When news of the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy broke on Monday, a gasp of excitement went round the world. The hashtag #royalbaby took over Twitter, internet searches for “Kate Middleton pregnant” went up by 18,305% and Kate and William’s official website crashed. Congratulations flooded in from all corners, while newspapers took to speculating about everything from the baby’s name to Kate’s maternity wardrobe. It’s a fetus frenzy that is unlikely to abate for the next six months.
But while the fascination with the Duchess’ pregnancy is global in scale, even everyday mothers are familiar with the hullabaloo that comes with expecting a child. Strangers approach in the supermarket to lay a hand on your stomach and ask “When are you due?” Friends and grandparents-to-be spend hours discussing cribs and baby showers. Neighbors offer cooking help if you’re lucky and unsolicited advice if you’re not.
All of this raises the question: why is an impending birth so captivating? After all, it’s not exactly a rare occurrence — 252 babies are born around the world every minute. The answer, says Meredith Small, professor of anthropology at Cornell University and author of “Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent,” is embedded in our evolutionary past. “You know that saying, ‘It takes a village’? It’s actually really true,” she says. “Human infants are so dependent, they can’t sit up, they can’t eat on their own. How could that happen if there wasn’t at least one person, but usually more people, who are ready to do that kind of stuff?”
The rest is natural selection 101: being ready to do that “kind of stuff” improves the replication rate of an individual’s genes (more of their babies will survive and reproduce), meaning caring about babies is a trait that has become predominant. “Emotionally, psychologically, we are evolutionarily designed to respond to the look and feel of babies, and hearing about them,” says Small. “It’s so ingrained in our genes that it’s automatic.”
Predictably, this trait is not confined to Homo sapiens. Primates have been cooing over infants since before we as a species were born. In her studies of Barbary macaques, for example, Small observed the monkeys going gaga over new arrivals. “When babies are born, everybody comes over and pays attention, and smells the baby and chatters in its face,” she says. Juvenile female apes and monkeys in particular are prone to curiosity about infants. “They always come up and try to touch and hold and grab.”
Baby excitement isn’t just a female thing, however. When it comes to macaques, says Small, “males carry the babies a lot.” And human males, though they may roll their eyes at the fuss being made over the royals’ offspring, are not immune to an infant’s charms. “I think men are just as excited and as responsive, and that culturally, they’re pushed to try and hide that,” she says.
What about people who simply aren’t interested at all? Are they genetically faulty? Probably not. “That doesn’t mean that something’s wrong with them,” she says. Culture always plays a role; Western society in particular, with its focus on independence and self-reliance, gives more allowance for apathy. Still, for many, a famous fetus is hard to resist. Because they are celebrities, we feel we know Kate and William. And after 4 million years of sharing everything as hunter-gatherers, it’s simply our nature to nurture their child — even if that just means talking about it on Twitter.