Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

Something that I need to do as a resource...

As many of you know, I work as a publisher's reader and for a long time worked for a book club as well, reading books in proof or manuscript and making recommendations. I think that I should probably share with my readers here at least some of what I've written down the years when it's relevant to my preoccupations.

So, today, my summaries, synopses and comments on a couple of books by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. People often assume that neo-Darwinian thought is intrinsically inimical to feminism and progressive ideology - my view on this is that it results from over-rating some scientific polemicists whose politics tend to the Right, and simply being unaware of some of the others. If we are going to get past the know-nothingism of some sections of feminism - an attitude which has worrying parallels with the attitudes of the political Right - and the belief of many theory bunnies that scientific truth is soley and wholly and necessarily an artefact of historical contingency and hegemonic power - as opposed to being something which like every aspect of human thought including theory is to some degree affected by those things, we need to engage with science and history properly, at least as concerned laypeople.

The woman who never evolved by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

Before she wrote Mother Nature, Hrdy was distinguished for this book, in which she raised the whole issue of the sexist bias of most sociobiological studies of primates and humans - the idea that anything in patriarchal human societies is necessarily predicated by the behaviour of monkeys and apes gets stomped wholesale.

This comes with a new introduction and some expansive postscripts in which Hrdy confirms that what she thought at the beginning of the Eighties is now a solid undercurrent rather than a radical departure, though it is still controversial. Darwin, Social Darwinists and various sociobiologists since have stated that women are subservient and inferior by nature and used evidence from primate studies to demonstrate this - of course, the primate studies were undertaken on the assumption that this was going to be the case and found what they looked for. More recent primate studies have found rather different evidence - male infanticide is balanced by female solidarity, and kin-group selection is as important as direct heredity; females in many species are less monogamous than was assumed, because if they can persuade several males that there is a good chance they were the father of a child, males will provide as if they were. Hrdy takes us through the entire primate order, producing a variety of arrangements and showing that for every species where males dominate, there are others where females do; more often, there are complex checks and balances. It is clear that sexual pleasure is a bonding issue among many species, and not just for the purposes of procreation and rearing either - females bond heavily and use sexual interactions to do so. Human societies are often highly unequal - institutions like clitoridectomy, purdah and foot-binding are all intended to minimize female sexual pleasure and independence - but there is nothing 'natural' about any of this; on, in fact, the contrary.

Much of this book consists of detailed case studies about particular species that demonstrate that stock generalizations are inappropriate and inaccurate; Hrdy even back then was a very gifted polemicist indeed who knew her stuff to an extent that puts most of her intellectual opponents entirely to shame. This was a ground-breaking book which is still important both as a contribution to feminism and to primate studies - Hrdy points out that it was controversial back then because it took for granted, in the face of much feminist puritanism, that female sexual pleasure was a good thing, and that egalitarianism, rather than matriarchy, was the good which should be pursued.

I would have thought this reissue, which updates and discusses recent developments, would be a useful companion to Mother Nature if you have decided to do that excellent book.
Mother Nature by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

A big book about motherhood and nurture and infanticide as factors in the evolutionary history of humanity by the distinguished feminist Darwinian and quasi-sociobiologist - and if that seems a paradoxical combination, you need to read this book...

Male anthropologists and palaeoanthropologists and sociologists and medical men, all come in for something of a hammering here; Hrdy is a great believer in positivist science, but accepts a lot of the pomo critique of how it has actually been done and the unthinking and sexist biases which have corroded much of the existing work in the field she is trying to define with this book. She is arguing, solidly, that there is no clash between a feminist perception of the future practice of motherhood and a scientist's observation about how evolution has shaped us; she freely admits that one of the things which has shaped her concerns is the critical comments of some colleagues, not all of them obviously sexist, about her combination of motherhood and hard intellectual work - she argues convincingly that this just goes with the territory and Darwin himself had many of his ideas shaped by the early loss of his mother and the decision within his family never to talk about the subject of her death again. Crucial insights here are that mothering is often most effectively done by a whole genetic cohort in which the birth mother is only the most effective and crucial player - in precisely those species where males are most prone to infanticide followed by forced intercourse, in order to maximize their breeding and minimize the success of rival males, it is older related females who are most likely to fight back, snatch the infant from him and help nurture it, even at the cost of injury from males twice their size. Motherhood is a natural instinct but not an immutable one - in a lot of human societies, decisions get made about the abandonment of infants which we find inhumane, and which are often consciously based on quite arbitrary criteria, but which make sense in terms of the society and its goals; humans being humans, these are often less sensible the further from origins a society gets - the British in India gradually realized the extent of female infanticide, having originally assumed that women were hidden away in purdah; in warlike societies like the Rajputs, women were a liability and boys an asset. One of the reasons why babies are so often fat is that to be obviously healthy is to signal to parents that you are worth rearing - Hrdy makes the general point that human evolution is still continuing, or why would lactose tolerance have been selected for among heavily pastoral peoples. ( I have often argued this and it is nice to see a distinguished scientist agree with me). Having gone down the path of having infants that take a long time to mature, it made evolutionary sense for humanity's children to be cute as well - Hrdy is very interesting on the pleasures of breast-feeding and argues that these have been selected for and that human females get even more out of it than other mammals. She argues consistently that rightwing critics of feminism who believe that one-parent families are its consequence need to look at their prevalence in societies where feminism has not even begun to bite; what is needed is for a society in which everyone is committed to ensuring that children are properly reared, which means large networks of carers rather than nuclear families, which can be very dangerous places for children.

The above only scratches the surface of a long and complex book which argues its controversial thesis with a great deal of care and attention. Hrdy was heavily involved with a lot of the early recent work on sexual selection and infanticide as a genetic strategy, and she is quite interestingly cold and ruthless when she has to be, as well as bringing her own experience of motherhood to bear. She draws sensibly on the history of evolutionary theory, and puts the boot comprehensively into e.g. Spenser, not least over his rejection of George Eliot as a wife on the grounds that he wanted his children, if any, to have a beautiful mother. The sexual politics are fascinating - she defends Bowlby against his feminist critics without endorsing all the assumptions that were made from his work on non-nurtured infants; he was raising real problems even if he misunderstood the answers - he cannot be blamed for rightwingers who use him as a stick with which to beat feminists when he did not have the information about primate behaviour that we now have to draw on.

This is a big and crucial book both for evolutionary theory and for feminist theories of motherhood. It is a good example of what Marek Kohn calls left Darwinian thought and brings together a lot of recent work in a big theory.
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