Just because “we’re still here” does not mean natural childbirth and breastfeeding are best

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“We’re still here!”

It’s a favorite declaration of those attempting to justify natural parenting practices:

Childbirth without interventions must be optimal because we’re still here.

Homebirth must be safe because we’re still here.

Exclusive breastfeeding must be best because we’re still here.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Looking at those today alive today though their parents never used seatbelts, we might conclude that seatbelts are unnecessary because “we’re still here.”[/pullquote]

But “we’re still here” doesn’t merely fail to justify natural parenting practices, it is actually a form of cognitive bias, a way of thinking that inevitably leads us to erroneous conclusions.

Specifically, “we’re still here” is survivorship bias, a bias so subtle that it is often difficult for its practitioners to recognize.

Rational Wiki defines survivorship bias as:

… a cognitive bias that occurs when someone tries to make a decision based on past successes, while ignoring past failures.

It offers an excellent example:

Suppose you’re trying to help the military decide how best to armor their planes for future bombing runs. They let you look over the planes that made it back, and you note that some areas get shot heavily, while other areas hardly get shot at all. So, you should increase the armor on the areas that get shot, right?

Wrong! These are the planes that got shot and survived. It stands to reason that on some planes, the areas where you don’t see any damage did get shot, and they didn’t survive. So those are the areas you reinforce…

Dead men (and planes) may tell no tales, but the fact that they are dead provides valuable information for the survivors.

The planes that returned from the bombing runs aren’t the safest planes; they’re the ones that were merely lucky enough to get hit in the places least likely to cause catastrophic damage.

For example, imagine that every plane that returned was shot somewhere in the fuselage, but never in the fuel tank. In contrast, every plane that was shot in the fuel tank failed to return because a shot to the fuel tank inevitably led to explosion of the entire plane.

If you were to repair the returning planes and send them out on another bombing run a substantial proportion would once again fail to return because this time they might get hit in the fuel tank. Surviving the first bombing run because they were not shot in the fuel tank would not have made them more likely to avoid getting shot in the fuel tank the second time.

In other words, the pilots who survived the first bombing run were simply luckier than the ones who failed to return.

Consider a more common example.

Most of us above a certain age traveled in cars throughout our entire childhoods without ever using a seatbelt and we’re still here. For many years cars didn’t even have seatbelts yet the population of the US continued to increase. Does that mean seatbelts are useless?

Of course not! The many children who died from being ejected in car accidents are testament to the fact that failure to wear a seatbelt is dangerous. The dramatically lower death rates for children in accidents today compared to the 1960’s makes it clear that wearing a seatbelt is much safer than not wearing one. But if we only looked at people alive today even though their parents never used seatbelts, survivorship bias would lead us to conclude that seatbelts are unnecessary.

Dead children leave no offspring; the millions of their potential descendants are not here but we don’t notice …  because they are absent. We are the remainder.

How does this apply to natural parenting?

The claim that childbirth without interventions is safe because “we’re still here” makes as much sense as claiming that not wearing seatbelts in the 1960’s was safe because “we’re still here.”

The claim that homebirth is safe because for most of human existence women gave birth at home and “we’re still here” makes as much sense as claiming that putting babies to sleep on their stomachs instead of their backs is safe because “we’re still here.”

The claim that breastmilk must be better than formula because “we’re still here” is like claiming riding without a bicycle helmet must be better than using a helmet because “we are still here.”

But billions of potential people are NOT here today precisely because their parents died in childbirth, at homebirth, or from being exclusively breastfed by women who didn’t produce enough milk for them to survive.

We who are “still here” are the remainder, representing nothing more than luck, not inherent safety.

  • Griffin

    Super post. I really liked the analogy of the bombers.

    I was talking to a friend yesterday about the common misconception that the product of evolution is “perfection”, as though there is some higher reason for evolution rather than it being a completely blind, mechanical, unthinking process. My friend’s mother passed away a few months ago after a long struggle against breast cancer. My friend said, “Well, yeah, there is NOTHING perfect about evolution, those cancer cells in my mother got better and better at spreading all over her body and lodging in spots that couldn’t be tackled surgically and getting rid of the receptors that were targeted by the latest new drug. And finally those cells killed her and themselves. Perfection, my ass!”

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

      Yep, I also am confused by people who think that humans are the “pinnacle” of evolution and that “evolution/Nature/whatever” CARES if humans succeed as a species or not. There are a lot of failed evolutionary lines, it’s a process. If humans fail as a species, oh well, jellyfish and cockroaches will survive.

      Looking back at history(or under-served areas of the world currently) before modern medicine and vaccinations it’s sometimes amazing anybody survived childhood, if tainted milk, tainted water, or tetanus did not kill you there were also: Whooping cough, Measles, Influenza, Scarlet fever, Malaria, Mumps, Diphtheria, Typhoid, Cholera…

      • rational thinker

        As humans we are simply a bi-product of evolution, nothing more and nothing less. That’s how I view it

        • StephanieJR

          We’re all just monkeys with anxiety.

          • Griffin

            Yeah.

  • FormerPhysicist

    Right. From an evolutionary standpoint, homebirth, putting babies to sleep on their stomachs, and lack of formula are just fine for the continuation of the human race. But I want *my* children to survive and be healthy, not just enough children (of other people) to perpetuate the species.

  • JDM

    There’s often a misconception (unfortunately sometimes even among professionals in my experience) that evolution tends to produce optimal outcomes. What it does is produce “good enough”. Amazing stuff, really, but just “good enough”. And what counts as “good enough” is often horrific by any decent standard. For instance, those cancers or other diseases that usually occur later in life, causing enormous pain and suffering, are perfectly fine in an evolutionary sense, because they tend to occur after child rearing years. Children dying young is also just fine in an evolutionary sense as long as it’s not too many. My father’s sister dying at the age of seven was no big deal as far as evolution is concerned, because that left two kids who grew up and had kids. But it was tragic. I just read about a family – not unusual really – in the late 1800s where the parents had 23 children, and 9 died in childhood. That’s horrific, but in an evolutionary sense it was fine.

    And you’re right to point out the role of luck, and survivor bias, the last an extremely important concept that is often ignored or simply not known. And they’re too often ignored or not known by people opining on things that require those concepts be known and not ignored. No wonder people in the general public get confused. That confusion can be serious, often deadly serious, as you’ve had far too many occasions to point out. Thank you for continuing to do it.

    A bit of a long winded way to say “good post”, but that’s me. 🙂

    • mabelcruet

      Look at Queen Anne-18th century, so not medieval standards of medical care, she was a queen so could obviously have the best available care for the time, including midwives, doctors and wet nurses, plus a decent diet with meat etc, and she had 18 pregnancies. Only one child survived infancy, and he died aged 11. Nature doesn’t care about individuals-all it needs is for a species to survive is to have enough survivors to continue. Even then, evolution and nature seem to be very careless about that too-look at giant pandas, ‘designed’ to survive off bamboo which they can barely digest and which gives them such poor nutrition they barely move, and they are only fertile for 2 days a year, and if the mother produces twins, one of them is abandoned because she can only produce enough milk for one, even if they are only the size of a small potato at birth. That’s evolution-total bodge job the whole way for most species.

  • Christine O’Hare

    Great post! And offers a great retort to grandparents claiming things like modern carseats, current sleep practices, and other safety guidelines are unnecessary or overkill.