Saturday, January 7, 2012

Of Chimps and Men: The Distant Past, the Recent Past, and the Future

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has proposed that the defining event in human evolution that allowed our subspecies to develop into the specimen we are today was the capability and need to be able to establish cooperative bonds with others. This may have occurred as long as a million years ago. The evolutionary focus for this capability arose in the infant-mother interaction when the need for infants to form bonds not only with their mothers, but with anyone who might provide them comfort and nourishment, became necessary for survival. The human mother-infant interaction differed from that of the other great apes in that the human mother was not capable of tending to her infant full time and also gathering the food necessary for survival. She and the infant had to depend on the assistance of others. The infants were required to develop the ability to interpret the intentions and feelings of others in order to encourage this nurturing. Humans thus evolved in a manner that facilitated cooperation, socialization, sharing, and empathy for others. It would be these attributes that guaranteed survival as a species and formed the basis for evolving into the creatures we have ultimately become. This scenario is described by Hrdy in her book Mothers and Others. Her thesis has been discussed previously in Of Chimps and Men: Mothers and Others.

Hrdy’s hypothesis is fascinating because it is completely at odds with the picture of humans and their intrinsic nature that has come to us from the study of recent human history, and from the study of the other great apes. Much of the anthropological literature has been focused on the development of social skills as a means of facilitating the male bonding needed to provide defensive or aggressive capabilities to protect or acquire resources.

Hrdy argues that the most efficient social organization for our hunter-gatherer ancestors involved females continuing to reside with their mothers and other kin after maturity, while the males would visit for breeding purposes. The fathers would then hunt mainly to provide protein-laden meat, leaving the mother with the responsibility for gathering the main components of the diet: fruit, nuts and other plant products. The mother could carry out her chores knowing that her infant would have others to care for it. The scarcity of food meant that an individual, or even a small group, would not always be able to provide sufficient nourishment for themselves. The species survived by learning to share with others in larger groups. Hunter-gatherer societies that can be studied today often participate in elaborate gift-giving rituals that are aimed at forming social bonds with as many people as possible. Hrdy muses on the current practices of exchanging gifts and cards at Christmas as perhaps a residue of that heritage.

When humans began to collect in larger groups and settle into lives of herding and farming, 10,000-15,000 years ago, the evolutionary pressures changed dramatically. As societies began to accumulate stockpiles of resources in the form of food and animals, it became necessary to organize in a manner that could provide protection for this property. This also begins the era most easily studied by anthropologists.

"Only with more reliable food sources....from horticulture or herding would higher population densities and increasingly stratified societies become possible, along with the need to protect such resources. As groups grew larger, less personalized, and more formally organized, they would also be prone to shift from occasional violent disagreements between individuals to the groupwide aggression that we mistakenly take for granted as representative of humankind’s naturally warlike state."

"....what is clear is that once local conditions promote the emergence of warlike societies, that way of life (as well as the genes of those who excel at it) will spread. Altruists eager to cooperate fare poorly in encounters with egocentric marauders."

Our past consisted of perhaps a million years of evolution driven by the need to cooperate in the care and nurturing of infants and the group as a whole. Society was generally organized around the needs of mothers and infants.

Our recent past is dominated by the internal and external interactions of large, complex societies. These assemblages became male dominated as a result of the need for males to band together to protect resources, or to steal goods from other societies. Competition and violence became common attributes. The inheritance of property came to be determined by male lineage, a change that led to the treatment of women, and their chastity, as property to be controlled by men.

Hrdy fears that these changes in evolutionary pressures may have unforeseeable consequences for the species. Given her focus, her main concern is over the diminishment in need to socialize and cooperate in order to survive.

"....a number of distinguished writers have commented on how the centrifugal pressures of modern life are diminishing our sense of community. The modern emphasis on individualism and personal independence along with consumption-oriented economies, compartmentalized living arrangements.....combine to undermine social connectedness."

Her particular concern is the mistreatment of infants that is inherent in our society today.

"All through the Pleistocene, infant survival depended on the ability of infants to maintain contact and solicit nurture from both mothers and others."

But today:

"....child survival became increasingly decoupled from the need to be in constant physical contact with another person, or surrounded by responsive, protective caretakers, in order to pull through."

Evidence is accumulating that children who grow up without this comforting feeling of attachment to "mothers and others" often develop psychological and behavioral disorders.

"In a finding that is not so surprising, developmental psychologists report that as many as 80 percent of children from populations at high risk for abuse or neglect grow up confused by or even fearful of their main caretakers, suffering from a condition known as ‘disorganized attachment.’ Far more unsettling is the finding that 15 percent of children in what are described as ‘normal, middle-class families,’ children not ostensibly at special risk, are also unable to derive comfort from or to constructively organize their emotions around a caretaker they trust; these children too exhibit symptoms of disorganized attachment."

What are the consequences of this condition?

"So far, follow-up studies of these children extend only as far as the late teens, but already we know that by the time they reach school age, children classified with disorganized attachment as infants have difficulty interpreting the feelings of others, are considerably more aggressive toward their peers, and are prone to behavior disorders."

Hrdy is quick to point out that any damage being to our children does not necessarily derive from the demise of the "nuclear family," an unnatural and recent invention, nor to the practice of working mothers placing young children in care centers. A well-run childcare center can provide the conditions an infant expects and needs. The problem is that too many parents lack access to such facilities, leaving their children in untrained or neglectful hands.

In other words, children who would not have survived in an earlier era, and have characteristics that were not chosen by natural selection, are thriving and propagating themselves. Since evolution is a random process, one cannot know where this might lead. Hrdy is particularly concerned that the precious attributes of nurturing, sharing, and empathy are no longer necessary for survival. What is not used can be quickly lost.

"If empathy and understanding develop only under particular rearing conditions, and if an ever-increasing proportion of the species fails to encounter those conditions but nevertheless survives to reproduce, it won’t matter how valuable the underpinnings for collaboration were in the past. Compassion and the quest for emotional connection will fade away as surely as sight in cave-dwelling fish."

It seems we are no longer who we once were; we don’t really understand who we currently are; and we may have no real control over whoever we might become. Women are beginning to regain control over their reproductive options. This could also take us off in some unknown new direction. If human civilization manages to survive, future anthropologists will have much to study.

As for chimps, let us hope they are allowed to flourish. Much of them is coded within us and we may need to continue studying them.

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