Memories of Civil Rights Icon John Lewis, 1940 – 2020, Part 1

PBS NewsHour Weekend full episode July 18, 2020

Jul 18, 2020  PBS NewsHour

On this edition for Saturday, July 18, remembering John Lewis, a Civil Rights Movement leader and a longtime member of Congress who died of pancreatic cancer on Friday night. Also, the U.S. records more than 70,000 COVID-19 cases for the second time in a row leading officials to start reimposing restrictions in some areas in the country. Hari Sreenivasan anchors from Florida. Stream your PBS favorites with the PBS app: Find more from PBS NewsHour at Subscribe to our YouTube channel:

Congressman John Lewis Address | Harvard Commencement 2018

May 24, 2018  Harvard University

Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis gave his address at Harvard’s 367th Commencement on May 24, 2018 at Tercentenary Theatre. For more information, visit….

Tributes pour in memory of Congressman John Lewis

Jul 18, 2020  CBS News

Countless tributes are pouring in to memorialize the life and legacy of civil rights leader and longtime Georgia Democratic Congressman John Lewis. Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio and CBS News political contributor and Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright joined CBSN to discuss Lewis’ legacy.

Rep. Clyburn: If Trump wants to honor John Lewis, this is what he needs to do

Jul 18, 2020  CNN

CNN’s Ana Cabrera discusses the loss of Congressman John Lewis with one of his longtime friends and colleagues, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC). #CNN #News

Georgia congressman John Lewis dead at 80

 Jul 18, 2020  ABC News

Lewis was a driving force of courage and determination in the civil rights movement.

Civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis dead at 80

Jul 18, 2020  CNN

John Robert Lewis, the son of sharecroppers who survived a brutal beating by police during a landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, to become a towering figure of the civil rights movement and a longtime US congressman, has died after a six-month battle with cancer. He was 80. Lewis, a Democrat who served as the US representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district for more than three decades, was widely seen as a moral conscience of Congress because of his decades-long embodiment of nonviolent fight for civil rights. His passionate oratory was backed by a long record of action that included, by his count, more than 40 arrests while demonstrating against racial and social injustice. A follower and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., he participated in lunch counter sit-ins, joined the Freedom Riders in challenging segregated buses and — at the age of 23 — was a keynote speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington. “Sometimes when I look back and think about it, how did we do what we did? How did we succeed? We didn’t have a website. We didn’t have a cellular telephone,” Lewis has said of the civil rights movement. “But I felt when we were sitting in at those lunch counter stools, or going on the Freedom Ride, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, there was a power and a force. God Almighty was there with us.” Lewis has said King inspired his activism. Angered by the unfairness of the Jim Crow South, he launched what he called “good trouble” with organized protests and sit-ins. In the early 1960s, he was a Freedom Rider, challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South and in the nation’s capital. “We do not want our freedom gradual; we want to be free now,” he said at the time. At age 25, Lewis helped lead a march for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where he and other marchers were met by heavily armed state and local police who attacked them with clubs, fracturing Lewis’ skull. Images from that “Bloody Sunday” shocked the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. “I gave a little blood on that bridge,” he said years later. “I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death.” Despite the attack and other beatings, Lewis never lost his activist spirit, taking it from protests to politics. He was elected to the Atlanta city council in 1981, then to Congress six years later. #JohnLewis #CNN #News

Nightly News Full Broadcast (July 18th)

Jul 18, 2020  NBC News

Congressman and civil rights giant John Lewis dies at age 80, Florida and Texas hospitals overwhelmed as coronavirus cases surge, and President Trump gives mixed messaging on mask debate.

In the Room: John Lewis and Krista Tippett

Mar 28, 2013

The On Being Project

Rep. John Lewis and BGN: “March: Book One” | Talks at Google

Oct 28, 2014  Talks at Google

The Black Googler Network (BGN) and Talks at Google were honored to host Congressman John Lewis. Rep. Lewis is a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner. He stopped by to discuss his recently-published graphic novel: March: Book One. March is a vivid first-hand account of his dedication to the struggle for civil and human rights

Congressman John Lewis Speaks at Tisch College

Apr 14, 2016  Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

 On April 5, 2016, U.S. Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis delivered the 4th Alan D. Solomont Lecture at Tufts University, with support from the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series. Congressman Lewis shared stories from the Freedom Rides and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, extolled the philosophy of nonviolence, and encouraged a new generation to continue the fight for justice and equality.


