Vanishing Grandmothers And The Decline Of Empathy

Why compassion is disappearing, and how matriarchal cultures can show us the way

In an article on the evolution of monogamy, I discussed the practice of lifelong pair-bonding and argued that, when done well, this historically recent cultural adaptation brought important advantages for women, men, and children in modern societies. But in its most recent forms, monogamy can also come with strong disadvantages.  First, monogamous unions can fail.  Nowadays, economic pressures and shifting cultural desires for independence also drive young people away from their families. As a result, many children are growing up in lonely and fragmented nuclear families without access to broader networks of family care. This unprecedented moment in human history is putting our species at an immense risk that we have yet to fully evaluate.

Making sense of these problems, understanding their roots, reviewing alternatives, and recommending solutions requires a long story. I hope you will bear with me through this often hopeful, sometimes grim, and highly counter-intuitive journey into our origins and unique potential.  We will need to consider why grandmothers matter (but some more than others), why we have a lot to learn from matriarchal societies, why both providing fathers and maternal instincts are overrated, and why tiny-brained, fist-sized New World monkeys hold the key to an evolutionary puzzle.  

In this post, I present new approaches in evolutionary anthropology and epigenetics that emphasize the importance of grandmothers, elders, and broader networks of friends and extended families (“alloparents” in developmental lingo) in nurturing our children and making us a uniquely empathetic and cooperative species.  Forming bonds with people outside the parental nest, as we will see, is a key recipe for children’s healthy emotional and intellectual development. Once we understand how collective childrearing is precisely what enabled our species to evolve with such high social intelligence and abilities for compassion, we will be in a better position to appreciate how and why empathy may be tragically declining among modern humans. After reviewing highly successful examples from disappearing cultures, and the unique recipes of care and freedom found in matriarchal cultures in particular, we will be better equipped to make recommendations for the future of our species.

If you find the scientific lingo a little daunting, scroll down to the end of this post for a glossary of useful terms. 

Large brains and infertile grandmothers: an evolutionary puzzle.

Around 2 millions years ago, our hominin ancestors in an extinct species we now call Homo Erectus developed unprecedentedly large brains, longer childhoods, longer lifespans, and rudimentary tool-making abilities. We know that by 200 thousand years ago, our ancestors had become fully anatomically modern in the sense of physically resembling modern humans. We have ample archeological evidence to attest that by 100 thousand years ago, humans had become behaviourally modern; that is, that they showed signs of being a technologically-enhanced, symbolic, linguistic, ritual, fully social species.  

That modern humans are uniquely cooperative, empathetic, and socially intelligent (in the sense of intuitively knowing and caring about what their conspecifics think, feel, or need) compared to other Great Apes is no longer the subject of controversy. Precisely when, how, and why this unique cognitive-affective trait evolved, however, is still hotly debated among evolutionists.

The existence of a long post-reproductive lifespan for human females has also presented something of a puzzle to anthropologists and biologists. Women, after all, can live a full 30 to 50 additional years after menopause, and we have evidence that this has been the case for over a million years.Why would small groups of physiologically weak early humans struggling to survive in harsh wilderness conditions incur such high costs to care for old females with no reproductive value?

Revisiting macho evolutionism.

To appreciate why this is an important, but misguided question, we should understand that until the 1960s and 1970s, evolutionary science was an academic field dominated by men interested in macho questions about reproductive fitness and value, sexual competitionaggression, and predator-prey relations.  It isn’t until a new generation of women scientists inspired by the feminist revolution joined the Old Boys club that questions framing evolutionary research began to change.

Emotional modernity and cooperative breeding.

The most provocative, radical (and beautiful!) answer to these whenhow, and why evolutionary questions was first proposed by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a biological anthropologist now recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on maternal and alloparental care, attachment, evolution, and development among humans, apes, and monkeys.  For Hrdy, the long childhoods and long post-reproductive lifespans of our Homo Erectusancestors is precisely what gives us evidence that we were emotionally modern before we became anatomically and behaviourally modern. 

