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On Mother’s Day, Hail to the Tribe

Mother’s Day is a great time for lightening the burden on moms. I mean, we’ve been cast as way too responsible for how our species has turned out.

“[O]ur line of apes is in a class by itself,” argues anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, in Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Our roots, Hrdy posits, must lie with a line of primates who brought up their offspring quite differently than do today’s Great Apes.

From this line, we became distinctly “cooperative breeders”—a far cry from other primates who don’t trust others to care for their young. Among hunter-gatherers, it is dads, siblings, aunties, grandmas, and friends who help care for babies from birth, Hrdy reports.

Among the Efe in Central Africa, babies enjoy attention from an average of fourteen caretakers in the first days of life; and as they grow, someone other than the lactating mom holds an Efe baby for 60 percent of daylight hours. Hrdy notes that “shared suckling is not observed among wild apes but occurs at least occasionally in 87 percent of typical foraging societies.”

In societies where moms have many helpers, they can “devote energy to producing more and bigger babies.” And their children have the “luxury of growing up slowly, building stronger bodies, better immune systems, and in some cases bigger brains... “ In cooperating to rear our babies, we gained a “combination of empathy and mind reading,” without which “we would not have evolved to be human at all,” writes Hrdy.

In a word, we can thank our helpless, demanding babies — and the teamwork they called forth — for our distinctly cooperative nature. So, as we celebrate Mother’s Day, let’s remember our roots. It’s all those mothers’ helpers, too — creating deep, trusting bonds, that made the best in us possible.


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