Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
* Book: Mothers and Others. The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Harvard University Press, 2011
"Somewhere in Africa, more than a million years ago, a line of apes began to rear their young differently than their Great Ape ancestors. From this new form of care came new ways of engaging and understanding each other. How such singular human capacities evolved, and how they have kept us alive for thousands of generations, is the mystery revealed in this bold and wide-ranging new vision of human emotional evolution.
Mothers and Others finds the key in the primatologically unique length of human childhood. If the young were to survive in a world of scarce food, they needed to be cared for, not only by their mothers but also by siblings, aunts, fathers, friends—and, with any luck, grandmothers. Out of this complicated and contingent form of childrearing, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues, came the human capacity for understanding others. Mothers and others teach us who will care, and who will not.
From its opening vision of “apes on a plane”; to descriptions of baby care among marmosets, chimpanzees, wolves, and lions; to explanations about why men in hunter-gatherer societies hunt together, Mothers and Others is compellingly readable. But it is also an intricately knit argument that ever since the Pleistocene, it has taken a village to raise children—and how that gave our ancient ancestors the first push on the path toward becoming emotionally modern human beings." (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674060326)
1. Melvin Konner:
“Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is one of the most original and influential minds in evolutionary anthropology… It is possible to see Hrdy’s most recent book, Mothers and Others, as the third in a trilogy that began with The Woman That Never Evolved. It may be the most important… [It’s her] most ambitious contribution. In Mothers and Others, she situates this pivotal mother–infant pair not in an empty expanse of savanna, waiting for a man to arrive with his killed game, but where it actually belongs, in the dense social setting of a hunter-gatherer or, before that, an ape or monkey group. Hrdy argues convincingly that social support was crucial to human success, that compared with other primates, humans are uniquely cooperative, and that it was precisely cooperation in child care that gave rise to this general bent… Hrdy’s gracefully written, expert account of human behavior focuses on the positive, and its most important contribution is to give cooperation its rightful place in child care. Through a lifetime of pathbreaking work, she has repeatedly undermined our complacent, solipsistic, masculine notions of what women were meant ‘by nature’ to be. Here as elsewhere she urges caution and compassion toward women whose maternal role must be constantly rethought and readjusted to meet the demands of a changing world. Women have done this successfully for millions of years, and their success will not stop now. But neither Hrdy nor I nor anyone else can know whether the strong human tendency to help mothers care for children can produce the species-wide level of cooperation that we now need to survive.” (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674060326&content=reviews)
"In Mothers and Others, she situates this pivotal mother-infant pair not in an empty expanse of savanna, waiting for a man to arrive with his killed game, but where it actually belongs, in the dense social setting of a hunter-gatherer or, before that, an ape or monkey group. Hrdy argues convincingly that social support was crucial to human success, that compared with other primates, humans are uniquely cooperative, and that it was precisely cooperation in child care that gave rise to this general bent.
The first two ideas are clearly linked and important, both in theoretical and practical terms. In the 1960s and 1970s, the English psychoanalyst John Bowlby created the first scientific model of the emotional attachment between humans. In his three-volume Attachment and Loss, he not only explored the evolutionary foundation underlying human affections, but used it to challenge the prevailing Freudian model.6 The first attachment of human life, that of an infant to its primary caregiver, was not the byproduct of oral needs or infant sexuality, but important in itself. The infant’s brain was set up to develop the array of impulses and behaviors we call attachment, and to focus them on a person—the one who cuddled it, calmed its fears, responded to its distress.
Bowlby was influenced by the work of the ethologist Konrad Lorenz on imprinting, the remarkable process in which chicks and ducklings become, within a few days of hatching, obsessed with the shape and sound of their mothers, in whose safe shadow they then stay. For our own ancestors, attachment was evolution’s answer to a world of hungry predators—hawks above, leopards and snakes below—who could make a living at the expense of monkey infants much more easily if those infants were alone; thus the relentless press of natural selection urging infants and caregivers to be together. The result was a bond whose absence or interruption could cause suffering and psychological damage, especially for the infant.
The study of attachment coincided with second-wave feminism, the large-scale reentry of women into the labor force of industrial countries, and the rise of day care as a practical solution for working women with ambition or with no other choice. Some psychologists in this period vigorously defended not only highly intensive mothering but the traditional nuclear family as well. The predicted dire consequences of our recent departures from those traditions have not so far materialized.
Some things about day care are bad for the young, of course; they get more infectious illnesses, and may, if the day care is not good, suffer from lack of stimulation, neglect, or even abuse. Sufficiently long and large studies of the effects of day care began only at the end of the last century and have found that children in day care are different. Up to the age of twelve, their teachers report that they have more problems with other children—“hits others,” “disobedient at school,” “argues a lot”—than their home-reared counterparts, but their behavior is squarely within the normal range.7 Nonetheless, even high-quality day care raises the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in toddlers over the course of the day, while a study of children of the same age, from similar backgrounds, in home environments showed declines during the same period.8 But what does this mean? If life is full of stress, then it can be argued that day care children are being prepared for it. And we know that the best day care improves their cognitive and social skills.
Still, life is long, and there remain reasons for concern about this vast social experiment. Some psychologists continue to raise questions about its ultimate effects, and both the research and the debate will likely last a long time. Meanwhile, some of those women with the means to care for their children will continue to look askance at those who delegate such care, and their disdain will no doubt be reciprocated." (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/12/08/it-does-take-village/)
- At Scientific American, read an in-depth, two-part interview with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on the evolution of her own research, from reproductive strategies in apes to human cooperative parenting, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2012/03/16/raising-darwins-consciousness-an-interview-with-sarah-blaffer-hrdy-on-mother-nature/
- Read more about the competing “modern” theories of child development, and how Hrdy’s own experiences influenced her research in that area, in Times Higher Education https://www.hup.harvard.edu/results-list.php?subject=SCI027000