Cooperative breeders....they really pay dividends

November 12, 1999

Single mums who sleep around may be employing an age-old strategy to protect their kids. Anne Sebba reports.

Evolutionary biologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (pictured left)was invited in 1984 to a conference on mothers who had ambivalent attitudes about caring for their children. The other participants were psychoanalysts and psychologists, since women with ambivalent views towards motherhood are usually viewed as abnormal and in need of treatment.

"But evolutionary biologists deal with the normal, with how species have adapted. I realised that almost all women, indeed all female mammals, have conflicting attitudes towards motherhood - and that it is therefore a perfectly normal state of affairs," Hrdy explains.

According to Hrdy, who is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, modern women, making an investment in ever more costly children, face daily trade-offs between their own subsistence and the well-being of their children.

"For example: shall I take a little short cut right here and leave my baby in its car seat for five minutes while I do an errand? These are decisions women have been making ever since our species emerged 150,000 years ago," she says. Hrdy is in Britain to promote her book Mother Nature: Natural Selection and the Female of the Species (see extract right). It offers comfort to ambitious career women and desperate single parents. She believes she is the first to say: "forget this business of man the hunter co-evolving alongside woman the gatherer. Humans evolved as 'cooperative breeders', which means women were always eliciting help with child-rearing from other group members, including other men, as well as from older or non-fertile women. This is an integral part of our evolution.

"The message is: we put too much pressure on a single parent or on a mother and father raising a child by themselves. We didn't evolve to raise our children by ourselves and single mothers are to be excused for feeling very, very stressed."

Hrdy, 53, is keen to promote the idea of what she calls "alloparents" - male or female caretakers who do not need to be biologically related to the babies they look after. She has three children - aged 21, 18 and 13 - reared with the help of a cooperative husband and Lupe, a US woman teacher who has lived with the family for 12 years.

Admitting she has been lucky to have had a long-term companionable marriage, she adds: "I don't have the right to say that is normal. It worked for me, but it wasn't normal for my ancestors, who couldn't be sure the husband would survive or would not bring extra women into the family unit. We tend to say the nuclear family is the pattern to aspire to, but we shouldn't assume it is normal. Monogamy is sometimes a compromise, not an ideal type. For monogamy to benefit a mother, her mate must be in a position to protect her or to reliably provide for her."

While Hrdy insists children can be looked after by others, she says it is crucial to ensure that the care is consistent and long-term.

"It's hard on children unless we give them a sense that they belong to a community of committed caretakers. We don't have carte blanche to provide a series of babysitters. There must be the same people day after day."

The book has some practical advice for getting fathers more involved, suggesting that if mothers of newborns wore earplugs then the father would respond to the crying and the baby would soon learn to look to him to meet its needs. "The neural equivalent of earplugs is what mother nature opted for in the case of Titi monkeys, rendering mothers indifferent to the allure of infant cues. The result? Infants prefer fathers and the males 'naturally' do most of the childcare."

Hrdy does not pretend to have all the answers, but she is good at explaining how so much of what we see in society today is "just part of our past". When men do the shopping they tend to bring home branded luxury goods rather than basic necessities. This, Hrdy believes, is a hangover from the showing-off syndrome of our hunter ancestors, who would go for big prestigious items such as eland rather than small, but high protein, turtles or hares.

Mother Nature: Natural Selection and the Female of the Species by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is published by Chatto and Windus, Pounds 20.00.

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