Cooperate With Nature

Author: Herbert Ratner, M.D.


Herbert Ratner, M.D.

The following article by Dr. Ratner is chapter in a book by Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, Human Life Education. Dr. Ratner, recently departed, had one great message for his large circle of friends and clients: learn from nature. One of his pithy observations is that good doctors do not over-prescribe medical interventions, preferring to allow nature to do its work well: "There is a world of difference between a good doctor and a bad doctor but very little difference between a good doctor and no doctor at all" (quoted by Eugene F. Diamond, M.D. Editor of Nature, the Physician, and the Family, a book of collected works of Dr. Ratner. What follows are selections of Doctor Ratner's address delivered at the tenth convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, 1987 titled: "The Natural Institution of the Family." For references, please see the original.

It is no surprise, then, that the traditional family is one of the most enduring and resilient realities of human history. Aberrations and deviations, innovations of one sort or another, come and go, but they never thrive or last. The traditional family has a habit of burying its undertakers. For example, the decade of the 1960's saw the rise of communes and communal family life with their sharing of sex partners and children. But this was short-lived. By the late Seventies, monogamy and traditional family life were making a comeback in these very same communes.

Nature has a vested interest in the traditional or monogamous family: the reproductive mode of her highest creature, man. Though we think of nature as Mother Nature and credit her with all that motherhood implies, she has an inescapable shortcoming that circumscribes and limits her merciful motherhood. She is a stern teacher and disciplinarian who expects us to heed what she says or suffer the consequences. Mother Nature doesn't plead with us, doesn't cajole us, doesn't bribe us. Mother Nature says: "These are my ways. They are good. They are wise. Follow them." When nature is ignored or transgressed by free wheeling man, she fights back....

The Family as the Primary Teaching Unit

Parents are primary teachers. The profound formative influence of the first six years of life is universally recognized. During these preschool years the primary teaching function of the family is not the elevating of the I.Q. but the nurturing of emotional maturity. Its work is to temper emotions, to order the emotions to proper ends, and to lay the foundation for cultivating the cardinal virtues. Without emotional stability the best of human intentions are thwarted and the way is open to divorce, alcoholism, drugs, juvenile delinquency, precocious and faithless premature genital sex and other indices of a sick society.

Because love holds together the delicate membranes of human society and is the basis of our relationship with God, the chief need of the child is to experience love leading to a healthy self-love and to be able to love others as he has learned to love himself. Since love is taught essentially through a one-to-one relationship, nature sees to it that the vast majority of babies come one at a time, so that each child has his or her private tutor of love. For this task nature has selected the mother. As a female her capacity to care for the newborn is unique.

Although the human male and female share a common nature and its attendant equality, dignity, freedom and personality, man and woman are not identical in soma and psyche. They differ in bodily parts and psychologic dispositions, in the balance of hormones that give rise to natural inclinations, and in the interplay of the two components of the intellect: understanding and reason�the intuitive and the discursive. These differences set the female apart to be the primary caretaker of the newborn.

Since nature fashioned the mammalian female to be the prime nurturer, the key to the woman's special qualities is the infant�the raison d'etre of nature's formation of woman as woman. T.S. Eliot, echoing Aristotle, states the principle: "The end is where we start from." A woman's task requires of her a certain congruence, a complementariness and reciprocal fitness with the infant, for the natural togetherness of the nursing couplet is far more than a lactary relationship. Nature finely attunes the woman to the total physiological and psychological needs of the helpless, inarticulate, withal responsive human being�the baby. This makes possible a two-way affective connaturality which, with or without cognitive knowledge, generates an interpersonal, loving relationship.

The soft, smooth skin of the infant bespeaks the soft, smooth skin of the woman. As we, out of solicitude, envelop the baby in soft, smooth coverings, so, also, with even greater solicitude, does nature. What baby, if given a choice, would prefer to be cuddled and cherished by a rough-skinned, hairy and stubbly male? Touch, the most fundamental of the senses, and a major means of communicating love, is facilitated in man by furless skin, and is enhanced in the woman and infant by their mutual tactile softness. Both Aristotle and Aquinas point out that the correlation of soft skin and intelligence reflects the gnostic function of touch...If these philosophers are correct, and much modern thinking is supportative, the intelligence of each member of the nursing couplet is superior to that of the adult male. No one exceeds the infant's prodigious ability to learn, nor the mother's ability to understand, a function that outranks and outreaches the reasoning mind.

The infant's ability to hear only high tones bespeaks the woman's soprano voice. This explains why adults, universally, raise their voices to get a baby's attention, and why males are conspicuously unsuccessful in lullabying babies to sleep. Furthermore, since hearing matures earlier than vision, the mother's voice is familiar to the baby. During the last trimester of its gestation, the child in the womb hears its mother's voice daily. This probably explains why the most effective and earliest stimulus to elicit a smile from the baby is not the face, but the female voice.