John Lewis and Two Others Attacked at South Carolina Greyhound Bus Terminal| EJI, A History of Racial Justice MAY 9, 2020

On May 9, 1961, 21-year-old John Lewis, a young black civil rights activist, was severely beaten by a mob at the Rock Hill, South Carolina, Greyhound bus terminal. A few days earlier, Lewis and twelve Freedom Riders — seven black and six white — had left Washington, D.C., on a Greyhound bus headed to New Orleans. They sat interracially on the bus, planning to test a Supreme Court ruling that made segregation in interstate transportation illegal.

Featured Image, PBS
Full article @ 
EJI, A History of Racial Justice

Premier—John Lewis: Good Trouble

Date & Time

Saturday, June 27, 20206:00 pm to 8:00 pm


African American History and Culture Museum


Event Type

Films, Webcasts & Online




About this Event

Director Dawn Porter uses interviews and rare archival footage in her highly anticipated documentary entitled “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” A Magnolia Pictures and Participant release, the film chronicles the Georgia U.S. Congressman Lewis’ 60-plus years of social activism and legislative action on issues ranging from voting rights to immigration. Drawing on present-day interviews with Lewis, now 80 years old, Porter explores his childhood and inspiring family as well as his fateful meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. In addition to her interviews with Lewis and his family, the film features interviews with a variety of political figures including Ayanna Pressley, Elijah Cummings, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacy Abrams, Jim Clyburn, Nancy Pelosi, and Eric Holder. A post screening discussion includes a conversation between Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch and Dawn Porter. The film will be released in theaters and on demand July 3. A limited number of the tickets will be available via the museum’s website on:


Magnolia Films

John Lewis Is a Personal Symbol for a Historic Period

By Bryant Rollins  Nov. 14, 1976

Credit…The New York Times Archives

See the article in its original context from
November 14, 1976, Page 176
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John Lewis is a name from the past in the American civil rights movement, but it is also a name from the present, and perhaps the future, of American politics. Mr. Lewis, normally the most self?effacing of men, was prideful and expansive last week in declaring, as others have, that Southern black voters had been responsible for electing a Southern white politician President.

The claim is no more susceptible to final proof, or disproof, than others that have been and will be made; the closeness of the vote encourages the claims but also means all the votes are vital for Jimmy Carter. Yet Mr. Lewis has more evidence on his side than most: There has been a peaceful political revolution in the South, and Mr. Carter has been its first beneficiary. For instance:

In 1960 there were only about a million blacks registered to vote in the 11 states of the Deep South; there are now four million. In 1960 there were fewer than 50 black elected officials; now there are about 2,000, In 1960 any attempt by large numbers blacks to register to vote, or to organize politically in any effective way, was met with violent resistance by whites; today, black political participation is an accepted reality.

Last week, black voters apparently contributed substantially to Mr. Carter’s margin of victory in all the states of the Deep South except Virginia, which President Ford won. In Georgia, whites and blacks alike favored Mr. Carter. Elsewhere in the South, about 55 percent of the white voters preferred President Ford, but over 95 percent of the black voters favored Mr. Carter.

Even that near unanimity would not have mattered had it involved the insignificant black vote of the past. This year, 63 percent of registered Southerners, black and white, voted, compared with 53 percent nationwide.

John Lewis is not the only person responsible for that. Last Sunday in Atlanta he was one of about 100 blacks and whites who attended a reunion of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—the student?based activist group of the 1960’s—that Mr. Lewis once headed.

But there were few in that group, now largely over the antimagical age of 30 and mundanely middle class, who constitute a better individual symbol—both a barometer and a progenitor—of black progress from productive protest against a racist social system to productive groundwork within the political system.

He was born the third in a family of 10 children and raised near Troy, the seat of Pike County, Alabama. When he was three years old, in 1943, his sharecropper father took his life savings—$300—and bought his own farm. There, oh 100 acres of mostly cotton in the center of predominantly white farming country, John Lewis was raised in the rigidly segregated environment that prevailed.

