Evolutionary Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy has made several major contributions to evolutionary biology and sociobiology. She has been selected as one of the 21 ‘leaders in animal behavior’. Her books include The Langurs of Abu: Female and Male Strategies of Reproduction; The Woman that Never Evolved, Mother Nature: A history of mothers, infants and natural selection and Mothers and Others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding, which has been awarded both the 2012 J.I. Staley Prize from the School of Advanced Research and a second Howells Prize. Sarah is professor emerita at the University of California-Davis, Associate in the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard, and A.D. White Professor-At-Large at Cornell University.
I spoke with Sarah about child care, connectedness with others and the importance of empathy.
You state that “human beings differ greatly in social learning from other apes, like chimpanzees and orangutans. Apes also have these capacities, but human are better in them”. What do you think of the condition of social learning and social care in our society? Do humans make full capability of their ‘talent’ to empathize?
Surely this depends on which individuals, growing up in which child rearing environments, in which societies. In Western societies which tend to value individuality and independence more than do people in many traditional societies, there is nevertheless a growing recognition that children who live among others who are responsive to their emotional as well as physical needs grow up to be more empathetic, while those who are neglected, tend to be far less so. Findings that will hardly come as a surprise to the originators of the Stars of Empathy game! Along similar lines, recent research suggests that Americans in lower socioeconomic positions tend to emphasize connectedness with others more, and often exhibit more empathy towards others. Some of the cross-cultural work leads me to wonder if mutual dependence and feeling connected to others is more important than the emphasis some western psychologists put on verbal responsiveness and sensitivity of caretakers. But this is just a guess.
After playing Stars of Empathy, some children told me that it was the first time someone asked them how they feel. Most of them are children who are living with their parents and siblings. So the (allo)parents* are present, but at the same time it’s like they don’t have real contact with their children. What do you think about this? Is it a result of our individual, self-centered way of thinking and living in western society?
In the U.S. at least there is a longstanding emphasis on “the individual” — our careers, social status, “identities”, our face book presence. We forget that we descend from a line of apes who grew up with a deeper sense of their dependence on and connectedness with others in their communities. Plus these cultural ideals are being exacerbated by new technologies. All around me I see busy parents more engaged with their cell phones than their babies and even quite young children totally absorbed in their iPads and video games to the exclusion of the social and also natural world around them. This worries me.
*In biology, sociology and biological anthropology, alloparenting is a system of parenting in which individuals other than the actual parents act in a parental role.