“The desire to psychologically connect with others had to evolve before language…We still have to explain why humans are so much better than chimpanzees at conceptualizing what others are thinking, why we are born innately eager to interpret their motives, feelings, and intentions as well as care about their affective states and moods—in short, why humans are so well equipped for mutual understanding.”
–Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
The First Development in the Evolution of Cooperative Family Life: Compassion
While it may be most common among family members, demonstrations of compassion are often observed in interactions even between members of different species. These demonstrations support Darwin’s theory that compassion begins in the family, spreading outward into the surrounding community, further into a nation, and eventually, around the globe. His theory seems to be proving correct. According to one 2011 article, researchers studied 32 modern foraging societies and found a high incidence of cooperation despite most of their members not being genetically related.
Evolutionary psychologists like Martin Daly and Margo Wilson as well as anthropologists have contributed to our understanding of how human compassion evolved. Anthropologist, professor, and mother of three Sara Blaffer Hrdy is among those dedicated to using the lessons of the past to improve parenting in the present. Her book “Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding” sheds new light on the societal evolution of motherhood.
The Evolutionary Basis for Cooperative Family Life
There are several theories regarding how humans developed the compassion necessary for cooperative family life.According to one theory,ape intelligence within stable societies is partially defined by the ability to determine social status, recognize deception, and cooperate. These attributes and skills within a competitive social group help insure reproductive success.
One of the most important and distinguishing differences between ape mothers and human mothers is that while ape mothers maintain constant contact with their infants, human mothers allow other people to hold their infants from the moment they are born. The extreme helplessness of the human infant, coupled with their slower rate of growth and development, resulted in the evolutionary necessity for cooperative family life. Since humans take many years to reach adulthood, it was necessary to acquire the capacity to understand others, and therefore determine who is safe to participate in the process of caring for the child.
The Effect of Longevity on the Evolution of Cooperative Family Life
Another important biological difference between human mothers and other species is that human females live for many years after menopause. Female apes don’t survive very long past their reproductive years. That difference led to the “Grandmother Hypothesis“, which postulated that the assistance of grandmothers made longer periods of dependency, and greater social intelligence, possible.
This theory was one of the influences that led to Hrdy’s cooperative breeding hypothesis. Because human babies are cared for by a number of individuals, termed alloparents, they develop skills specifically designed to maintain contact with their caregivers. One of those skills is the ability to effectively read and respond to particular facial expressions. That ability, developed over the many years of human dependence upon other members of the community for survival, provided the basis for the human trait we know as compassion.
Another feature of the cooperative breeding theory in the animal kingdom is that some members of the community forfeit their own reproductive success to contribute to the reproductive success of others determined to be more reproductively “fit”. That fitness is determined by those having genetic traits most conducive to the continued long term survival of the group. Those forfeiting become helpers. Generations of exposure to a variety of caretaking helpers ensuring their survival led to the natural selection of humans with a greater capacity for successful interpersonal engagement. This could be called the survival of not only the fittest, but the kindest.
Compassion leads to cooperative family life, which then expands to include others. Hopefully, it will one day expand towards the creation of a cooperative global society.