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Sarah Blaffer Hrdy: Mothers and Others:
the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding
(Belknap Press: 2009)

“Far oftener than any of us are aware, humans intuit the mental experiences of other people, and - the really interesting thing - care about having other people share theirs.... Humans are often eager to understand others, to be understood, and to cooperate.... This is not to say that humans don’t display...propensities toward jealousy, indignation, rage, xenophobia, or homicidal violence. But, compared with our nearest ape relations, humans are usually more adept at forestalling outright mayhem. Our first impulse is usually to get along.... [And, our] ability to identify with others and vicariously experience their sufferings is not simply learned: It is part of us...[and] serves humans well in all sorts of social circumstances, not just in acts of compassion, but also in hospitality, gift-giving, and good manners - norms that no culture is without.... Right from the first days of life, every healthy human being is avidly monitoring those nearby, learning to recognize, interpret, and even imitate their expressions, [and] an innate capacity for empathizing with others becomes apparent within the first six months.... New findings about how irrational, how emotional, how caring, and even how selfless human decisions can be are transforming disciplines long grounded in the premise that the world is a competitive place, where to be a rational actor means a selfish one.... Bipedality is not what makes us human and, as clever as we think we are, the really big differences between chimpanzees and humans do not lie in the realm of basic spatial cognition or memory. Apart from language, where humankind’s uniqueness has never been in serious dispute, the last outstanding distinction between us and the other apes involves a curious packet of hypersocial attributes, that allow us to monitor the mental states and feelings of others....[So,] at some point in the course of their evolution, our ancestors became more deeply interested in monitoring the intentions of others, and eager to share their inner feelings and thoughts as well as their mental states. This interest laid the groundwork for the peculiarly cooperative natures that would distinguish these hominins from other bipedal apes, and rendered apes in the line leading to the genus Homo what I think of as emotionally modern. My goal in writing this book is to understand how such other-regarding tendencies could have evolved in creatures as self-serving as apes are.”
(Hrdy, pp.2-11)

2009 turned out to be a key year in human evolution, w/the long-awaited arrival of the major publications on Ardipithecus only the most prominent in scholarly circles. Yet I suspect that, in retrospect, it will be best remembered for two groundbreaking books - Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire (2009), reviewed last month, and this, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy...undoubtedly our most respected and influential sociobiologist. For these - finally! - offer the very real prospect of closure to our list of crucial theoretical approaches needed to understand the emergence of genus Homo...albeit with the (entirely necessary) aid of a raft of already extant insights.

Hrdy’s earlier work has already proven a necessary counterweight to the unthinking assumptions of her male colleagues, yet this book, I would argue, is far & away her most important. For in it, she makes the full (and highly persuasive) case for the crucial role of alloparents - that is, non-parents making available substantial child-care assistance (in terms of time, attention, and calories) - in the creation of our particular genus. And this, she ties to the development of our hyper-social natures, so distinct - as noted above - from our closest living relatives.

As is almost always the case, in such matters, the most important evidence is contemporary...overturning “science” rooted more in unthinking assumptions than in facts. But the start point is one which simply reinforces the fundamentals of hunter-gatherer culture...and reminds us that large-scale conflict is, by all evidence, a comparatively recent innovation.

