Mothers and Others // Alyssa Benedict
Anthropologist Sara Blaffer Hrdy has transformed our understanding of human evolution. In her epic work Mothers and Others she offers a new understanding of how human beings evolved and survived through the millennia. Drawing from anthropology, comparative primatology, developmental psychology and other fields, Hrdy offers a different story of humanity - one that has huge implications not only for women and their role in the family, but for the structure of families, communities and society at large.
One of Hrdy’s central claims is that “alloparental care” - when helpers take care of young ones within the social group that are not their own - set the stage for infants to develop in new ways (Hrdy, 2009). Before birth and especially afterward, mothers did not parent alone; they received support and assistance from others (Hrdy, 2009). She suggests that human beings evolved in the context of and because of social relationships. In this relational context, the mother did not play the only role. Children without aunts, grandmothers and other kin to help nurture them would have been less likely to survive (Hrdy, 2009). So, survival was not simply a game of physical strength and perseverance, it also required that babies and children connect with others within a cooperative, relational environment. They had to learn to assess the intention of their mothers and other caregivers and elicit assistance and nurturing from others (Hrdy, 2009).
I read Hrdy’s book a few years ago in the midst of balancing the responsibilities of family, career, and post graduate studies. I had been steeped in the Western notion of the nuclear family and accompanying, common expectation that the mother in that family take responsibility for all things “child.” Hrdy’s book offered me a new, more dynamic vision of family, childcare and community; one that recognizes the critical roles of other adult players like fathers, aunts and uncles, and grandparents in the care and upbringing of children. It was and is ground-breaking.
Hrdy’s work demonstrates how important it is to have diverse analyses and perspectives. As we have seen time and time again, fields like anthropology and psychology have been dominated by male thinkers. Women were frequently left out of discussions and analyses and struggled to be taken seriously as researchers and scholars. This continues in various subtle forms today. The consequences have been significant, as male dominated theories have shaped so many aspects of society. Hrdy writes (2009) “…from the early days of evolutionary anthropology to today’s textbooks in evolutionary psychology, the tendency has been to devote more space to aggression and our ‘killer instincts’ or to emphasize…chimpanzeelike tendencies for males to join with other males…and intimidate, beat, torture, and kill…” (p.19). Far less space has been devoted to humans’ cooperative capacities and “how much early humans shared with one another to jointly rear offspring.” (p. 21).
We have some catching up to do. There is a need to make space for the ever-growing contributions of women like Sarah Hrdy so we can rethink past theories and, where needed, correct assumptions and debunk myths. Incorporating new perspectives like Hrdy’s won’t be easy. Old habits die hard. But if we do, we have a chance to make some intentional changes in our thinking about how we structure our families, who is responsible for our children, and how to create communities that will help us realize our greatest human potentials. We can break through our limited roles and work together to raise the next generation of children together.
Hrdy, S.B. (2009). Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Human Understanding. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.