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Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding Paperback – March 7, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


In the study of mothering, Sarah Hrdy has no peer. In Mothers and Others, we are treated to Hrdy's infectious writing, taking the reader on a tour of our evolved history as a cooperatively parenting species. The ideas are big, bold, and brain-bending. (Marc Hauser, author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong)

Boldly conceived and beautifully written, Mothers and Others makes a strong case that we humans are (or should be) cooperative breeders. It is an indispensable contribution to the debate about how and why we came to be the most successful primate of them all. (Melvin Konner, author of The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit)

As was the case for her earlier classic, Mother Nature, Sarah Hrdy's Mothers and Others is a brilliant work on a profoundly important subject. The leading scientific authority on motherhood has come through again. (E. O. Wilson)

"What if I were traveling with a planeload of chimpanzees? Any one of us would be lucky to disembark with all ten fingers and toes still attached...Even among the famously peaceful bonobos...veterinarians sometimes have to be called in following altercations to stitch back on a scrotum or penis," Hrdy writes. What she found is that our unique mothering instinct, quite different from gorillas and chimpanzees, meant that the children most likely to survive were those who could relate to and solicit help from others. We evolved to be wired for empathy for, consideration of, and intuition into how others are feeling. (Jessa Crispin Smart Set 2009-02-11)

To explain the rise of cooperative breeding among our forebears, Hrdy synthesizes an array of new research in anthropology, genetics, infant development, comparative biology. (Natalie Angier New York Times 2009-03-02)

For as long as she's been a sociobiologist, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has been playfully dismantling traditional notions of motherhood and gender relations...Hrdy is back with another book, Mothers and Others, and another big idea. She argues that human cooperation is rooted not in war making, as sociobiologists have believed, but in baby making and baby-sitting. Hrdy's conception of early human society is far different from the classic sociobiological view of a primeval nuclear family, with dad off hunting big game and mom tending the cave and the kids. Instead, Hrdy paints a picture of a cooperative breeding culture in which parenting duties were spread out across a network of friends and relatives. The effect on our development was profound. (Julia Wallace Salon 2009-05-11)

Hrdy's lucid and comprehensively researched book takes us to the heart of what it means to be human. (Camilla Power Times Higher Education 2009-05-07)

Hrdy's much-awaited new book, is another mind-expanding, paradigm-shifting, rigorously scientific yet eminently readable treatise...Mothers and Others lays the foundation for a new hypothesis about human evolution...Mothers and Others is overflowing with fascinating information and thinking. It's a book you read, pausing regularly to consider the full import of what you just read...Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has added another enormous building block to our thinking about our origins with this new book. Our species is lucky to have her. (Claudia Casper Globe and Mail 2009-05-09)

Provocative. [Hrdy] argues that unlike other apes, Homo sapiens could never have evolved if human mothers had been required to raise their offspring on their own. Human infants are too helpless and too expensive in their demands for care and resources. So human females have to line up helpers--sometimes extending beyond their own kin--to raise their young. That requires both males and females to invest heavily in social skills for bargaining with other members of their groups. Hrdy suggests that females in ancestral hunting and gathering groups may have thrived because they were free to be flexible in this way. Female flexibility was reduced when humans established settlements requiring male coalitions to defend them, probably leading to greater control of females by males...The most refreshing aspect of [this] book is the challenge [it] offers to what we thought we already knew. (John Odling-Smee Nature 2009-04-30)

If Sarah Blaffer Hrdy were a male scientist, I might be tempted to say that her new book Mothers and Others arrives like an intellectual time bomb, or that it throws a grenade into accepted notions of human evolution. But those are aggressive, competitive metaphors, and one of the essential points of Mothers and Others is that aggression and competition have been given far too central a place in the standard accounts of how our species came into being. From Charles Darwin onward, those accounts are mostly the work of men, and Hrdy points out in meticulous detail how partial and biased was their understanding of the remote past...Mothers and Others offers enormous rewards. It is not only revolutionary; it is also wise and humane. (Mark Abley Calgary Herald 2009-05-10)