“For those who store social obligations, rather than food, unspoken contracts - beginning with the the most fundamental one between the group’s gatherers and its hunters, and extending to kin and as-if-kin in other groups - tide them over from shortfall to shortfall. Time-honoured relationships enable people to forage over wider areas, and to reconnect with trusted exchange partners without fear of being killed by local inhabitants, who have the advantage of being more familiar with the terrain.... [Significantly,] in contrast to our own society, where regifting is regarded as gauche, among [mobile hunter gatherers] it was not passing things on - valuing an object more than a relationship, or hoarding a treasure - that was socially unacceptable....  Contacts were built up over the course of a life well-lived, by individuals perpetually alert to new opportunities. When a parent died, his or her children or stepchildren inherited the deceased person’s exchange partners, as well as kinship networks, and gifts were often given at that time to reinforce the continuity, since to give, share, and reciprocate was to survive. Multiple systems for identifying kin linked people in different ways, increasing the number of people to whom an individual was related.... Every human society depends on some system of exchange and mutual aid, but foragers have elevated exchange to a core value and an elaborate artform.... Depending on the situation, [relationships] can be activated and kept going by reciprocal exchange, or left dormant until needed.... The advantage of casting the net of kinship as widely as possible is presumably why foraging people are far more likely to trace relatedness through both mother and father...[and] archaeological evidence suggests that unilineal - and perhaps especially patriarchal - inheritance systems only began to emerge when foragers in habitats rich with marine resources began living more sedentary lives, at higher population densities.... [Before then,] far from being competitors for resources, nearby members of their own species would have been more valuable as potential sharing partners, [and] when conflicts did loom, moving on would have been more practical as well as less risky than fighting.... I am not about to argue that competition is unimportant.... Yet, as this book will make clear, without shared care and provisioning, all that inter- and intra-group strategizing and strife would have been - evolutionarily speaking - just so many grunts and contortions, signifying nothing.”
(Hrdy, pp.14-21)

And the reason for this is simple...and devastating. For it turns out that alloparenting is  very like cooking...human foragers quite simply could not survive w/out cooked food - and they could not reproduce their societies over time without alloparenting. The evidence, in both cases, is quite clear from the (detailed) calorie counts and child mortality statistics, once these had actually been collected and fully analyzed. The question, therefore, is how did we get here from there?

“Where gift-giving does occur in the animal world, it tends to be a highly ritualized, instinctive affair.... [Crucially,] cases of nonhuman animals voluntarily offering a preferred food in the true spirit of gift-giving are rare, except in species which, like humans, also have deep evolutionary histories of what I call cooperative breeding, where there is shared care and provisioning of the young.... Cooperative breeding does not mean that group members are necessarily or always cooperative. Indeed, as we shall see, competition and coercion can be rampant. But, in the case of early hominins, alloparental care and provisioning set the stage for infants to develop in new ways.... No one has a machine to go back in time to observe what child-rearing in the Pleistocene was like, or record the consequences of novel developmental trajectories. But, what we do have is evidence from a diverse range of primates and other animals, that is relevant to understanding why other group members would begin to help, and how cooperative breeding evolves. We also have a growing body of information about contemporary gathering-hunting people, revealing for the first time how many others have to pitch in if a nomadic foraging mother is going to rear her offspring to breeding age.... As evidence-based and consistent with evolutionary theory as I can make it, this book is an attempt to reconstruct long-ago events detailing the emergence of emotionally modern humans, step by Darwinian step.”
(Hrdy, pp.25-32)

“Cooperative breeding and the flexibility it permits for rearing young successfully in a wide variety of habitats, including otherwise adverse ones, allowed...species like corvids, mice, and humans [to migrate] almost every continent of the world. Alloparental assistance means that mothers conserve energy, stay better nourished, remain safer from predation and other hazards, and survive to lead longer lives. Because mothers with help wean babies sooner, many reproduce at an accelerated pace...[while their children,] in turn, can afford the luxury of growing up slowly, building stronger bodies, better immune systems, and in some cases bigger brains, without succumbing to starvation in the process.”
(Hrdy, pp.177-9)

