Monday, October 01, 2012

Five notable books on evolution and human cooperation

Paul Seabright is the author of The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life. He is professor of economics at the Toulouse School of Economics and has been a fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford, and Churchill College, University of Cambridge.

His latest book is The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present.

With The Browser's Toby Ash, Seabright discussed five top books on evolution and human cooperation, including:
Mothers and Others
by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

Sarah Hrdy examines maternal instincts and has conclusions that seem very relevant to the modern workplace. Please tell us more about your final pick, Mothers and Others.

This book shows us that mothers do something that is absolutely central to the great human talent – they are consummate coalition builders. Sarah Hrdy is a great primatologist and feminist. There has often been unease in the feminist movement at the idea that our biology should ever play an important part in understanding who we are as men and women. Hrdy has done more than any other individual to bring a sophisticated understanding of biology to the heart of a feminist perspective that we can live with in the 21st century. What she emphasises is that the old idea that human beings were fundamentally pair-bonded and that women were permanently shackled to men for the whole of their reproductive life, needs to be nuanced by an understanding of how women actually construct the coalitions that provide care to their offspring.

She reminds us that human offspring can be handled socially in a way that’s completely impossible for other primates. You can go to a mother whose baby was born recently and take the baby out of her hands and pass it around a circle of admiring family and friends without the mother going crazy. You try doing that to a female chimpanzee and you’ll be lucky to escape with your life. There’s something really powerful about the idea that human childcare is a collaborative process in which the mother is not the only person who looks after the baby. She is at the centre of a large coalition of individuals who all do their bit. This coalition can include the biological father, but it doesn’t have to. Just as important are siblings, cousins, grandparents, uncles and aunts. Sarah Hrdy tells us that human childcare is a powerfully collaborative group endeavour. It’s not just about mothers on their own and it’s not just about pair bonds either – it’s about a whole team that brings the human baby into adulthood.

She describes humans in the book as “cooperative breeders”. On a more practical level, I suppose it’s saying that women shouldn’t feel guilty for leaving the care of their babies to others when they return to the workplace.

The point is that modern mothers who are juggling the demands of different activities and arranging childcare aren’t doing something unnatural, they’re doing something profoundly natural. She also reminds us that the fact that it’s natural doesn’t mean that it’s free of tension. In her picture, as in Darwin’s, cooperative breeding isn’t a serene parade of agreeableness – it’s a tense, stress-filled activity. But the point is that we are creatures that have evolved to be used to tense, stress-filled activity – that’s what human cooperation is like. People who fantasise about human social life as being either about unremitting competition, or about collaborations that are entirely easy and stress free, have missed the point. Human society is profoundly collaborative but that doesn’t make it stress free.
Read about another book Seabright tagged at The Browser.

Mothers and Others is one of Natalie Angier's 6 best books.

Visit Paul Seabright's website.

The Page 99 Test: The War of the Sexes.

Writers Read: Paul Seabright.

--Marshal Zeringue