Since reading her interview in Reinventing the Future (Thomas A. Bass, 1994) about a decade ago, Sarah Hrdy’s research on primate behavior reserved a place in my memory. Dr. Hrdy, one of the world’s leading anthropologists, has now published her evolutionary study of something that we have long taken for granted – shared care of infants, or “alloparental care” as termed in her recent book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2009). The book ventures into accounting for, in evolutionary terms, the unique trait of primates, especially humans, of cooperative breeding.
The core concept of Mothers and Others is that higher primates have a unique capacity for empathizing with others, allowing greater physical and social proximity that provided the genus, and particularly again, the human species, such evolutionary succor as to ensure their survival in otherwise fatally inclement circumstances in the past. Not only that, but this special trait of letting alloparents care for a distantly related, or even entirely unrelated, infants of their kind made them the dominant species with advanced cognitive and emotional abilities. One is naturally then curious in the question how such breeding arose and what caused it to originate? Dr. Hrdy attempts to answer these questions by counting on the scientific evidence available so far on this topic.
As the book’s title reflects, the author’s research points primarily to maternal (mothers) care as well as her biological/social equivalents (others) in rearing offspring, though male alloparental care The book’s chapters take the reader back in historic times when the early hominins were struggling to make it through the ecological challenges of starvation, predation, and disease. Mothers, no matter how committed, would not be enough to ensure proper infant care, or even survival, in such times. Alloparental care from females, especially elder females in the family, would be a necessity to keep life going. Showing how alloparental care prevails in different species, Dr. Hrdy also files a case for greater evolutionary relatedness of humans to bonobos rather than the common chimpanzees. And there are many more interesting and informative concepts in anthropology, evolution, biology, and sociology in this book – all related to the uniqueness of life shaped by millions of years of evolutionary influences.
Mothers and Others also takes many psychological facts and observations, particularly in social psychology, for discussion, such that social interactions are not only seen as matter-of-course but actually evolving entities under natural selection in response to specific needs and dynamic ecological-genetic factors. Thus, we come to learn about, and appreciate, the role nature plays in our moods, preferences, and aversions. And all these are ultimately related to better enabling us in living on this planet. With Mothers and Others, Dr. Hrdy has set the stage for renewed understanding of the connections between our past and present, and she leaves us with the question whether the humans of the future will retain the traits of empathy and caring for others’ emotions.
One striking feature of this book is the quality of the images included in each chapter to complement a topic’s explanation. Each image captures the essence of the related topic and stands on its own as a real story without words. As characterizes any worthy scientific undertaking, Mothers and Others has helpful end notes and a treasure of relevant references for the scientific studies and findings cited in the book. It is one of the landmark publications that bring us closer to know what we are and how we came to be so.