The Grandmother Hypothesis: Part 1

Sunday, October 14th, 2007 · 12 Comments »

It started with a blurb I saw in the New York Times for October 5:

Evolution’s Secret Weapon: Grandma. Far from burdening society, aging women may have ensured our survival.”

“Grandmother hypothesis,” I said to myself. “But why is it in the paper now?”

I clicked on the link and was surprised to see that the article was in the Health section. Not Science? Then I read on and realized that the slant was about menopause, with the hook being the recent talk given by Kristen Hawkes at a meeting of the North American Menopause Society (who knew there was such a thing?). Hawkes is the anthropologist behind the grandmother hypothesis, and the article helpfully included a link to an older piece in the Times that reported on the theory in more detail.

A much older piece, in fact; ten years old. The linked piece is from 1997, when the grandmother hypothesis (or rather the current Hawkesian version of it) was brand-new. And that piece was also in the Health section — actually the Women’s Health section. Not Science.

Maybe I need to stop for a moment here and explain just what the grandmother hypothesis is and why it’s important.

In a nutshell, the hypothesis is that grandmotherhood is a crucial development of our species. By remaining active for decades after menopause, our ancestral grandmothers were able to channel their energy into helping to provision their daughters’ children. From the standpoint of making sure their genes continued to propagate, this was an extremely effective adaptation. It also made it possible for women to have helpless infants (think big-brained human babies) and to have them fairly close together, since the young mothers could rely on their own mothers to help out with provisioning and childcare. Hawkes and her colleagues believe that this change in life pattern may have been the key adaptation that allowed Homo to flourish.

The grandmother hypothesis has been one of the most productive and influential theories in anthropology in the past 10 years. Hence my surprise at seeing it covered in the Health section of the Times, rather than Science. I mean, sure, menopause is part of women’s health and all that, but it’s a little like putting a geology piece on the Weather page.

Curious, I decided to search the Times archive to see if any of their other articles on the grandmother hypothesis had been run on the Health page instead of Science.

Guess what?

There haven’t been any other articles on the grandmother hypothesis. Not a single one. There’s just the one piece from 1997 in the Women’s Health section, and now this piece from last week, also in the Health section. One of the most exciting current theories in anthropology and human evolution, and the Times isn’t interested.

What the Times is interested in, apparently, is ev-psych pseudo-science about how women evolved to like men with flashy sports cars because life in the Pleistocene was exactly like The Flintstones. They’ve got lots of stories like that. Real anthropology? Actual science that offers groundbreaking new views of human evolution? Not so much.

Okay, screw the Times!

In Part 2 I’ll talk more about the grandmother hypothesis, what it is, and the impact it’s had on studies of human evolution.

Filed under: Ev-Psych Bullshit, Random Pedantry · Tags:

12 Responses to “The Grandmother Hypothesis: Part 1”

  1. Tracee Sioux says:

    More devaluation of motherhood. Have you noticed how the modern family can’t really function without the Grandmothers? Now that so many of the mothers are working, the grandmothers are raising yet another generation of children, especially in the lower to middle classes.

    I look at the Maternal Lineage of my own family and it’s clear that we’re really a strong matriarchy with a lot of external patriarchy for show. http://traceesioux.blogspot.com/2007/06/maternal-lineage.html

  2. Mary Tracy9 says:

    As you very well said, why would the Times be interested in it?

    After all, it doesn’t give yet MORE evidence that nature designed men to be up for it all the time with beautiful, firm, young women so that they can spread the seed and in doing so, play “the most important” part in human evolution.

    Well done for pointing this out. I’m looking forward to “The Grandma Hypothesis, Part Deux”.

  3. Infidel says:

    The grandfather hypothesis is this: Grandfathers were worthless blobs of flesh that laid around and smelled bad, farting occasionally.

  4. j0lt says:

    Where I now live, small city, there is huge reliance on grandmothers for childcare that I find mind-boggling — never saw anything like it when I was living in the big city.

