6
$\begingroup$

Postpartum depression among humans is a thing that is "normal" insofar as it happens a lot, but it is not "normal" in the sense of "a thing that we don't worry about"; it doesn't happen to absolutely everyone, and we do in fact put (varying amounts of) effort into educating people about it and treating women for it.

For a lot of creatures, however, the idea that you just give up and die after reproducing is entirely normal. Obviously, there are the examples where reproduction is necessarily mechanically fatal (like some adult insects which don't even bother having mouths because they won't live long enough to need to eat... and so can't live long after reproducing, because they can't eat), about which very little can be done, but there are also plenty of semelparous organisms that probably could survive indefinitely with appropriate hormone treatments and feeding, but which naturally just don't bother--like, for example, female octopuses which don't eat while tending their eggs for their entire gestation, and then lose the will to live and continue to starve to death after their eggs have hatched.

I know of several fictional depictions of semelparous aliens with mechanically-unavoidable maternal death (e.g., the alternate-universe aliens from Greg Egan's Orthogonal series and the Martians from Harry Turtledove's A World of Difference), and in both cases the development of medical technology to allow mothers to survive birth is treated as a major positive development for civilization (although with more realistic levels of conservative backlash in the former case)*. I am not totally convinced that that is how it would always go, but I can accept it in an individual work insofar as the aliens are depicted as somehow not having a psychological makeup adapted to this mode of reproduction.

But suppose a species more like octopuses, with primarily psychological semelparity (i.e., the mother's body can still function, mechanistically speaking, but they uniformly just give up on life anyway), were to develop intelligence and civilization. Recognizing that there is likely to be intercultural variability across the species, does it seem plausible that they would at some point actually decide to try to treat "postpartum depression" and preserve life? And if so, how early in their technological development?

*Side note: in real-world cases of semelparity, males tend to die as well, and earlier than females--male octopuses die after insemination, male salmon die after fertilization, and male spiders and preying mantises get straight-up eaten by their mates. Both of these fictional portrayals are a bit weird in that they present males as continuing caregivers after the mother's body is destroyed.

$\endgroup$
6
$\begingroup$

Like with any problem, we treat by looking at the cause. And the cause here is fairly simple - hormones. Not every mental problem is caused by hormones, of course, but such a radical shift in mindset after a physical event (childbirth) would have to be a result of a new hormone wave, or, alternatively, a hormone being removed. (This paper indicates it's a rise of a hormones, specifically stress hormones.)

Thus, to treat it requires hormone therapy. Hormonal imbalances, for the most part, can be treated with modern medicine, but that is modern medicine, i.e. stuff within the last 50 or so years when they started developing psychoactive drugs. That said, psychoactive drugs are as old as humanity (notable examples include alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, etc.), so while the full science behind it wouldn't be explained except with modern medicine, it's very possible that they'd be able to concoct an herbal remedy of various psychoactive drugs to help people past postpartum depression well before that. I can't tell you what exactly would work because you haven't given me an exact mechanism, but it's possible that this could be treated with natural drugs.

WARNING: I am not a doctor, and I am not a psychologist. I know a few things about science, but that doesn't qualify to diagnose anything in real life. If you are suffering from some form of depression, please don't walk away thinking that the correct way to treat it is with self-prescribed naturally occurring psychoactive agents, thank you. Talk to someone who is qualified, i.e. not me.

$\endgroup$
-1
$\begingroup$

This is a non-starter.

Basically, there is no way for this kind of species to develop either real intelligence or civilisation or technology. (I get that octopusses are smart, clever, and intelligent individual beings.)

Some assumptions, based on the only species we know of that has evolved intelligence and has developped technology and civilisation.

  1. Innovation & advanced technology & the ability to foresee, plan, and implement are not innate capabilities. In other words, no other species can build a toaster oven simply because there is some blueprint in its genetic code that allows it to build toaster ovens.
  2. Culture, civilisation, knowledge, and technology (beyond the very simplest of tools) are additive in nature. In other words, without building up from zero, we can not have even arrived at the concept of "post-partum depression" (because we need the build-up of sense of self, what is health and illness in the physical, cognitive, spiritual, and mind-brain domains), to say nothing of an understanding of biochemistry, biology, chemistry and how these lead to the discovery and understanding of hormones.
  3. The whole concept of cultural building is predicated on the fact that individuals within a species learn, experience, grow in learning & wisdom, and most importantly, pass that learning & wisdom on to others. If one individual learns how to make a copper axe, that's great! But if she can't pass that experience on to others of both her own cohort and also to those who are younger, the technological leap dies with her.

All that is to say that human culture & technological advance is possible because we have the ability to project our selves and our own experiences into the future.

The reason why a semelparous species like the octopus can neither develop a culture or a technology is because no individual can pass on its own experiences to the next generation. If you have an octopus in a tank that learns where you keep your supply of saltysnax, she can't pass that liking for your treats on to her offspring, because she dies as soon as they're born!

Conclusion:
Being unable to evolve useful intelligence and being unable to develop any kind of culture or technological capacity, there is just no way such a species can ever even conceive of the notion that there is even a problem!

$\endgroup$
5
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I understand the argument for species where all members of a given generation reproduce and die simultaneously. However, if the reproduce-and-die events are not simultaneous, then adult X can pass on knowledge to her cohort members Y and Z. X then reproduces and dies, at which point Y and Z can pass on knowledge to all the little x's. So a semelparous species that is social, long-lived and do not reproduce simultaneously may still be able to build up a culture. $\endgroup$ May 6 '20 at 23:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Good thoughts, but this is incorrect. A semelparous species might reproduce at sixty. True parental care is the bare minimum, then they die. Where do children learn culture? Why, from 10-55 year old fauxtopuses. Such a species might bear great reverence for Forefathers Long Gone but probably wouldn't dwell on it too much since no one would ever know their parents long. Instead they'd probably have godparents - younger friends of the Realparents, who care for the offspring until they're of age. Then you have culture and knowledge and invention and everything that comes with it. $\endgroup$
    – Ton Day
    May 7 '20 at 1:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What about Harry Turtledove's Martians in A World of Difference? 100% Maternal mortality for mechanical reasons. Civilization was carried by the men. $\endgroup$ May 7 '20 at 2:53
  • $\begingroup$ @TonDay But how does this evolve? You're helping others, not those with your genes. $\endgroup$ May 7 '20 at 2:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And? Similar behavior - altriusm - has evolved before and in social animals is extremely common. It's already been explained by a bigger increase in overall fitness because of the improved survivability of the group as a whole. So it will be here. The improved fitness from being able to invent fire and clothing and eventually guns and antibiotics more than outweighs the costs every-man-for-himself might avoid. In other words - what are those others going to do? Help those with my genes. Why? Because I helped them, and what goes around comes around. $\endgroup$
    – Ton Day
    May 7 '20 at 7:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.