Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sticky people

An infant feeding from a bottleImage via Wikipedia

The primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is interviewed in the New York Times about her new book on cooperative parenting. Babies call out social responses in us, and are themselves amazingly responsive to those reactions. Coupled with humans' neoteny, or extended period of immaturity, that means that human mothers rely on sharing out the work of parenting to conspecifics who are not family. In Hrdy's view, many features of our social cognition evolved in response to the pressures of being cooperative breeders. If you're going to hand your baby over to your neighbour, you need to be sure what she is thinking.

That's why babies are cute, the evolutionary psychologist would say. It's not enough for there to be trust on the part of the mother; there needs to be some inherent attraction in the idea of taking over someone else's childcare. The system wouldn't work unless babies called out the right social responses. Watch any social gathering in which a newborn is being handed around, and you'll see the frenzy for yourself. Many would have suspected it anyway, and here is a new scientific perspective on the phenomenon: infants are the glue that holds society together.

(Click on the carousel at the bottom right to see more about Hrdy's book.)
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