March 2005

Barbara J. King


The Evolution of Home Alone

At Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo recently, gorilla matriarch Babs, suffering from end-stage kidney disease, was euthanized. After her death, Babs’s daughter held her hand and stroked her stomach. Other members of this social family also gently touched her body. Babs’s cagemate Binti Jua is perhaps Chicago’s most famous ape; in 1996, she stunned the world by carrying to safety an unconscious young boy who had fallen into the gorilla yard.

Displays of deep caring and empathy across the generations are common in gorillas, and in the other African apes (chimpanzees and bonobos) as well. Most strikingly, they are carried out within the social as well as the biological family. Here is a key lesson for America’s families.

If I won the lottery, I would fly author Mary Eberstadt to Africa -- or maybe just to Brookfield -- to watch apes. The gorillas wouldn’t be much interested in her provocative new best-seller, Home-Alone America, but their behavior would convey to Eberstadt something interesting about the evolution of child-rearing.

We will return to the apes in a minute, but first, the book, which is stirring up the national debate about day care in a big way. Eberstadt’s thesis is that absent-parent syndrome is causing America’s children serious harm. Our kids, cared for by parent substitutes while mom and dad work, have “mental problems, behavioral problems, sexually transmitted diseases, educational backwardness and more.” Their lives are significantly worse off than ours were in childhood.

Eberstadt mentions absent fathers, grandparents and siblings, right along with absent mothers. She insists her propositions do not require that “any particular family or individual choose one way rather than another.” Evident nonetheless is her singular concern for the “maternal exodus” from home. And her book’s cover leaves no doubt as to her central message: a briefcase-toting, suit-clad mother tries to drag herself away as a small boy clings to her leg.

As an anthropologist who studies the evolution of infancy, I am fascinated by Eberstadt because she gets so much right even as she gets so much wrong. It’s easy enough to vilify her book. The chapter on daycare opens by describing a toddler, the victim of an ear infection. Beyond any comfort, he screams over and over for his mommy --and is labeled by Eberstadt as “not the exception but the norm” in “institutional care.” At times, her conclusions veer beyond the simplistic into the dangerous, as when she tries to explain the sharp increase in serious behavioral disorders as, in part, a misunderstanding of normal variation in children’s behavior.

There’s no escaping, though, the wisdom of Eberstadt’s central question: Is growing parental freedom from the home as good for children as it seems to be for their parents? An evolutionary perspective comes in handy here.

As Jane Goodall taught the world, the mother-infant bond is the most vital of any in ape society. Ape babies are virtually tethered to their mothers for years, first riding in a position of security on her belly, then astride her back like a jockey. Maternal influence over their children’s cognitive and emotional development is enormous. Adult males, by contrast, may be quite preoccupied with issues of dominance and status, aggressing against females and infants as they climb the social ladder. Isn’t it clear, then, that humans are evolutionarily programmed to require prolonged mother-child bonding for their kids to thrive?

Our children are primed, by our long primate heritage, to thrive in the context of nurturing, guiding relationships with adults. Indeed, no evolutionary precedent exists for Eberstadt’s “enduring image of… a child… huddled indoors for hours on end in front of one screen or another with a cell or portable phone nearby, the burglar system on, and no related adult in sight before dinner time -- if there is a dinner time.”

But closer scrutiny of ape behavior indicates that an infant’s physical and emotional health is co-constructed by members of the community. Siblings and adult males may nurture or even adopt vulnerable infants. More subtly, the emotional tenor of any given mother-child interaction can be greatly affected by the tension, or the soothing serenity, evident in the group as a whole.

Paleoanthropologists tell us that when the human lineage diverged away from the apes, males began to play a much greater role in childcare. As our ancestors gradually developed bigger and smarter brains, they also developed behavioral flexibility. They discovered multiple ways to achieve the emotional connections that ensure healthy child development.

Herein lies the good news for America’s worried parents: many versions of nurturing love can “save” our children. A child may be nurtured by a stay-at-home mother and working father (as I was) or by a stay-at-home father and working mother (as my daughter is), but also by a single working mother and a loving pair of daycare workers, a stay-at-home father and his working male partner, and so on.

Children are prepared by our evolutionary history to thrive in emotional connectedness with adults. They do suffer when left alone. Yet our species has unique capabilities as well as unique responsibilities, and responding to this situation is a challenge to which we are equal. Stay-at-home parenting is only one good option among others. We can lobby for governmental funding that enables parents to combine flexible work hours with stable high-quality childcare; we can prioritize support for community-based, after-school mentoring programs. Inspired by Babs and Binti Jua, we can, as a society, embrace the notion of the social family.

Note: Barbara J. King’s latest book is The Dynamic Dance: Nonvocal Communication in African Great Apes (Harvard University Press, 2004)

Home-Alone America by Mary Eberstadt
ISBN: 1595230041
218 Pages