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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars GRANDMOTHER NATURE, 12 Jun. 2013
Peter L. Hurst (Warrington, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Paperback)
Reading 'Mothers and Others:- The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding' by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an American primatologist and anthroplogist, is like reading the love-child of E.O Wilson's 'Sociobology - The New Synthesis' crossed with Germaine Greer's 'The Female Eunach.'

I am not a scientist or an academic but enjoy reading books about 'evolutionary psychology' (or 'sociobiology' if you prefer) to satisfy my curiosity as to the origins of human nature. When it comes to her abilities as a writer Blaffer Hrdy is not in the same league as the likes of Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker or Matt Ridley and that is why I have only rated the book at 4 stars as opposed to five, but as a thinker on the matter of the origins of human nature I think she is the equal of any of her male contempories writing on the topic for a popular audience.

Blaffer Hrdy argues that human beings are unique amongst apes in the degree in which we co-operate with others, in the first chapter of the book she contrasts this behaviour with our nearest genetic relatives the chimpanzees by inviting the reader to engage in the thought experiment of imagining a group of chimpanzees on a long-haul aeroplane flight, an unremarkable fact of life for modern homo sapiens, and its most likely result:- 'bloody earlobes and other appendages would litter the aisles.'

For anyone seeking to understand human behaviour within an evolutionary framework the extent of human co-operation is a puzzle. Ever since Mendelism was combined with Darwinism, putative sociobiologist's have been trying to explain how such a social creature as our's could emerge from 'selfish genes.'

Blaffer Hrdy's answer is that it lies in our historic tendency to engage in 'co-operative breeding,' what Hillary Clinton referred to as 'it takes a village to raise a child.' Blaffer Hrdy argues that 'Novel rearing conditions among a line of early hominins meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers than just their mothers, and this dependence produced selection pressures that favoured individuals who were better at decoding the mental state of others... The need for alloparental succor transformed the selection pressures that shaped our species, and in doing so altered the way infants developed and then the way humans evolved.'

Blaffer Hrdy contrasts homo sapiens tendency towards co-operative breeding with that of the other great apes 'the earliest a wild chimpanzee mother has ever been observed to voluntarily let a baby out of her grasp is three and a half months. Among wild orangutans, half a year elapses before a mother allows any other individual, even her own older offspring, to hold her baby.... Women are just as prone as other apes to worry about the well-being of new babies. But what hunter-gatherer mothers do not do postpartum is refuse to let anyone else come near their baby. This is an important difference.'

It is in our history of shared care and provisioning of our young - not least our reliance upon post-menopausal women with longer life spans in particular (i.e grandmothers) - that the mental faculties that facilitate the level of co-operation that characterises our species were first developed. The same mental faculties which allowed us to develop art, religion and culture i.e that make us 'human.'

Blaffer Hrdy argues that prior to the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago our hunter-gatherer forebears lived in 'matriarchal' groups - mothers lived with their own kin as opposed to the child's fathers much more frequently - as opposed to the patrilocal residence patterns, patrilineal inheritance and social institutions biased towards patrilineal interests that characterise human societies after the agricultural revolution as people settled in one place, built walled houses, grew and stored their own food. This lead to population growth, social stratification and corollary inequalities. 'Property, higher population densities and larger group sizes all put new pressures on men to remain near fathers and brothers.'

In the final chapter of the book Blaffer Hrdy provides a warning for the future in the rise of children who are troubled by a pattern of 'disorganised attachment' (? Prototype personality disordered adults) due to childhoods characterised by the lack of trusting relationships forged with caring adults which she argues is due to the lack of coperative breeding enjoyed by our ancestors.

'Mothers and Others' is an important book in that it has the potential to change the way you think about human nature. If it has a downside it is that it spends too long discussing primatology and not enough discussing the implications of her theories for human beings. A book to be read by anyone who wants to learn about why we are the way we are.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sarah has done it again!, 2 Feb. 2010
Jeremy Ray - See all my reviews
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This is a gem - especially the first half, using wideranging primate data to argue for the importance of coperative breeding in shaping human evolution. If you liked her previous book you will be sure to enjoy this one too!
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Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (Paperback - 1 April 2011)
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