Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

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Belknap Press
Publish Date
6.16 X 0.92 X 9.2 inches | 1.58 pounds

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About the Author

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis.


To explain the rise of cooperative breeding among our forebears, Hrdy synthesizes an array of new research in anthropology, genetics, infant development, comparative biology.--Natalie Angier"New York Times" (03/02/2009)
Hrdy's lucid and comprehensively researched book takes us to the heart of what it means to be human.--Camilla Power"Times Higher Education" (05/07/2009)
Hrdy presents her hypothesis systematically and painstakingly, chapter by chapter, so that the result is compellingly plausible.--William McGrew"American Scientist" (07/01/2009)
Convincing about the importance of alloparenting, [Hrdy] makes a rich case that draws on wide erudition about many primate species and current arguments about human cooperation.--B. Weston"Choice" (02/01/2010)
In the study of mothering, Sarah Hrdy has no peer. In Mothers and Others, we are treated to Hrdy's infectious writing, taking the reader on a tour of our evolved history as a cooperatively parenting species. The ideas are big, bold, and brain-bending.--Marc Hauser, author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong
Boldly conceived and beautifully written, Mothers and Others makes a strong case that we humans are (or should be) cooperative breeders. It is an indispensable contribution to the debate about how and why we came to be the most successful primate of them all.--Melvin Konner, author of The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit
As was the case for her earlier classic, Mother Nature, Sarah Hrdy's Mothers and Others is a brilliant work on a profoundly important subject. The leading scientific authority on motherhood has come through again.--E. O. Wilson
"What if I were traveling with a planeload of chimpanzees? Any one of us would be lucky to disembark with all ten fingers and toes still attached...Even among the famously peaceful bonobos...veterinarians sometimes have to be called in following altercations to stitch back on a scrotum or penis," Hrdy writes. What she found is that our unique mothering instinct, quite different from gorillas and chimpanzees, meant that the children most likely to survive were those who could relate to and solicit help from others. We evolved to be wired for empathy for, consideration of, and intuition into how others are feeling.-- (02/11/2009)
For as long as she's been a sociobiologist, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has been playfully dismantling traditional notions of motherhood and gender relations...Hrdy is back with another book, Mothers and Others, and another big idea. She argues that human cooperation is rooted not in war making, as sociobiologists have believed, but in baby making and baby-sitting. Hrdy's conception of early human society is far different from the classic sociobiological view of a primeval nuclear family, with dad off hunting big game and mom tending the cave and the kids. Instead, Hrdy paints a picture of a cooperative breeding culture in which parenting duties were spread out across a network of friends and relatives. The effect on our development was profound.-- (05/11/2009)
Hrdy's much-awaited new book, is another mind-expanding, paradigm-shifting, rigorously scientific yet eminently readable treatise...Mothers and Others lays the foundation for a new hypothesis about human evolution...Mothers and Others is overflowing with fascinating information and thinking. It's a book you read, pausing regularly to consider the full import of what you just read...Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has added another enormous building block to our thinking about our origins with this new book. Our species is lucky to have her.-- (05/09/2009)
Provocative. [Hrdy] argues that unlike other apes, Homo sapiens could never have evolved if human mothers had been required to raise their offspring on their own. Human infants are too helpless and too expensive in their demands for care and resources. So human females have to line up helpers--sometimes extending beyond their own kin--to raise their young. That requires both males and females to invest heavily in social skills for bargaining with other members of their groups. Hrdy suggests that females in ancestral hunting and gathering groups may have thrived because they were free to be flexible in this way. Female flexibility was reduced when humans established settlements requiring male coalitions to defend them, probably leading to greater control of females by males...The most refreshing aspect of [this] book is the challenge [it] offers to what we thought we already knew.-- (04/30/2009)
If Sarah Blaffer Hrdy were a male scientist, I might be tempted to say that her new book Mothers and Others arrives like an intellectual time bomb, or that it throws a grenade into accepted notions of human evolution. But those are aggressive, competitive metaphors, and one of the essential points of Mothers and Others is that aggression and competition have been given far too central a place in the standard accounts of how our species came into being. From Charles Darwin onward, those accounts are mostly the work of men, and Hrdy points out in meticulous detail how partial and biased was their understanding of the remote past...Mothers and Others offers enormous rewards. It is not only revolutionary; it is also wise and humane.-- (05/10/2009)
More than a million years ago, somewhere in Africa, a group of apes began to rear their young differently. Unlike almost all other primates, they were willing to let others share in the care of infants. The reasons for this innovation are lost in the ancient past, but according to well-known anthropologist Hrdy, it was crucial that these mothers had related--and therefore trusted--females nearby and that the helpers provided food as well as care. Out of this "communal care," she argues, grew the human capacity for understanding one another: mothers and others teach us who will care and who will not. Beginning with her opening conceit of apes on an airplane (you wouldn't want to be on this flight) and continuing through her informed insights into the behavior of other species, Hrdy's reasoning is fascinating to follow.-- (05/15/2009)
