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Alloparents and Evolution

April 1, 2010 | 2 Comments

Category: Autism, Causes of Autism, Social Structure

“Comparing the rates of violence in chimpanzees and humans gives support to the idea that male-male physical competition over females within the social group is vastly less important in humans.  Wrangham and his associates compared the rates of lethal violence between chimpanzees and human subsistence societies and found them similar….In sharp contrast, chimpanzees had rates of within-group nonlethal physical aggression between two or three orders of magnitude higher than humans.  Although preliminary data, these results indicate a major reduction in male-male violence within human groups and supports Boehm’s hypothesis on the evolution of human egalitarianism…”  (Lancaster and Kaplan, “The Endocrinology of the Human Adaptive Complex,” in Endocrinology of Social Relationships, eds. Ellison and Gray, p. 113.)

I received an email from Elaine Morgan, popularizer of the aquatic ape theory of human evolution and the author of several books on human evolution, including The Descent of Woman.  Morgan recommended that I read the work of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.  She suggested I read Mother and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.

“The paradigm shift away from thinking of our Pleistocene ancestors as reared by all-nurturing chimpanzee-like mothers, and toward thinking of them as apes with species-typical shared care, has been slow in coming.  Only in the past decade has cooperative breeding’s implications for attachment theory begun to be addressed, and its evolutionary implications taken into account.”  (Hrdy, Mothers and Others, p. 113.)

Hrdy discusses the influence of the alloparent in detail, describing the profound uniqueness of the human species, where mothers share infant intimacy with other females (and occasionally males) from the first day on.  This is unheard of in other great ape species.  Many things are implied.  Hrdy concentrates on how natural selection reinforces a cooperation theory-of-mind paradigm that allows a larger number of progeny to survive in communities where child-rearing is a community event.  For Hrdy, coming from a natural selection theorizing background, natural selection alone explains how humans evolved an ability to identify with another person as compassion became a highly useful feature.

Two things jump out at me.  First, sexual selection seems to be of relatively little importance in Hrdy’s hypothesis.  Neoteny is not mentioned.  With a default assumption that natural selection is how things transform, there is no awareness that many of the features that Hrdy describes reveal neotenous trends.  Though she discusses the influence of matriarchy, this is not integrated into an understanding of how matriarchy encourages specific kinds of evolution, particularly those kinds of evolution leading to the features that Hrdy is paying the closest attention to.  Matrifocal social structure encourages cooperative societies.  Instead of exploring the conditions that support matrifocal social structure, Hrdy commits the usual sociobiological sin of assuming that only natural selection is in play.  (Geoffrey Miller’s work would be the exception.)

Placing a heavy emphasis on alloparent intervention keeping our species alive, Hrdy neglects to make the connection between neoteny and social structures that support alloparents.  In other words, Hrdy’s work supports matrifocal human evolution.

No doubt this is just the beginning of my exploration of Hrdy’s work in connection with my Orchestral Theory of Evolution.  Thank you, Elaine, for sending me in Hrdy’s direction.

Second, considering that autism features individuals exhibiting the characteristics of our evolutionary forebears, and noting that the environment and child-rearing practices of those forebears might be what current autistics are craving, I’ve hypothesized that diet, rhythm, dance, touch and performance may all be necessary to those with autism.  Reading Hrdy’s book, it strikes me that perhaps an autistic neurology requires constant multiple parents, several persons to form attachments with.  For a child to feel part of society, perhaps it is neurologically necessary that several central females be engaged from birth.  Hrdy notes that in primitive societies, though the babies may travel among several persons over the course of a day, the baby sleeps with the mother at night.  It is also possible that an autistic individual requires close contact with a central figure through the night.

As it becomes clearer how exactly we evolved, we may evolve a deeper understanding for how we can adjust the environment of particular humans having difficulty adjusting to current society.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, April 1st, 2010 at 9:12 am and is filed under Autism, Causes of Autism, Social Structure. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
2 Comments so far

  1. Anna on February 22, 2011 5:49 am

    Shared child-care is not unique to humans. For example pigs do it as well. Sows in the wild as well as outdoor production sows (if they are in groups) use ‘kinder gardens’ where all the kiddies are joined together, and looked after by a few females. The piglets often drink milk with whoever sow they like and not just their own mother.

    And pigs are not particularly emphatic / theory-of-mind minded:

    I used to work with pigs, and sometimes I needed to e.g. isolate a grower pig for treatment – take it out of its group. That involved to catch it, grab its ears and pull it out holding on to them – while it screamed insanely. None of its peers would try to help it. Also: if a sick pig and falls or can’t move, the others will push it around and nip in its ears and tails e.t.c, and if it can’t defend itself then they will eventually begin to eat it. Not much compassion or co-operation there.

    However, they still manage to do shared child-care. Apparently it doesn’t require advanced social skills.

  2. shilla on December 8, 2011 5:11 am

    if you enjoyed “mothers and others”, you really need to read hrdy’s “mother nature”.

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