I have long been fascinated about fear, fears about the natural world in particular, since those fears very much colour our sense of place and our interactions with the natural world. Which of our terrors – be they of heights, snakes, spiders, wilderness, mice, bears, falling trees, etc. – are rooted in ancient instincts and which are outgrowths of our current cultures? Our places of discomfort can and have been used to manipulate us over the centuries so it’s hard to decipher what is nature and what is nurture. Political forces like governments, social groupings like workplaces or simply advertising have capitalized on our fears to sell us ideas or products so often that I’d assumed that the answer to my question about the root of our fears was largely unanswerable. Wrong.
My friend Karen Warkentin, professor of Biology at Boston University, recently gave me a wonderful book by evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding is a compelling and informative exploration of the theory that cooperative child rearing among humans has given rise to both our current morphology as well as our cultures as distinct from the other great apes. The book is chock-a-block full with fascinating comparisons between our child rearing practices and those of other primate and mammalian species. Among chimpanzees and gorillas, some of our closest genetic relatives, mothers do not let others hold or even touch their infants for the first three to six months. Human babies, on the other hand, are held and even breastfed by a range of caregivers, known as “allomothers” in Hrdy’s terminology. How these multiple caregivers participate in the raising of children and affect human psycho-social development is the thrust of the book.
I was delighted to encounter a mention of how our relationships with other humans might affect our relationships to the natural world. Synthesizing the work of a group of psychologists led by Barry Hewlett, the team found that, “the way children interact with their caretakers influences their sense of belonging and shapes how they feel about the environment they live in.” By this, they mean both their social as well as physical environment. Hence, those raised among a group of responsive caregivers are more likely to remain attached to their culture of origin, its social structures and kinship systems as well as the land. Take note, Estonians.
The children of traditional foragers tend to view “their physical environment as a “giving” place occupied by others who are also liable to be well-disposed and generous.” In contrast, the children of other subsistence folk such as farmers or those of upper middle-class Americans were more likely to be fearful of strangers and of their environment. Yet even among farmers and post-industrialites, “children who were accustomed to multiple caregivers grew up less likely to fear strangers.”
If indeed the isolation experienced by infants in the nuclear family unit has given rise to people less positively connected to their culture and environment, how in turn does that lack of connection play out in their lives? Are they likely to behave in destructively towards the environment? Are they prone to be greedier, less concerned about the impact they might have on others? Are they less bonded to their cultures of origin no matter how many Esto events they were forced to participate in? If there is even an inkling of these behaviours being rooted in our upbringings, wouldn’t that suggest the most radical act for the future of the planet and human cultural diversity would be to ensure that children are indeed raised by a village or a community instead of just one mother and maybe a father?
Hrdy notes in the book that the US government earmarked $1.6 billion for educational campaigns to reinforce the nuclear family. She comments that if that sum was put into better childcare options for working families, a culture that was more caring and compassionate might begin to re-emerge. It is no coincidence that the greed of the wealthy is running rampant, destroying life support systems for all the inhabitants of Earth. Everyone’s tax moneys are being funneled into propaganda to maintain a system in which humans might evolve away from our origins as an empathetic, interactive species. She posits that if we do not return to more cooperative child rearing practices, “compassion and the quest for emotional connection will fade away as surely as sight in cave-dwelling fish.” And without that curiosity and empathy for others, just what will our relationship to the human communities we spring from and the natural world become?
So, are you game? Ready to trade in the nuclear family and return to our origins of communal care? By letting extended families and communities raise our children again, we might create the pre-conditions for the survival of our species, our individual cultures and the planet we call home. If you’re interested in this subject, you can follow my exploration of Hewlett’s research through the Maa Press blog. In the meanwhile, read Hrdy’s book and learn something new about what makes us human.
Originally published on January 18, 2010 at the Maa Press blog, link below. The above has been fine-tuned by the author for our readership by EL’s request.
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Mothers, others and the giving place