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Mothers and OthersReview - Mothers and Others
The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
Harvard University Press, 2009
Review by Emily Esch, Ph.D,
Mar 16th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 11)

In her wonderful and accessible new book, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at University of California-Davis, begins with a puzzle: why did humans develop a capacity for understanding others’ minds when other great apes did not?  The problem, in her words, is “explaining why humans are so much better than chimpanzees at conceptualizing what others are thinking, why we are born innately eager to interpret their motives, feelings, and intentions as well as to care about their effective states and moods -- in short, why humans are so well equipped for mutual understanding.”  She notes that other apes do many of the things that are thought to underlie the human ability to understand others minds  - compete socially, imitate facial expressions, cooperate in hunting raids -- so why haven’t they developed the same kind of sophisticated theory of mind that we find in humans?

 Hrdy responds to this question with a fascinating and novel thesis.  Developing themes that were present in her earlier book, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, Hrdy argues that one of the features which distinguish humans from other apes is cooperative breeding.  Unlike chimpanzees, orangutans, or gorillas, human mothers need a lot of help in caring for their infants and they tend to get it.  This is quite different from the parenting structure of other apes.  Orangutan mothers, for example, remain in continuous contact with their infants for the first five or six months.  No wild chimpanzee mother has been documented voluntarily relinquishing her infant to another chimp, including the father, before three and a half months.  Moreover, these ape mothers tend to nurse their babies for four to seven years. 

In contrast, infants in cooperatively breeding species of primates, like the Hanuman langur monkeys that Hrdy studied in India, are passed around among siblings, cousins, grandmothers, and aunts from the day they are born.  (This does not imply, as Hrdy points out repeatedly, that the infant’s primary attachment is not to her mother.)  This alloparental care (care from someone who is not a parent) makes it possible for cooperative breeders to reproduce more frequently than noncooperative breeders.  Interval periods between births for most great apes average six years, while cooperatively breeding monkeys, like the tamarins or marmosets, give birth to twins or triplets up to a couple of times a year.

After describing this alternative model for primate childrearing, Hrdy turns to modern hunter-gatherer tribes as a window into how human societies might have been organized during the crucial Pleistocene phase, when researchers believe we developed into modern humans.  Hrdy points out that past research focused on the !Kung San, a society in which mothers do much of the parenting while fathers spend a lot of time outside of camp hunting.  This emphasis on the !Kung led researchers to assume that human parenting arrangements during the Pleistocene era looked like that of the other great apes, in which the burdens of parenthood fall almost solely on the mother.  A main point of the book is to argue that there is no standard for primate child rearing; across the primates, one finds many different models for raising children.  And if one looks to different hunter-gatherer societies, like the Efe or the Aka, one will find plenty of examples of alloparental care as well as large investments by fathers.

Hrdy uses the ethological and anthropological data to argue that modern humans arose from the combination of bigger, more complex ape brains and social structures which included cooperative breeding.  She argues that mothers and infants in cooperatively breeding societies would be under pressure to become much more aware of the intentions of other members of their community.  In noncooperative breeding societies, mother and infant would be in constant contact and would have much less of a need to be monitoring the states of others to see if they are trustworthy.  But if you are a mother about to hand off your infant to a sibling, or an infant who is about to be handed off, it behooves you to pay attention to the intentions of others.   This explains why humans, and not other apes, developed the abilities which make us capable of mutual understanding.

One implication of Hrdy’s theory is that what she calls emotional modern maturity -- concern about what others think and feel -- evolved before humans became behaviorally or physically modern.  It was this emotional maturity which distinguished humans from other apes and made possible the linguistic and symbolic culture that we recognize as modern human.  In her emphasis on the importance of emotional maturity to the development of the modern human, her book shares ground with Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy, which explores prosocial behavior in animals, and Michael Tomasello’s Why We Cooperate, which examines and compares altruism and cooperation in primates and human children.  Like those books, Mothers and Others is accessible to the general reader, but it also advances an original and provocative thesis which should be of interest to any scholar working in this area.


de Waal, Frans. (2009) The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York: Harmony Books.

Tomasello, Michael. (2009) Why We Cooperate. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


© 2010 Emily Esch


Emily Esch, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Philosophy, College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, Collegeville, MN


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