Before Hrdy, it was already well-known that hominin offspring were much too costly to be raised by a mother alone due to their slow physical development and large caloric needs. In the 1970s, the anthropologist Ashley Montagunotably described human babies as “extero-gestates”, meaning that their unique vulnerability and need for constant touching, feeding, and care after birth could be equated to a gestation outside the womb. A famous estimate extrapolated from 20th century foraging societies, thus, showed that it takes an average of 13 million calories provided by others to raise a human offspring until the age of nutritional independence, when they can successfully provide for themselves.  

Forget Man the Hunter.

The common assumption for the most of the 20th century was that providing food and shelter for weak human babies required Man the Hunter; in other words, a mother’s “husband” who would provide food for the family. Hrdy was among the first to expose the masculine biases behind this “Hunting Hypothesis” for the evolution of human sociality. First, new evidence from foraging societies and nutrition analyses from the bone record revealed that meat (and meat from large game in particular) was a much less common source of nutrition than previously assumed for both 20th century hunter-gatherers and humans prior to the horticultural revolution 12 000 years ago. The majority of our ancestor’s diets, rather, likely consisted of wild plant-based foods. While women have certainly been known to hunt in foraging societies, recurring trends in the sexual division of labour found in the ethnographic record strongly suggest that most wild plant food gathering was done by women. New interpretations of the human record also show that big game hunting by men, in addition to being less frequent than previously assumed, has most often served a political role; that is, it provided an opportunity for showmanship, showing off, male-bonding, and competition for leadership roles, but not necessarily a means of provisioning for one’s family.

Forget Nuclear Families and Providing Fathers.

The next problem pointed out by Hrdy was that our idealized models of Pleistocene human groups with patriarchal nuclear families composed of working “husbands”, home-bound “wives”, and their children sharing a single “roof” suspiciously resembled the kinds of arrangements that are only documented in recent societies…like Baby Boomer North America.  Hrdy does not deny that the care and labour provided by men, and the increased recognition of fatherhood among our primate ancestors played an important role in the evolution of our species. She does point out, however, that in addition to the relatively low importance of big game hunting, father presence and involvement has been consistently inconsistent in the human record. In other words, while humans are the only primates who appear to recognize paternity and involve fathers in childrearing, the spectrum of father involvement among humans ranges from hyper-present to entirely absent, and exhibits the highest within-species variation in investment patterns. The Aka foragers of Central Africa, for example, have been described as the best fathers in the world, and top the charts of paternal investment across cultures in terms of their documented presence around infants. While Aka fathers spent on average 88% of their time within arm’s reach of infants, the Na of Northern China prohibit marriage, practice men’s “furtive night visits” in women’s homes for the purpose of conception, and are reported as possessing no concept of fatherhood. Among the Na, children are co-raised by mothers and their siblings, and so without any involvement from fathers. In modern societies, Swedish fathers from dual-earner families have been shown to be the most involved, with an average of 10.5 hours per work-day and 7.5 hours per non-work day spent with their infant.

For Hrdy, father involvement in the Pleistocene was likely to have been as variable as it is in the present day. Lacking solid evidence of consistent patterns, we simply do not know enough to build a theory of human evolution on father involvement alone. Human fathers, for a variety of reasons having to do with cultural norms, economic pressures and personal dispositions, can choose to be very involved, somewhat involved, or not involved at all with their children.

What we do know is that is that our ancestors nurtured the long lives of post-reproductive females, and that these sisters, aunts, grandmothers and great-aunts were likely to remain involved in food gathering and processing and in the collective care of infants and children. This view, championed by Hrdy and the biological anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, became known as the “Grandmother Hypothesis”.

Forget maternal instincts. 

In emphasizing the vital importance of collective childrearing in her Cooperative Breeding Hypothesis for human evolution, Hrdy did not simply simply debunk the masculinist and nuclear-family-centric assumptions of our evolutionary theories. Most controversially, she also demonstrated that theories of attachments and emotional development championed by Western Psychology (most notably those of Freud, John Bowlby, and Mary Ainsworth, who all emphasize the importance of mothers as primary attachment figures) placed an undue emphasis on mothers alone, and naive ideas of a “mother instinct” in particular. Unlike chimpanzees and our other Great Ape cousins who almost never let anyone near (let alone hold!) their infants, human mothers are the only primates who let other people touch, handle, hold, care for….and sometimes neglect their babies. Human mothers are also unprecedented among primates in possessing the ability to selectively care for their offspring. The human record has consistently shown that mothers in our species demonstrate by far the highest rates of abandonment, neglect, and infanticide.  For Hrdy, the invariant formula that motivates mothers to either care for or abandon their children is their perception of how much social support they are likely to get when raising a child. Other socioeconomic pressures and arbitrary cultural norms governing the desirability of specific kinds of offspring (like the preference for male children in patriarchal societies) also play a strong role in the mediation of care and love.

