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Showing 1-10 of 15 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 52 reviews
on August 26, 2009
Sociobiology has historically been centered on males. Consider the classic case of the langur monkey. When an alpha male deposes a rival male and claims his harem the first thing he does is kill the infants. That brings the females into heat sooner and allows him to reproduce sooner. Infanticide is in his rational self-interest (Sarah Blaffer Hrdy was actually the one who figured this out). The implication is that males are in a life and death struggle to become alpha and females just want to breed with the winner. To be sure, traditional sociobiology has some modest correctives for the myth of the "coy female and promiscuous male." In the case of a monogamous species males and females partner up. In that case the alpha males cannot claim a harem of females. But females can still breed with an alpha male by having an adulterous affair. Not every woman can marry an alpha male but she certainly can copulate with one. In fact, cryptic female choice shows that females often stage sperm competitions in their vagina. The strategy is simple: copulate with many males in a short period of time and let the fittest sperm win. Gangbangs clearly falsify the "coy female" model. But even so, they continue to reinforces the same tired narrative: males are locked in a struggle for status while females are only interested in breeding with the winner.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy convincingly shows that females are locked in their own brutal status-seeking competition. Females are bigger and stronger than the males in many species such as mole rats, jackrabbits, marmosets, and bats. Among solitary species these "big mothers" are able to control a larger territory than their smaller and weaker rival females. That means more food for their offspring. Among social animals such as hyenas the alpha females are able to claim a larger share of the group's food for herself and her offspring. The lower status females have to make do with the scraps. In some species the alpha females don't even let the low-status females breed. They are forced to wait for the alpha female to die, at which time they may become the new alpha and gain the power they need to breed.

Hrdy also shows that infanticide isn't just for males. Chimp females do not let rival females hold their babies because they may not get them back alive. Killing a rival's children mean more food and higher status for her own offspring. That's why babies often have stranger anxiety - it is the baby's defense mechanism against infanticide. Babies know perfectly well that they are not safe with strangers. In fact, females have a good reason to kill their own offspring. A popular slogan from sociobiology is that "sperm are cheaper than eggs", which means that procreating takes a smaller investment for males than females. That's what leads to the myth of the coy female and promiscuous male. But a corollary would be that "eggs are cheaper than caring for offspring." It doesn't make evolutionary sense for a female to invest her time and energy caring for a weak, sickly, or disabled infant. Better to kill it and try again. Killing healthy offspring also makes sense if the female doesn't have a high enough social status to secure food for it. Better to cut her losses early than to waste time trying to feed it. In our Judeo-Christian culture we expect mothers to attach immediately to babies but that is actually unnatural in most human cultures. Attachment (and therefore love) is conditional on having a healthy baby and the status needed to care for it.

A lot of people will find these revelations shocking. Hrdy agrees. The traditional picture of sociobiology is that "males do a lot of ugly things to get ahead." Hrdy points out that females do a lot of ugly things to get ahead too. But don't confuse explaining the facts with a moral stand. That is the logical fallacy of the appeal to nature - basing morality on the way the natural world works. The best solution would be to bring about a detente in the status-seeking arms race. In one of the more poignant quotes Hrdy writes: "Sociobiology is not a field known for the encouraging news it offers either sex. Yet its most promising revelation to date has to be that over evolutionary time, lifelong monogamy turns out to be the cure for all sorts of detrimental devices that one sex uses to the exploit the other." Indeed.

This book is pretty dense so I would start with something a bit easier if this is your first exposure to sociobiology. Start with The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People by David Barash to get an overview of sociobiology. The Triumph of Sociobiology is also good.
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on March 17, 2017
One of my favorite books by an anthropologist. Anyone interested in evolutionary anthropology shouldn't miss out on this book.
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on September 5, 2013
I only wish I had had this book to read when my own children were young. Sarah Hrdy is a creative and courageous explorer - how she managed to set off on her line of inquiry, coming out of the fiercely patriarchal Harvard-Cambridge MA setting in the 1960's amazes me. We are lucky to have such a logical, thoughtful, and adventurous explorer in our midst.
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on October 18, 2013
I had to read this book for a college class on animal behavior and evolution. I was pretty much dreading having to read it because it seemed like it was going to be a sappy book about being a mother mixed with feminist rhetoric - boy was I pleasantly surprised, as was everyone else in my class! Men, don't be put off by the title - over half of my class were male and they couldn't put this book down!

