The Woodstock Fine Arts Association’s Creative Living Series will host Dr. Robert Martin, emeritus curator of biological anthropology at Chicago’s Field Museum.
Martin has spent decades researching reproduction in mammals, starting with his Ph.D. dissertation on tree shrews. His later work focused on the influence of evolutionary biology on primate reproduction. Research conducted for his 2013 book “How We Do It: The Evolution and Future of Human Reproduction” will provide the groundwork for his lecture.
He asks, “What useful lessons can we learn about our own background by looking at primate evolution?” This question is at the heart of a field called Darwinian medicine, which applies evolutionary theory to modern medical practices to better understand the influence our hunting-and-gathering ancestry has had on our current state. Martin’s book studies reproductive medicine and how modern innovations such as infant formula and Caesarean births are changing the course of human evolution.
He discusses the practice of infants feeding on demand, which is common in primates, but not all mammal species. Other primates still practice extended breastfeeding, which is uncommon in our species, as mothers often return to work within months or weeks, and sometimes cannot breastfeed at all. Martin explores the impact of the human-created workaround of infant formula.
Martin also explores Caesarean births, which became increasingly common as the 20th century progressed, recently accounting for about one-third of all births in the United States, and even more in other countries. Many of these are elective — either on the part of the mother or her physician — and they carry the risks that any major surgery would as well as interfering with the natural bacteria the babies receive from the mother during labor.
A topic that can be sensitive for many is miscarriages. Because many people deal with such a loss privately, some have no idea that miscarriages are quite common. Fifteen percent of pregnancies end in a clinically detectable miscarriage, and even more losses occur before pregnancy is easily identified by a physician. In fact, about 75 percent of embryos and fetuses are lost between conception and birth. Because these numbers are not well known and the subject is not often discussed, patients often think miscarriages are their fault, when that is almost never the case. Martin says knowledge of our evolutionary history can help us understand the nuances of modern reproduction and navigate the future.
Martin’s lecture will take place at 10 a.m. Thursday, March 16, at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 W. Van Buren St. Tickets are $25.