But don’t give up hope! The (social-experiential) biology of cuteness and care.

Winner of the William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association in 2015

Hrdy can be misread as promoting the view that mother-love is entirely socially constructed. In her careful analysis of this difficult question, however, she readily acknowledges that like most mammals, and perhaps to a greater extent, humans are neurobiologically predisposed to respond to infant “cuteness” cues that activate a strong desire to hold, hug, and care for babies, pups, and cubs of all kinds.  The ethologist Konrad Lorenz was the first scientist to systematically observe how big eyes, round heads, chubby cheeks, and other infant traits appeared to universally evoke cuteness. He called these “baby cuteness” cues kindchenschema.

Several decades of research inspired by Lorenz’ observations have demonstrated that chubbier babies who appear to be full term, healthy, and likelier to survive are consistently rated as “cuter” and elicit more attentionand care.  If you are skeptical, take a look at the picture below, and ask yourself who you find cutest among the two babies. Or perform the simple mental trick of visualizing a round-faced, chubby-cheeked, smiling baby. If, like me, you experience rising warmth in your chest and feel the urge to smile just by thinking of a baby, you have just experienced an oxytocin surge!

Recent advances in neuroscience have shown that exposure to cuteness cues and the presence of babies cause oxytocin (often associated with love and bonding) and prolactin (associated with lactation) hormones to surge in women. This response has been documented in mothers, nulliparous women (women who haven’t given birth to a child), and even in men, whose testosterone levels also lower in the presence of babies. Though they cannot lactate, men have also been shown to experience prolactin spikes in the presence of babies. Hrdy explains that on a basic neurobiological level, all humans regardless of sex and parenting experience possess the underpinning to love and care for infants. But she also argues that experience matters a lot!

Experience matters.

Hormonal responses to baby cues are more pronounced in experienced and second-time parents, or in non-parents who have had extensive prior exposure to babies and children and are experienced caregivers themselves. This is a very important point for Hrdy’s cooperative breeding hypothesis, and for her explanation of empathy as a mechanism that is both innate and learned, and always cooperatively mediated.

Numerous studies have shown that the children of younger or inexperienced mothers exhibit higher risks of developmental problems, malnutrition, and even mortality. This is also true for most primates, who become better parents with experience. But here again, we should recall that our neural predispositions for seeking and responding to cuteness cues invites us to acquire this experience.  Like humans, nulliparous females from all ape and monkey species all display inordinate curiosity for babies from their species, even if mothers rarely let them near their offspring — the females’ way, as Hrdy has it, of seeking mothering experience.

Mothers among the tiny-brained marmoset and tamarin New World monkeys of the Callitrichidae family are among the only monkeys known to let other others hold their babies. Although 30 million years have elapsed since humans and callitrichidae monkeys last shared a common ancestor (compared to a mere 6 million years for humans and chimpanzees), both species have it common that they are cooperative breeders. Callitrichidae mothers, like human mothers, are known to selectively invest in some of their babies, but not others, and to share parenting tasks with fathers, siblings, grandparents, and even genetically unrelated social kin.

Because these New World monkeys are so physically and evolutionary distant from us, they have received much less scientific attention than our chimpanzee cousins, who are known to be possess unique problem-solving skills, but to display typically “Machiavellian” self-interested intelligence and lack of regard for the needs of others. Tamarin and marmoset, conversely, have been observed to follow others’ gaze, to be uniquely other-regarding and concerned with the welfare of their conspecifics. For Hrdy, the missing ingredient in chimpanzee empathy can be explained by their relative lack of cooperative childrearing, and the “individualism” of their mothering practices.

A cuteness and care arms-race.

In Hrdy’s compelling re-evaluation of our evolutionary past, it is precisely the mutual care and intergenerational teaching found in the cooperative childrearing practices of our ancestors that provided humans, and not other apes, with this missing empathetic ingredient.

