on May 13, 2009
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.
Dr Hrdy speculates that within the genus Homo, Homo erectus may well have exhibited cooperative breeding--that is, groupmates or alloparents other than mothers tended to children, including nonkin--and that they may have been emotionally modern. By 1.8 million years ago Homo erectus was almost as large and as large brained as Homo sapiens, and, although male australopithecines were twice as large as females, males and females among Homo erectus were only slightly more dimorphic than Homo sapiens. Whatever the precise date for the emergence of cooperative breeding within our line, humans, unlike any of the Great Apes, have cooperative breeding and this fact Dr Hrdy maintains is the precondition that made the remarkable human suite of traits possible.
In these brief comments I have stressed the speculative features of Dr. Hrdy's argument because they are both the most novel and interesting elements. Let me stress in conclusion, however, that the author attends scrupulously to data and evidence, so even if one is less convinced than I am about the theoretical claims she makes, the book will instruct the reader on every page, especially if it is read slowly.
Brad Lowell Stone
"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.
Continuing a theme from her first book, Hrdy emphasizes that building relationships is a two-way street, and that evolution has obviously favorite children who are good at building relationships. They know how to be cute, how to babble, how to look deeply into a caregiver his eyes, how to be demanding, coy, or whatever it takes to seduce other humans into taking care of them. And in doing this, they become quite Hrdy calls "emotionally modern." Children become good at reading the intentions of other people, a characteristic at which humans are vastly better than our ape cousins.
Hrdy repeats findings that one reads elsewhere about the timeframe in which human beings developed. It boils down to this. A few million years of slow evolution through the Pliocene after we parted company with the chimpanzees. Then, with the emergence of homo erectus at the beginning of the Pleistocene, about 1.8 million years ago, more rapid development of this emotional modernity. Of course, there is little fossil evidence - mostly speculation. However, the fossil record does show the beginnings of tool use, the use of fire, and gradually increasing brain size evidence. Then, only 200,000 years ago or so, homo sapiens emerged, as did language, modern brain sizes, the modern races of man, and the spread of mankind out of Africa.
Hrdy gently dispatches the notion of a primordial patriarchy. Since their mothers kin were so useful in raising her children, matriarchal societies were more likely than patriarchal, although here as always we are an amazingly versatile species. She offers a now common argument that patriarchy probably became a dominant social form after the advent of agriculture, when men needed to band together to into armies to defend what they had amassed, at which point paternity became an issue because there was property worth inheriting.
Most of Hrdy's examples are taken from well studied groups of primitive humans in Africa and the Amazon. They offer the most probable models of human society as it existed tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago. She asks some interesting questions. Infants today are certain to get enough calories to survive regardless of the society in which they live. However, she asks, is it not quite likely that they did not get the emotional support that they need to develop into fully socialized human adults? Is our society changing, perhaps degenerating, as children are raised in environments in which they have less emotional security than their ancestors?
Both of Hrdy's books should be required reading well outside the field of sociobiology. They throw a bracing dash of cold water on the highflown theories of political scientists, religious advocates, educators, feminists and others who purport to have discovered great truths about how to socialize and educate the human animal.
on April 25, 2009
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.
on September 8, 2009
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.
on January 16, 2015
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy provides a welcome corrective to a school of human evolution that has focussed upon Mankind, rather than upon Humankind as the key motor of human evolution. Ernest Mayr and W. Hamilton led the charge towards trying to understand the presence of human altruism through proposing that it was through the effects of supporting the survival of kin that ensured the survival of genes for altruism. This version of limited "I will scratch my relatives backs because they carry genes that also I have", seems to abolish altruism as genuine gift giving as it turns it into a calculation of costs and benefits. The extension of such studies into the realm of Axelrod's Prisoner's dilemma, and the iterative strategies of tit for tat, showed how collective mutually beneficial strategies could emerge, but the incredible size and complexity of human cooperative structures, that are demonstrated daily seem vastly too complex to be produced merely by this one mechanism.