“Part of the explanation for the evolution of alloparental care is that these behaviors are not always as self-sacrificing as they appear.... Over lifetimes, alloparents strategically schedule assistance so as to reduce the cost, volunteering only when helpers have energy to spare, or when they are still too young or too disadvantageously situated to be able to reproduce themselves. And in animals where practice is critical for learning how to parent, as is the case in many primates, babysitters derive valuable experience from caring for someone else’s young.... In other cases, helping is more of a one-way street...[and] even though kinship is not essential for the persistence of cooperation, clearly it matters. The neural and physiological underpinnings for helpful behaviors first evolved in the context of mother-infant relationships, and...degrees of relatedness often make a difference in whether helpers help at all, as far as how far individuals will go to help.... [However,] the cost/benefit components...[also] play a larger role in explaining cooperative breeding than was initially assumed. These include the costs attendant on being attacked or ostracized from a group, as well as the benefits of remaining in a group’s territory when all other habitats are filled....[And,] on closer inspection, it turns out that quite a few seemingly utopian colonies swarming with civic-minded altruists bent on helping their kin, more nearly resemble police states, where dominant breeders attempt to control groupmates.... However, it now seems clear that interference by dominants that leads subordinates to suppress their own reproduction is just one of several possible tactics.... Eliminating the offspring of subordinates, extracting help from kin, tolerating outsiders in the group, punishing slackers, or...evolving females with long postreproductive lifespans...are all just different routes to the same end: ensuring advantageous ratios of helpers to infants. When help is really in short supply, some cooperative breeders even set out to recruit or kidnap caretakers from other groups.”
(Hrdy, pp.180-95)

There are at least three key factors in evolution of cooperative breeding: 1/ The longer the animal’s maturation period - and life - the more likely cooperative breeding is to evolve (albeit these factors probably all co-evolve), 2/ It is more likely where lineages tend to remain in the same basic territory year-round, 3/It is also commonly associated w/special environmental challenges, such as unpredictable climate or overly irregular food supplies. It’s noticeable that all of these apply to early Pleistocene does the other most likely factor - which is that species w/altricial (helpless/extremely immature) infants are almost three times more likely to evolve cooperative breeding patterns.

“If risks of misplaced care are substantial, as is the case in herd animals with highly mobile young...preventative safeguards evolved. A lamb who strays from his mother, and tries to pirate milk from the teats of another nearby ewe will be rudely butted away.... In many other animals, however, especially those with young unable to move about much on their own...maternal affections remain more flexible.... [And] once members of a given population have been selected to respond to infant cues by helping, caregivers need not be close relatives in order to respond. The stage is set for cooperative breeding.”
(Hrdy, p.212)

“All sorts of animals are sensitive to those around them...[but,] mammal mothers fall into a class by themselves...[and] stimulating and conditioning its mother, making sure she becomes addicted to nurturing, is actually a mammalian baby’s first critical, if unconscious, mission. The neocortex, which first evolved among mammals...serves as the control center of the nervous system, [and] equips baby mammals to form attachments to their mothers, and helps get their mothers to bond with them. In time, the baby’s neocortex will expand and develop into the main decision-making area of the brain, but it will also continue to equip grown up mammals to bond with babies, and to form multifaceted relationships with others.”
(Hrdy, pp.38-41)

“Networks of kin are a big reason why animals who can afford to do so stay home. For a maturing son, philopatry means access to his father and brothers, the males most likely to make the most reliable allies. The downside of philopatry is that females eager to avoid breeding with a male familiar from birth will refuse to mate with him.... [This] defense against inbreeding is a big reason why in many species, including the majority of primates, males take the risk of migrating.... For females, the greatest benefit of philopatry is that matrilineal kin will be on hand. This is especially important for a primate at the time of her first birth.... Yet the long-lived Great Apes are exceptions to the widespread mammalian pattern of female philopatry...though important exceptions are known where particularly dominant or well-connected female chimpanzees managed to stay.”
(Hrdy, pp.196-7)

“All Great Ape mothers in the wild are both extremely wary of their surroundings, and extraordinarily responsive to the slightest sign of discomfort in their infants, swiftly adjusting them and holding them close. [They are also] more single-mindedly devoted than human mothers are, and for a much longer period of time. Their offspring would benefit just as much from having gifted teachers, sensitive to their pedagogical needs, just as human children do.... Yet apes do not teach or learn from others nearly so readily as humans do, and typically not at all.”
(Hrdy, p.43)

Intriguingly, young chimpanzees mimic carers’ facial play from around five weeks of age - only to lose interest after they turn twelve weeks old, while rhesus macaque newborns do the same, only to lose interest by day seven. Trouble is, we cannot know if these responses - and those of newborn human infants - are genuinely continuous w/the elaborate & self-conscious imitation of older children & adults...however, it would seem most likely that such activity at least serves to prime the pump re later developments, and that early cessation of same probably forestalls full development of mimetic potential.

