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Anthropologist: Mother-Infant Love the Key to Human Evolution

Scientists who study human development have always faced a dilemma. The need to procreate and protect our genetic offspring can be overridden in humans who sometimes act against their biological interest. Walter Goldschmidt's new book The Bridge to Humanity tries to answer the question of how humans overcame what is called the "selfish gene."

Biologists know that creatures sometimes sacrifice themselves in the interest of their offspring. Anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt says that in the animal world, altruistic behavior seldom goes any further.

"Living matter is designed by some strange circumstance to want to preserve itself," he said. "And that means it may make sacrificial acts for its own offspring to have their continuity because their continuity is more important than the continuity of the person itself."

But humans can override the biological drive to promote their genetic heritage, a drive some biologists call the "selfish gene." People can devote themselves to pursuits with no apparent genetic payoff, from religious altruism to the simple pursuit of pleasure.

Mr. Goldschmidt, 92, is an emeritus professor of anthropology and psychiatry at UCLA. He says scientists have shed light on evolution, but have never explained how humans can rise above their biology.

"Humans, who are a product of evolution, the enigma is, how did we escape this domination?" he asked.

He says nature rewards behavior that promotes the well-being of a species. Sexual relations, for example, are pleasurable, and animals do not need to be coaxed into procreating.

In the same way, he says a mother gets gratification from nursing her children. Children also need the attention of a mother. He says with humans and other mammals, physical and psychological sustenance are essential for the development of the offspring.

"Now these things are not just whimsical wants. They're universal, not only wants, but needs," he explained.

The anthropologist says a clue to the human riddle is seen in the nurturing love of a mother, which is important for all mammals. A mother cat licks its kittens, and scientists know this promotes their neurological development. Rhesus monkeys raised without mothers are unable to develop into healthy adults.

Professor Goldschmidt believes that nurturing by mothers, which is more prolonged in humans than in other species, allows our social development. Many psychologists would agree. But he takes the argument further, saying the bond between mother and infant sparked a transformation, promoting the social relations that allowed societies to emerge. He says the emergence of culture began with our ancient predecessor, homo habilis, an early form of man that made crude tools.

"And I argue that over the whole period from when the genus first began, with homo habilis, there was a constant growth of the brain. It enabled it to think logically," he noted.

The author believes that logical thought developed in two directions. One was through language, and the other was through tool making. He says both skills are the result of the same mental abilities, and they emerged in the context of ancient communities. He says both, in turn, stimulated our development.

He says the process is repeated in families, as a child interacts with, and learns from, its parents. Through thousands of generations, Professor Goldschmidt says, this has led to flexible human cultures and the dominance of our species, homo sapiens.

"The essence of humanity is the flexibility of behavior that we are capable of," he said. "That is to say, if it's a cold climate, we make igloos, and if it's a hot climate, we make grass huts."

Other species once achieved elementary levels of culture. But they were apparently less adaptable and have since died off, their demise possibly hastened by our ancestors. Our ancient cousins include Neanderthals and the pygmies who were recently discovered through fossil remains on the Indonesian island of Flores.

But Walter Goldschmidt says evolution is a tale of cooperation as much as a tale of competition. In his book The Bridge to Humanity, he says the role of the nurturing mother is a crucial missing link to understanding our human development.