In the traditional macho story that dominated evolutionary theory until recently, human intelligence was understood as having evolved from Ape Machiavellian intelligence. Humans, or so the story went, are just as self-interested as chimps, but they are simply much better machiavellians. In this story, cooperation was said to had evolved as early humans figured out that they would reap larger individual benefits from group work, and cooperative hunting in particular. The risk to account for in this Machiavellian Hypothesis was that many “cheaters” or “freeloaders” could reap individual benefits at minimal costs without contributing their share of collaborative work. Natural selection would have thus favoured good cheaters on the one hand, and people who were good at detecting cheaters on the other. In this story, our unique capacity for being attuned to other people’s mental states, intentions, and feelings evolved from a “cognitive arms race” between cheaters and cheater-detectors.

For many anthropologists, this story seems improbable based on ethnographic evidence alone. Most small-scale and foraging societies documented in the ethnographic record exhibit strong egalitarian social norms and cultures of giving and sharing without expectations of immediate or reciprocal returns. “Enlightened” self-interest might be promoted as a desirable moral goal in some contemporary societies, but it presents a sharp contrast with the egalitarian values that are still found in many cultures.

In recent years, better knowledge of anthropology and re-testing of culturally biased psychological theories with non-Western populations gave way to new Cultural Learning hypotheses for the evolution of human intelligence. In these new models, what makes us uniquely smart is understood as the capacity and opportunity to outsource large chunks of information and learnable skills from a cultural repertoire that grows from generation to generation. On this view, very few of the skills or long strings of information required to function well in our increasingly complex societies could ever be re-invented or figured out by individual learners.  Culture, in other words, is what makes us smart. That human cognition and culture have co-evolved exponentially in the past 200 thousand years is now widely accepted. Just how and why culture evolved remains an open question.

For Hrdy, the examples of love and collaborative care that are reproduced each time a new human life is born give us a developmental window into our evolutionary past. We have seen that, given the proper context and suitable experience, humans nearly always act on their innate predisposition to seek and respond to cuteness cues, and give care to infants.  But human infants are also uniquely predisposed to seek attention, to be touched, spoken to and cared for for by others. Babies from a very early age are uniquely curious, observant, and communicative. They follow others’ gaze (indicating that they put their tiny selves into others’ perspectives!) and, especially when raised by open parents, greatly enjoy being held by other people. By 6 to 7 months, they begin to babble, imitate sounds, and seek more communication with everyone around them.

On this view, cultural selection would have consistently favoured infants who were skilled at eliciting care and communicating, which in turn required being accutely attuned to the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others. Instead of a Machiavellian arms-race for better cheating and freeloader detection, we can understand human intelligence and empathy as evolving from a cuteness and care arms-race favouring better empathetes and better care-givers!

Hrdy’s hypothesis is backed by a wealth of developmental evidence. Children who grow up with exposure to more older siblings, for example, develop better perspective-taking abilities, and so at a younger age; as do children from more experienced parents. Studies of children raised collectively in Israeli kibbutzim have similarly yielded very promising results on the lifelong socioeconomic and emotional adjustment of those who were nurtured in this unique environment.  

The more attachment figures, the better.

Due to persisting biases on the role of mothers and nuclear families in current theories of attachment, the benefits of collective childrearing are still understudied. As a staunch supporter of subsidized quality daycares, Hrdy is convinced that the recipe for empathy is simple: the more opportunities to develop multiple meaningful attachments, the better for child, mother, and society. Even transient “as-if mother figures” in the form of family friends, stepparents, teachers and others, in her view, provide meaningful opportunities for a child to bond with conspecifics and become more empathetic. From this angle, the single parents among you who are worried about when to introduce your significant other to your child can relax. The answer, if you feel happy and safe in your relationship, is do it now even if you are unsure the relationship will last.

Does this mean that all collective arrangements are good for children, parents, and society?

Before returning to the increasingly impoverished emotional environment of our millennial societies, we should revisit what we know from history to make better sense of when our troubles began.

Grandmother love stories…with a tragic twist.

We began our long journey back in time by praising the role of grandmothers for their precious role in collective care, their unique importance in sharing experience and knowledge, and their crucial place in the puzzle of what enabled our species to thrive.

