Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding begins with an unforgetable image – of a planeload of chimpanzees in the place of human passengers. “Any one of us would be luck to disembark with all ten fingers and toes still attached, with the baby still breathing and unmained. Bloody earlobes and other appendages would litter the aisles.” It’s a dramatic way illustrate the truly amazing sociability of the human race, the desire of strangers to at least get along and often empathise with each other. The aim of her book, she says, is to “explain the early origins of the mutual understanding, giving impules, mind reading, and other hypersocial tendencies that make this possible”. (p. 4)
At the core of her theory is a belief that at some time in human evolution, possibly as long as 2 million years ago, going back to Homo habilis or erectus, with what distinguished us from other similar species was that the young started to be too expensive for an individual mother to care for, so she had to rely on others – usually female relatives (“allomothers”), to provide extensive care and provisioning for the child, and the child had a better chance of survival if it was good at encouraging that care by its behaviour. This can also be used to explain human menopause.
I don’t by any means agree with all of it – there’s a few parts of rather crude socio-biology type analysis about modern societies – but an interesting read.