That segregation began to break down with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, led by Dr. Martin Luther King. The boycott also provoked Mr. Lewis’ interest in nonviolent social protest. He says now:

“It was inconceivable to us that black people would openly defy white people in the state of Alabama. To see hundreds of thousands of Montgomery blacks refusing to ride the buses, walking together to work, and forming car pools, was a moving experience. We used to lie in the dark at night listening to the news on the radio.”

Mr. Lewis, now 36, is a Baptist minister, a vocation he inclined to when he was 10; Reverend King’s leadership in Montgomery gave form to Mr. Lewis’ aspirations. He decided then not to seek an institutional church connection, but to work for social change in the deep South, and to adopt a Gandhian based, nonviolent social action as his philosophy for life.

He gained a reputation during the civil rights movement years as a mystical person who had a sometimes irrational faith in his own survivability. One leader who knew him well said: “Some leaders, even the toughest, would occasionally finesse a situation where they knew they were going to get beaten or jailed. John never did that. He always went full force into the fray.”

The spirit of nonviolent protest generated by Dr. King and his associates grew into the most powerful social movement since the mass labor organizing of the 30’s. The white South was at first bemused, then angered and outraged, and the outrage was often expressed violently. Demonstrators were brutally beaten, jailed and some were killed.

Between 1960 and 1966, Mr. Lewis was arrested 40 times. His longest term in prison was 31 days in the Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. He was beaten on many occasions, several times almost beaten to death. In May of 1961, he was left unconscious in a pool of his own blood outside the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Montgomery after he and a score of others were attacked by hundreds of whites; the protestors had been trying to desegregate the bus terminal. Mr. Lewis was saved by a white Southern law enforcement official. He was seriously injured again in March of 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

The crash of racial barriers falling throughont the South was audible in the North; what was not so audible were the cries of personal pain that many of the civil rights workers suffered. John Lewis’ two concussions, at Montgomery and at Selma, and numerous other beatings, left him with severe, numbing pains in his head. Only in recent years have neurological specialists in Boston and New York helped to relieved some of his suffering.

If the personal pain went unremarked, the movement in which it was incurred did not. The 1964 public accommodations act resulted from national outrage at the beatings of the Freedom Riders; the 1964 Voting Rights Act followed the violence of state troopers in Selma. That legislation is what enabled Mr. Lewis to change the manner in which he pursued his devotional life.

He had been the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from its formation 1963 until 1966. He was involved in other civil rights projects until 1970, when he began the work that bore its sweetest fruit on November 2nd.

As head of the Voter Education Project in Atlanta, a nonprofit organization funded mostly by foundation grants and with a full?time staff of 10, Mr. Lewis pursues tactics he used in the civil rights movement, and his organization’s activities during the recent campaign were typical.

He worked with Julian Bond and other prominent blacks for six months in the 11 states of the Deep South to register voters, sponsor voter education workshops and help get out the vote on Election Day. More than 100 local organizations were financed.

The voter education project spent about $500,000 much of it in grants of $1,000 to $2,000 to local chapters of the Urban League or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to local church groups of civic organizations. Nearly all of the groups were black; a few were biracial, and some were Spanish?speaking and native American. None were white.

Mr. Lewis stresses that the work was “nonpartisan.” For tax purposes his organization cannot conduct partisan political drives. It is clear, however, that most of those who register are Democrats.

The voter education project also produced radio and television spots, hundreds of posters and thousands of leaflets promoting voter registration. One of the most popular posters included a saying used in earlier voter registration drives by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: “Hands that once picked cotton now can pick a President.”

lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.

— Twitter @repjohnlewis June 2018

National Portrait Gallery: John R, Lewis

National Portrait Gallery: John R, Lewis and Julian Bond

 National Museum of African American History and Culture: Two Minute Warning

 National Museum of African American History and Culture: Disgusting

 National Museum of African American History and Culture: Dr. King Holding Arms; Dr. King, John Lewis, Reverend Jessie Douglas, and James Farmer

National Museum of African American History and Culture: John Lewis, Sister Mary Leoline, and Father Theodore Gill, Selma to Montgomery March

National Museum of African American History and Culture: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Other leaders on Highway 80, Selma to Montgomery March

National Portrait Gallery: Martin Luther King, Marching for Voting Rights With John Lewis, Reverend Jessie Douglas, James Forman, and Ralph Abernathy, Selma, 1965

 National Museum of African American History and Culture: John Lewis and Sister Mary Leoline Hand in Hand, Selma to Montgomery March

 National Museum of African American History and Culture: The Edmund Pettus Bridge

National Museum of African American History and Culture: The Beating

 National Museum of African American History and Culture: Marchers Crossing The Edmund Pettus Bridge

National Museum of African American History and Culture: Selma to Montgomery March

National Museum of African American History and Culture: Singing in the Rain, Selma to Montgomery March


Handbill. PL*251855.04.

