The Primate Diaries

The Primate Diaries

Notes on science, politics, and history from a primate in the human zoo.

Raising Darwin's Consciousness: Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on the Evolutionary Lessons of Motherhood


Click here for Part One: An Interview with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on Mother Nature

"Sarah Blaffer Hrdy" by Nathaniel Gold

          "Sarah Blaffer Hrdy" by Nathaniel Gold

As I explored in my article, "Women and Children First", Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has faced innumerable challenges in the course of her scientific career. However, part of what makes her work so innovative and exciting to read is how she's used those challenges to gain a deeper perspective into the process of evolutionary change. While it used to be universally assumed (and in some circles it still is) that males in many species will often seek out multiple sexual partners, the evolutionary logic for females was moored in Victorian ideas of female chastity. Ironically, all it took was for biologists to pay attention and document what the female of the species was actually up to in order to undermine a century of scientific assumption. Hrdy's work, beginning with The Woman That Never Evolved, was central to a change in perspective that has occurred during the last thirty years.

The recent approach her work has taken with Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding offers nothing less than a reorientation of what it means to be human. If, as Hrdy proposes, we are a species that has thrived as a result of cooperative breeding--a childrearing strategy in which a network of individuals helps to raise a healthy child--it challenges many of the individualist assumptions that Western society is based on, particularly in the United States. How we can shift our society to reemphasize community will be the project that this generation will grapple with. Fortunately, there are scholars like Hrdy to offer their insight so that we won't feel all alone while we do.

Hrdy with her newborn daughter, Katrinka. Image courtesy of Sarah Hrdy.

Eric Michael Johnson: You made a difficult decision, just before you got your offer to write Mother Nature, to choose a different life-work balance than the standard tenure track career. How was your work in primatology influencing your decisions as you were thinking about family life and having children?

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy: In 1986 I actually submitted a proposal to the Guggenheim foundation to write a book on the natural history of mothering. So I was already thinking about it. I was 41 and that was also the year that my third child, Niko, was born and, I’m sure this won’t surprise you Eric, but the book on the natural history of motherhood did not get written that year. I wrote a paper on delegating maternal care, the wet nursing paper, but I didn’t even come close to getting a book written. I had three children and then my brother and mother died within a year of each other. As my mother was dying I was very torn between the needs of my children and my job back in California. I was very close to her and she needed me in Texas. I began to suffer all of these psychosomatic illnesses such as back and neck pain, migraines. It was not working for me. Plus I had always wanted to be a writer, like you I think.

Johnson: Yes.

Hrdy: The balance of my life did not feel right. Furthermore, the state of my field was such that teaching in an anthropology department was not bringing me a whole lot of satisfaction. It’s so hard to talk about it and tell the truth because there were so many different angles to it. But, basically, I wrote a book proposal, submitted it to publishers, there was an auction, the book was sold, and I immediately resigned from the university. I was offered to take the status of Professor Emerita, which I thought was an attractive offer. It didn’t come with any pension or medical benefits but, because my work had been so controversial, it was a way for me to quit with dignity. So that’s what I did. That was 1996 and the next three years I didn’t do anything except write and attend to my family (and, as you know, just because they’re not babies anymore doesn’t mean they don’t need a lot of attention).

Johnson: I know that all too well. You were mentioning earlier the importance of attachment in child development. How do you see that playing out today?

Hrdy: Remember that terrible case of Andrea Yates, the mother who was left on her own when she was already suffering from postpartum depression? She may have even been suffering from worse mental conditions that that. I think she had five children under the age of 8. One day she completely loses it and kills her kids and in Texas she’s sent to prison. The focus was on how awful this was, and, of course it was awful. But there was no deeper questioning. What was this mother--already identified as suffering psychological duress--doing alone with five children without social or institutional support of any kind? We have forgotten to put events like these murders into a larger perspective.

Hrdy on the cover of the Boston Globe Sunday magazine.

I think it’s starting to come back in sociologically informed circles to recognize just how much social support mothers in our species need. But it’s certainly not generally recognized at the level, for example, of politicians who are still out there talking about how they know children are healthier when they’re reared with a mother who is married to their father. We have these powerful social prescriptions about this with really no data to back it up. To say that a married mother with children is actually better off than a single mother with just one person taking care of the kids, well duh, that’s obvious. But we don’t know, for example, that those children are better off than they would be if they were in a family with a mother and a father and a grandmother and nieces and nephews in the family, or if they were better off with a grandmother, an aunt, and a mother. We really don’t know because those aren’t the kinds of studies we’ve done. The studies have all looked at married versus unmarried or nuclear family versus single mother.

