Being a Wise Woman, or a Killer Whale

Earlier today - interested by the mysterious headline "What can killer whales teach us about the menopause?" I had a read of a BBC article. Sadly it was not a ground breaking moment of clarity about hormones and physical changes. It was a moment of anger and rage!

At first I merely tweeted -

"The menopause is a puzzle for biologists. Why would the female of a species cease to reproduce half way through her life, when natural selection favours characteristics that help an individual's genes survive?"

Maybe because women have other skills that help improve the gene pool and the survival of the young as well as actually making the babies? Maybe old women have a purpose too!
""From an evolutionary perspective, it's very difficult to explain," says Prof Darren Croft, who travels here from the UK's University of Exeter to study the whales." says a man ...maybe we women know things, maybe we can teach things!

Seriously sometimes scientists can be dim.

but the more I thought about it the angrier I became. Were scientists (or at least one scientist) really saying that they had always thought that once we couldn't make babies women were useless? Based on that, even in animal and evolutionary terms they were saying female animals are only about babies. I assume that all animals while needing to make babies are also about keeping those babies alive. Making a new whale, or a new human, is important to carry on your genes but if you just leave it (especially among mammals which tend to be born fairly small and weedy) then your genes will die out pretty fast along with your baby!

In nature and still, often, in humans the bulk of rearing the young falls to the mother, often because of breastfeeding (those awkward breasts - being fixed to us as they are) and just the way things are. So if you are rearing young, pregnant and then rearing more young, you are pretty busy. (I see you new mums nodding) One of the things you are busy at is learning. Learning how to raise babies for a start! Your manly male may be off teaching hunting to the rest of the pod but that doesn't mean your skills are useless, just different.

So without being a scientist, or a professor of anything, it seems pretty clear to me that female mammals need a bit of time when baby rearing is totally off the table, to focus on teaching. Leaving that until after they have had time to learn makes some sense too.

To me the menopause is the start of that movement into 'wise woman' status. And while modern humans can share baby raising, share feeding (how handy to have bottles that make detatching a baby from the mum so easy!) and can control their fertility and pregnancies, it wasn't that long ago (in evolutionary terms) that we couldn't.

Like killer whales we seem to live fairly complex lives; and having the ability to pass on information without the complication of babies seems pretty clever to me. After all males are burdened until death with sexual desire. Something older female mammals can move away from (and before you all shriek, yes I know older ladies like sex...shhhh) Males of many species often retain the testosterone instincts to fight and hunt too, leaving those pesky useless women at home.

The mysterious wise women of folklore, that 'scary' knowledgable witch, is a real person, with midwifery skills learned from years of doing it right (after all - if you got it wrong you would die) and skills in childhood illnesses and finding useful foodstuffs that babies could eat. These are skills to pass on to your own offspring, because your genes mustn't die! And you might not have time if you are busy still raising babies, to teach your daughter what she needs to know.

I can't help wondering if we would have come as far along the evolutionary path as we have if women had all died as soon as fertility finished. Longer life gives rise to greater learning, and a better ability to pass things form generation to generation.

So the article just seemed to confirm the obvious, that women, even old women, have a place of genetic evolutionary importance. And I didn't need to go to university, or study killer whales to know that...it seems I just needed to be old.

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Whale Image Copyright: desertsolitaire / 123RF Stock Photo

Woman and child Image Copyright: digitalpress / 123RF Stock Photo