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Our nature is nurture: Are shifts in child-rearing making modern kids mean?

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Mothers and Others coverIn journalism you look for one thing and find another that confounds your expectations. It’s what make makes this gig so frustrating and fun. I went looking for reassurance in Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Harvard University Press, 2009) by the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and found something scary.

Hrdy is one of my favorite evolutionists. She’s unpredictable, iconoclastic, passionate about her work—unafraid of mining her own life for insights. She earned a PhD at Harvard in 1975, the glory days of sociobiology, and she remains committed to that discipline’s goal of understanding primate behavior in evolutionary terms. She rejects knee-jerk liberal/feminist hostility toward sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology, the preferred term these days) but calls out male colleagues when they’re being sexist dolts.

No one can accuse Hrdy of trying to feminize or pacify our evolutionary past. She helped win acceptance for selfish-gene interpretations of infanticide among primates, including humans. Male langurs, for example, may kill an infant they suspect is fathered by another male. To prevent male infanticide, a female langur may mate with many males, who then refrain from killing infants because they think they may be the father. But females may also abandon or kill infants that they lack the resources to raise.

In Mothers and Others, Hrdy decried theories of human nature that emphasize "demonic" male aggression. (I slammed the "demonic-males" thesis in a recent post.) The key to our humanity, Hrdy contended, was the emergence of group child-rearing—also called cooperative breeding, or "allocare"—some two million years ago. Among all the ape species—chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans—mothers rear offspring without seeking or receiving help. Indeed, ape moms keep infants away from other females and males—with good reason, because others may hurt or kill the infant.

Child-rearing is radically different in hunter–gatherer societies like the African !Kung, Hadza and Aka, who are thought to live more or less as our ancestors did for 99 percent of our evolutionary history. Mothers in these societies get lots of help from other females, including grandmas, sisters and friends, who may even breast-feed an unrelated child. Dads and other males often hold, feed and play with children, too, which ape males never do.

There is a dark underside to all this group nurturing. A human mother’s care for her infant is more contingent on circumstance than the care of ape moms. If a hunter–gatherer mother feels she’s not getting enough support from others, she may abandon or kill her newborn. Natural selection thus favored babies who excel at "mind-reading"; they can intuit and manipulate the emotions of their mothers and other potential caregivers, to ensure that they get the care they need to survive. Empathetic kids become empathetic adults. In this way cooperative breeding promoted the emergence of our extraordinary "hypersocial" intelligence.

I find this theory of human nature more plausible—and, yes, palatable—than those emphasizing violent competition. But Hrdy’s book ends on a disturbing note: She pointed out that many modern children—far from growing up surrounded by doting kin—don’t even see much of their busy, working parents. Kids receive much of their care from non-kin, whether babysitters or preschool teachers. Then there are all the children who grow up with only one or no parent or abusive parents. As a result, many kids suffer from "disorganized attachment," which means they have a hard time understanding and trusting others.

If children receive poor care, their innate capacity for caring may not be fully expressed; they may become uncaring parents, colleagues, citizens. Even more alarmingly, the genes underpinning our prosocial impulses may dwindle because they are no longer favored by natural selection. We may lose our innate empathy and compassion, Hrdy speculated, just as cave-dwelling fish lose their eyesight. To an evolutionary theorist "surveying humans 20,000 years hence," Hrdy wrote, "our powerful impulses to empathize with others, to give, to share and seek reciprocation, might seem like nothing more than transient phases in the ongoing evolution of the species."

This coda initially struck me as the kind of hyperbole that science authors (like me) rely on to provoke attention. But then I read in The New York Times that researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor had found a 40 percent drop in the empathy of college students over the past 30 years. The decline has been especially rapid in the past decade.

This is just one self-report study (pdf). I still have faith that we’re headed toward a more peaceful, caring future. My two teenage kids aren’t cold narcissists, nor are the college students I teach. But I’m haunted by the image of a future in which our descendants have become as morally blind to each other as cave fish.

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  1. 1. niells 7:24 pm 07/12/2010

    So "empathy-challenged" children stopped dying through processes of natural selection over the past 40 years associated with their parents spending more time at work or being absent from the household? And we are to conclude that this process has resulted in the diversification of the human gene pool by allowing "non-empathetic" children who should have died to instead survive?