The first 2 chapters (3 if you count the preface) ARE pretty political and deal a lot with how bad mothers/women had it in the 60's when the author was in school (can you tell i am not a feminist?) but after that, the book becomes much more scientific while still keeping its narrative style. The author writes very well and there is very little of the stuffiness that often occurs in books written by advanced scientists. Sometimes her sentence structure is a little confusing but its nothing that detracts from the book.

The author does a great job at explaining terms and topics that might not be familiar to non-behaviorists while also being careful not to over explain things. Both students and experienced scientists would enjoy this book. The author references very interesting studies to explain motherhood in a variety of animals.

My only real critique is that the author is very repetitive when it comes to certain themes. Some readers might enjoy this because it really solidifies the point the author is trying to make but it did cause me to slow down my reading of the book because I started to feel like I was rereading the same things said in different ways over and over again. However, the studies and research the author references to make her point are all very interesting so this repetitiveness is far from a waste of time.
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on June 4, 2002
This is a wonderfully written book about the nature of the maternal investment in offspring (in humans). Hrdy extends the concept of sexual selection into the realm of parenting and that is an extremely powerful and brilliant insight. Most books about mate choice end with pregnancy. This book doesn't because that is not the end for females. This particular insight is one that I think only a woman could have--let's have more women working in this field!. Any evolutionary psychology or biology that proceeds from here will have to consider Hrdy's contribution!
This book is also a bit of a shock--it explores how moms ruthlessly cut their losses and why--not a pretty story at all. I was especially undone by Hrdy's account of all the "Espositos" in Italy. The number of children left in foundling hospitals throughout is staggering. It's even worse than the 46K plus in Florida's foster care system in 2002 (with 1000+ missing!).
Hrdy also explores connections between the erotic and the maternal, something that will no doubt freak some people out. But she does this with a cool scientists gaze and a warm human voice. She seems very generous toward readers and their potential discomfort with the more startling phemomena she wants to account for.
Hrdy is a primalogist and a mom. The book is not entirely distrubing--it also accounts for intense feelings of love moms have for their children.
I was also excited to read in her book about Darwin's French translator, Clemance Royer! This book will delight anyone interested in women's intellectual history, parenting, evolutionary biology, or primatology.
Thank You Dr.Hrdy!
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on October 24, 2010
I love when I find a good book that does not flinch in the eye of "science trends" or popular media" - but says it like it universally is- animal mothers in nature have alot to teach us as human mothers. This book gives insight and as a new mom myself, I carried the knowledge I learned during my pregancy and with an infant. This is a great gift for a pregnant woman or new mom.
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on February 20, 2015
It's easy to get lost in the internet and space exploration when all we need is right here in our history. Thanks Hrdy!
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on December 14, 1999
. . . this is the one! Hrdy's writing is simultaneously scholarly and accessible, her scope wide-ranging, her findings thrilling. I had to make a conscious effort to leave the book at home so that I could get my work done while at work. Otherwise, every waking moment was spent reading this book. As it was, the other waking moments were spent thinking about the book (and trying to get other people to read it so that I could have someone to talk to about the ideas in the book).
The Kirkus review was very apt--read it for some idea of the content and scope of Hrdy's book.
Oops, I have to get back to work!
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on February 26, 2015
Mostly brilliant. She over-extends her arguments at times.
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on August 24, 2009
Hrdy knows her stuff. I've gone back to this book again and again. She brings in lots of different ideas from differing fields of study to support her positions on biological evolution as it deals with women and children. My mind goes back to this book again and again. Excellent.
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