The nature of family

A friend brought my attention to a fascinating article about parenting from an evolutionary perspective. Certain kinds of politicians and religious leaders often tell us that society’s problems result from the break up of the family, but what is this ideal family formula that we should stick to? The modern ideal still seems to be the nuclear family consisting of a mother, a father, two children and a dog but is there any rationale behind this grouping or are we just drawing arbitrary lines and declaring that one size fits all? Some commentators might say that the nature of the family has changed in modern times but is the diversity of family models apparent today anything new?

Sociobiologist Professor Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of the University of California at Davis argues that ‘alloparents’ have a significant role to play in the raising of a child. An alloparent is an individual who takes care of the child while the mother is away seeking food or also one who brings sustennance for the child. An alloparent may be of either sex and may be related or unrelated. In this way, raising a child becomes an endeavour which involves a whole community of adults who all contribute to or take care of the child’s welfare. Professor Hrdy believes that this may be the reason why humans have developed to be so hypersocial. As the child learns to interact with and seek attention and care from a variety of adults, it learns to empathise and cooperate. One other advantage is that the child can still be cared for if either parent or even both are absent for some reason.

Evidence from other species seems to support this idea. Marmosets also adopt this model of cooperative breeding and they display similar behaviours to humans in many relevant ways. A marmoset adult will voluntarily offer highly valuable nutrition dense foods to an unrelated child. Among primates, humans, marmosets and tamarins are distinct in the fact that mothers from these species will abandon a child if they do not have the necessary support network. Examples of this behaviour in humans can be seen in societies where access to either birth control or alloparental support are lacking. Hrdy suggests that the need to access support networks could explain why it is that a young family may be patrilocal (staying with the husband’s family) or matrilocal (staying with the mother’s family).

I found all of this pretty compelling food for thought. Professor Hrdy initially starting looking into this topic as a possible motivation for cooperative behaviour in humans. Previous research had suggested that war could be one explanation for the hypersocial nature of human beings, but this did not explain why chimpanzees who also have lethal intergroup fighting have not developed the social nature of humans. It also sends a reassuring message to the parents and caretakers of today: It doesn’t matter whether you are a single parent, grandparents, a same sex couple or a foster family, what matters is that the child is part of a loving community where it is cared for and looked after. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.

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