More than a million years ago, somewhere in Africa, a group of apes began to rear their young differently. Unlike almost all other primates, they were willing to let others share in the care of infants. The reasons for this innovation are lost in the ancient past, but according to well-known anthropologist Hrdy, it was crucial that these mothers had related--and therefore trusted--females nearby and that the helpers provided food as well as care. Out of this "communal care," she argues, grew the human capacity for understanding one another: mothers and others teach us who will care and who will not. Beginning with her opening conceit of apes on an airplane (you wouldn't want to be on this flight) and continuing through her informed insights into the behavior of other species, Hrdy's reasoning is fascinating to follow. (Michelle Press Scientific American 2009-05-15)

One of the boldest thinkers in her field...Hrdy's scope is huge...To build her arguments, she expertly knits together research from a variety of fields--fossil evidence, endocrinology, psychology, history, child development, genetics, comparative primatology and field research among hunter-gatherer societies. Her book is at once entertaining, full of apt, often colorful anecdotes, sometimes culled from her own experiences, and rich with information and case studies...Hrdy is not only synthesizing her own research on female reproductive strategies (initially on langur monkeys in India), but that of hundreds of other researchers to create what amounts to a sweeping new meta-paradigm. (Michele Pridmore-Brown Times Literary Supplement 2009-05-22)

In this compelling and wide-ranging book, Hrdy sets out to explain the mystery of how humans evolved into cooperative apes. The demands of raising our slow-growing and energetically expensive offspring led to cooperative child-rearing, she argues, which was key to our survival. (Alison Motluk New Scientist 2009-04-04)

Using evidence from diverse research fields (including ethnography, archaeology, developmental psychology, primatology, endocrinology, and genetics), Hrdy builds an engaging and compelling argument for an evolutionary history of cooperative offspring care that requires us to rethink entrenched views about how we came to be human...Mothers and Others provides a fascinating, readable account of how our hominin ancestors might have negotiated the obstacles to raising offspring. Hrdy presents a well-argued case for human evolutionary history being characterized by cooperative offspring care, which opens fresh avenues of research into the history of our species. In addition, she prompts readers to consider far-reaching questions, such as whether the nuclear family is the "best" unit in which to raise children and how learned parenting practices might determine the future of human evolution. Her thought-provoking book will interest students, specialists, and general readers alike and should focus attention on the neglected roles of mothers and others within human evolutionary theory. (Gillian R. Brown Science 2009-06-26)

Hrdy presents her hypothesis systematically and painstakingly, chapter by chapter, so that the result is compellingly plausible. (William McGrew American Scientist 2009-07-01)

Understanding the evolution of the human mind has become the holy grail of modern evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary psychology, and those who pursue it feel themselves closing in on something big. Mothers and Others is a heroic contribution to this quest. It is an anthropological T(A)E: a theory of (almost) everything, a genre for which I must confess a weakness. It stands above most other examples of the genre, however, for both its scholarship and its craft. Hrdy draws on a broad literature extending beyond the traditional domains of primatology and anthropology, with particular emphasis on developmental psychology, but breadth of scholarship and lucid vision have long been the trademarks of her writing...Hrdy is at least as gifted as a writer as [Stephen Jay] Gould and at least as clear a thinker...This is a very important book, and a beautiful one. It is a book that will delight a broad lay readership coming to it from disparate perspectives. It will be a wonderful book to assign to undergraduates in a range of courses. But most importantly, it is a challenging and provocative book for academics and scientists interested in human cognition and human evolution. Once again, Hrdy has woven together strands of material from many sources into an elegant tapestry of insight and logic, emblazoned with her vision of who we are, and why. (Peter Ellison Evolutionary Psychology 2009-09-01)

The book is an impressive and sustained argument for why, unlike other apes, humans are cooperative breeders...Hrdy offers some fascinating speculations about the problems whose solution might have facilitated the emergence of cooperative breeding. (Pierre Jacob International Cognition and Culture Institute blog 2009-09-04)

Mothers and Others is an engaging book. It is full of fascinating information from diverse fields, imaginatively harnessed to produce a coherent account of our genetic predispositions as a species. Above all, it challenges the pervasively sexist tradition within evolutionary psychology, which routinely highlights aggression and maternal care at the expense of sociability and shared care. In doing so, the book provides a rich foundation for engagement with the social sciences, exploring the articulation between our genetic predispositions and contemporary human societies. (Michael Gilding Australian Book Review 2010-02-01)

Convincing about the importance of alloparenting, [Hrdy] makes a rich case that draws on wide erudition about many primate species and current arguments about human cooperation. (B. Weston Choice 2010-02-01)

In Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, Sarah Hrdy argues that what makes humans different from other apes is our need to rear children cooperatively. Elegantly written and, to any parent, compellingly argued. (Morgan Kelly Irish Times 2009-11-28)

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. (Melvin Konner New York Review of Books 2011-12-08)

About the Author

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at University of California–Davis.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: The Belknap Press (April 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674060326
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674060326
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #559,607 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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64 of 67 people found the following review helpful By Stonerh on May 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book should be read by anyone with an interest in human evolution but especially by those with an interest in human uniqueness. Dr. Hrdy writes beautifully, is vigorous in her attention to empirical evidence, but she is also willing to speculate about the conditions that fostered uniquely human traits. Among the most obvious of these traits are our extended lifespans, prolonged childhoods, big brains, perspective taking (mind reading) or intersubjectivity, language use, cumulative culture, mutual understanding, norm formation and enforcement, altruistic punishment, and moral judgment. The list could of course go on but what concerns Professor Hrdy more than these individual traits is describing the conditions or preconditions fostering these co-evolving traits. As she notes, the most common explanation for our pro-social traits is group competition but, as she argues, such competition is common among other primates, especially the Great Apes, and the question becomes "why us and not them?" She does not discount completely the role of group competition but argues that by far the most important reason that humans display their uniquely pro-social suite of traits is that "novel [child] rearing conditions among a line of early hominins meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers than just their mothers, and this dependence produced selection pressures that favored individuals who were better able at decoding the mental states of others, and figuring out who would better help and who would hurt" (p 66).Hrdy argues that cooperation more than competition accounts for our unique traits, although the two are hardly incompatible.Read more ›
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"Mothers and Others" is a worthy successor to Hrdy's 1999 "Mother Nature," which provided a sociobiologist's analysis of the relationship between mothers and children. This book examines cooperative childcare or in the human species. This adaptation in humans is unique among great apes, although corporative breeding occurs elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

Hrdy sticks fairly close to her thesis, that humans are unique in the way we employ "alloparents," that is, other caregivers in the nurture of our children, and especially in the vast variety of arrangements that seem to work. In descending order, the most important relationships are the mother's mother, sisters, and daughters. Among the important males are of course the father, but also to a surprising degree other men who might be the father, and brothers.

One of the most unique thing about human beings is the variety of relationships. In other species, if a father is useful in raising children, he is pretty generally useful, such as the father fish which let their mouths be used as a nursery. In people, however, the rules vary from culture to culture and even family to family. It is a matter of, whatever works.

The take-home truth is that human babies are tremendously expensive to raise. They take forever to mature. In the days before we became civilized they were highly vulnerable to predators and to starvation. The child had a vastly superior chance of survival if more than one person was responsible for taking care of him. Cooperation was also a superior use of resources: one person could watch two or three kids, giving other mothers the freedom to cultivate crops or gather food.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Carol Miller on April 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Belknap Press) Hrdy's book is the most exciting and revolutionary book I have read on the subject of human evolution. Her main thesis is that prior to Homo erectus our ancestors developed a facility for infant and child care by many group members, allowing the mother to attend to other tasks and, over time, infants to evolve larger brains and childhood into a longer, richer learning period. This thesis is well backed by extensive studies regarding apes, primates, other mammals, and human hunting and gathering societies.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Renz-Polster on September 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a very important piece of work that expands and clarifies Hrdys line of reasoning in her first book, Mother Nature. She presents such a huge amount of research into the socioemotional and evolutionary underpinnings of empathy and nurturing behavior that it is sometimes a little hard to view the forest behind all the trees. Although this is definitely not a book geared towards the novice it is well written and a must-read for everyone working in the field of anthropology. Btw, the photos are gems in their own right.
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Mark E. Shaffer on September 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There is no doubt that Sarah Hrdy is one of the best (the very best in my opinion) scientific thinkers and writers on female and particularly maternal nature, and all that entails. She combines historical, social, physiological, and evolutionary data and perspectives in a brilliant, objective (often politically incorrect) synthesis - and it certainly doesn't hurt that she has been there herself as a mother. If you are primarily interested in the evolution of human maternal instincts from primates, then this is the book for you. To me, it seemed to be her culminating, well-informed speculation on how human female nature evolved over millions of years. However, if a less evolutionary, more data-grounded treatment of human female and maternal nature in general is what you're after, then for me at least, her earlier book "Mother Nature" is the better choice.
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