Following up upon her vitally important study of "Mother Right", which demonstrated a compassionate biological understanding of female infanticide and infantile neglect, in cases where adult support for pregnancy and raising infants was not available, "Mothers and Others" focuses upon the caregivers and their evolution in the human species. Why are we primed to respond with care and concern whenever we hear a baby cry? Why are we hardwired to find the physiological shape of a baby so appealing? Reaching back into our pre-human primate, and indeed mammalian heritage, "mothering" seems to be a deep source of our ability to care and have compassion for others, on top of the narrower reciprocal trade offs involving costs and benefits or tit for tat. Drawing upon comparative ethology, neuroscence and population genetics, Blaffer Hrdy demonstrates that the narrow assumptions based upon Bowlby's attachment theories cast a much wider net. Children do need to "bond" to a significant other to secure their survival at such a dependent stage, but such attachment is not with the mother alone. It takes more than 13 million calories of food to successfully raise a slow maturing human to adulthood and this vastly exceeds the capacity of one individual. The provisioning of mothers amongst our ancestors was secured by a vastly larger group than the biological father anxious to secure the perpetuation of his genes to the next generation. As the cooperative breeding ape, Blaffer Hrdy asks the provocative question, why only humans, why did the other great apes, Chimpanzees, Bonobo and even Gorilla, not evolve significantly in the direction of Cooperative Breeding? She amply demonstrates that the precursor behaviours were there, in our simian heritage, but it failed to "catch" on evolutionarily.
The huge importance of the fact of cooperative breeding, in the development of human capacities for apparently self-less compassion and empathy is deeply demonstrated in detailed case studies of its importance to secure infant survival. While menopause is present in a number of primate species, Blaffer Hrdy demonstrates why it is in humans alone that it extends for over 20 years in a female lifetime. It seems that it is the child-grandmother bond that has made the difference. She also shows that there are significant differences affecting maternal rather than paternal grandmothers in child-rearing outcomes. With this wealth of case studies, it allows the re-examination of the research into human "universals", showing patrilocality is found predominantly amongst post-agrarian cultures, and even there, the close proximity and involvement of the maternal family, through helping to reduce the high infant mortality in pre-modern times is important for the survival and flourishing of the infant. Present, but not as developed as in Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethra's "Sex at Dawn: How we mate, why we stray and what it meas for modern relationships", Blaffer Hrdy shows that the existence of theories of partial parentage and other arrangements demonstrate that the early human condition was not of rigidly enforced monogamy, and that such a feature is also only found in sedentary cultures where concerns for inheritance of property in filial descendants becomes a patriarchal concern.
In conclusion this book is a welcome antidote to the automatic assumptions of human pair-bonding that have dominated male-centric theories of human evolution before Desmond Morris's "The Naked Ape". It is the slow maturation of human forebears that produced us as a species, and it is the evolution of motherhood and mutual care that has marked us most as a species different from our closest relatives. I await eagerly Blaffer Hrdy's next magnum opus which I feel could explain why the rate of maturation amongst human infants and adolescents slowed down so significantly when compared to our nearest relatives.
on August 8, 2015
Pleasantly written work (and finely set) emphasizing the role alloparenting and collaboration have played in our development. At times her cultural background does get in the way and as is often the case, especially with evolutionary anthropologists, some of her constructs/opinions require quite a leap (e.g. the idea that callitrichids(marmosets/tamarins) are more relevant to an understanding of human parental behavior than that of the hominids(great apes) which leads her then to the noble statement that 'There is a vast but all too often untapped potential for male nurturing out there' is just too much for me). The number of poorly substantiated assertions posing as facts is, I am afraid, too exasperating to be able to recommend this work unconditionally. I also find it puzzling that she does not refer (except bibliographically) to Emmy Werner's work on alloparenting from 1984 'Child care: Kith, Kin and Hired Hands' (after all they were at the same university or not?). Still the final chapter 'Childhood and the Descent of Man' is worth the purchase.
on September 4, 2010
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.
on April 22, 2010
Social biologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy reviews the current body of knowledge about the origins of mankind and humanity around her claims about the importance of shared child raising.
Why can we sense other people? This is the basis for phenomenon's like empathy, and counter transference.
How could mankind survive with so little developed children in the harsh times of the Pleistocene?
Why can so many people crowded on this earth get so well along?
Her writing style is clear and accessible. I am a layman and learned a lot about the state of current biology, anthropology, ethnology, paleontology ... .
The book has quite a high physical weight. It is due to its extremely good book making quality. Though not easy to hold for a long reading stretch, it is a true pleasure to look at and read. I can whole heartedly recommend "Mothers and Others".
on April 22, 2014
Great science, great writing. Shows how deep and complicated our group living mechanisms are and their development has depended upon many factors throughout evolutionary history and has affected quite a bit of our makeup. There's a ton we share with other primates while being quite different as well. The audiobook is quite well produced.
on August 5, 2013
the cover depics just mother and baby, but the book goes on an extensive trip that extends its scope around biology in general. a lot of focus is taken on comparing the mother-child relationship in the animal kingdom and humans, which brings a whole new perspective that reduces us to biological forms propagating the generation on.
a must for anthropology of all fields.
i would read this for fun, and normally my version of fun is mayo clinic heart cardiology books