The seemingly counter-intuitive combination - in other apes - of such single-minded care w/the lack of development in this area offers us another possibility: What if the full potential of mimesis/teaching etc...were to be forestalled in higher primates by a self-sufficient mother/infant bond, only to be fully triggered by the relatively open sociality of cooperative breeding arrangements, in which understanding different alloparents is vital? The signs that this may well be the case are scattered all over the evidential record, once we care to look:

“Unless specially trained, chimpanzees pay attention to what others know when they are competing, not when they are cooperating. By contrast, humans pay attention to others in both spheres.”
(Hrdy, p.36)

“Human eyes convey extra information, about what an individual is feeling, looking at, and intending...[via] the conspicuous white surround highlighting exactly where the pupils are pointed.... This difference [from other apes] suggests that eyes capable of communicating information about intentions may have evolved in collaborative rather than competitive contexts, [as] information thus conveyed was beneficial to the signaller, as well as the receiver.”
(Hrdy, pp.51-2)

‘Continuous-care-and-contact mothering characterizes only about half of the roughly 276 species of living primates...[and it] is due largely to the possessiveness of mothers, not to lack of interest from would-be babysitters.... To correct the record.... First, there is no one, universal pattern of infant care among primates. Second, far from being a hardwired primate-wide trait, continuous-care-and-contact mothering is a last resort for primate mothers who lack safe and available alternatives. Third, and perhaps most important so far as primates are concerned, there is nothing evolutionarily out of the ordinary about mothers cutting corners or relying on shared care.
(Hrdy, pp.68-85)

Some park their children in nests, some simply stash them wherever, some share childminding w/a fellow-mother, two groups (titi and night monkeys) offer exemplary house-husbands...who do so much childcare that their infants are more routinely bonded w/their fathers than w/their mothers! But the main divide is between groups where young mothers have close matrilineal kin available - these share childcare - and those that don’t, and whose mothers are hyperpossessive. However, the most intriguing cases of the former are the (relatively tiny, and small-brained) tamarins & marmosets, which - along w/humans - Hrdy considers as the only fully-fledged cooperative breeders amongst the primates:

“Cooperation in feeding young spills over into helpful tolerance in other realms. Tamarins...also cooperate with one another when harvesting oversized fruits and legumes. During the rainy season, when little fruit is available in the forest, several moustached tamarins will work their canines in concert to strip off the hard husks from pods, so they can use their nimble fingers to pry them open, and get at the soft flesh within. The tamarins share afterwards, with no sign of antagonism, each taking a palatable portion and moving to a nearby spot to eat it.... This degree of mutual tolerance provides an excellent environment for youngsters to acquire information.... [Moreover,] when tested in the laboratory, tamarins and marmosets also turn out to be unusually altruistic, displaying a curiously human-like impulse to give.... Not only do marmosets spontaneously go out of their way to provide food to others, but, like humans, tamarins keep track of and reciprocate material benefits...and reputation seems to matter.... But there is also a dark side to such dependence. Not only are dominant females (especially pregnant ones) highly infanticidal, eliminating babies produced by competing breeders, but tamarin mothers short on help may abandon their own young.... Among monkeys and apes reared in natural settings, abandonment is extremely rare...[but] by far the most common exceptions to this general primate pattern are found in [the tamarins and marmosets of] the family Callitrichidae - and among members of our own species.”
(Hrdy, pp.95-9)

“Brains require care more than care requires brains.”
(Hrdy, p.176)

