Grandmother Hypothesis in Anthropology

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Camilla Power, Morna Finnegan and Hilary Callan:

"In the past few decades, Darwinian feminism has matured to produce some of the most influential theory on human evolution, in particular the Grandmother hypothesis (Hawkes et al. 1998). In Mothers and Others (2009), Sarah Hrdy argued that co-operative childcare centred on female kin coalitionary networks is fundamental to human ‘emotional modernity’. The growing influence of Hrdy’swork is producing an expanding evolutionary and biosocial literature on allomothering and collective childcare as the basis for humanlike prosociality. In our current understanding, co-operative breeding allied to great ape cognitive capacity offers the most convincing explanation of the differences between us and the other great apes in terms of intersubjectivity and motivation to share intentions, providing the basis for human ‘cultural cognition’ (Burkart et al.2009, 2014, Tomasello et al. 2012, and Ellen, Chapter 2 in this volume). We are the product of natural selection for intersubjectivity and joint attention facilitated by our ‘co-operative’ eyes, which other apes decidedly are not. To that extent, our capacity for egalitarianism is engrained in our bodies.


While Hrdy highlights the demographic flexibility of hunter-gather bands and residence patterns and how that can operate as an elastic safety net for childcare, her work (2009) essentially combines the argument of the Grandmother hypothesis with

  • Michael Tomasello and colleagues’ Vygotskian intelligence hypothesis, drawing on the evolutionary biology of co-operative breeding systems. Her model of ‘emotional modernity’ applies to the emergence of genus Homo/H/erectus (timeframe 2–1.5 ma). This concurs with the
  • timeframe of O’Connell, Hawkes and Blurton Jones (1999) on shifts in life history, Key and Aiello’s (1999) modelling of the emergence of male-female co-operation,
  • and Isler and van Schaik’s (2012) recent arguments on breaking through the ‘gray ceiling’ of encephalization (when genus Homo regularly attains twice the volume of the chimpanzee brain).
  • Kramer and Otárola-Castillo (2015) emphasize the role of mother-oldest child co-operation for engendering early human life-history shifts. These interdisciplinary models then are achieving a degree of consensus on key aspects of the evolution of human sociality, sexual and reproductive co-operation."