We need to do much more before we can make these kinds of claims. Judges are making decisions about whether or not children can be in a particular school or who can have custody of children depending on this assumption that children are better off in certain kinds of family configurations. But there is so little science actually informing these pronouncements. Historians of the family and many social workers have felt for a long time that children actually do better in extended families. So I’m rather pleased to notice, as we are coming out of this terrible recession and collapse of the housing market, that one of the few bright areas in the housing market are the multifamily houses or apartments being built. There are actually special rooms so that in-laws or grandparents can live with nuclear families. I think part of the reason for this is, of course, financial since people are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage. But I also think there’s a recognition that these extra people are playing a very important role in providing the kind of nurturing environment that our children need. I’m glad to see that.

Johnson: Are there other societies that have also recognized this?

Hrdy: Actually, yes. For example, in countries like Mexico they still have very intact traditions of extended family. However, like us, and for the same reasons, they are moving away from that. It’s really too bad. But our economic environment is set up for people to move where they can get jobs and our housing configurations aren’t designed for living with kin or in close contact with other family members. We seem to have a greater concern with privacy and owning individual homes surrounded by their own yards. They’re really not conducive to what children need.

Johnson: What happens?

Hrdy: Well, for one thing, a lot of child abuse and neglect. It’s probably increasing, but when I say increasing you have to pay attention to what I take as my starting point. If you’re starting from medieval times, I think children are being treated much better today. We don’t swaddle babies and hang them from a door while mothers and other family members go out to the fields to work, hang them up so they won’t fall in the fire or get eaten by pigs. Thankfully we don’t see the level of neglect like there was in, for example, 18th century France that I describe in Mother Nature, where babies are being sent off to wet nurses in the country then (if against the odds they survived) wrenched away and returned to a mother they barely knew. Compared to earlier phases in Western civilization children are better off today. But not compared to our Pleistocene ancestors. Child survival rates are exponentially higher today. That’s true. But those children who did survive back then were actually much better off in terms of the kind of nurturing environment that they experienced. Rates of child mortality were high, but there was no child abuse or emotional neglect. A child that has experienced the kind of emotional neglect it takes to produce the psychopathology of insecure attachment, the kind shown in Bowlby and Harlow’s work, simply would not have survived. Parents and other group members are very sensitive to anything that would threaten a child’s survival.

If you look at the ethnographic accounts of band-level hunter-gatherer in Africa or Melanesia—though I’m not sure I can say this for South America—what jumps out at you is the indulgence towards children. Child abuse would not have been tolerated. Other group members would have intervened, the perpetrators socially ostracized, possibly even expelled from the group if they harmed a child. It was not acceptable. We don’t have this same sensibility today for a number of reasons. I think we have an epidemic of emotional neglect of children today that has gone completely unrecognised.

Johnson: Why do you think cooperative breeding disappeared as a parenting strategy?

Hrdy: I think what disappeared was the flexibility in residence for women. I think as hunter-gatherer groups became larger and more complex people had to begin defending the more compressed territories where they made their living. This was certainly the case with the Neolithic revolution and the invention of agriculture. Over time, as populations built up, as property became much more important—and it also became important to defend property—that’s when boundaries became less porous and men stayed together. To defend fixed areas it made sense to remain near brothers and fathers. Male kin alliances became much more important. Then I think two things happened: Women were moving between groups to places where they didn’t have matrilineal relatives and men were staying put, which changes the balance of power in all sorts of family relationships. But you also had group boundaries that were no longer as porous as they had been. This meant that a woman couldn’t simply take her children and leave to be near her kin if she wasn’t being well treated. I think that was the first big transition, women lost their autonomy over their own childrearing assets. And, of course, with patrilocality and the influence of patrilineal descent, you begin to have a concern with female chastity so that it really matters if a woman “goes off alone.” Not only are women losing but children are taking it on the chin.

Johnson: In what ways did this play out? What was the effect on women and children?

Hrdy: Consider the customs in very patriarchal societies, like the practice of suttee in parts of India, where after her husband dies a widow is expected to throw herself on the funeral pyre and burn herself alive. This protects patrilineal interests since the widow can't remarry and confuse family lines or property claims, or dishonor the patriline by inappropriate sexual conduct. But this is only one way to look at it. If you look at it from the point of view of children you see how they are being deprived of these critically important allomothers, their great-aunts and grandmothers and sometimes even their mothers. That’s just one example; of course there are many others. We know from Donna Leonetti’s wonderful work comparing geographically proximate groups, a patrilineal one in Bengal, and a matrilineal one in Assam, where they put very different priorities on child well-being. In societies where women have more say and purchase, women tend to be better off. While patriarchal ideologies promote fertility, they undermine child well-being. In recent history this has become tied to other traditions of the woman being responsible for everything that happens to her children. If anything goes wrong, blame the mother. We need to rethink that. If we evolved as cooperative breeders, when things go wrong we need to say that a larger community is at fault than just the mother.