“More than 30 million years have passed, since humans last shared a common ancestor with these tiny (rarely more than four pounds), clawed, squirrel-like arboreal creatures.... [Yet] what humans have in common with the...Callitrichidae is worth itemizing. In both types of primates, group members are unusually sensitive to the needs of others, and are characterized by potent impulses to give. In both groups, a mother produces either multiple young or else sequential, closely-spaced offspring whose needs exceed her capacity to provide for them. Thus, the mother must rely on others to help care for and provision her young. When prospects for support seem poor, mothers in both groups are more likely to bail out than other primates are. Human and callitrichid mothers stand out for their pronounced ambivalence towards newborns, and their extremely contingent maternal commitment. Infants have adapted...with special traits for attracting the attention of potential caregivers. And finally, humans, like their tiny, distant relatives, breed unusually fast [compared to their closest relatives], and they have a marmosetlike ability to colonize and thrive in novel habitats.”
(Hrdy, pp.100-1)

As Hrdy argues, there’s definitely a pattern here - which also includes slow maturation, and the only other babbling primate infants - even if human groupings don’t limit reproduction to the dominant female (see below). However, despite this key difference, the detailed findings are now in re humans & alloparents...and the latter turn out to be essential in hunter-gatherer, cooperative breeders we evolved to be, if on a slightly different pattern to our primate cousins. For doubters, here’s Hrdy’s summary of perhaps the largest scale detailed early (pre-modern medicine) data that we have:

“If a child had older siblings (especially sisters), or if the child’s maternal grandmother was living nearby, and was herself past reproductive age, the child’s probability of dying before age five fell from 40 percent to 20 percent. Not surprisingly, mothers were critical for survival during the first two years of life...[but] after age two, however, by which time Mandinka children are usually weaned, the presence of a mother no longer had any measurable effect on child growth, or survival. Apparently, compensatory care by allomothers was sufficiently good that the physical condition of weanlings was unaffected by the death of their mothers. Thus Mandinka referred to anyone plump as being ‘fat as an orphan.’ ...Well might anthropologists and politicians remind us that ‘it takes a village’ to rear a child today. What they often leave out, however, is that so far as the particular apes that evolved into Homo sapiens are concerned, it always has. Without alloparents, there would never have been a human species.”
(Hrdy, pp.108-9)

And, this is amongst sedentary horticulturists, where nutrition is more stable. Amongst foragers, infants not placed in care also have to be carried long distances. Carrying infants is hard work, some estimates putting its cost even higher than breastfeeding, which takes about 500 calories per day to sustain. Given the latter fact, it’s also highly significant that shared suckling is observed in 87% of foraging societies. Interestingly though, motherese - “babytalk” to nonspecialists - is much rarer on the mother’s part in such societies...where it is nearby caregivers who are more likely to entertain children this way. On a related note:

“Psychologists already know that the more direct physical contact there is between a mother and her infant, the less time each party spends looking into the face of the other.... [Furthermore,] primatewide, two conditions cause babies to vocalize more: when they are separated from their mothers, and when they are in tactile contact with her but interacting with someone else.... Nonhuman primate babbling has been particularly well studied by Chuck Snowdon and Margaret Elowson, among tiny, Ewok-like pygmy marmosets [Cebuella pygmaea] from Brazil...[and] it is significant that babbling emerges in this species right about the time that caregivers other than the mother take over.”
(Hrdy, pp.120-2)

“In describing the typical or natural Pleistocene family, the descriptors I prefer are kin-based, child-centered, opportunistic, mobile, and very, very flexible. Childrearing units were inherently elastic, expanding and contracting as individuals gravitated away from adversity and toward not only food and water, but locations where either they expected social support, or had reason to expect that their support was needed by other family members. These alloparental safety nets provided the conditions in which highly variable paternal commitment [which still characterizes our species] could evolve. The seeming paradox involved in Darwinian selection - favoring mothers who produced children beyond their means, paired with fathers whose help is far from guaranteed - actually represents two sides of the same coin. On either side, the paradox is resolved...because both sexes evolved in a highly fluid system, where alloparents often provided the compensatory assistance.... [Moreover,] cooperatively breeding primates (as well as cooperatively breeding birds, and mammals outside the Primate order) appear just as flexible, or perhaps even more so, when it comes to adjusting levels of care.... When alternative caregivers are not around, fathers help more...[and] mothers were similarly flexible and opportunistic.”
(Hrdy, pp.166-7)

