The anthropological case for infant formula

baby milk bottle

Is there anything more hypocritical than an individual dressed in clothes, sitting at a computer inside a climate controlled building, using the internet to insist that breastfeeding is best because it is natural?

That was my thought when I read Breastfeeding No Option? Women Need Remedies, Not Bullying by Robert D. Martin PhD, Emeritus Curator of Biological Anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Technology makes us human and formula is technology.[/pullquote]

The article is a poor attempt to critique Courtney Jung’s book Lactivism.

Substantial evidence indicates that breastfeeding benefits the health of both mothers and babies. For biologists, this is only to be expected. Mammals, after all, are named after the Latin mamma for teat. Suckling originated in ancestral mammals around 200 million years ago and natural selection has honed it ever since. Female mammals became adapted not only for milk secretion and suckling but also for close mother-infant contact. Health authorities acted on evidence for natural advantages of breastfeeding by encouraging mothers to suckle babies as far as possible…

Actually substantial evidence indicates that the benefits of breastfeeding in industrialized countries are trivial and on this blog I’ve repeatedly eviscerated most of the scientific claims that Prof. Martin makes in his piece. I won’t repeat that here. I’d rather address his anthropological argument.

Martin’s argument is bizarre on several levels.

Lactivism’s core weakness is that Jung fails to mention biology or evolution. Witness her absurd statement that “there has never been a time when all women breastfed”. If for any substantial period, breastfeeding had been eliminated to the extent seen today, our species would not exist. Suckling in mammals is universal and has that 200-million-year evolutionary history, so how likely is it that we can simply substitute formula for breastfeeding with no downside? No evolutionary biologist would defend this view.

1.It’s bizarre because it implies that breastfeeding is perfect and no biological process is perfect.

All reproduction, plant and animal, has an extraordinary high rate of wastage and humans are no different. Women are born with millions of eggs that will never be fertilized; men produce billions of sperm that will never get near an egg; 20% of established pregnancies end in miscarriage. We are still here because massive amounts of wastage are entirely compatible with population growth.

Breastfeeding is no different from any other aspect of reproduction; it also has a high failure rate. Babies whose mothers can’t make enough milk to support them simply die, and that happens in up to 15% of first time mothers. Evolution leads to survival of the fittest, which means that lots of death is inevitable. Our ability to breastfeed now is no better or worse that it was in prehistory. The only thing that has changed is that we are much less tolerant of dead babies.

2. It’s bizarre because it implies that using breastmilk substitutes (cow’s milk, goat’s milk, pap) is the equivalent of “eliminating” breastfeeding.

Jung’s claim is that women have always employed breastmilk substitutes either because they couldn’t produce enough breastmilk, because pain/infections/inconvenience led them to avoid breastfeeding, or to feed the babies of other women who died in childbirth. That’s incontrovertible. Controlling biological processes or even stopping them altogether does NOT lead the human species to die out.

Consider birth control. There has never been a time in human history when so many women are controlling their fertility yet the population is growing faster than it ever has before. How can that be? Because population growth depends on the ratio of births to deaths, not on the number of births. A woman who controls her fertility and gives birth to three children all of whom survive is evolutionarily more success than a woman who has no access to birth control and gives birth to five children only two of whom survive.

Formula works the same way. A woman who formula feeds three children who survive to adulthood is evolutionarily more successful than a woman who breastfeeds five children only two of whom survive. It has nothing to do with the feeding method and everything to do with the ratio of births to deaths.

Except in the case of extremely premature infants, there is no evidence that breastfeeding improves survival rates. In fact, it is easy access to formula that improves survival rates. For example, the UK has one of the lowest, if not the lowest, breastfeeding rates in the entire world and also has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the entire world.

Nonetheless, Martin insists:

But the elephant in the room is this: Few people today breastfeed to the extent that prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years before our species domesticated milk-yielding mammals around ten millennia ago. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that our hunting-and-gathering ancestors breastfed babies for at least three years, exclusively for the first six months or so and then combined with complementary feeding until weaning. Few mothers today come anywhere near that original pattern…

So what? Who cares?

Few people today live in caves to the extent that prevailed hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Few people today eat meat raw to the extent that prevailed hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Few people today are killed by wild animals to the extent that prevailed hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago infant mortality was astronomical and average life expectancy was 35 years. Why would we want to copy that?

Which leads us to the most bizarre aspect of Martin’s piece. Martin seems to think that mammary glands are the hallmark of human beings. But the hallmark of human beings — what distinguishes us from all other animals and is responsible for our astounding evolutionary success — is our technology.

3. The key to evolutionary succes is technology and  technology allows us to adapt to our environment faster than our genes alone allow.

Human beings dominate our planet in a way that no other higher order animal has ever done. We have spread to every climate and we outnumber all other large mammal species to an extraordinary extent. Why? Because we have used technology to adapt. You don’t need to have a degree in evolutionary biology to understand that many other species and every other human species has become extinct because they couldn’t adapt fast enough.

Technology makes us who we are today and formula is technology. Claiming formula must be inferior is like claiming central heating must be inferior because it is technology. It’s like claiming that agriculture muse be inferior because involves technology. It’s like claiming that medicine, air travel and communicating through the Internet are bad because they are technology, too. It is a facile argument that falls apart on even cursory examination.

Sure breasts make us mammals. But it is technology that makes us human and formula is technology.