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  2. 2. loveslawyerjokes 8:11 pm 07/12/2010

    Selection isn’t "natural" anymore. Medical technology and rediculous correctness are why. We should start by executing anyone who sexually harms a child and rendering impotent those with harmful antisocial behavior. Rehabilitation is a myth. This book is strong evidence of the "it takes a village" theory. I’ll expand it further to say that it takes an entire country to raise empathetic children. The devisiveness of our political system contributes greatly to this problem. Kids are being taught to hate. Ask a teabagger what empathy is and you will get a blank stare, then a mean look, then you’ll be called a socialist. Their children will grow up without any empathy toward others.

    Here’s the first step. Those on the far right and the far left could actually have conversations about the things they have in common. You might be surprised! We CAN teach empathy to our children.

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  3. 3. arclyte 8:47 pm 07/12/2010

    Going out a limb

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  4. 4. arclyte 8:54 pm 07/12/2010

    I’m going to go out on a limb here with this, but wouldn’t a lack of empathy in the population mean that empathic genes would become more valuable? It seems to be that empathic children would have a leg up on those that didn’t have empathy as they’d be much better at reading and reacting to emotion. The article doesn’t seem to indicate a lack of affect, but a lack of the ability to read and respond to the affect of others, so those who are more empathic would seem to be more likely to breed because they’d be able to convince others to breed with them better than those who couldn’t communicate as well emotionally. Or am I missing something here? No doubt that industrialization and the mechanized workforce have significantly changed society, but if our long history of agrarianism haven’t significantly altered our genetic makeup in thousands of years it’s been a la mode, what’s so incredibly different about industry that’s changed it this much in hundreds (or even tens) of years? Definitely thought provoking, though, so I’ll have to go give the book a read now!

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  5. 5. fixerdave 10:46 pm 07/12/2010

    Okay, maybe plasticity, maybe. I can see how a child raised in an emotionally deprived environment might be less able to empathize. But, evolution? Not in our lifetime (obviously). Besides, by the time this might, possibly, maybe, have some effect on our genes, 14 generations down the road at least, we’ll be housed in computer-controlled model environments, and we won’t be controlling the computers. Evolution by natural selection is done.

    Besides that, just how is a daycare worker different than a village member? Same goes for school teachers. Don’t children learn to manipulate the emotions of those people too? How did the argument for the goodness of a village raising a child morph into discounting everyone that isn’t direct kin? If the original argument held up, that being exposed to a group of adults instead of just one parent was better, then you would expect today’s day-care kids to be more social than they were 40 years ago. After all, they’re no longer stuck at home all day with the house-wife mother.

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  6. 6. fixerdave 11:00 pm 07/12/2010

    Oh, and how is it that that the !Kung are a model of all prehistoric people, yet the Inuit aren’t? If you look at the different existing hunter-gatherer peoples around the planet, or what’s left of them, then there’s a pretty wide array of survival traits, including child-rearing. This sounds a lot like the old "noble savage" idea of American ‘Indians.’ Basically, ‘they’ were whatever the writer was trying to prove, the ideal to long for, or the scourge to avoid. Never mind that the different nations lead widely different lives, with different beliefs, and, yes, they likely had different child-rearing patterns too.

    There’s little reason to suppose a monolithic prehistoric hunter-gatherer society. Everything points to wide variability – we are humans after all. Sorry, but all you can really deduce from prehistoric humanity is that we evolved for adaptability, and that we certainly are – including our children. They’ll be fine.

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  7. 7. Mitchell 11:01 pm 07/12/2010

    Kids are being taught by TV and Movies. Parents need to sit and watch and teach.

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  8. 8. Cosmic 11:45 pm 07/12/2010

    My kids are much nicer and more caring than Mel Gibson. We need to look at how he was raised.

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  9. 9. robert schmidt 8:50 pm 07/13/2010

    I would think that if children are more likely to receive care from people who are not their parents that their ability to "read" people would have to be even more acute as a child’s chances of being killed by a non-parent are much greater. That’s when you really need to be as cute as possible. Also, I would argue that modern parents tend to spend more quality time with their kids. Fathers especially are spending more time with their children. There was an article here not long ago about 50% (or so) of parents "friend" their kids. To me this sounds like the same old story about how modern society is evil and the olden days are the way things were meant to be. I personally see lax discipline and over indulgence resulting in people without responsibility or initiative. But every generation raises their kids differently. There are costs and benefits to most approaches and no one approach works for everyone.

