  35. whheydt says

    Re: silvrhalide @ #38…
    In light of the actual post subject, one could cite Lehrer’s “Be Prepared”…

    If you’re looking for adventure of a new and different kind,
    And you come across a Girl Scout who is similarly inclined,
    Don’t be nervous, don’t be flustered, don’t be scared,
    Be Prepared.

  36. birgerjohansson says

    Going back to the anglerfish idea- I keep thinking of Jerry Coyne floating around, attached to the belly of a giant female.
    I think there is a frog where the eggs literally recede into the skin of the back of the male, so he can protect them until they hatch.

  37. KG says

    There’s a peculiar impulse that makes some human beings want to cast everything in a black/white light, though.

    Clearly, we need to find the dichotomising gene, and use CRISPR or whatever to edit it!

  38. StevoR says

    @ ^ birgerjohansson : yes -atleats one species

    See photos and more info here :


    ..Boulanger’s backpack frog, or Cryptobatrachus boulengeri, is a small frog from Colombia with a very unusual adaptation.

    While most frogs release their eggs into the water, where babies develop from tadpoles into baby frogs, backpack frogs belong to a family of frogs called Hemiphractidae that’s unusually protective. They stick their eggs onto their backs, where the babies will stay until they’re tadpoles or even little froglets.

    See also

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryptobatrachus_boulengeri as well as


  39. rockwhisperer says

    @41: Thank you, I needed that this morning.

    This argument about the inevitability of women wanting children is still a personal source of irritation. I, cis-het-female, was adopted at birth (born 1959). My adoptive mother had a very badly functioning reproductive system that caused her great pain frequently, and endured a full hysterectomy when I was 6 or 7. Mom desperately wanted lots, lots, lots of children. As her only child, I was told frequently that I was supposed to produce no fewer than four grandchildren. When I was in high school, she even started picking out names for them.

    I seemed to have been born with fully-functioning reproductive equipment, but no interest in using it. At age 20 I married a guy who also didn’t want children. For the next sixteen or seventeen years, my mother pestered me at our every interaction about giving her those grandchildren. When sufficiently annoyed, I can produce a stare that frightened the junior engineers that I led, and might have come close to freezing water. I finally turned it on my mother, and she shut up about grandchildren.

    All of which tells me that biology has a part of women wanting children, but nurture is an enormous influence. (And yes, I’m extrapolating from personal experience, which rarely meets scientific criteria.) Husband and I had different reasons for not wanting to inflict ourselves on children. My mother was taught that a “proper” woman lives gratuitously through her child/children, and she enjoyed interacting with the children/grandchildren of friends. Husband and I were ruining her life! Note that my father, who also would’ve loved grandkids, stayed out of all of this, because he understood good boundaries.

  40. chrislawson says

    Postnatal depression and postnatal psychosis, which can put babies at serious risk of harm including death, are much more common in women than men. Jerry Coyne has disproved evolution!

  41. John Morales says

    OK, anecdote time.

    Neither I nor my wife has ever wanted children.
    We hooked up when she was 16 and I was 18.
    We’ve managed to get into our 60s, and have successfully had no children.
    Abstinence was not a thing.

    Thing is, we had to take care.
    My wife is a practicing Catholic, and most assuredly would never have had an abortion. Had progeny been accidentally engendered, she (and I suppose, I too) would have undertaken every effort to be the best parent possible.

    I mean, we look after our pets best as we can, we’d certainly not have done less for any progeny, unfortunate as that circumstance would have been.

    Anyway, point being that it may be instinct to look after progeny once they occur, but it certainly isn’t instinct to want the damn things. Some people do, fine.

    So. I really don’t see any reason why women would want children any more than blokes, but I can get how they would feel responsible and attached to the fruit of their loins.

  42. lotharloo says

    Jerry Coyne is just a stupid child. It is well-known that he is a free speech warrior who bans people for minor transgressions such as disagreeing with him on grammar but it should also be known that despite claiming to be very sciency and dousing himself daily with science juice, he actually believes without evidence that it is an evolved behavior of human males to fight over women and by fighting he means literally pummeling each other to death or something. He wrote a few dumbass blog posts about evolutionary psychology where he confessed he believes in this crap without having any strong evidence.

  43. says

    The tell for me is that anyone who uses “woke” as an insult is an idiot, and Coyne does that reflexively. “Woke” is such a vague term that it means little more than ‘aware of social problems’, so it says far more about the hostile people using it than it does the accused ‘wokeist’.

  44. raven says

    “Woke” is such a vague term that it means little more than ‘aware of social problems’,..

    Woke is right up there with cultural Marxism and postmodernist as an insult that really doesn’t mean anything.

  45. Silentbob says

    @ 48 John Morales

    we look after our pets best as we can, we’d certainly not have done less for any progeny, unfortunate as that circumstance would have been

    Yes, Morales, I think it’s safe to say you’ve convinced us that would have been a very unfortunate circumstance indeed.
    P.S. Did you know vasectomy is an actual thing dude? Or is that the sort of thing that gets you sent to hell?