When 20th century anthropologists began to study collective childrearing with more statistical rigour, they found that the presence of grandmothers was positively correlated with higher nutritional status and survival rates in children.  Kristen Hawkes, another champion of the Grandmother Hypothesis, was the first anthropologist to make this connection obvious after studying  “hard-working grandmothers” among the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Northern Tanzania. A similar correlation was subsequently found among the Ache foragers of Paraguay, and the story became the new gospel among ethnographically informed developmentalists.

From these stories, we might conclude that the presence of grandmothers in a child’s life always provides an opportunity for meaningful bonding with an experienced, loving care-giver, which in turn always yields more confident and relaxed parents, and healthier, more empathetic offspring. A broader historical look at different societies, sadly, reveals a different story.

In a recent analysis of demographic data from 18th and 19th century Germany in the region of Krummhörn, scholars from the Max Planck Institute found that the presence of maternal grandmothers in the household did indeed improve the chances of child survival, and so at a time when infant mortality was rampant.  Compared to mortality averages at the time, however, children growing up in a house where paternal, but no maternal grandmothers were present were shown to exhibit higher risks of infant or child death. Similar trends have since been identified from the historical record in Quebec, Finland, and Japan. 

If these trends bear generalizable statistical significance, we are left with another historical puzzle and a nagging thorn on the side of the Grandmother Hypothesis. What is it about paternal, but not maternal grandmothers that appears to worsen children’s life prospects?

Patriarchy is to blame, but the problem is not simple.

To make sense of these trends, we need to understand the differences in social organization and kinship patterns between small-scale societies like the Hadza and Ache, and large agrarian polities like early Modern Quebec, Finland, Germany, and Japan.  What these last four societies have in common is that they are patriarchal.

“Patriarchy” has become a buzzword to account for many of the world’s evils in recent times, but it is often poorly understood and imprecisely described. In observable anthropological terms, a society can be said to be patriarchal when it exhibits patrilineal inheritance customs, and patrilocal residence patterns. Patrilineality refers to customary laws and practices governing the transfer and inheritance of names and properties from fathers to sons, usually first-borns. Patrilocality refers to marriage customs and residence patterns, where a bride usually moves to her husband’s place of birth and residence, and integrates her husband’s family after moving away from her own. In patrilineal, patrilocal cultures, thus, children will have more exposure to paternal alloparents and grandparents (especially grandmothers) who often share a household with the husband and wife, especially as men (and grandfathers by extension) experience higher mortality.

Cultural preference for male offspring are very common in patriarchal cultures, as are anxieties about “true” paternity and women’s infidelities. The cultural program in this particular scheme is geared toward ensuring that male children are truly their father’s sons, that they will inherit the family property, and pass on the family name. Paternal grandmothers, as mother-in-laws, tend to be the implicit enforcers of these cultural norms as they are socialized to prefer male offspring, and to distrust their daughter-in-laws.  New brides, in turn, are socialized to distrust their never-pleased mother-in-laws, and a general hard time ensues for all involved.

Women and girls in patriarchal cultures generally enjoy much less mobility than their counterpart in matriarchal cultures. Rigid beliefs and practices about girls’ premarital virginity are very common in patriarchal cultures, and women (both kin and affine – related by blood or marriage) tend to be excessively policed in terms of what they can do, where they can go, and who they can relate or mate with.  In this picture, the presence of an extended family of primarily patrilocal alloparents does not ensure that the collective childrearing environment will be harmonious for mothers and children. As we have seen, it can even result in more pronounced neglect.

The key point to take home about problems with patriarchal childrearing arrangements is that mothers will enjoy less freedom and mobility overall, and less generous help from alloparents. In darwinian terms, the costs of childrearing are high, and the benefits are low in this cultural package; and so for both mother and children, particularly if they are girls.

What about men and boys?

This grim picture should not be interpreted as a male-led conspiracy to keep women in a place of subordination. First, patrilineal systems, like all societies, are reproduced by humans through the accident of birth, as people (men and women, boys and girls, brides and mother-in-laws) are implicitly complicit in perpetrating social norms and biases that are difficult to see and question.