The scent of the baby bespeaks the discriminatory olfactory acuity of the mother. As the lover desires to smell good to the beloved, nature wants the baby to smell good to its mother. In the early postpartum period, some mothers' olfactory ability is so enhanced that they speak of a unique fragrance emanating from the baby. Often, they liken it to the fragrance of roses. This heightened olfactory ability enables the mother to identify her newborn by smell. With even more certainty, the newborn is capable of recognizing its mother by smell within a few days after birth.

The infant's need to have the mother's face in focus bespeaks the woman's protruding breasts, unique amongst primates. The human face is the most expressive of all animal faces and is the major source of the infant's security during its long immobilized dependent state. Research shows that the newborn is responsive to the face from birth. The response is initially elicited by the eyes and forehead, and subsequently, by the full face. This coincides with the focal length of the newborn's vision which is about nine inches, a measure that approximates the distance from the baby at the breast to the mother's eyes and face. In contrast to the perceptual ability of primates whose young are mobile and clinging, the eyes of the immobilized infant, during the early months of nursing, are steadily fixed on the mother's face. When the Psalmist pleads to God to turn His "shining face" upon him, he echoes the acceptance the nursling seeks from its mother, its source of security.

The infant's need to be held, carried and comforted bespeaks the woman's cradling arms, arms that contrast significantly with the throwing arms of the male. The difference is not only evident in sports, but is even seen in the way children carry their books: boys at their sides; girls in front of them with flexed arms. The girls' inclinations to encircle and encompass foretells the future cradling of the nursling close to the heart and breast of an initiation of a bosom friendship.

The infant's inability to communicate verbally and conceptually bespeaks the woman's ability to communicate through a modality of "feeling": of knowing and loving through the intuitive, the poetic, the experiential and the affective. These non-conceptual modes of communicating result in a preternatural form of knowledge, a primary knowing common to all but most necessary in the intercommunication of the nursing couplet. In Pascal's words, "...the heart has reasons of its own which reason does not know."

The natural togetherness of woman and infant constitutes a predominantly spiritual, sensorial gestalt. It is the infant's need to survive and thrive that preordains the special characteristics of the woman qua woman.

Unisex is a great slogan. But it goes counter to the remarkable gift nature has bestowed upon the woman. She is the infant's spiritual womb, the womb with a view. If it can be said nature abhors a vacuum, it probably can equally be said that nature abhors a unisex.


All mammals are automatically faithful to their young by determinative instincts. Human mothers, on the other hand, have free will and can accept or reject motherhood in whole or in part. Since mammalian newborns are dependent upon mothers for nourishment and nurture, nature implants in the mammalian mother the basic motherly characteristic of fidelity. This faithfulness carries over to her spouse, to her church, to all her activities. She is even faithful to such organizations like the March of Dimes, who exploit this trait by making her feel needed.

The most damaging effect of the increasing trend toward working mothers, who leave the home to work during the baby's formative years, is the relinquishment of the child to a day care center where the child is raised as if it were part of a litter of offspring. If nature intended young children to be raised in litters, they would have come in litters. This is an example of how we must read nature for the guidelines of family life.

Major authorities now universally agree as a result of studies of the past fifteen years that, for the optimum personal maturation of the child, the child needs the full-time attention of the mother or a full-time mother substitute during the first three years of life. Young women must appreciate that their life span in developed countries is now over seventy-five years. Not everything in life has to be accomplished in the early years of marriage. There is enough time for career fulfillment after children are off to school. And dedication to children in their dependent years accelerates their independence and, in turn, liberates parents for additional activities.

More than that, the mother infant relationship, which in the natural order is the child's first sustained human association, becomes the prototype of the child's future relationships with others. If the child experiences the fidelity of its prime caregiver especially when it is during the period when his needs are greatest and which when met engenders in him security, confidence and trust, that example will remain with him for life. It becomes the pattern on which all future friendships are based, a pattern which even paves the way to his relationship with God. The fidelity of the mother to her child fortifies the child's natural inclinations to the fidelity he possesses as a social animal. In its absence insecurity and distrust abounds and affects him all through life.

Maternal Attachment

It has been demonstrated that immediately following childbirth (and for some days or weeks thereafter) the mother is in a unique psycho-hormonal state which is propadeutic to her maximal attachment to the newborn, an attachment which has lasting qualities. This attachment or bonding process is analogous to the imprinting phenomenon found in lower animal, an imprint which lasts until the young mature and have no further need of the mother. Breastfeeding, started immediately after birth, is nature's normal and foolproof mode by which this attachment is fostered and intensified. It converts mother and infant into bosom friends...

Is There a Family Size Optimum for the Rearing of Children?

The difficulty in raising an only child is generally recognized. Parents find themselves without previous experience at child-rearing and without the salutary effect of siblings on the lone child. In the face of preoccupation with the alleged "population explosion"...(people) can easily overlook how much some modern persons who are practicing systematic birth control may need enlightenment in regard to what they are doing.

