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April 21st, 2010

The Woman that Evolved. (30) [Apr. 21st, 2010|02:29 pm]
mordicai caeli
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Mothers & Others by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

"Mothers & Others"
ain't "God & the Uncanny"
though it might as well.

What humans are-- bipedal apes with big brains-- is something we can pretty much agree upon. Why things are the way they are is a vastly different question. Huge energy sinks like brains don't develop on the speculation that being smart might revolutionize a species; that just isn't how evolution works. Sarah Blafer Hrdy's thesis, her big pitch, is that co-operative child rearing is the kicker, is the prime mover. See, there are plenty of primates that raise young cooperatively, but no apes. Well, no other apes. Anthropologists have looked at chimpanzees for how to mirror early Homo behavior, but that is a real problem, since reproductive behavior varies widely across the Great Apes-- humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans-- & hugely within genus, as any bonobo enthusiast will go on & on about (when comparing them to the other Pan). Hrdy's says that the two factors-- ape plus cooperative reproduction-- are the two key puzzle pieces that both explain & allow the traits that we take as human. Anatomically modern humans might be 200,000 years old & behaviorally modern humans might be 50,000 years old, but Hrdy posits that emotional modernity comes up with Homo or at least with Homo erectus-- Homo erectus basically being people anyhow, if you ask me, with a brain size of 1100 cc overlapping the human range (which is generally around 1350 cc-- 1100 to 1700 cc). I would have liked to see more about the other humanoid hominins but I can't really expect that. There isn't any evidence one way or another, really-- Homo neanderthalis, you remain a mystery.

I'm a huge fan of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy; her book Mother Nature is sort of the seed around which my opinions on feminism crystallized-- & is a major inspiration for some of my thoughts on utopia as well as on my worldbuilding & storyetlling, to boot. Hrdy asks hard questions & doesn't flinch from the answers; her simple & groundbreaking contributions to the fields of evolutionary biology, anthropology & primatology could basically be summed up as: "what if we actually looked at the science instead of just going with our patriarchal cultural biases?" Which doesn't sound crazy, but you wouldn't know that to listen to her detractors. For a long time she was the target of everybody-- other feminists thought she was a traitor for dabbling in evolutionary biology (at that time a pretty heretical field) & other anthropologists demonized her as...well, there was some slut shaming besmirching their critiques, which she talks about in The Woman That Never Evolved's updated foreward. My point is! When Miz Blaffer Hrdy speaks up, I listen. She's got the skills that pay the bills.

First thing that Sarah Blaffer Hrdy does is...make a Snakes on a Plane joke!? She titles her first chapter "Apes on a Plane" & discusses how human behavior in an enclosed space differs widely from what you might expect from other apes similarly confined (1). There are bits about fishing with poison, circulating gifts-- sharing versus inheritance, if you like-- & fictive kin-- people who have the same name as you that you pretend are relatives-- that I knew about but want to remember to inject into my game (10, 14-16). Also I learned the word polytypic, which is (in this context) when a species has a wide range of traits within it (kingtycoon take note!)-- think Canis lupus familiaris, or H. erectus & ergaster & the broad range in that category of Homo (16). There is also some discussion of the old chestnut about the dark matrix in other ape's eyes, presumably making mood reading more difficult-- I think there is clearly something to that (51). The discussion on primates was pretty interesting in general, since I don't know a lot about them-- like marmosets with chimeric germ lines (93)?! They get pregnant with twins, possibly from different fathers, & then the embryos exchange genetic information-- radical. Also I want to remember how awesome tamarins are, both golden lion tamarins & emperor tamarins (98). Anyhow, the quick mention of supportive intervention visited is interesting enough to add it to my thoughts on post-tribal utopianism, along with adoption, public education, orphanges, & offspring exchange & things like the kibbutzim's metepelet (plural metaplot)-- professional foster mothers (104).

Hrdy's mention of babbling in Callitrichidae & the link from them to humans as cooperative caregivers is an interesting jumping off point for language (122). She uses the term "beetle-brow" to refer to protohumans, which is cute to me because in my NaNoWriMo novel Watchtower Gothic one of the characters is called Beetle because he is a Karnak-- a Neanderthal, in other words (143). I like what Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has to say about the belief in partible paternity; another adaptive fiction available to the Wise Ape (155). In regards to her thoughts on the human noodle, Hrdy has a quote that sums it up nicely: "[b]rains require care more than caring requires brains" (176). I like Hamilton's Rule (C < Br) & I wish there was a handy shorthand for position of the Eusocial Continuum-- sort of a counterpart to K & r strategies for reproduction (187, 184). Then! Hrdy starts talking about, I kid you not, superb fairy wrens, which have colours like Morpho butterflies (188)! Best animal name ever? In discussion the eusocial or infant cued behavior in birds, Hrdy posted a picture by Paul Lemmons of a bird feeding begging fish, which is pretty nuts (201). There is some discussion of whether or not human beings have a sterile worker caste-- wet-nurses & eunuchs aside, the best argument (but probably not a sufficient one) is post-menopausal women (206-207).

Which is when Hrdy gets into the maternal grandmother as alloparent pretty hard, leading off with the anonymous quote "[w]hat everyone needs in the [new] millennium is access to the Internet & a grandmother" (233). She goes on to speculate & hypothesize about matrilocal patterns being foundational, or at least a strong option (along with sororal polygyny) for hunter-gatherers, as opposed to what the (male) anthropologists had originally assumed (239, 245). Fair enough. There is some talk about digging for tubers, but then she gets into the bones of the argument (255). Why "us" & not "them," where "them" is the other apes, has been the theme of the work, & she starts digging in, with the underlying assumption being cooperative care. She talks about how longer lifespans & longer childhoods mean brains are long term investments that you can pay off calorically a little at a time (277). She points to, I think very notably, the decreasing sexual dimorphism in the jump from Australopithecus to Homo (278). She closes with some remarks about industrial alienation & disorganized attachment-- a concern about the obsolescence of compassion & empathy (287-289). I'm uninterested in that. If it is adaptive, it will stick around; besides, the trend of industrialization is back into hunter-gatherer patterns, but with less genetically related caregivers, right? & if the trait gets lost, well then-- it stopped being helpful, didn't it? Still, I hardly see that happening, given the tight residency patterns of post-industrial humans. Rather, a rise makes sense to me. Most adaptive, that is.
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