By this stage, it seems clear, Hrdy’s patchwork of evidence is falling together in compelling fashion. Not only are humans cooperative breeders, but the shift of a large, relatively-brainy ape onto that social/developmental track drove infant needs toward increased “mindreading’ requirements, greater facial and vocal interaction - including the development of babbling (hitherto unknown among apes) - delayed maturation (w/the possibility of much more socially-oriented brain development), with - most challenging to our Western “family values” - documented quality outcomes for children being dependent on having at least three secure caregiver relationships...

As the historian of the family Stephanie Coontz puts it:

“Children do best in societies where childrearing is considered too important to be left entirely to parents.”
(Coontz, in Hrdy, p.103)

But, of course, this is (quite famously) untrue of our closest relatives...and the reasons are, indeed, transparently clear:

“Today, on the order of 5-20 percent of mortality in the first months of life of [chimpanzee] infants born at Gombe is attributed to infanticide by females”
(Hrdy, p.330)

“The earliest a wild chimpanzee mother has ever been observed to voluntarily let a baby out of her grasp is three and a half months.”
(Hrdy, p.68)

Which is why it was certainly not only our ancestral males who needed to be “domesticated” by the development of the alloparenting process - despite Hrdy’s (unexpected) caveat on this issue...unexpected, as she is a famously tough-minded scientist, with little or no time for sentimentality. Here, in fact - as she notes - is where Christopher Boehm’s work on the development of egalitarianism dovetails w/her own...and helps explain how we developed alloparenting in a species where breeding-rights were maximally distributed.

“Virtually all African people who were living by gathering and hunting when first encountered by Europeans stand out for how hard they strive to maintain the egalitarian character of their groups, employing sanctions against bullies, braggarts, or those deemed stingy, consciously keeping social stratification and extreme skews in access to resources or in reproduction to a minimum. Men are socialized to suppress more chimpanzeelike domineering tendencies, and women may be as well.”
(Hrdy, p.204)

Meanwhile, the final sticking point - apes and humans as patrilocal breeders (hence isolating young mothers from their kin) has also, finally, given the simple acknowledgement that absolutely nothing is that simple. And so, the final keystone to the argument is in place:

“Until was taken for granted that, like other apes, hominin females left their natal groups to give birth for the first time in another community, to rear young among unrelated, possibly rival, females who were unlikely to be supportive.... Not until near the end of the twentieth century did accumulating evidence from long-term studies of Great Apes in the wild [reveal] that the breeding systems of chimpanzees and gorillas were more flexible, and the apes themselves more opportunistic, than previously supposed.... [For example,] even though females were more likely than males to migrate, community males - even males who were close allies - were on average no more closely related to one another than females were.... Then came a reanalysis of the ethnographic evidence for hunter-gatherers, which suggested that...rather than being patrilocal, most hunter-gatherer societies have remarkably flexible and opportunistic residence patterns.... [And, in one genuinely patrilocal group,] between footloose mother-in-laws and related co-wives, the average degree of relatedness between females in a Mardu band...turns out to be virtually the same as that found among infant-sharing matrilocal monkeys like langurs.”
(Hrdy, pp.239-46)

“Overall, grandmothers...[are] the most reliably beneficial of all alloparents.... Fortuitously, the same high child mortality rates that make grandmaternal contributions so critical, also make it likely that [they] will have few direct descendents vying for their help.... Experienced in childcare, sensitive to infant cues, adept at local subsistence tasks, undistracted by babies of their own, or even the possibility of having them, and (like old men) repositories of useful knowledge, postmenopausal females are also unusually altruistic. Given the flexibility of forager lifestyles, these ideal allomothers can readily relocate near needy kin - though it is well to keep in mind that the meat a new husband provides members of his wife’s group may also be part of the attraction.... Children make adept berry-pickers and lizard-catchers, but lack the upper body strength and long arms to dig out deep tubers. Nor do they come close to being as practised and single-minded at tasks like gathering or nut-cracking as old women.... [However,] if long-lived grandmothers were humankind’s ace in the hole, all [the] classificatory kin - distant relatives, godparents, possible [and ‘extra’] fathers, namesakes, trading partners, and other manufactured alloparents - became their wild cards.”
(Hrdy, pp.260-72)