National Museum of American History: March on Washington Handbill


Commemorative magazine, The Day They Marched, 1963. 1989.0603.09.

National Museum of American History Book: The Day They Marched


Leaflet. Program, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963. PL*321638.02.

National Museum of American History: Program, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

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Happy Mother’s Day to Every Mother on Earth

We appreciate your hardship carrying us through nine months and raising us with love and care.

The real reasons why child birth is so painful and dangerous

There is a long-standing idea that it is because we walk upright, but new research suggests that might not be the whole story

By Colin Barras, 22 December 2016

Giving birth can be a long and painful process. It can also be deadly. The World Health Organization estimates that about 830 women die every day because of complications during pregnancy and childbirth – and that statistic is actually a 44% reduction on the 1990 level.

“The figures are just horrifying,” says Jonathan Wells, who studies childhood nutrition at University College London in the UK. “It’s extremely rare for mammalian mothers to pay such a high price for offspring production.”

So why exactly is childbirth so risky for humans? And is there anything we can do to further reduce those death rates?

Hominins have walked upright for millions of years (Credit: Juan Manuel Borrero/

Scientists first began thinking about the problem of human childbirth in the middle of the 20th Century. They soon came up with an idea that seemed to explain what was going on. The trouble began, they said, with the earliest members of our evolutionary lineage – the hominins.

From an early date in our prehistory, hominin babies may have had to twist and turn to pass through the birth canal

The oldest hominin fossils so far found date back about seven million years. They belong to animals that shared very few of our features, except perhaps one: some researchers think that, even at this early stage, hominins were walking upright on two legs.

To walk on two legs efficiently, the hominin skeleton had to be pushed and pulled into a new configuration, and that affected the pelvis.

In most primates the birth canal in the pelvis is relatively straight. In hominins, it soon began to look very different. Hips became relatively narrow and the birth canal became distorted – a cylinder that varied in size and shape along its length.

So from an early date in our prehistory, hominin babies may have had to twist and turn to pass through the birth canal. This would have made birth a far more difficult task than it had been previously.

Then things got even worse.

Most hominins walked upright (Credit: P. Plailly/E. Daynes/Science Photo Library)

About two million years ago, our hominin ancestors began to change again. They lost their more ape-like features such as a relatively short body, long arms and small brain. Instead they began to gain more human-like ones, like taller bodies, shorter arms and bigger brains.

That last trait in particular was bad news for female hominins.

I was going to find evidence that supported the obstetric dilemma, but very soon everything came crashing down

Big-brained adults start out life as big-brained babies, so evolution came into conflict with itself. On the one hand, female hominins had to maintain a narrow pelvis with a constricted birth canal in order to walk efficiently on two legs. But at the same time the foetuses they carried were evolving to have larger heads, which were a tighter and tighter fit through those narrow pelvises.

Childbirth became a distressingly painful and potentially lethal business, and it remains so to this day.

In 1960, an anthropologist called Sherwood Washburn gave this idea a name: the obstetrical dilemma. It is now often called the “obstetric dilemma”. Scientists thought it explained the problem of human childbirth perfectly. Many still think it does.

But some, including Wells, are no longer happy with this standard explanation. In the last five years, Wells and several other researchers have begun to push against the classic story of the obstetric dilemma.

They think Washburn’s idea is too simplistic, and that all sorts of other factors also contribute to the problem of childbirth.

 Many women use pain relief during labour (Credit: Science Photo Library/Alamy)

Holly Dunsworth of the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, was drawn to the obstetric dilemma while she was still a grad student. “I thought it was so exciting, I was going to find evidence that supported the obstetric dilemma,” she says. “But very soon everything came crashing down.”

