This article addresses the crucial story of our births, and how a negative birth experience lies at the core of our present culture of greed, obesity and addictions. Birth is a process that is much more important than is currently being given credit by today’s self-seeking culture. We seem to have forgotten that the story of our birth is crucial to who we are, and the process of being born is the starting point of the lives we live. This has been the focus of obstetrician Michel Odent’s life’s work.
This interview with Michel Odent by Shelley Olivier was inspired by Richard Olivier’s recent article in Resurgence Magazine about ‘evolving the New Story, from cult to culture’.
Shelley Olivier interviews Michel Odent
My experience of giving birth with the help and support of Michel Odent at my home was, for me, both a personal blessing and the start of the story of my children Troy and Alessandra’s lives. My eldest daughter Kaya continued the legacy with a home birth last year, bringing our gorgeous granddaughter Sophia Rose into her next stage of life.
Michel’s latest book, Childbirth and the Future of Homo Sapiens, has been an important new contribution to a necessary revisioning of Primal Health; “This book reads like a giant ‘I dare you’ to the medical world. He dares researchers to open the can of worms to ponder if ‘HOW’ we are born impacts on ‘WHO’ we become,” wrote Beverly Turner in an article in the Telegraph in June 2013. “And that in turn dares the obstetric world to treat women as sensitive yet capable mammalian beings rather than mere parts in a masculinised, medicalised production line of baby-makers pumped full of potentially harmful drugs.”
What are your main comments after reading Richard’s article, Evolving the New Story: from Cult to Culture in the July/August 2014 issue of Resurgence?
Richard found a concise, effective and elegant way to participate in the initiation of a necessary new awareness. To reach a great variety of people, we urgently need to multiply the perspectives and the means of expression.
What will you remember in particular from this article?
I’ll remember simple concepts that should become watchwords at a time when humanity must invent new strategies for survival: “evolve or die”, “from competition to cooperation”, “learning to resonate together”.
Since publicaiton of your book Genese de l’Homme Ecologique in 1979, to Childbirth and the Evolution of Homo Sapiens in 2013, you have also continuously analysed and interpreted the current crisis. Can you summarise your point of view?
My point of view is that to understand the current crisis we need to take into account the spectacular, previous turning point in the history of mankind that started about 10,000 years ago. Before that time human beings were taking advantages of what nature could offer, obtaining their food from wild plants and wild animals. Then they started to domesticate plants and animals. The advent of agriculture and animal husbandry – the Neolithic revolution – radically changed the lifestyle of our ancestors. They were obliged to be less nomadic and more sedentary. The concept of territory took an unprecedented importance with other reasons for conflicts between human groups and reinforced ethnocentrism.
The new basic strategy for survival of human groups was to dominate nature and to dominate other human groups; it became an obvious advantage to develop the huge human potential for aggression. To dominate nature, it is an advantage to moderate this facet of love we call “respect for Mother Earth” and to develop the capacity to destroy life.
Which factors can facilitate the development of the human potential for aggression?
In the current scientific context, we understand that the period surrounding birth is critical for the development of the capacity to love and, inversely, for the development of the potential for aggression. It is notable that, since the Neolithic revolution, childbirth has been socialised. In spite of an apparently great diversity of reported perinatal [the time immediately before and after birth] beliefs and rituals, the typical effect of this cultural control has always been to amplify the difficulties of childbirth, to separate mother and newborn baby, to delay the initiation of breastfeeding and to neutralise the “maternal protective aggressive instinct”. Some decades ago we were still obviously in the aftermath of thousands of years of such beliefs and rituals.
In 1953-1954, during the six months I spent as an externe in the maternity unit of a Paris hospital, I never heard of a mother who would have said, just after giving birth: “Can I keep my baby close to me”. The midwife was doing what has been done for thousands of years: rushing to cut the cord and giving the baby to a carer. Cultural conditioning was stronger than maternal instinct. While staying in the maternity unit, babies were in a nursery and mothers were elsewhere. Nobody had thought that they might be in the same room.
This reminder is necessary to realise the importance of a recent scientific discovery. We needed an accumulation of data provided by emerging and fast developing scientific disciplines to learn that a newborn baby needs its mother. This is an opportunity to realise that today, only scientific perspectives have the power to reverse thousands of years of cultural conditioning.
What do you mean by the “maternal protective aggressive instinct”?
To understand what it means, just imagine what would happen if you try to pick up the newborn baby of a mother gorilla who has just given birth. The neutralisation of the maternal protective aggressive instinct is one of the bases of our civilisations.
How can we understand the current crisis after referring to the Neolithic revolution? Can you clarify?
It is simply that the domination of nature – as a strategy for survival of human groups – has reached its limits. We are now at the bottom of the abyss. We must stop thinking only in terms of survival of our human group. Humanity as a whole must invent new strategies for survival. We have to wonder, in particular, how to develop the respect for Mother Earth and how to create a unity of the planetary village. Thousands of years after the Neolithic revolution our only hope is the “Symbiotic revolution”, which includes what Richard calls “the transition from competition to cooperation” and also the integration of humanity into the planetary ecosystem.
Whatever the details, the survival of humanity implies the development of the multiple facets of love. This means that all the perinatal beliefs and rituals are losing their evolutionary advantages. For example, it is not an advantage any more to transmit the belief that the colostrum is harmful or to rush to separate mother and baby by immediate cord cutting. In other words, in spite of the easy and fast modern techniques of caesarean sections, it is urgent to reverse thousands of years of cultural conditioning and to rediscover the basic needs of labouring women and of newborn babies.
It will not be easy because, once more, we have to overcome the contradictions between cultural conditioning and physiological perspective. According to our cultural conditioning, a woman has not the power to give birth without some kinds of cultural interferences. The keywords suggest the active role of another person than the two obligatory actors (who are mother and baby): helping, guiding, “coaching” (natural childbirth language), “managing” (medical language)…
According to the physiological perspective, on the other hand, the birth process is an involuntary process under the control of archaic brain structures. In general one does not try to help an involuntary process, but the physiological perspective has the power to identify inhibitory factors. The keyword is “protection” (of an involuntary process against inhibitory situations).
You constantly use the term “revolution”. Can you clarify?
It means that we must change everything. We need new awareness, new scientific perspectives, new technology, new politics, new philosophy… a new story and, first and foremost, we need a new Homo sapiens [human species].
What do you mean by a new Homo sapiens?
We have serious reasons to raise questions about a probable fast evolution of our species in relation to the way babies are born. The first reason is that the period surrounding birth is the phase of modern life that has been the most radically transformed during the past decades. The second reason is that several emerging scientific disciplines – such as epigenetics [the study of changes in the way genes are expressed], metagenomic [the study of genetic material taken from environmental samples] microbiology and primal health research – consider this short phase of life critical for the formation of individuals. We must add that, in the current scientific context, we have reached a new understanding of the mechanisms of fast transformations of the species. Fast transformations of Homo sapiens are therefore plausible.
Since we understand the importance of the perinatal period, can we imagine a conscious way to direct the evolution of Homo sapiens?
What I have called “active management of Human evolution” is not utopian. Of course active management needs objectives. Can we present the development of the capacity to love as the leitmotif of the “symbiotic revolution”?
Reference: Childbirth and the Future of Homo Sapiens by Michel Odent is published by Pinter & Martin Ltd, £8.39 paperback, £4.99 Kindle edition.
(Many thanks to Harriet Griffey for research, shaping and editing.)