Christina was 36 years old when her sixth child was born. Her newborn daughter was different from the any of the others, and as time passed Christina began to realize that her new baby had a severe disability. Caring for this daughter would require Christina to change her life drastically, and those changes would dominate Christina’s life as long as her severely disabled daughter survived.
Not long after Darwin’s theory of evolution began to gain widespread acceptance, the notions like “survival of the fittest” and “the law of the jungle” popularized the idea that ruthless competition determined progress. This was based partly on a simplistic misunderstanding of evolution and partly on wishful thinking of powerful people who wanted to justify their own good fortune. Of course, it is true that competition within and among species is important, but much more recently science has recognized the roles of cooperation and caregiving as being equally if not more important to survival.
Of course, it seems unlikely that that Christina knew anything about evolutionary theory. She simply responded to her daughter’s needs. An older daughter pitched in and helped Christina at times. Nevertheless, most of the caregiving remained with the mother’s job. Christina didn’t let others who were not family members share caregiving responsibilities. She carried her daughter wherever she went, and did the best she could as long as her child survived.
When I read Christina’s story, I thought it sounded she sounded a lot like other parents of kids with severe disabilities that I have known. What was different was where Christina’s story was published; it was in the journal Primates. Christina is wild chimpanzee living in the jungle in Tanzania.This Wall Street Journal YouTube video provides a glimpse of Christina’s life with her daughter. Although this appears to be the first published study of caregiving for a severely disabled infant by chimpanzee, Christina’s caregiving behavior is not unique and it is not exclusive to primates. Caring for a disabled individual has been observed among a wide variety of animals. For example, his story of a pack of Orca’s provides an interesting example of “Killer whales” caring for a disabled pod member by bringing him food because his disability makes it impossible to get his own food.
There is also paleontological evidence of the earliest humans and prehumans caring for severely disabled children; some dating back 100,000 years or more. There are a number of examples of skeletal remains of children adolescents with evidence of significant disabilities have demonstrated that families (and most likely communities) cared for children and adolescents with severe disabilities during the paleolithic era. The skull and spines of these individuals reveal that they lived for many years with disabilities that would have been much too severe for them to survive without the help of caregivers.
In spite of all conflict, violence, and all of our human failings, humans have become the most successful species on this planet precisely because of our powerful will to care for each other. Families and communities caring for children and adults with severe disabilities exemplify this essential human quality.