The elimination of larger families would short-circuit the rich diversity of the human race. There is not only the primary diversity of man at the genetic level due to intermingling of chromosomes from the two sexes, there is also a secondary diversity which occurs through differences in family constellation. These are multitudinous, viz., eldest, middle and youngest children develop different personalities traceable in considerable part to their relative position within the family.

One internationally recognized pediatrician (Sir James Spence) ...argues for five children as the minimum family size necessary for the optimum rearing of children. My own belief is that the minimum optimum is three children. The third child sharply increases the probability that the children will not all be of one sex, age or dominance. Moreover, the third child dramatically multiplies and enriches the dynamics of family life...Had China consulted me (about the policy of a one-child family)...I would have said..."Better one family with five children than five families with one each."...

(A disturbing consideration) is the kind of society that will exist when the second generation of single children appear on the scene. These children will have no aunts, no uncles and no cousins. When their grandparents die and later their parents, they will have no blood relations, unless they marry and have a child of their own...Family counselors report that marriages of only children or eldest children are the most difficult...

The Value of Children

Young couples getting married today are nowhere more ignorant than in their failure to appreciate the significance of children in marriage. Family life programs including Catholic programs stand under special indictment for neglecting to inculcate in couples the gift, the pleasures and the value of children. Kierkegaard said: "the trouble with life is that we understand it backwards but have to live it forwards." Our goal should be to educate the young so that they understand life as they live it forward and thereby help them make prudential judgments. The greatest regret of American married women toward the end of life is that they hadn't had a child or hadn't had more children.

Authentic prudential judgment is based on objective reality, not an evasion of reality. It is not a circumventing of reality so as to make it conform to one's subjective desire. Secularized prudence is overly concerned with the price to be paid not the value received; it is overcautious in regard to dangers or risks. True prudence approaches judgment-making with a trust in the providential order and includes hope in the final decision. The following are some reminders of the objective reality associated with marital decisions.

1. Children are a gift biologically as well as theologically. Man is a relatively sterile animal. Couples flock to birth control and family planning clinics in their twenties but switch to sterility clinics in their thirties. Babies for adoption are at a premium. Test tube babies and surrogate mothers measure their plight.

2. The time-span from age 38 to 58 or from age 58 to age 78 is no longer and no shorter than the span from age 18 to age 38. But that which gives pleasure in life tends to differ for the respective age groups. What seems more of a chore and intrusion in one's personal life when one is young becomes far less a chore and intrusion as one grows older. Children become more and more important to a person with advancing age. The joys of grandparenthood are well known. Children are seen as a blessing where once they may have been viewed as a hardship. In countries with sharply reduced birth rates we are now hearing of the sufferings of a grand parentless society. Even death itself becomes more bearable when the dying are surrounded by loved ones. One does not go through life feeling always like a teenager or young adult, yet what one does in these earlier years may preclude the joys of later life.

Certainly God does not expect the young couple to embark on marriage preoccupied with grandparenthood and death, but God does expect a couple to avoid doing what would rob them of the happiness which should come with the later stages of life. In this context, couples should be attentive to the core principle of Humanae Vitae of preserving the integral oneness of the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage. D.H. Lawrence makes the point poetically: "We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the Tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table."

3. The choicest gift one can bequeath to a child is not material possessions but another brother or sister.

4. Parents do not live forever, and children have each other after their parents pass on. At family reunions the children, now uncles and aunts, have the opportunity to pass on family stories which give the grandchildren a sense of roots, of their unique heritage.

5. Children mature parents more than parents mature children. For most adults parenthood is the road to maturity. It is capable of converting the selfish into the unselfish.

6. The large family is the best preventive against loneliness which is so all-pervasive in modern society. One can go on.

A persuasive case can be made for having children early in marriage and spaced with the interval which nature ordinarily arranges in the breastfeeding mother, an interval of approximately two years. This affords each child a life's orbit wherein he can more readily relate to his brothers and sisters. This point has been elaborated in the following passage from (one of my previous articles titled) "Man Against Nature: Nature's Subtleties and Nature's Prescription":

Nature's prescription not only shortens the obligations of the preschool period, (1) it brings youth to child-bearing and the arduous early child-rearing years, (2) it permits children to grow up with more intimately shared lives, (3) it closes the generation gap between parent and child, particularly valuable in the adolescent years, (4) it lengthens the joys of parenthood and grandparenthood, (5) it allows for leeway in case of obstetrical misfortunes and tragic events, (6) it gives parents the opportunity to reexamine their goals while reproductive options are still available, and (7) it rids the couple of the fear of an unplanned pregnancy with each love act, permitting them blissfully to ignore birth control for nine years or more during the period of greatest sexual activity.

If the ecologic era bears any message it is this: when nature is treated well she reciprocates. Nature is for us, not against us. All she asks is that her highest achievement, man, be tractable to her teachings�that he be responsive, not rebellious. By allowing nature's prescription, man not only protects himself against his worst enemy, himself, but he regains his best friend, nature, the nurturer and guide to a happy life on earth.

Further writings by Fr. Zimmerman may be found at  

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