Men also endure their fair share of suffering in this package. In present-day patriarchal societies, they exhibit by far the highest rates of suicide and substance abuse. Most men express loneliness, frustration, and lack of recognition after working long hours for their families, but away from their families. In this arrangement, men are not simply lousy care-givers: they are culturally deprived of the opportunity to form meaningful bonds with their children and families. The high defection and father absenteeism rates in patriarchal societies, thus, can also be understood as a byproduct of a culture that excludes men from care.

Why, then, are modern societies so different from the Aka of Central Africa, where babies are held by men throughout most of the day?

Matrilineal, matrilocal (“matriarchal” for shorts) culture do exist, but they are typically described as rare exceptions. The Iroquois, Navajo, and Hopi of North America are notable surviving (but endangered) examples, as are the Khasi of Northern India, the Iban and Batek of the Malay Peninsula, and the !Kung of Southern Africa. The Basque, some Jewish cultures, the Greek, Filipinos, and even the Danes are among the few agrarian societies described as exhibiting, or having historically exhibited matrilocal residence and childrearing patterns.

Present-day matriarchal societies like the Khasi of Meghalaya State in India are typically more peaceful than patriarchal societies, and grant much more freedom to women in terms of who they can mate with. “Divorce” rates tend to be high in such societies, because women also possess the freedom to leave abusive relationships. This is a pattern found in most foraging and small-scale societies. Writing on marriage and separation patterns among the Zafimaniry of Madagascar, for example, anthropologist Maurice Bloch describes a “zero tolerance” culture of child and spousal abuse, where elders and community members will intervene in the quarrels of young couples and inexperienced parents, and ask them to separate if need be.

Revisiting matriarchy.

For most of the 20th Century, evolutionary theorists assumed that patriarchy was universal to our species, and reflected the environment in which we had evolved.  In biological terms, the common assumption was that human males universally tended toward phylopatry – a term describing species who remain within or return to their birth place in their reproductive lifespan.  Chimpanzees, who had served as our best models for what our closest Ape ancestors might have been like, exhibit male phylopatric patterns, as breeding females leave their own groups to integrate the males’ place of residence. Working from this male phylopatric hypothesis, a much-cited analysis of 862 world cultures from 1967 coded by George Murdock claimed that 62% of known cultures were patrilocal, while the remaining 38% exhibited bilocal patterns. It isn’t until 2004 that anthropologist Helen Alvarez (not incidentally a woman!), upon carefully reexamination of the 1967 study, determined that the evidence was too patchy, inconclusive, and at times plain wrong. She found that sufficient data was available for only 48 of the 862 cultures, and that only 6 among those 48 foraging cultures exhibited strict patrilocal patterns. Like Murdock, she found that the remaining cultures showed ambilocal, or bilocal patterns, where children could be raised among either (or both) the father’s or the mother’s families. The “patriarchal” agrarian societies from Quebec to Japan in which the worrying paternal grandmother trend was found, after all, also exhibited variations in matrilocal or patrilocal residence patterns!

Hrdy recognizes that ambilocality seems to be the norm throughout history and across cultures, but she notes that patriarchal societies have undergone a steady expansion in the past 10 000 years as humans became sedentarized and large-scale agrarian societies expanded through war and trade. Analyses of the human genome do not give us evidence of precise marital residence patterns in the distant past. A close look at Y chromosomes (passed from fathers to sons) and mitochondrial DNA (passed from mothers to both daughters and sons) distribution patterns does reveal than in the past 5000 years, women were more likely than men to move between populations, and so during an age of increasingly expansionist patriarchy.

We know very little about residence patterns prior to that date. We do know from the Human Genome project, however, that genes involved in human sperm production evolved recently, and at an unusually fast rate. This high sperm production typical of human males resembles a trait found in polyandrous Ape species, where females mate with more than one male.  For Hrdy, the close-guarding of women typical of patriarchal cultures would not have been conducive to the evolution of such a trait, and she interprets this genetic finding as evidence that polyandry and matrilocality were widespread among early humans. Humans, she points out, like other cooperative breeding species, are flexible breeders in the sense that they can be and have been alternately polygynous, polyandrous, and monogamous.

Is empathy disappearing, and what are the consequences?