Johnson: How did your research in primates influence your own parenting choices?

Hrdy: As a primatologist I was familiar with chimpanzee mothers who carried their babies everywhere. I was preadapted to be impressed by attachment theory. To me John Bowlby has made the greatest contributions to human well-being of any other evolutionary researcher with his recognition and validation of the needs of human infants to feel secure. Thus when Katrinka was born in 1977 I felt like any good Great Ape (read chimpanzee!) mother. I needed to be in continuous contact with my baby and respond immediately to her if she cried or signaled some need, ensuring that she would feel secure. I was absolutely convinced that this would produce a more confident and independent child, saving us a lot of grief later on. This was in stark contrast to how I was raised. Educated women in my mother's generation thought that if you responded to a crying baby you would be conditioning that baby to cry more and to be more demanding. Of course, today we know the opposite to be the case. The more secure the baby is, the more freedom they’re willing to allow those around them. You want to respond to a baby right away and I understood this. Bowlby was very influenced by primatology and I was influenced by Bowlby, so essentially this kindly Victorian evolutionist was right in there in the nursery with me.

Hrdy's former teacher, Robert Trivers, providing alloparental support with Katrinka. Image courtesy of Sarah Hrdy.

I adored my baby. Yet as a woman turning my life over to this little gene vehicle, I was surprised by how ambivalent I felt. I have always felt that my gestations were the average length and my sexual responses seemed to be average, so I had no reason to think that my reactions to motherhood were abnormal. I just figured I needed to understand maternal ambivalence a lot better than I did and I made that a research priority. The resulting book Mother Nature is really about maternal love and ambivalence. Human maternal ambivalence I came to realize is completely natural. If, instead of evolving like chimpanzees where mothers are turning themselves over in a totally dedicated, single-minded way to their infants, we had evolved as cooperative breeders, it makes sense that I would feel the need for more social support and more help rearing these children than an American woman living in Cambridge in the 1970s was likely to get as a postdoc. This made me rethink how maternal emotions and infant needs are playing out in our own species. By the time my third child was born, I felt I had my ducks in a row. I understood what my children needed much more and I also understood what their mother needed. I needed others around to help me provide the emotional security that these children required.

Johnson: When you reflect back on the series of nannies that raised you, how do you feel about that given everything you know now?

Hrdy: Actually I’m very interested in finding out more. I just wrote to my father’s youngest sister to ask her who cared for me when I was an infant because I don’t know and no one else is alive who really knows. I don’t have childhood memories and I have a very revered colleague, Mary Main at Berkeley who actually does research on adult attachment interviews and how the way we remember our own rearing experience effects the way we parent. These turn out to be quite powerfully predictive. It’s a very controversial area but I am convinced that even though some of the things they talk about are hard to measure, that they are extremely important.

I want to know so much more about my early childhood and I simply don’t. I have a feeling that others of my generation and social class are very much in the same boat. When my brother died at the age of 30, my younger sister gave me his baby book. I was amazed by how much detailed information there was in it. I had a sense that I knew who had been caring for him and it wasn’t the kind of people who’d be keeping a baby book. But then I looked more closely and I realized that it was my handwriting. I was keeping all these detailed notes on my brother's development, but I have no recollection of caring for him. I find people without childhood memories really fascinating and I’m among them.

Johnson: I don’t understand. Why don’t people have childhood memories? Is it the attachment issue perhaps?

Hrdy: I guess. Forgive me, but what’s your earliest memory?

Johnson: My earliest memory is when I am two years old, roughly, and I’m looking into a mirror at myself.

Hrdy: Wow, that’s metaphorical. That’s wonderful Eric. Were you trying to decide if you had theory of mind. [Laughs]

Johnson: I just remember finding it fascinating.

Hrdy: I find your childhood memory really fascinating. Two years old is beyond my comprehension.

Johnson: I also remember sitting in my fathers lap, right around two years old, watching the movie Star Wars. It was the first movie my parents ever took me to.

Hrdy: Oh my gosh, Katrinka went to Star Wars. That was probably the first movie she ever went to, I’ll have to ask her if she remembers it. Well, that’s amazing. Thank you.

Johnson: Thank you so much for talking with me. I really enjoyed hearing your perspective and what made you into the researcher and the person you are today. It was a great pleasure.

Hrdy: I might turn the table some day, though I’ll check with you first. Two years old, looking into a mirror. Who am I? Where did I come from? That’s good. I hope you include that in your blog someday so I can cite it. I love it.

Johnson: Okay, sure. I will.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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