One of the boldest thinkers in her field...Hrdy's scope is huge...To build her arguments, she expertly knits together research from a variety of fields--fossil evidence, endocrinology, psychology, history, child development, genetics, comparative primatology and field research among hunter-gatherer societies. Her book is at once entertaining, full of apt, often colorful anecdotes, sometimes culled from her own experiences, and rich with information and case studies...Hrdy is not only synthesizing her own research on female reproductive strategies (initially on langur monkeys in India), but that of hundreds of other researchers to create what amounts to a sweeping new meta-paradigm.-- (05/22/2009)
In this compelling and wide-ranging book, Hrdy sets out to explain the mystery of how humans evolved into cooperative apes. The demands of raising our slow-growing and energetically expensive offspring led to cooperative child-rearing, she argues, which was key to our survival.-- (04/04/2009)
Using evidence from diverse research fields (including ethnography, archaeology, developmental psychology, primatology, endocrinology, and genetics), Hrdy builds an engaging and compelling argument for an evolutionary history of cooperative offspring care that requires us to rethink entrenched views about how we came to be human...Mothers and Others provides a fascinating, readable account of how our hominin ancestors might have negotiated the obstacles to raising offspring. Hrdy presents a well-argued case for human evolutionary history being characterized by cooperative offspring care, which opens fresh avenues of research into the history of our species. In addition, she prompts readers to consider far-reaching questions, such as whether the nuclear family is the "best" unit in which to raise children and how learned parenting practices might determine the future of human evolution. Her thought-provoking book will interest students, specialists, and general readers alike and should focus attention on the neglected roles of mothers and others within human evolutionary theory.-- (06/26/2009)
Understanding the evolution of the human mind has become the holy grail of modern evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary psychology, and those who pursue it feel themselves closing in on something big. Mothers and Others is a heroic contribution to this quest. It is an anthropological T(A)E: a theory of (almost) everything, a genre for which I must confess a weakness. It stands above most other examples of the genre, however, 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 [Stephen Jay] Gould and at least as clear a thinker...This is a very important book, and a beautiful one. It is a book that will delight a broad lay readership coming to it from disparate perspectives. It will be a wonderful book to assign to undergraduates in a range of courses. But most importantly, it is a challenging and provocative book for academics and scientists interested in human cognition and human evolution. Once again, Hrdy has woven together strands of material from many sources into an elegant tapestry of insight and logic, emblazoned with her vision of who we are, and why.-- (09/01/2009)
The book is an impressive and sustained argument for why, unlike other apes, humans are cooperative breeders...Hrdy offers some fascinating speculations about the problems whose solution might have facilitated the emergence of cooperative breeding.-- (09/04/2009)
Mothers and Others is an engaging book. It is full of fascinating information from diverse fields, imaginatively harnessed to produce a coherent account of our genetic predispositions as a species. Above all, it challenges the pervasively sexist tradition within evolutionary psychology, which routinely highlights aggression and maternal care at the expense of sociability and shared care. In doing so, the book provides a rich foundation for engagement with the social sciences, exploring the articulation between our genetic predispositions and contemporary human societies.-- (02/01/2010)
In Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, Sarah Hrdy argues that what makes humans different from other apes is our need to rear children cooperatively. Elegantly written and, to any parent, compellingly argued.-- (11/28/2009)
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is one of the most original and influential minds in evolutionary anthropology...It is possible to see Hrdy's most recent book, Mothers and Others, as the third in a trilogy that began with The Woman That Never Evolved. It may be the most important...[It's her] most ambitious contribution. In Mothers and Others, she situates this pivotal mother-infant pair not in an empty expanse of savanna, waiting for a man to arrive with his killed game, but where it actually belongs, in the dense social setting of a hunter-gatherer or, before that, an ape or monkey group. Hrdy argues convincingly that social support was crucial to human success, that compared with other primates, humans are uniquely cooperative, and that it was precisely cooperation in child care that gave rise to this general bent...Hrdy's gracefully written, expert account of human behavior focuses on the positive, and its most important contribution is to give cooperation its rightful place in child care. Through a lifetime of pathbreaking work, she has repeatedly undermined our complacent, solipsistic, masculine notions of what women were meant "by nature" to be. Here as elsewhere she urges caution and compassion toward women whose maternal role must be constantly rethought and readjusted to meet the demands of a changing world. Women have done this successfully for millions of years, and their success will not stop now. But neither Hrdy nor I nor anyone else can know whether the strong human tendency to help mothers care for children can produce the species-wide level of cooperation that we now need to survive.-- (12/08/2011)