Well Made Heroes: Sarah Hrdy

At any given moment, a country's leader is spending much time and thought thinking about who to ask to lead various posts in government.

These posts include the leadership of bureaus such as the Ministry of Agriculture, so that citizens can look forward to crops; The Ministry of Education, to oversee the up-skilling of young; The Ministry of Energy, to ensure homes are heated and industry is fuelled; and the largest, The Ministry of Defense, to ensure citizens are defended at home and abroad. Crops, skills, fuel, and combat. Hard to not see the similarities between these national priorities and the very strengths that allowed our early ancestors to evolve from sparsely numbered savannah dwellers to the billion-strong species that now inhabits all corners of the earth.

Yet, according to Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, this wasn’t all there was to the story of early humans. Yes, we eventually became adept and wielding tools, weapons, and seedlings. Yet before that, way back at the beginning of the story, something else changed. About 2 million years ago, our forbears started to do something different than other primates. Our forbears started, ever so slowly, to allow other caregivers, often a sister, aunt or other relative (known as an ‘alloparent’) to look after their children for while, in order to free them up to forage the nutrients needed by a completely dependent human child.

Different to other primates, where juveniles are solely cared for by the Mother for the duration of their ‘childhood’, early humans started to engage in a little parental outsourcing. According to Hrdy, this subtle shift in care-giving practices had enormous implications for the evolution of our species. Because, Mama was freed up to forage food for the family, while the child was kept safe by a relative, she and the child were better fed, survival outlooks were better, and she was able to have another child sooner.

Also, because Mama was sometimes called away to forage, the infant, when left in the hands of an alloparent, would need to be adept at reading the emotional cues and intentions of a wide range of caregivers. The result? These offspring developed increased emotional sensitivity and awareness to make the most of the ‘alloparents’ at their disposal.  

In a nutshell, ‘Cooperative Breeders’ had more offspring. In evolutionary currency, that means they won. The species changed. Cooperation and emotional intelligence became hard-wired. In the process, offspring were kept alive long enough to develop large, clever brains. And so we became a species smart enough to develop tools and wise enough to share our bounty. Look out world.

So while hunting, war, and sex had their place, Hrdy’s perspective is that successful Mothering is clearly the unsung hero in our species’ evolutionary success. Cooperative breeding is the backbone of humanity. Before its advent, we had a hard time replacing ourselves. With it, we our species grew geometrically in strength and numbers. We owe it all to our Mothers and the villages of care they created.

Can I get a collective “HIGH FIVE” from the crowd?

Motherhood is the unsung hero of a nation’s wealth, success and future. It’s the single most important function our species engages in. Its successful practice is the reason we are who we are. So, our next question is, where are our countries’ Departments of Parenting’? We are creating tomorrow’s farmers, scientists, healers and soldiers. Can you imagine a day when a nation attended to creating a better experience for us?

If that day were now, we’d nominate Sarah Hrdy as a candidate for it’s lead. She’s been described as the world’s ‘leading scientific authority on mothering‘ for her research and contributions to our understanding of how mothering evolved in our species. For changing the paradigm about how anthropologists think about Motherhood, we salute her. She isn’t just making the case that Motherhood should get its due. She’s making the case that the intelligence and cooperation of human mothers underpins our species’ very existence.

The aqueduct, the chariot, the sewer, the written page, the microprocessor, the polio vaccine, the sandal, the plow. These extraordinary advancements all came about in a world where Mothers were doing what they always have done, working tirelessly, building cooperative networks, sharing information, working against starvation and disease, looking out for the interests of their children and their loved one’s children, and making sure that, with their best efforts, as many as possible made it successfully into an adulthood where their ideas could then shine.

“Ordinary” mothers are the some of the greatest heroes of the human story.

Thank you, Sarah Hrdy, for showing us the light!


To read more about Dr. Hrdy and her work, click here: (1) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/evolution-motherhood.html

Post Image of Sarah Hrdy and her newborn baby

Post Image source: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/