We have bigger babies and longer pregnancies than you would expect

The problem was with the predictions Washburn made. “When Washburn wrote his article, he was actually saying that the obstetric dilemma was solved by giving birth to babies at a relatively early stage in their development,” says Wells.

Go back to that moment two million years ago when human brains began to grow larger. Washburn suggested that humans found a solution of sorts: shortening the length of the human pregnancy. Human babies were forced out into the world earlier than they really should be, so that they were still relatively small, with diminutive, underdeveloped brains.

Washburn’s explanation seems logical. Anyone who has held a newborn can appreciate how underdeveloped and vulnerable they are. The standard view is that other primates hold onto their pregnancies for longer and give birth to babies that are more developmentally advanced.

But, says Dunsworth, it is simply not true.

Some animals, like this baby common eland (Taurotragus oryx), can walk straight after being born (Credit: blickwinkel/Alamy)2

“We have bigger babies and longer pregnancies than you would expect,” she says.

Women give birth to babies with larger brains than we would expect

In an absolute sense human pregnancies are long. They typically last 38-40 weeks, whereas a chimpanzee pregnancy is 32 weeks long, and gorillas and orang-utans give birth after about 37 weeks.

As Dunsworth and her colleagues explained in a 2012 paper, this remains true even if we adjust the pregnancy durations to take into account differences in body mass. Human pregnancies last 37 days longer than they should do for an ape our size.

The same thing applies for brain size. Women give birth to babies with larger brains than we would expect of a primate with the average woman’s body mass. This means that a key prediction of Washburn’s obstetric dilemma is incorrect.

There are other problems with Washburn’s idea too.

Male (left) and female (right) human pelvises (Credit: Visuals Unlimited/

A central assumption of the obstetric dilemma is that the size and shape of the human pelvis – and the female pelvis in particular – is highly constrained by our habit of walking upright on two legs. After all, if evolution could have “solved” the problem of human childbirth by simply making women’s hips a little wider and the birth canal a little larger, it surely would have done so by now.

The birth canal is extraordinarily variable in size and shape

In 2015, Anna Warrener at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her colleagues questioned this assumption.

The researchers collected metabolic data from male and female volunteers who were walking and running in the lab. Volunteers with wider hips were no more inefficient at walking and running than their narrow-hipped peers. From purely energetic considerations, at least, there does not seem to be anything stopping humans evolving wider hips that would make childbirth easier.

“The basic premise of the obstetric dilemma – that having a small or narrow pelvis is best for biomechanical efficiency – is likely not correct,” says Helen Kurki of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.

Kurki was not involved with Warrener’s study, but her own research has identified yet more problems for the traditional obstetric dilemma hypothesis.

Childbirth is notoriously painful (Credit: Blend Images/Alamy)

If the female pelvis really is tightly governed by two opposing forces – the need to be narrow for walking and the need to be wide for giving birth – the shape of the birth canal should vary little between women. It should be “stabilised” by natural selection.

Pregnant women sometimes joke that their developing foetus feels like an energy-sapping parasite

But after analysing hundreds of human skeletons, Kurki reported in 2015 that the birth canal is extraordinarily variable in size and shape. It varies even more than the size and shape of human arms, a trait that is known to vary between individuals.

“I think my findings do support shifting attitudes to the obstetric dilemma,” says Kurki.

Washburn’s tidy narrative does not seem quite as satisfying as it once did. There has to be something else going on.

Dunsworth thinks she has identified one important missing piece in the puzzle: energy.

“We max out toward the end of pregnancy,” says Dunsworth, herself a mother. “Those last weeks and months of pregnancy are tiring. They are pushing right against the possible sustainable metabolic rates in humans. It has to end at some point.”

Evolution could, in principle, make the pelvis larger – but it has not had to

Pregnant women sometimes joke that their developing foetus feels like an energy-sapping parasite. In a sense it really is, and its energy demands grow with every passing day.

In particular, human brains have an almost insatiable appetite for energy. Growing a second, tiny brain inside the womb can push a pregnant woman close to the edge, metabolically speaking.

Dunsworth calls this idea the energetics of gestation and growth (EGG) hypothesis. It suggests the timing of childbirth is governed by the difficulties of continuing to nourish a developing foetus beyond 39 weeks – not by the difficulties of squeezing the baby out through the birth canal.