“Without a doubt, highly complex coevolutionary processes were involved in the evolution of extended lifespans, prolonged childhoods, and bigger brains. What I want to stress here, however, is that cooperative breeding was the pre-existing condition that permitted the evolution of these traits in the hominin line. Creatures may not need big brains to evolve cooperative breeding, but hominins needed shared care and provisioning to evolve big brains. Cooperative breeding had to come first.”
(Hrdy, p.277)

“What is striking about the worldviews of that they tend to share a view of their physical environment as a ‘giving’ place, occupied by others who are also liable to be well-disposed, and line with benevolent social relationships. Thus...the Nayaka simply say, ‘The forest is as a parent.’ Confidence about one’s place in the world does not mean life is necessarily easy. Over generations, children would have watched with dismay as half or more of their siblings and cousins died at young ages. Yet, by definition, individuals who did survive would have done so surrounded by others who cared for and shared with them. This endowed them with a personal confidence notably different from that of many modern people, who grow up in environments with more available resources, but less caring.”
(Hrdy, pp.133-4)

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers & Others (2009) offers, to my mind, by far the most likely trigger for the evolution of the Habilines...opening the way, gradually, for the fully-fledged erects to come. And, in conjunction w/the already-reviewed work of Jonathan Kingdon, Frank R. Wilson, Richard Wrangham, Christopher Boehm, Merlin Donald & William Benzon (no simple tale, this) we now have the key building blocks we need to properly understand early human evolution. No small claim...but one I’m prepared to stand by.

Well-written, and full of fascinating - and relevant - information, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in human evolution, families, and gender issues, for a start. For the moment, however, I’ll simply leave you w/her - most disturbing - potted history of the last 15,000 years:

“The end of the Pleistocene era marked a consequential divide in the way children were raised, as people began to settle in one place, build walled houses, grow and store food. While predation rates declined, malnutrition remained a problem, and deaths from diseases like malaria and cholera actually increased. Nevertheless, child survival became increasingly decoupled from the need to be in constant physical contact with another person, or surrounded by responsive, protective caretakers, in order to pull through. Many other things began to change as well.... Property, higher population densities, and larger group sizes all put new pressures on men to remain near fathers and brothers, their most reliable allies.  ‘In-group amity’ as a way to survive in the face of ‘out-group enmity’ took on greater importance...[and] it was women who moved - either exchanged between groups or perhaps captured, [for] with a diminished role for the mother’s kin...old compunctions against...taking women by force began to fade.... Male heirs were better positioned to hold onto intergenerationally transmitted resources...[which] led to an increased emphasis on being certain about paternity...[and] women’s freedom of movement was severely curtailed. No longer could women line up extra ‘fathers’; no longer could women move to be near kin at birth, or mothers move to be near daughters who needed their help.... More important, patriarchal ideologies...undercut the long-standing priority of putting children’s welfare first. Customs such as sequestration of women, chaperoning, veiling, and suttee took a huge toll on women, but they also took a toll on children...[as] the fecundity of women took priority over the health or quality of life of any individual child....Fast forward now, to the modern postindustrial era...and, perhaps for the first time in human history, exceedingly high rates of child survival coincide with sobering statistics about the well-being of children.... [For] what we can confidently surmise is that prior to about 15,000 years ago, the conditions leading to a serious attachment disorder in a child would not have been compatible with that child’s survival.... Today, this is no longer true, and the unintended consequences are unfolding, in ways that we are only beginning to appreciate.”
(Hrdy, pp.286-90)

John Henry Calvinist