Researchers and practitioners from a variety of fields grapple with understanding maternal infanticide. As current cultures construct women as unconditional caretakers, maternal infanticide perpetrators may too readily be seen as needing psychiatric diagnosis and care (Ottesen, 2021). Without disputing that some infanticides are indeed associated with maternal depression and psychosis, evolutionary psychological (EP) perspectives offer a scholarly understanding of why infanticide is characterised by a striking absence of perpetrator psychopathology (Ottesen, 2012).
It might seem counterintuitive that infanticide could be understood from an EP perspective as reproduction (i.e., passing genes to the next generation through offspring) is the sine qua non of evolution. However, just as evolution equipped the female body with mechanisms that detect the viability of her foetus and abort it if its physical health is not viable, evolution has equipped the female psychology with mechanisms that continue to assess and react to the viability of the maternal project after giving birth.
A collection of seminal theoretical and empirical work from the field of evolutionary biology informs on how selection pressures inevitably shape the maternal psychology to assess and act on conditions that might undermine a successful fostering of a given infant. Ethnographic records of hunter-gatherer societies further inform on what conditions could undermine this success in our ancestral past, creating selection pressures on a female post-copulatory psychology. For instance, fostering an infant placed high demands not only on our foremothers but also on their social network. Partners and allo-parents were crucial in contributing food, care, and protection. This insight has enabled evolutionary psychologists to identify what circumstances may, on a population level, increase and decrease the risk of infanticide (Ottesen, 2012; 2021; 2022).
The harsh reality of finite and limited physical and social resources placed an unforgiving selection pressure on women’s ability to discriminate with regards to how much to invest in a given infant. Ethnographic and historical records show that abandonment and neonaticide has been the norm among socially unfortunate mothers. As predicted, then, by EP perspectives, the youngest infants are under the greatest risk for victimization at the hands of mothers who do not have supporting partners and families and such infanticides have the weakest association with perpetrator psychopathology, even in current societies (Ottesen, 2012). Further, a partner who is reluctant towards investing in an infant, due to a lack of paternity or doubting paternity, increases the risk of fatal abuse by this partner but also the mother (Ottesen, 2021).
Progressive societies, such as the Nordic countries, have alleviated women from ancestrally salient cues that increase the risk for infanticide on a population level. Accessible birth control and abortion give women a historically new control over whether, when, and with whom they bear infants and at what interval. Well-developed welfare benefits and child care service go far in substituting potentially absent partners and allo-parents. The rates of neonaticide and infanticide are therefore historically low in these societies (Ottesen, 2012). Nevertheless, because psychological mechanisms favoured by evolutionary selection among our foremothers may be elicited by ancestrally salient cues, the Nordic countries are not entirely immune (Ottesen, 2021; 2022).
Writing all maternal infanticides off as caused by perpetrator psychopathology may subject a significant group of perpetrators to misguided clinical approaches and motivate for developing prevention strategies that do not meet this groups’ needs. For this group of mothers, we should be advised by the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, and take measures to ensure their perception of being part of a caring village. □
References on request
Ottesen, V. (2022). Maternal Filicide. In Todd K. Shackelford (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Sexual Psychology: Vol 3: Post-copulatory adaptations. Cambridge University Press. (link)
Ottesen, V. (2021) Maternal Aggression. In Todd K. Shackelford and Viviana Weekes-Shackelford (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook on Evolutionary Psychology and Parenting. New York: Oxford University Press. (link)
Ottesen, V. (2012) A current absence of neonaticide in Norway. Scandinavian Journal of Forensic Science, 18 (2), 155 – 163. (link)