In “Raising Darwin’s Consciousness: Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on the Evolutionary Lessons of Motherhood” (Scientific American, March 16, 2012), Eric Michael Johnson interviews Hrdy for “The Primate Diaries – Notes on science, politics, and history from a primate in the human zoo,” offering that,
The recent approach her work has taken with Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding offers nothing less than a reorientation of what it means to be human. If, as Hrdy proposes, we are a species that has thrived as a result of cooperative breeding–a childrearing strategy in which a network of individuals helps to raise a healthy child–it challenges many of the individualist assumptions that Western society is based on, particularly in the United States. How we can shift our society to reemphasize community will be the project that this generation will grapple with. Fortunately, there are scholars like Hrdy to offer their insight so that we won’t feel all alone while we do.
Set aside the contestable claim that “we are a species that has thrived as a result of cooperative breeding in which a network of individuals …” It’s more likely that we thrived because dads, in particular, stayed around instead of taking off to do their own thing.
If a whole bunch of other people would be just as useful, children raised in institutions would do better than children raised in two-parent families. That is certainly not what the research shows.
The obvious problem with Hrdy’s prescription is that, in reality, co-operative child-raising – consciously pursued – has usually failed, at least in North America, for cultural reasons that won’t be resolved by “a reorientation of what it means to be human.” In these times, that phrase sounds ominous, actually.
If a nuclear family cannot stay together, why would an extended family or an eight-partner child-raising group do so? North Americans today prize the right to do their own thing, and that is why so many of us end up alone, sometimes alone with children.
Government intervention doesn’t help much because the intervenors themselves are – at best – people who prize the right to do their own thing too. At worst they are people on a power trip. So they represent either hypocrisy or tyranny.
The change that would give mothers the social support Hrdy advocates is a change in what people value – a change of mind and heart, a willingness to give up self-will in order to build strong bonds.
Let me be clear here: I am not saying that change of heart is to be preferred to social programs. I am saying that only a change of heart matters at all. Absent that, social programs are either a waste of tax money or a tyranny to be overthrown.
The groups where co-ops of any kind work tend to share beliefs and values and promote the welfore of the group over one’s own preferences. (For good or ill.)
And we don’t need either Hrdy or the chimps to tell us that.
Some of Hrdy’s claims are unbridled fantasy:
Compared to earlier phases in Western civilization children are better off today. But not compared to our Pleistocene ancestors. Child survival rates are exponentially higher today. That’s true. But those children who did survive back then were actually much better off in terms of the kind of nurturing environment that they experienced. Rates of child mortality were high, but there was no child abuse or emotional neglect. A child that has experienced the kind of emotional neglect it takes to produce the psychopathology of insecure attachment, the kind shown in Bowlby and Harlow’s work, simply would not have survived. Parents and other group members are very sensitive to anything that would threaten a child’s survival.
And we know all this … how? Which books, written at the time, give an authentic description of life in the cave?
This is what we get, of course, when we consult experts on apes for advice about humans.