Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
(2009) takes in the arguments of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin, as well as those of other scientists, and reframes them in the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, making an inquiry about whether humans’ psychological features are distinct from other animals; and, if so, why. She focuses specifically on one key element of her life’s research: the sociality of human motherhood. Hrdy suggests that an instinctual understanding of the huge support network necessary for a human mother to raise a child is what causes the mother to be social in the first place. To support her argument, she uses a wealth of biological and sociological research, connecting it to different modern definitions of humanity.
Hrdy begins with a thought experiment: she posits a plane crowded with passengers who are all chimpanzees. She argues that any rational person would consider him or herself fortunate to have the flight land successfully and without injury. Though chimps are very close, genetically, to homo sapiens
, their brains are not equipped for the same regulating, pro-social behavior that governs humans in anomalous social arrangements like enclosed airplane fuselages. She argues that humans alone have concepts of normative social codes, such as giving and justice, which have developed through many generations and across space and time.
Hrdy argues that human mothers experience child rearing differently than primates. Though she admits that it is possible that primate mothers have equally profound bonds with their children as mothers, humans’ lack of fur has rendered the fur-grabbing impulses of mother and child a vestigial response. Humans respond by occupying their hands with alternative tasks which strengthen their social bonds and ensure bodily security, including amusing babies with toys, and allowing other humans to hold them.
Hrdy further distinguishes humans from their closest relatives by making a case for the value of adaptations that recognize implicit social messages. Since human babies are generally exposed to multitudes of individuals, the babies themselves have evolved abstract faculties to recognize and respond to facial expressions. This adaptation goes both ways: as the babies took in facial information and provided implicit feedback, the adult humans did as well in order to comfort or teach the babies. This communal process, called alloparenting, is central to Hrdy’s definition of humanity.
Hrdy argues a corollary to alloparenting, suggesting that it has been the main driver of the survival of human children since our species began. Though early attempts to explain human family behavior using sociobiology were flawed, it became a more rigorous field of knowledge starting in the 1970s. This happened when researchers, most of them female, soundly rejected the notion that family socialization stemmed from masculine, nomadic pursuits such as hunting. These new sociobiologists understood the developmental importance of moments of pro-social interaction in stable communities.
Because the average child requires several caregivers to be properly raised, Hrdy suggests that most children actually form several maternal bonds, rather than a single, biological one. Not all of these bonds are necessarily psychologically healthy, nor do they necessarily connect to people who are concerned about the child’s well-being. To address this complexity, Hrdy argues that babies evolved the skill to read the intentions of caregivers far before understanding their verbal signals. Groups of human adults have since abstracted this skill to the cooperative ventures of adult life, including the creation of modern institutions like representative government.
Hrdy concludes by providing a survey of different child-rearing strategies taking place around the world. She dedicates time to the few nomadic cultures that still survive, as well as more modernized cultures, such as those of rural Canadian farms and the highly social kibbutzim of Israel. She interprets the common thread of alloparenting as evidence that it is essential to the well being of children.
Surveying a broad swath of anthropological data, and raising a voice that is attentive to the historical bias against women’s roles in constructing the vital relationships that make human societies work, Mothers and Others
makes a rigorous argument to strike these biases down. In doing so, she poses the possibility of a new psycho-evolutionary paradigm that treats more flexibly and liberally the relationships that help us survive.