Hrdy’s poignant account of how we evolved to be so empathetic ends on a pessimistic note. After providing ample evidence that ambilocal and matrilocal alloparenting is not only what enabled our species to evolve, but is also what consistently provides grounds for the development of well-adjusted, empathetic humans, she notes that the 10 000 year pattern of patriarchal encroachment on good matriarchal environments has taken a strange turn.

On the one hand, women in modern societies have gained a “return” to more freedom and mobility. But patriarchal biases and divisions of labour are hard to shake off, and modern women are also typically socialized with the dual pressures of being independent and nurturing; successful autonomous workers and giving mothers at the same time, and so at a time when access to alloparental support networks is continuing to decline.  In a paradoxical sense, then, the costs and demands of childrearing continue to be very high for young women – perhaps higher than they have ever been. This may be why for the first time in history, many young women are choosing not to have children altogether.

The rise of single-parenting also brings forth a complex set of new issues on an unprecedented historical scale. In the 20th century, many studies documenting the poor life prospects of children raised in monoparental homes appeared to “blame” the single parents and attribute the problem to lack of father presence of deprivation from a nuclear family environment. We have seen, however, that “divorce” and widowhood rates have consistently been high across cultures and throughout history, but that the presence of wide alloparental support networks continued to ensure the persistence of healthy emotional environments for children. The problem with contemporary single-parenting, thus, is simply the overall lack of collective support, which, in modern societies, should crucially include state support. A recent study comparing the outcomes of children from single parent homes in the US and Canada, thus, found that children from the Canadian sample faced no more disadvantages than their counterpart raised in nuclear families. The key variable between the two samples in this case is the broader access to quality subsidized daycare and public healthcare found in Canada, but not in the US. 

Hrdy, writing from the US, worries that the poor developmental outcomes of lonely families will bear their mark on evolution. Her approach to evolutionary science has paved much of the way for recent appreciations of the role played by developmental plasticity in the passing down of adapted traits — a booming field known as epigenetics. A basic rule in these new approaches to the plasticity of evolution is that traits that are unused in development disappear quickly in evolutionary time. This was the case with several species of cave-dwelling fish who lost their eyes to natural selection after breeding and developing in darkness. For Hrdy, there will be room for little else besides our evolutionarily older Machiavellian intelligence if we continue to cultivate such lonely, individualist environments.

“If empathy and understanding develop only under particular rearing conditions”, she warns “ and if an ever-increasing proportion of the species fails to encounter those conditions but nevertheless survives to reproduce, it won’t matter how valuable the underpinnings for collaboration were in the past. Compassion and the quest for emotional connection will fade away as surely as sight in cave-dwelling fish” (2009, p293).

What next? 

The good news to take home from these stories, counterintuitively, is precisely that we are an ambivalent species.

We never seem to figure out whether to be nomadic or settled, monogamous or polygamous, patriarchal or matriarchal, single or pair-bonded. The important point here is that it is these creative tensions and our immense flexibility to experiment that defines our experience as uniquely human. We have reinvented our way of life time and again throughout history, and have now reached a stage when this trend is happening at faster rates.

Radical choices: reinvent your culture.

The most flexible among us might want to reinvent their lives altogether, and revive the kinds of collective living experiment championed in kibutzim in the 1970s. For those of us who do not have the luxury to abandon long work days, or do not know enough people interested in embarking on such radical experiments, many simpler things can be done by countering the individualism that frames most of our everyday (and lifetime!) decisions.

Traditional choices: take cues from previous generations.

In choosing a potential mate, for example, we can take cues from more traditional cultures who consider individuals first and foremost as defined by their networks of relations among people. Thinking about compatibilities (and flexibility!) between families, and not just between two lovers may be an important step. Young parents can also decide to live near their own parents, siblings, or alloparents, or to invite them to live in their homes.  Friends can also choose to live close by and help raise each other’s children.

Everyday choices: keep eusociality flowing.  

Many young people are neither ready nor in a secure economic position to have children, and others among them prefer not to be parents at all. Yet, it is in such common scenarios that recipes to keep empathy alive are most easily accessible. The key to this approach is to keep eusociality flowing. In biology, eusocial or ultra-social species (like bees, ants, or naked mole rats) are social animals whose groups are characterized by interaction between different generations (like children, parents, and grandparents), and in which everyone collaborates to raise the young. Whether humans are a eusocial species, as sociobiologist E.O. Wilson claims, remains a subject of debate. What seems to be the case for millennial humans, however, is a steady decrease in eusociality. This is observable in increased age-based segregation and reduced levels of interactions between generations, particularly as the knowledge and values of elders are rapidly seen as obsolete in an age of dizzying cultural changes, and as young adults no longer interact with children. Children and young adults, therefore, at at a higher risk of failing to cultivate empathy. 

