Anthropologist Melvin Konner reviews Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who argues that "more than a million years ago, a line of apes began to rear their young differently than their Great Ape ancestors. From this new form of care came new ways of engaging and understanding each other. How such singular human capacities evolved, and how they have kept us alive for thousands of generations, is the mystery revealed in this bold and wide-ranging new vision of human emotional evolution."
It is possible to see Hrdy’s most recent book, Mothers and Others, as the third in a trilogy that began with The Woman That Never Evolved. It may be the most important. As she demolished, in the first, the idol of an evolved passive femininity, and in the second, the serene, always giving maternal goddess, in her third synthetic work she takes on another cultural and biological ideal: the mother who goes it alone. In our once male-dominated vision of evolution, we had the lone brave man, the hunter with his spear, and the lone enduring woman nurturing her young beneath the African sun; they made a deal, the first social contract, exchanging the services each was suited to by genetic destiny.
Hrdy has not been alone in challenging this myth. A conference and book edited by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore, although it was called Man the Hunter, showed that women brought in half or more of the food of hunter-gatherers by collecting vegetables, fruit, and nuts. This meant that, given the unpredictability of hunting success and the human need for plant foods, the primordial deal between the sexes was rather more complex than we thought. It also suggested that women had power in these societies; that men listened to them and decisions were made by consensus, not by male fiat as in more complex, hierarchical societies. ...
In Mothers and Others, [Hrdy] situates this pivotal mother-infant pair not in an empty expanse of savanna, waiting for a man to arrive with his killed game, but where it actually belongs, in the dense social setting of a hunter-gatherer or, before that, an ape or monkey group. Hrdy argues convincingly that social support was crucial to human success, that compared with other primates, humans are uniquely cooperative, and that it was precisely cooperation in child care that gave rise to this general bent.