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  10. 10. Kaylan 10:30 pm 07/13/2010

    I have to agree with one reader: selection isn’t "natural" anymore given medicine and technological advances. Or one could argue that there never was natural selection in the first place since humanity, throughout history, has been drive towards virtues (heroism, good will, charity to all). At least, that is what the noble people we remember from history class tried to do in some form or another. If we are helping the weak to live by acts of charity, there is no natural selection. Instead, there is just humanity in practice.

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  11. 11. Kaylan 10:32 pm 07/13/2010

    I don’t think we can judge Mel Gibson. People in Hollywood are usually out of touch with a lot of things. They are living in an entirely different world because they are under the social microscope constantly. So, no, we don’t have to see how he was raised. I’m sure he was raised fine. It is what came after his parents that might have caused problems. But we can say that of a lot of people outside Hollywood too. There are lots of environmental influences in a lifetime.

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  12. 12. Kaylan 10:40 pm 07/13/2010

    I did check out some more on that study mentioned in the article concerning lack of empathy in college students. It said this was possibly due to: "child-rearing practices and the self-help movement, to video games and social media, to a free-market economy and income inequality." I can see child-rearing practices being part of the problem (as the author here suggests) but income inequality is a reach. There has been income inequality for most of humanity. Remember the nobles (or lords), overseers and then the extreme poor in history. Or slaves and slave owners. Indeed, there is always inequality. I suspect the lack of empathy has to do with child-rearing practices. The basic foundation of psychological health is trust from the original caretaker. In other words, our parents and how they relate to the child. Those years in childhood are SO important. Many families today are broken. Our modern society tries to pretend divorce and single-parent homes don’t affect the children but they do. That is not how it was meant to be. A child needs both a mom and dad. When a parent dies, it is a very sad example of a broken home and one that everyone knows is incomplete. It is not suppose to be the NORM but unfortunately, today, broken or unstable family units are considered okay. That is where I think the lack of empathy starts. From the very beginning. That psychological foundation of trust is incomplete or ruined and thus, the child never fully gains understanding of himself or the social world around him to interact in it.

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  13. 13. Chris TMC 9:44 am 07/14/2010

    Cosmic, I am certain your kids say all sorts of things when they are having a private conversation. IF people were recording your kids’ private conversations, I am sure you would be surprised at the things they say.

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  14. 14. jack.123 12:44 pm 07/14/2010

    I recall some film footage of an adult male gorilla tolerating the aggressive play of one of his very young offspring,infact his response brings the word gentle to mind.This makes me question the validity of the rest of the article.As for Mel,I will never understand how some people can be so smart about some things,and yet so stupid about others?

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  15. 15. themuser 2:03 pm 07/14/2010

    One mistake I constantly see people making is to somehow think that technology and medicine is beyond the scope of "natural selection". These are naturally discovered and naturally implemented techniques by HUMAN BEINGS. They are NO LESS natural than any other activities completed by human beings due to the fact that they are both discovered and implemented by us. This always confuses me – this "arbitrary line" people draw in the sand as to what is and what is not natural.

    Fat guy with a porsche getting chicks? Yeah – he’s got more money than a studly guy and thereby perhaps more likely to provide an adequate upbringing for a child (financially, at least – which is what matters by and large today.) How is that not natural?

    Anyways, just my 2 cents.

    On a side note, I have no idea where kids are going these days. I know how mine is going; he’s kind and considerate for the most part and has a thorough understanding of manners and as much empathy as I can instill in him. People should just focus on their own kids (or perhaps offer their free time to mentor kids in need) rather than worrying about phantom "mean kids" and feeding social neurosis.


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  16. 16. arunan 2:02 am 07/15/2010

    Low caring mother’s pupus grow into low caring motheres and high caring mothers pups grow into high caring ones. That is unless they are reared by the respectivemothers. Looks like genes tell what the pups grow into.If the pups are swaped (the low caring mothers pups are reared by high caring ones and vice versa), the sitiaution changes. The pups start behaving according to which environment they were reared in. So a low acring mother’s pups when raised by the hogh caring mother grows into a high caring mother. Weaver and Meany in the early part of this decade,in a series of celebrated experiments showed that the genes for corticoid receptor remains the same but its expression pattern changes according to the caring or non-caring environment. The pups reared in a caring environment (by a high caring mother) has this gene expresesed more because of less deacytalation as a result of ‘experience’ of care in the first two days after birth. In fact this alteration in the pups due to high caring can be simulated by administering a drug that inhibits deacetylation of chromosomes and thus augumenting the expression of the said receptor gene. The high expression of this receptor gene helps in controlling stress related activity by helping the feed back mechanism in the cortisol pathway – making them less tense, so to say, and to grow into high caring pups, for example!