This is alarming on many levels, not least because it reduces young and very young people’s ability to engage and empathize with the perspectives of people different from themselves, but also because it is impeding the multidirectional flow of cultural information that has made us evolve to be so smart.  

As it turns out, countering this problem doesn’t take very much. If you are under 50, you could begin by calling your grandmother, great uncle, or someone from two generations above you, let them know you are thinking of them, and ask them for advice. You can then proceed downward and call or email your father, mother, uncle, aunt, or favourite family friend. If you are a grandparent, call your children and grandchildren!

Give yourself weekly, then daily challenges: make sure you interact sincerely, meaningfully, and compassionately with at least one person from generations above and below your own. Then stretch a bit, and keep going as high and low as possible. Keep up the challenge, and try to organize or find yourself at dinners, events, or parties where at least three, and ideally four generations interact. Repeat this operation as frequently as possible.  Once you have reached a comfort level, keep stretching, and keep treasuring the most fragile relationships above all. Keep interacting with very old and very young people.

You may be among those who no longer have grandparents, or those who prefer not to have children. Even then, you should remember that as a member of a cooperative species, you still an allograndchild, allochild, alloparent, allosibling, and allocousin to all other members of your species. If you do not have children, nephews or nieces of your own, go spend time with your friend’s children, teach them a song or a skill, or take them to the park. Or better still, learn something from them!


Empathy: the capacity to engage in perspective-taking and be other-regarding; the ability to infer, be interested in, and care about other people’s thoughts, intentions, feelings, desires, well-being, and needs.

Kindchenschema: baby schema; a set of infantile physical features such as large heads, round faces, big eyes and chubbiness that are perceived as cute and motivate caretaking behaviour in other individuals.

Alloparents: people other than the biological parents who provide care for children; see also alloparental careallomothersallofathers, etc.  Paternal or maternal alloparents refer to children’s alloparental caregivers from either the father or mother’s side of the family.

Nullipara (adj. nulliparous): a female who has not yet had children; primapara: having borne one child; multipara: having borne several children. 

Cooperative breeding: A behavioural trait in animal species in which multiple alloparents provide care for offspring.

The Cooperative Breeding Hypothesis: an evolutionary theory according to which human intelligence, empathy, and culure evolved through alloparental care.

The Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis:  an evolutionary theory according to which human intelligence evolved through a cognitive arms-race between cooperators and defectors. Animals exhibiting Machiavellian intelligence may be able to consider the perspective of others, but they will do so without altruism, and for their own interest.

Patrilineality: customary laws and norms governing the transfer of names and properties from fathers to sons in patriarchal cultures.

Patrilocality: residence patterns in patriarchal marriage systems, where brides move to their husbands’ place of birth or residence, and children typically have more access to paternal alloparents.

Matrilineality: customary laws and norms governing the transfer of names and properties from mothers to daughters in matriarchal cultures.

Matrilocality (also known as uxorilocality): residence patterns in matriarchal marriage systems, where husbands move to their brides’ place of birth or residence, and children typically have more access to maternal alloparents.

Ambilocality / bilocality: mixed residence patterns where husbands and brides move to either of their mates’ place of birth or residence, and children typically have access to either or both maternal and paternal alloparents.

Phylopatry: the tendency for an organism or animal to remain in or return to one place. Animals who exhibit natal phylopatry return to their place of birth to breed.

Eusociality: highest level of ultra-sociality in animal species. Eusocial species exhibit 1) cooperative childrearing, 2) overlapping and interaction between multiple generations, and 3) a division of labour between reproductive and nonreproductive members, or “castes”.

Developmental plasticity: traits that are acquired, expressed, cultivated, or suppressed through learning over the course of development; developmental plasticity is also theorized as playing an important role for the expression or suppression of specific traits in evolution. See also epigenetics and Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES)

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