In the Times Science section today, Natalie Angier discusses a fascinating-sounding new book, by the primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. The book, “Mothers and Others,” argues that humans evolved a powerful set of moral instincts – a set of instincts that far exceed those of our primate relatives – because we depend on others to help us rear our helpless infants:
As Dr. Hrdy argues in her latest book, “Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding,” which will be published by Harvard University Press in April, human babies are so outrageously dependent on their elders for such a long time that humanity would never have made it without a break from the great ape model of child-rearing. Chimpanzee and gorilla mothers are capable of rearing their offspring pretty much through their own powers, but human mothers are not.
Human beings evolved as cooperative breeders, says Dr. Hrdy, a reproductive strategy in which mothers are assisted by as-if mothers, or “allomothers,” individuals of either sex who help care for and feed the young. Most biologists would concur that humans have evolved the need for shared child care, but Dr. Hrdy takes it a step further, arguing that our status as cooperative breeders, rather than our exceptionally complex brains, helps explain many aspects of our temperament. Our relative pacifism, for example, or the expectation that we can fly from New York to Los Angeles without fear of personal dismemberment. Chimpanzees are pretty smart, but were you to board an airplane filled with chimpanzees, you “would be lucky to disembark with all 10 fingers and toes still attached,” Dr. Hrdy writes.
While stories of Darwinian evolution often stress the amorality of natural selection⎯we are all Hobbesian brutes, driven to survive by selfish genes⎯our psychological reality is much less bleak. We aren’t fallen angels, but we also aren’t depraved hominids. (In my book, I look at what happens when these moral instincts are defective: you get a psychopath.) I’m just so charmed by the hypothesis that human morality – this system of behaviors so often attributed to the Ten Commandments, Kant, etc. – might actually be rooted in the cries and smiles of infants. Babies, in this sense, are the glue that keeps us together – they are so charming that we’re nice to each other (or at least we don’t hurt each other) for their sake. Religion may have helped codify morality – and one shouldn’t underestimate the importance of turning our vague instincts into an explicit set of laws – but our moral emotions existed long before Moses got those stone tablets on Mt. Sinai.