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Serious distortions of the history of humanity, courtesy ape studies

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Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Belknap Press)

In “It Does Take a Village” ( New York Review of Books, December 8, 2011), Melvin Konner’s glowing tribute to evolutionary psychologist Sarah Hrdy’s views of human nature, reveals (on the occasion of a new book) – intentionally or otherwise – the underlying mindset:

Hrdy discovered, among other things, that dominant males in a group are challenged from time to time by roving adventurers who can mate only by defeating them. If defeated, the former leaders slink away, often wounded, while their successors attack and kill all infants under six months old. This brings their mothers back into heat, and the slain infants are supplanted by the new males’ offspring. Females resist this bravely, but to little avail.

If such behavior had been limited to langurs, it might have been an anomaly. But thanks in no small part to Hrdy’s leadership, it was also documented in chimpanzees, patas monkeys, lions, and many other species. Competitive infanticide was seen as a dark side of Darwinism, and a confirmation that no part of nature is free from the amoral logic of natural selection.

We are, you understand, to apply these field observations of primates to human nature. So, do murderous rapists, sponsored by an invading army or not, seek to have children with their victims (the evidence is very mixed indeed). The evolutionary psychologist typically takes in eager devotees by reaching back to individual incidents in human history, and conveniently ignoring the huge body of evidence on these questions from our own day, which is accessible to almost everyone with an Internet account.

Set aside also the question of why Christian Darwinists think a Christian has anything to learn from Darwin’s men, given that  Darwin’s men are quite clear that Darwinism is amoral. Man is not fallen, in, for example, Karl Giberson’s view – he was never anything but amoral. How easy is that to coincide with any possible Christian view?

The next idol to be trashed, in reviewer Konner’s view, is the idea that women are frail flowers, supposedly exposed by ape specialist Hrdy:

The mythic figure of that title was the soft, generous, seductive, maternal idol of the prehistoric world that served in the minds of many as a foil to their own muscular ancestors; these heroes needed something to fight for, fight over, and defend, and ideally she should be the defenseless, feminine figure of their dreams. In fact, this idol was not what she seemed, and by carefully demonstrating the power and aggressiveness of primate females both human and prehuman, Hrdy discredited this founding figure.

“This founding figure” never existed. We have a variety of figures of women from the ancient world, most of them pretty sturdy by modern standards. In reality, the cult of the frail female has always been recognized – where we have evidence – as the rare product of doomed, luxurious decadence: A woman who couldn’t do hard labour while pregnant was doomed, along with her offspring. (To the extent that natural selection operates as something other than Darwinian magic, our ancestors were perfectly well aware of it, and didn’t need Sarah Hrdy’s advice. )

I first became aware of the crochet in current thinking that provides a basis for evolutionary psychology when some pundit sneered at me; “You believe in a morally upright past, don’t you? Did you know that your grandmothers were probably Twenties flappers who used birth control?” [AHA!!!]

As a matter of fact, my grandmothers were pioneer farm women who had, respectively, nine and ten children. They grew most of their own food, had probably never seen a live flapper, and it doesn’t seem likely that they thought much about birth control.* (Despite all this, they significantly outlived the national average – one was even honoured by the Queen as a centenarian.) At any rate, that academic’s disdain alerted me to the fact that many Ivy Leaguers have nowhere near enough real world knowledge to be taken for authorities.

Anyway, we learn that mothers are not nearly as attached to their offspring as sentiment supposes:

As Hrdy suggested in Mother Nature,2 the primate mother who evolved into the human species was calculating the odds of her infant’s survival when weighed against her own, because if she neglected the latter, she would lose not only this infant but all future ones.

As for the descendants of those primates, we know that a human mother can calculate not just with regard to another’s offspring, but also her own. On this view, neglect and abuse of children and even infanticide are not mere misfirings of the adaptive machinery, but can be strategies of maximizing fertility. The real flesh-and-blood Homo sapiens loved her children to be sure, but had needs and priorities of her own.

It sounds like the portentous lecture a Darwin tenure bore would give. Trouble is, a spell on the social sciences news desk will teach one, if nothing else, that women who abuse or kill their children have a personality disorder. But never mind that: What evidence is there that such women go on to have healthy, vigorous Darwinian offspring? Or ever did? None of this accords well with the view that it makes any difference what supposed pre-human ancestors thought, since our own ancestors – from what we know – didn’t think it.

We also hear the revelation from Hrdy, in her third book, that the working mother is nothing new. Wow. Stop the presses.

Current popular culture will probably collapse before Darwinism relinquishes its hold, but one thing we can be certain of: The same people will not be considered authorities or opinion leaders afterward.

*  They were well advised to do as they did. Every home-grown pair of hands forestalled the financial ruin of having to pay, during a non-harvest time, hired hands in actual money, not just a place at the table and a bunk.

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