Mothers and Others by Hrdy: A Review

Remember Evolutionary Psychology? The theory?

It's over.

I think I've told the story elsewhere of having been at the birth of Evolutionary Psychology, down in room 14A in the Peabody Museum. If not, remind me some time and I'll tell it.

Evolutionary Psychology is a particular theory of how the mind works, how evolution has shaped that mind in certain predictable and testable ways, bla di bla di bla and so on and so forth. And, although there is something in there ... something in that theory ... that is useful, it is mostly not really very close to what happens when humans behave. Or misbehave, as it were.

What really happens with humans is much more complex, and what really happens is wonderfully described and explained ... insofar as we can in the present day ... in a book you simply have to read: Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

You may remember Hrdy as the author of several earlier very important books. Infanticide, primatology, and a classic example of woman scientist doing important work: The Langurs of Abu: Female and Male Strategies of Reproduction. Classic feminist yet not post modern evolutionary biology: The Woman That Never Evolved. Brain-riveting thinking-changing mind-blowing expose of motherhood itself: Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species.

And now, the aforementioned Mothers and Others, which is just as much about the others as it is about the mothers, but with the firmly developed and consistently focused idea that the limiting factors in any evolutionary scenario having to do with animals is the offspring, and for that, you need a mother. And others.

Yes, evolution can presumably shape behavior and stuff, but where the rubber meets the road, the push comes to shove, and the shit hits the fan, the variation we see in behavior ... say, among mothers caring for children, or fathers caring (or not), or the role of grandmothers ... is determined by context interacting with the evolved organism. It is complicated, yet it is describable with a few basic principles in mind, and by "it" I mean a great deal of human social and cultural behavior.

The book covers that all very well, in a way that will make you look at some of the earlier books you've read about human evolutionary biology and say "Huh. That guy should have read THIS book before he wrote THAT book." And, Sarah is a very, very fine writer.

Peter Ellison, a colleague of Hrdy's and the founder of the Reproductive Ecology discipline, says of this book:

It stands above most other examples of the genre ... for both its scholarship and its craft. Hrdy draws on a broad literature extending beyond the traditional domains of primatology and anthropology, with particular emphasis on developmental psychology, but breadth of scholarship and lucid vision have long been the trademarks of her writing...Hrdy is at least as gifted as a writer as Gould and at least as clear a thinker...This is a very important book, and a beautiful one.

Here is the table of contents:

  • Apes on a Plane
  • Why Us and Not Them?
  • Why It Takes a Village
  • Novel Developments
  • Will the Real Pleistocene Family Please Step Forward?
  • Meet the Alloparents
  • Babies as Sensory Traps
  • Grandmothers among Others
  • Childhood and the Descent of Man

I'm looking for a course I can "teach" this book in.


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On a hot and humid day, in a small seminar room in Cambridge at the height of the Darwin Festival, Hrdy fielded questions from an interrogative audience with calm aplomb. Especially Tim Clutton-Brock, who had completely missed the point. She was kind.

That sounds fantastic. I use her other books when I teach all the time. I think I'll try to incorporate a chapter or two of this into my fall course on the Biology of Human Behavior (my version of B-29).

We B29-ers are everywhere.

Do you still use "Cinderella"? Also, do you know that Jay Phelan has written a college intro bio textbook? (Probably not good for B29, but a great source to crib lab stuff and lecture bits.)

You seem to define "evolutionary psychology" as "the Santa Barbara School of evolutionary psychology". Maybe - maybe - the latter is 'dead', but the former most certainly is not. The Darwinian approach to studying human behavior is flourishing, as far as I can see at least.

Indeed, if you're not to dismiss evolutionary explanations for all animal behavior ("sociobiology") - which would be dumb - or hold on to the silly notion that evolution doesn't apply to humans ("liberal creationism"), you've got to accept a (broad version of) evolutionary psychology.

Your use of the phrase "bla di bla di bla" to describe the science of evolutionary psychology is inspired. Well done!

But, um, while I hate to have to point this out, Susan Hrdy has regularly published in evolutionary psychology journals and books. How is Mothers and Others an alternative to the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology if Hrdy is an evolutionary psychologist (you don't have to have a degree in psychology to be an evolutionary psychologist)?

By James Donaldson (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink