In Western societies, we are used to the idea that a typical family unit consists of two parents and their children. This is the nuclear family model which has predominated family standards since the 1950s. However, new research shows that this pressure on two parents may be out of sync with our evolutionary history.
According to researchers led by Dr Nikhil Chaudhary, an evolutionary anthropologist from the University of Cambridge, children may be “evolutionarily primed” to expect more attention and care from broader groups, which is more than two parents can handle.
The team drew this conclusion from their research into contemporary hunter-gatherers.
“For more than 95 percent of our evolutionary history we lived as hunter-gatherers. Therefore, contemporary hunter-gatherer societies can offer clues as to whether there are certain childrearing systems to which infants, and their mothers, may be psychologically adapted,” Chaudhary said in a statement.
Chaudhary and colleagues investigated the culture of Mbendjele – hunter-gatherers who live in the northern rainforests of the Republic of Congo. These people are immediate-return hunter-gatherers, which means they do not store food and are extremely mobile and egalitarian. Generally speaking, they sustain themselves on hunting, fishing, and honey collection, but they have also become involved in some engagement with markets in recent years.
The Mbendjele live in multifamily camps that rely on a network of caregivers to help raise their infants and children.
Among 18 infants and toddlers (aged between zero and four) in this community, the researchers noticed that each child received nine hours of attentive care on average and from around 10 different people, sometimes as many as 20.
When a child cried, a huge number of individuals were ready to intervene, usually within just 25 seconds. According to their results, biological mothers were only required to intervene in 50 percent of crying episodes. Even older kids and adolescents helped take care of the younger members of the community.
The authors stress that contemporary hunter-gatherers are not “living fossils”, in that they are modern human populations who occupy a “subsistence mode that overlaps with that of pre-Neolithic populations.” As such, their social structures and approaches to childcare can offer valuable clues to understanding our wider evolutionary history.
To date, most research into this subject, that of child attachment, has focused on what are referred to as Western, educated, industrialized rich, and democratic (WEIRD) populations. But, as the authors suggest, such “research has been criticized” because it therefore “(a) overemphasized the importance of sensitive responsive caregiving and (b) limited our understanding of multiple nonmaternal caregiving”.
In WEIRD countries, the pressures of childcare often fall to the parents alone who are expected to respond to a distressed baby every time, which can lead to exhaustion and depression. Such a contrast with the approach of people like the Mbendjele suggests that the nuclear family is very much out of touch with the communal living arrangements hunter-gatherers use, arrangements humans had for much of their history.
What does this mean for the Western world?
Despite these results, Chaudhary recommends caution: “Many aspects of our psychology have evolved to be flexible rather than best suited to one specific way of life. The extent to which this is true for childrearing is still debated.”
Nevertheless, the team do highlight that the provision of affordable, high-quality childcare support in WEIRD countries, which goes beyond effective supervision, should be prioritized. Higher caregiver-to-child ratios and stability of key caregivers in nurseries and institutional care may be vital to minimize risks to well-being for children and parents.
“Support for mothers also has numerous benefits for children such as reducing the risk of neglect and abuse, buffering against family adversity, and improving maternal wellbeing which in turn enhances maternal care,” Dr Annie Swanepoel added.
“Childcare is finally becoming a priority in the government’s budget, but there is much more to do,” Chaudhary added. “As a society, from policy makers to employers to healthcare services, we need to work together to ensure mothers and children receive the support and care they need to thrive.”
The paper is published in Developmental Psychology.