book review

Tom Givon tgivon at
Tue Jun 9 01:40:59 UTC 2009

Dear FUNK people,

In continuation of the tradition started last year by Esa Itkonen, I am 
enclosing a review of a recently- published book by the evolutionary 
anthropologist Sarah Hrdy. While not treating linguistics directly, Hrdy 
has nonetheless written a book that is supremely relevant to the 
evolution of human language. What is more, it is a joy to read. Enjoy, TG

(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)
Sarah B. Hrdy
Professor Emerita of Evolutionary Anthropology
U.C. at Davis
Sarah Hrdy's stature in the fields of primatology, ethology and human 
evolution has been firmly established with her many publication on 
comparative primate social behavior, including her acclaimed previous 
book on the evolution of motherhood (or mothering) "Mother Nature" (NY: 
Ballantine, 1999). "Mothers and Others", building on the foundations of 
Hrdy's previous work, takes on one of the most vexing core issues in 
human evolution--the adaptive impetus that led to the evolution of *mind 
reading*; that is, of so-called *Theory of Mind*, *inter-subjectivity*, 
or as pertaining to language, our capacity to mentally represent *other 
minds* during on-going communication.
Evolutionary primatologists had long come to a near consensus that this 
capacity, first ascribed to non-human primates by Premack and Woodruff 
(1978), is the key to the special evolutionary adaptation of the hominid 
line, with its big brain, complex problem-solving skills, complex 
representation of the physical, mental and social world, sophisticated 
systems of social organization and cooperation, cultural learning and, 
eventually, language. Till recently, the dominant theories about the 
evolution of ?mind reading' have focused, almost exclusively, on 
male-oriented social activities such as warfare, aggressive-defensive 
coalition formation and cooperative hunting, i.e. what has been called 
the *Machiavellian Intelligence* (Byrne and Whiten eds. 1988). The 
problem with this hypothesis, as Sarah Hrdy notes in her new book, is 
that it does not explain why our closest relatives, the Chimps, haven't 
gone the same evolutionary route as the genus Homo, given that they are 
surely a notorious Machiavellian, scheming, aggressive/defensive 
coalition-building (de Waal 1982), cooperative-hunting (Boesch 2005) 
species. Hrdy thus poses the key question--why us and not them?
By painstakingly collating and comparing the complex evidence on the 
reproductive and child-rearing behavior and neonate development of 
social vertebrate and pre-vertebrate species, of social birds and 
mammals, of social primate, and lastly of hunting-and-gathering human 
societies, and by lining it all up against the hominid archaeological 
and paleontological record, Hrdy is able to come up with the unique 
answer that best fits the diverse multi-disciplinary data: *cooperative 
breeding* (?cooperative child-care') that required mothers to read 
reliably the intentions and emotional disposition of--and then trust 
their newborn babies to the care of--potential allo-mothers 
(?allo-parents'), be they grandmothers, aunts or nieces, siblings, 
fathers or other kin and ultimately even benevolent non-kin.
The complement of the mother's--and allo-mothers'--behavioral and 
neurological evolution is, of course, the neuro-behavioral evolution of 
human neonates themselves. Born helpless, slow to mature and expensive 
to maintain, human neonates depend, from the moment of birth, on 
securing the emotional attachment and nurturing benevolence of potential 
care-givers, and on learning to accurately assess--and then 
manipulate--the intentions and emotional dispositions of care-givers, 
gradually becoming, from an incredibly young age, mind-reading experts.
Of the many attractive features of Hrdy's allo-motherhood hypothesis, I 
will single out here but a few. First, by pointing to a selectional 
pressure that operates during the highly-flexible early stages of 
developmental (ontogeny), the evolutionary plausibility of the 
hypothesis is greatly enhanced. The role of behavior as ?the pace-maker 
of evolution' (Mayr 1982), i.e. the so-called *Baldwin Effect* and the 
process of* genetic assimilation*, is even more plausible in early 
stages of development, where* ontogeny* actually partakes in phylogeny 
(Gould 1977). In this, the contrasts of Hrdy's proposal with the 
strictly-adult, strictly-male Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis is 
indeed striking.
Second, the focus on mind-reading during early child development makes 
Hrdy's work that much more relevant to the evolution of human 
communication. As her fellow primatologists D. Cheney and R. Seyfarth 
have noted, "mind reading pervades language" (2007, p. 244). Indeed, the 
entire Gricean research program on the pragmatics of communication is, 
transparently, an elaboration of how speakers take account, 
systematically and rapidly, of their interlocutor's rapidly shifting 
states of intention (deontics) and belief (epistemics) during 
communication. No real understanding of the adaptive role of grammar, 
for example, is possible without reference to our mental representation 
of other minds (see my "Context as Other Minds", 2005). By identifying 
the likely adaptive impetus to the evolution of the human mind-reading 
capacity, Sarah Hrdy has, implicitly but unerringly, also pot her finger 
on the core prerequisite to the evolution of human communication. Not 
surprisingly, her book also dovetails nicely with the study of early 
child language development, most conspicuously with the 1970's classic 
*interactionist* work of Sue Ervin-Tripp, Eli Ochs, Liz Bates and Ron 
Lastly, Hrdy is a terrific, lively, scintillating writer and 
down-to-earth stylist, with the ability to be both 
dead-scholarly-serious and highly entertaining. An obvious fringe 
benefits of reading her book is that it makes learning pleasurable. And 
her findings are applicable to a wide range of contemporary social 
issues: the history and current state of the family, our schooling and 
child-care practices, and the potential future evolution of Homo sapiens.

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