    My kids’ grandmoms are 600 and 3000 miles away, but even if they were close, I wouldn’t presume that either woman had nothing better to do than provide childcare EVERY day I went to work. But around here, lots do. It’s a very traditional area.

  5. Kiuku says:

    “The grandfather hypothesis is this: Grandfathers were worthless blobs of flesh that laid around and smelled bad, farting occasionally.”

    hahahahaha. Don’t forget about the magical flutes.

    “After all, it doesn’t give yet MORE evidence that nature designed men to be up for it all the time with beautiful, firm, young women so that they can spread the seed and in doing so, play “the most important” part in human evolution.”

    YES! And remember women evolved to be monogamous dedicated house slaves!

  6. Militant Grammarian says:

    How far does the theory stretch back? Is she talking post-ice age or much earlier?

    I’ve heard a similar evo-psych argument before; not focused on grandmothers though. It was more along the lines of, women who were communal supported one another in childbirth and so were able to survive evolutional developments that led to larger brains, etc.; competitive/non-communal women didn’t and therefore died out. Grossly simplified, but I could see where they were coming from. In fact, it makes more sense to me than the grandmother argument, because for a lot of history grandmothers were much rarer than they are now, thanks to (effectively) compulsory pregnancy and the mortality rates thereof.

  7. The Ghost of Violet says:

    Hi, MG!

    Hawkes’ original hypothesis associates it with the emergence of Homo erectus, so we’re talking up to 1.8 million years ago. Some kind of key life change definitely happened then.

    Others have suggested that the rise of grandmothers was of most import at the Upper Paleolithic boundary, the creative explosion around 40,000 years ago, where another life change occurred.

    for a lot of history grandmothers were much rarer than they are now, thanks to (effectively) compulsory pregnancy and the mortality rates thereof.

    All old people were rarer, but it’s a bit of a misconception that people didn’t used to live until 60 or 70. Average life expectancy was lower because of massive infant mortality, but if an adult lived to reproductive age, she had an excellent chance of living to 60.

    In modern hunter-gatherers there is a very high percentage of post-menopausal women. Maternal mortality is actually higher in agricultural societies and urban societies (too many babies, too many germs).

  8. Militant Grammarian says:

    Ah – that time frame makes more sense.

    “Average life expectancy was lower because of massive infant mortality, but if an adult lived to reproductive age, she had an excellent chance of living to 60.”

    That’s interesting, and ties in with the hunter-gatherer societies being more healthy. I’m more familiar with post-iron age, particularly dark age; at times average age of death of females in cemetries was no higher than mid-20s (standard causes of death, not plague conditions).

  9. Sis says:

    Good grief I’d love to be a burden. When. Tell me when?

    And please; I and millions of women like me are not ever going to be grandmothers. Not for me the little slobbering spitty-uppy poopy smelling money sinks that look and act like one of my moronic male sibs. Who still can’t after 40 years understand that I KEPT MY BIRTH NAME. Yes. The same one you have. Dildo.

  10. An anthropologist says:

    Of course, if you come from my undergrad or grad institutions, the grandmother hypothesis was to be made fun of and derided.

    Funny, there were only two women faculty at the undergrad institution, and zero at the grad institution…

  11. The Ghost of Violet says:

    Of course, if you come from my undergrad or grad institutions, the grandmother hypothesis was to be made fun of and derided.

    The new one (Hawkes, et al) or the old one?

  12. Mu'Min says:

    Hey Y’all,
    This is a very interesting theory, and one that I will look into. However, I would like to suggest that in the case of the Native American and lower class (read, Black usually) scenarios, having a community rife w/nanas ain’t necessarily all good. In fact, insofar as the latter group goes, it ain’t the grannies that’s the problem, its the almost total lack of men and dads. I know to say such a thing is akin to blasphemy in these parts, but the numbers don’t lie: do a Google search for “10,000 Black Men”. Its all there, and this is coming from one who saw it all first hand, day before yesterday.

    Thanks Violet for the post, I’ll look into it.
    Holla back

    Salaam
    Mu