I came across Mothers And Others online as I was searching for books about human evolution. Never having heard of the author before, but impressed with the positive reviews, I decided to take a punt on it. Thank goodness I did! This is another exceptional book in a year of exceptional ones. Moreover, rather like The Human Cosmos and Mythos & Cosmos, which I read sequentially, this one has a distinct and rather exciting link to Sentience by Nicholas Humphrey, which I read and reviewed last month.
In essence, this ground-breaking book presents a new hypothesis for the evolution of human beings – the co-operative breeding hypothesis. In the latter quarter of the last century, anthropologists, particularly feminist ones, realised that earlier theories of human evolution were not only ridiculously biased towards men’s position in prehistoric society, not to mention all the things they want or are interested in – patriliny, control of women, social stratification – they were at best scantily resourced with evidence. Often, they were self-contradictory. What is so impressive about Mothers And Others is not only that it at last presents a hypothesis much better matched with reality, it is properly argued, scientifically sound and supported by excellent evidence.
Over nine fascinating chapters the author explains the evolutionary scenario, reviews the evidence, explains why only one branch of hominids felt the selection pressures of evolution which led to our line, and outlines anthropological similarities which reinforce her case. Comparatively little space is wasted complaining about male anthropologists’ hypotheses, most of the book being given over to intensive discussions of the evolution of parenting, predominantly by women (one chapter deals with fathers). It’s all compelling stuff, well written and with that indefinable essence of somebody sure of her case and with the confidence to present it. The book is also highly readable – lay readers welcome.
Towards the end, various strands are pulled together. The author explains the difference between emotionally modern individuals, a state of affairs which in her view goes back as far as 1.8 million years ago, and what in general has been focused on by others – cave art, language, symbol use. I was particularly struck by the synchrony between her subtle understanding of the attribution of mental states to others by children and by early hominids and the social intelligence theory of Nicholas Humphrey. This book can be read as the full evolutionary story first presented by him in The Inner Eye.
In summary: a very important book. I loved it.