Upon becoming a parent I was struck by two very distinct, and somewhat oppositional, emotional responses to parenthood. The first was this overwhelming sense that all of humanity was linked in a tangled weave of enfolding lives that provided unseen and unknowable connections to everyone who ever lived. The second distinct response was an acute sense of panic that was informed by the realization that I had just brought a very defenseless and vulnerable being into this fairly insane social order, and it was my responsibility to keep the mischief and malfeasance at bay.
In retrospect, I think I would have been better off had I focused less on the latter issue and more on the sunshiny interconnectedness of all of humanity aspect, especially in light of doctor and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s forthcoming book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.
As profiled in a recent New York Times article, Dr. Hrdy sees the inherent vulnerability of babies as just the thing that provides the societal glue that keeps us a relatively sane and cooperative human culture. In her view, the natural helplessness of human babies along with their dependency on parents and elders to provide care and protection, is in fact one of the key elements that provided the break between us and the great ape societies, and was just the thing that perpetuated the survival of humanity. In addition, it is Dr. Hrdy’s opinion that the extraordinary social skills of an infant, their ability to unwittingly pull our heartstrings and elicit tender and sympathetic responses, are at the heart of what makes us human.
This may have strengthened our capacity as humans to work together in group settings, as well as develop the more empathetic and sympathetic parts of our brains, thus making us more trusting and reliant upon one another.
So, is our innate vulnerability (as is evidenced by so many hours of nature show viewings that plainly illustrate how far better equipped a baby gazelle is, rather than an infant, to deal with the hostile world around) the very thing that makes us human, and in turn has paved the way for our social and intellectual evolution and utter dominion over the planet, for better or for worse? Is it our vulnerability and compassion, not our aggression and ambition, the very thing that make us such enthralling and magnificent creatures?
Feel free to submit your human opinions below.