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  17. 17. Andira 6:17 pm 07/15/2010

    I suspect that empathy may be to some extent taught, but nevertheless will argue that the ability to be taught empathy is innate considering the amount of research that has already shown that here are special circuits in the brain that activate when a person emphasizes, i.e. imagines.

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  18. 18. scottc 12:11 am 07/16/2010

    I have many questions about the validity of a recent study by Sara Konrath which served as the basis for the Empathy article in the Times that you mention at the end of your post. My problems with the study begin with her starting point: self-testing on something as hard to quantify as empathy. For instance, wouldnt a real narcissist be more likely to judge himself as empathic, since he/she might not have the necessary self-awareness to know if they are empathic or not? Some of the worst narcissists I have encountered in my life have considered themselves to be kind and loving individuals. This self-deception is, I believe, what allows them to continue to be the pains they are to everyone else. Perhaps the current students taking the test are more honest about their own personal empathy than previous generations. But more interesting is a 2006 report from The Corporation for National & Community Service which shows that the number of college students performing volunteer work grew by nearly 600,000 from 2.7 million in 2002, to 3.3 million in 2005. The growth rate of college student volunteers was more than double the growth rate of all adult volunteers during the same period, according to the report. The percentage for all U.S. citizens in 2009 who engaged in volunteer work was 26.8%. For college students, it was 27%. These figures would seem to contradict Konraths conclusions and unlike her study, the statistics from CNCS are based on something real perceived. Instead of ticking off a grade about how often one has tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate (to quote from her survey), volunteers are actually putting in the time to help those less fortunate. I would also point to the work of psychologists Kali H. Trzesniewski and M. Brent Donnellan, whose research paper A Study of Cohort Effects From 19762006 also contradicts Konraths findings. To quote from their study: Using large samples of U.S. high-school seniors from 1976 to 2006&we found little evidence of meaningful change in egotism, self-enhancement, individualism, self-esteem, locus of control, hopelessness, happiness, life satisfaction, loneliness, antisocial behavior, time spent working or watching television, political activity, the importance of religion, and the importance of social status over the last 30 years.

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  19. 19. enthusiastic-_- 2:19 pm 09/13/2010

    I agree that being empathetic is an important part of being more inclined to breeding (unless our country comes to be one that reflects The Givers utopian society). I also agree that a daycare worker, or even a teacher, is not much different from a village member helping to raise a child. The villages of today are just not as closely knit as villages once were. From the view of someone that has barely left childhood behind I can relate to the idea that in many cases today parents are becoming less the parent and more the friend. I did not see that in my home until I was about to leave for college; however, I did witness it within the relationships between my friends and their parents during times where even I could tell as a child that the parental voice was missing. I feel there should be a balance. Otherwise, how will a child learn respect and obedience? On another note, many children in America are spoiled. When they see it, they want it, and then they have it. Being spoiled comes from being greedy and being greedy comes from being selfish; to be selfish there must be a lack of empathy.

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  20. 20. enthusiastic-_- 2:21 pm 09/13/2010

    I agree that being empathetic is an important part of being more inclined to breed (unless our country comes to be one that reflects The Giver’s utopian society). I also agree that a daycare worker, or even a teacher, is not much different from a village member helping to raise a child. The `villages’ of today are just not as closely knit as `villages’ once were.

    From the view of someone that has barely left childhood behind I can relate to the idea that in many cases today parents are becoming less the parent and more the friend. I did not see that in my home until I was about to leave for college; however, I did witness it within the relationships between my friends and their parents during times where even I could tell as a child that the parental voice was missing. I feel there should be a balance. Otherwise, how will a child learn respect and obedience?

    On another note, many children in America are spoiled. When they see it, they want it, and then they have it. Being spoiled comes from being greedy and being greedy comes from being selfish; to be selfish there must be a lack of empathy.

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