This CT scan shows the size of a full-term foetus (Credit: Cultura Creative RF/Alamy)

Dunsworth thinks people obsess too much about the tight fit between a baby’s head and its mother’s birth canal. It might seem too much of a coincidence that the two are so closely size-matched, but she says the pelvis has simply evolved to be the size it needs to be. Evolution could, in principle, make the pelvis larger – but it has not had to.

For most of human evolution, childbirth might have been quite a lot easier

By and large, Kurki shares this view. “The obstetric canal is big enough, the majority of the time, for the foetus to pass through,” she says.

This is true. But even so, take another look at the maternal mortality figures: 830 deaths every day. Even among women who do not lose their lives during childbirth, some studies say the process leads to life-changing but non-lethal injuries in as many as 40% of cases. The price women pay for childbirth seems extraordinarily high.

Wells agrees. “It’s impossible to imagine the problem has been this bad over the long term.”

Perhaps it has not. In 2012, Wells and his colleagues took a look at the prehistory of childbirth, and came to a surprising conclusion. For most of human evolution, childbirth might have been quite a lot easier.

Homo erectus may have found birth easier than we do (Credit: Volker Steger/4 Million Years of Man/Science Photo Library)

The prehistory of childbirth is a difficult subject to study. The hominin pelvis is rarely preserved in the fossil record, and newborn skulls are even thinner on the ground. But from the meagre evidence available it seems that some earlier species of human, including Homo erectus and even some Neanderthals, had a relatively easy time of it when it came to giving birth.

A shift to farming may have led to developmental changes that made childbirth far more difficult

In fact, Wells and his colleagues suspect childbirth might even have been a relatively minor problem in our species – at least to begin with. There are very few newborn baby skeletons among the human remains from early hunter-gatherer groups, which might hint that death rates among newborns were relatively low.

This situation changed a few thousand years ago. People began farming, and newborn baby skeletons became a far more common feature of the archaeological record, at least in some places.

If there was a rise in newborn death rates at the dawn of farming, there were almost certainly several factors involved.

Farming changed our bodies yet again (Credit: Jose Antonio Penas/Science Photo Library)

For instance, early farmers began living in relatively dense settlements, so transmissible disease probably became a far greater problem. Newborns are often particularly vulnerable when an infection is going around a community.

But Wells and his colleagues suspect a shift to farming also led to developmental changes that made childbirth far more difficult. A rise in infant mortality at the dawn of farming might be due in part to a raised risk of death during childbirth.

Human childbirth suddenly became more difficult about 10,000 years ago

There is one striking feature archaeologists have noticed when comparing the skeletons of early farmers with their hunter-gatherer ancestors. The farmers were noticeably shorter in stature, probably because their carbohydrate-rich diet was not particularly nutritious compared to the protein-rich hunter-gatherer diet.

This is a telling observation for those who study childbirth, says Wells, because there is evidence of a link between a woman’s height and the size and shape of her pelvis. In general, the shorter a woman, the narrower her hips. In other words, the shift to farming almost certainly made childbirth a little bit more challenging.

On top of that, the carbohydrate-rich diets that became more common with farming can cause a developing foetus to grow larger and fatter. That makes the baby harder to deliver.

Combine these two factors and human childbirth – which might have been relatively easy for millions of years – suddenly became more difficult about 10,000 years ago.

Pregnancy gets pretty exhausting (Credit: Blend Images/Alamy)

Something rather like this “farming revolution effect” replays whenever human diets become poorly nutritious – particularly if those diets also contain a lot of carbohydrates and sugars, which encourage foetal growth.

“We can make a simple prediction that the nutritional status of mothers should be associated with a local prevalence of maternal mortality and difficulties with giving birth,” says Wells. The statistics clearly follow such a pattern, suggesting that improving nutrition might be a fairly easy way to reduce maternal mortality.

Pregnant women have adapted to nourish their foetus for as long as they can

Both Dunsworth and Kurki think that Wells has identified something significant in his work – something that perhaps would only be evident to a researcher with the right background in nutrition and development.

“I’m so lucky that Jonathan is describing these complex issues from his perspective of human health,” says Dunsworth. “At the same time I’m approaching the problem from my perspective of human evolution.”

