Written by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein
A DISASTROUS DECLINE IN CHILD-REARING, FROM HUNTER-GATHERER TO MODERN SOCIETY
Review by Steve Minett
This book was written by a pair of American evolutionary biologists who are also a married couple. It Deals with how our evolutionarily ancient bodies are out of sync with the ‘hyper-novelty’ of the modern world, especially for ‘WEIRD’ people, i.e. Westerners, Educated and living in Industrialised countries, which are Rich and Democratic. I found it a rather mixed bag: on the positive side, they are stoutly anti-reductionist and they argue passionately that children should be given the freedom to self-regulate, against the modern hyper-cautionary approach to child rearing. On the other hand, they indulge in a lot of rather ‘preachy’ social conservatism. They express, for example, views on monogamy and pornography which would not be out of place in an evangelical church in America’s ‘bible belt’. They also commend the virtues of study trips to the rainforest and the outdoor life generally is rather reminiscent of the ethos of scouting. But even worse (from my point of view) they totally ignore the most glaringly negative example of hyper-novelty to which the modern infant is exposed; namely the replacement of the alloparenting hunter-gatherer group with the isolated nuclear family. (That is if they’re lucky – even worse these days, they may have the misfortune to be born to a socially isolated single parent!)
To start with the positive, let’s look at their commendable anti-scientism and anti-reductionism. They say; “We are not ‘finely calibrated machines’. We are embodied beings.” (p.62) They attack ‘social Darwinism and add that; “Scientism is a bastardisation of the tools of science, just as social Darwinism is a bastardisation of Darwin’s ideas, and a woeful misunderstanding of evolutionary theory.” (p.61) They also lambast WEIRD parents for paying more attention to the easily collected metrics around their child’s health rather than the child’s actual condition. However, this determined anti-reductionism does seem to slip when they make a few casual remarks about the self: they say that despite having a ‘continuous lifeline’ from birth to death, the transformations which occur, especially; “… from childhood to adulthood, mean that we are not the same beings as we were, …” And, if we try to hang onto; “… a previous identity, we will restrict our future.” (p.162) I, and many others, on the other hand, believe that the notion of the emotional continuity of the self is part of a consistently anti-reductionist stance.
A second big positive is the authors’ promotion of autonomy and self-regulation for children: “… when children are actually allowed to roam freely, in groups, and engage in long periods of unstructured play, the bullies and jerks are more likely to lose power than gain it, and everyone learns how to both create and follow rules that work.” (p.148) They are of course aware of the delicate balance between giving children enough space and freedom to experiment while protecting them from real dangers. They argue, however, that our societal pendulum has swung too far toward total protection. The result is that children who grow up fearing that almost everything is a threat. They’ve never been allowed to engage in the physical and psychological rough and tumble which should be part of the maturation process. Consequently they; “end up children in the bodies of adults.” (p.149)
The authors very reasonably state that: “Of all the systems essential to the functioning of humanity, parenting may well be the most compromised by the hyper-novelty of the 21st century.” (p.136) They also encourage people to seek out alloparenting for their children from grandparents, older siblings and friends (p.143). As a remedy for the massive dysfunctionality of modern parenting, this is, frankly, rather pathetic: the anthropologist, Robin Dunbar has established that, for 200,000 years, homo sapiens have lived in groups of up to 150 people. This was the basis for real and effective alloparenting in the human species, as expressed in the (often quoted, but never implemented) African saying: ‘it takes two people to create a child but a village to raise it.’ It is this community of a hundred plus people that the infant human brain (soon after birth) is searching for. Not two, or worse just one, working parents, harassed by financial, employment, accommodation and health worries and stressed by the total absence, or inadequacy, of the social support network, which human parents are genetically hard-wired to expect. The authors of this book never refer to this acute and highly damaging ‘hyper-novelty’ concerning modern parenting, let alone suggesting any solutions. (I’ve directly address this problem and suggested a viable solution in two separate books.) In keeping with their social conservatism, all their advice is predicated on the assumption that human child rearing will take place exclusively in the isolated nuclear family.
Published by Swift Press, 2022, 301PP, £ 12.99, Paperback, ISBN 978-1-80075-094-4