A feminist theory of human sociability

Human being are remarkably social and empathetic, at least for the most part.  How did this occur?  One popular theory is that we  evolved to understand each other in order to cope better with competition and conflict.  

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her forthcoming book, Mothers and Others, disagrees.  For her the key comes with the human infants’ extreme helplessness, which has produced selective pressures for socially connected adults and adorable babies.

The discussion of the book by Natalie Angier in today’s NY Times is worth reading, IMHO.  As she notes,

Human beings evolved as cooperative breeders, says Dr. Hrdy, a reproductive strategy in which mothers are assisted by as-if mothers, or “allomothers,” individuals of either sex who help care for and feed the young. Most biologists would concur that humans have evolved the need for shared child care, but Dr. Hrdy takes it a step further, arguing that our status as cooperative breeders, rather than our exceptionally complex brains, helps explain many aspects of our temperament. Our relative pacifism, for example, or the expectation that we can fly from New York to Los Angeles without fear of personal dismemberment. Chimpanzees are pretty smart, but were you to board an airplane filled with chimpanzees, you “would be lucky to disembark with all 10 fingers and toes still attached,” Dr. Hrdy writes.

7 thoughts on “A feminist theory of human sociability

  1. Let me add in comments that I’m very wary as a philosopher to conjecture about pre-historic times, however much fun it is to make up stories.

    Hrdy’s work does tend to have some shrewd arguments, but the current book is not yet available. Angier tells us about one and from it one might generalize that part of what Hrdy is claiming is that we had a great need for cooperation before there would have been much in the way of conflicts.

    What is interesting about Hrdy’s work is that in general it comes from a perspective which, though it is shared by a very large proportion of the human race, does not get very well represented in the narratives about pre-history.

  2. Very interesting point jj.

    I suspect a lot of work of this kind does rather the same job as state of nature accounts in elightenment political philosophy. The idea is to legitimise a particular account of human nature or even a particular set of values, based on what our ‘true’ nature is supposed to be, unencumbered by cultural considerations. We need to be very careful when we are myth-making that we acknowledge the extent to which we are doing so.

  3. Sally, let me say for people who don’t know her work that Temple Grandin strikes many people – including me – as having important insights into the non-human mind. I’m also sure Hrdy isn’t denying that there are animals that form close communities; I can see from the blurbs on amazon.com that she does consider wolves, but I haven’t any idea what she says & the book is not yet available.

    I’m surprised, though, at Grandin’s hypothesis, since it is pretty clear much of our sociality is not learned, though it needs a good environment to develop very fully, including – recent research is suggesting – reasonable nutrition. There are neural mechanisms really crucial to our sociability that wolves seem to lack entirely, though they are present to a quite limited extent in chimps. (John Allman’s work at Caltech – which is on the web – is really revealing here.)

    Hrdy is really addressing the question of the selective pressures that produced such capacities, but for all I know she might agree that we also learned a lot from group animals. I love the idea that we learned from the dear meerkats, but wolves might be much more plausible, for all I know.

    Mark Rowlands (philosophy, U of Miami) has a memoir of his life with a wolf which should be published by now. It is absorbing, but it does give us a very different view of the wolf’s capacity for cooperating. E.g., he says he could not leave the wolf alone in his house unless he wanted to find it torn apart. I think there’s some evidence that when dogs were bred by us they acquired sociability abilities which wolves don’t have. From very early on, most of us pick up on eye direction in others and apparently even young puppies tend to do this, but I don’t think wolves do. I should ask Mark. :)

  4. Opps. I think I didn’t quite get the import of your remark, Sally. Of course, I reacted before I looked at the link; it’s the apriori impulse, I suspect. Given the link, it looks as though the point is not that we learned to be sociable from the wolves, but that we learned strategies from them that help. E.g., we might have learned group hunting strategies, or ideas about leadership.

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