Mothers and Others

The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

2012 J. I. Staley Prize

Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding2009. Harvard University Press2009. Harvard University Press

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s sophisticated and provocative book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Harvard University Press, 2009) lays out a new and carefully argued hypothesis to explain the evolution of our uniquely human need to share views, feelings, and meanings, and to enjoy cooperating with each other. Her transformative analysis marshals paleontology, primatology, ethnology, and evolutionary science to argue for a complex emotional capacity among hominins that evolved well before the emergence of Homo sapiens. The reproductive success of the hominins relied on cooperative parenting and the singular capacity of infants to elicit affective bonds with those who nurtured them. The book casts new light on contemporary understandings of parenting, family, and community and challenges us to question assumptions about the primacy of the Western nuclear family.

The following paragraph from the book launches Hrdy’s theory and the question upon which her research is based: Why us and not them?

Mothers and Others is about the emergence of a particular mode of childrearing known as “cooperative breeding” and its psychological implications for apes in the line leading to Homo sapiens. As defined by sociobiologists and discussed in a rich empirical and theoretical literature, “cooperative breeding” refers to any species with alloparental assistance in both the care and provisioning of young. I will propose that a long, long time ago, at some unknown point in our evolutionary history but before the evolution of 1,350 cc sapient brains, (the hallmark of anatomically modern humans) and before such distinctively human traits as language (the hallmark of behaviorally modern humans), there emerged in Africa a line of apes that began to be interested in the mental and subjective lives—the thoughts and feelings—of others, interested in understanding them. These apes were markedly different from the common ancestors they shared with chimpanzees, and in this respect were emotionally modern.

“If we really want to raise Darwin’s consciousness we need to expand evolutionary perspectives to include the Darwinian selection pressures on mothers and on infants.”—Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Scientific American Blog

In a review of Mothers and Others in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, reproductive ecologist Peter Ellison states, “Hrdy has woven together strands of material from many sources into an elegant tapestry of insight and logic, emblazoned with her vision of who we are, and why.”

Nicole Taylor, Director of Scholar Programs, holding the 2012 J. I. Staley Prize Winning BookNicole Taylor, Director of Scholar Programs, holding the 2012 J. I. Staley Prize Winning BookNicole Taylor, Director of Scholar Programs, holding the 2012 J. I. Staley Prize Winning Book

Hrdy is currently professor emerita of anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Her books include The Woman That Never Evolved, selected by the New York Times as one of its Notable Books of 1981, and Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection, which was chosen by both Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal as one of the “Best Books of 1999” and won the Howells Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Biological Anthropology.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Professor Emerita of Anthropology, University of California, Davis

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