So we now have a new explanation for the difficulties of human childbirth. Pregnant women have adapted to nourish their foetus for as long as they can before it grows too large to feed internally. The female pelvis has adapted to be just the right size to allow this maximally-nourished foetus to travel through safely. And dietary changes in the last few thousand years have upset this fine balance, making childbirth risky – particularly for mothers who have a poor diet.

However, Dunsworth says that is probably not the end of the story.

A female chimp with her granddaughter (left) and son (Credit: Fiona Rogers/

You do get something quite cute at the end, though (Credit: Tetra Images/Alamy)

Washburn’s ideas made good intuitive sense for decades, until Dunsworth, Wells, Kurki and others began to pick them apart. “What if the EGG perspective is too good to be true?” asks Dunsworth. “We have to keep searching and keep collecting evidence.”

This is exactly what other researchers are doing.

For instance, in 2015 Barbara Fischer of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Klosterneuburg, Austria and Philipp Mitteroecker of the University of Vienna, Austria took another look at the female pelvis.

A woman’s pelvis takes on a shape more conducive to childbirth in her late teens – when she reaches peak fertility

It seemed to them that Dunsworth’s EGG hypothesis – compelling though it is – could actually be seen as complementary to Washburn’s ideas, rather than disproving them entirely. Dunsworth agrees: she thinks many factors are involved in the evolution of modern childbirth.

Fischer and Mitteroecker investigated whether there is any correlation between female head size and pelvis size. Head size is heritable, at least to some extent, so women would benefit during childbirth if those with larger heads also naturally had a wider pelvis.

The researchers’ analysis of 99 skeletons suggested such a link does indeed exist. They concluded that a woman’s head size and her pelvic dimensions must somehow be linked at the genetic level.

“This does not mean that the [problem of childbirth] has been resolved,” says Fischer. But the problem would be even worse if there was no link between head size and pelvis width.

And there is another complication: women’s bodies change as they get older.

You do get something quite cute at the end, though (Credit: Tetra Images/Alamy)

A May 2016 study led by Marcia Ponce de León and Christoph Zollikofer at the University of Zurich, Switzerland examined pelvic data from 275 people – male and female – of all ages. The researchers concluded that the pelvis changes dimensions during the course of a woman’s lifetime.

Many babies are now born by Caesarean section

Their data suggested that a woman’s pelvis takes on a shape more conducive to childbirth in her late teens – when she reaches peak fertility. It then stays that way until around her 40th birthday, when it then gradually changes shape to become less suitable for childbirth, ready for the menopause.

The scientists suggest these changes make childbirth a little easier than it otherwise would be. They call this idea the “developmental obstetric dilemma” (DOD).

“The DOD hypothesis provides a developmental explanation for the variation in pelvic obstetric dimensions,” says Ponce de León.

If all these evolutionary pressures are acting on childbirth, is the process still changing and evolving even now?

A baby born by Caesarean section (Credit: Martin Valigursky/Alamy)

In December 2016, Fischer and Mitteroecker made headlines with a theoretical paper that addressed this question.

Earlier studies had suggested that larger babies have a better chance of survival and that size at birth is at least somewhat heritable. Together, these factors might lead the average human foetus to push up against the size limit imposed by the female pelvis, even though it can be fatal to push too far.

We all either did or didn’t arrive in the world through a pelvis

But many babies are now born by Caesarean section, an operation in which the baby is taken out of the mother’s abdomen without ever entering the birth canal. Fischer and Mitteroecker suggested that, in societies where C-sections have become more common, foetuses can now grow “too large” and still have a reasonable chance of survival.

In theory, as a consequence the number of women giving birth to babies that are too big to fit through their pelvis might have risen by 10 or 20% in just a few decades, at least in some parts of the world. Or, to put it in cruder terms, people in these societies might be evolving to have larger babies.

For now this is only an idea and there is no hard evidence that it is really happening. But it is an intriguing thought.

“We all either did or didn’t arrive in the world through a pelvis,” says Wells. “If we did, that pelvis mattered. And if we didn’t, that in itself is interesting.”

Ever since live birth evolved, babies have been constrained to some degree by the size of the birth canal. But maybe, for some babies at least, that is no longer true.

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