A Direct Test of Alloparenting and the Grandmother Effect – Thanks for all your Help, Mom!

A Direct Test of Alloparenting and the Grandmother Effect – Thanks for all your Help, Mom!

Why are we different from the Neanderthals? Why do we roam the planet in the billions while our likely intelligent distant cousins permeate only ancient gravesites or the halls of natural history museums? They seemed to be as strong as we are, as intelligent as we are, and they seemed to have lots of ideas regarding what we would call “culture.” How come they don’t live in the house next door to me?

There are lots of theories on this. Several have to do with the fact that the Neanderthals never made the great leap forward in terms of expanding social definitions. When a group of Neandthal remains are found, the evidence is clear – their clans were small – rarely including more than 10 individuals – and rarely including non-kin (Dickson, 1996). They clearly had lots of behavioral patterns that led to reproductive success, but it’s also clear that they did not have enough along these lines to survive to see the first iPad.

Several important scholars who study human origins from an evolutionary perspective (e.g., Bingham & Souza, 2009; Wilson, 2007) focus on the importance of modern humans’ tendency to form groups that cut across kin lines. We create groups – often through things like organized religion – to extend our families to not only include extended family, but beyond. Our families can include other members of our region (I agree, there’s no place like New York!), fans of the same baseball teams that we like (Go Mets!), and others who drive the same cars we drive (You have a Forester too? Cool!). Our families in this manner can extend broadly – and we benefit accordingly, gaining altruistic support from all kinds of individuals. That’s how our species runs.

That said, whether you’re talking homo sapiens or Neanderthal, there’s nothing like a mother. When you look at the most prevalent form of other-oriented behaviors that exist in our species (and in many other species), mothers have sine qua non status. And you don’t have to look hard to see this. My wife Kathy is an extraordinary mom in all respects to our two kids, Megan and Andrew – taking the time and emotional resources to provide them with any and all things they might need. She’s always been like this with the kids – she’s a mom and that’s how she runs.

But, per the gist of this blog post, in our species, moms aren’t the whole story. One of the great success stories of our species is alloparenting (see Hrdy, 2009) – the tendency for mothers and others to secure parental-like help from other individuals in the community. And among the “others” that people like Hrdy talk about, grandmothers are trump cards. Clearly, grandmothers have important genetic investments in their grandchildren. And this fact shows up on extraordinary levels of help and family support – levels that seem essential to the survival of members of our species.

This summer, we were so fortunate to have my mom come up for a few weeks during a particularly busy spell for our family. Summers are saturated beyond reason in our household. Both Kathy and I work full-time. This summer, we both taught a course and spent many hours doing much in the way of academic administrative necessities. And I worked hard on a grant proposal (that will be submitted soon!). And I worked on a statistics textbook. And lots of research projects and other books. And more. And Kathy’s job overseeing a major international program on campus is really busy in the summers.
And our kids had big plans! They both joined our local swim team (the Seahawks). Andrew was on the travel baseball team – and Megan took on a significant role in a local theatre production (Trash the Musical). And they tend to have pretty busy social lives for little ones.

So we were smart. Who can possibly help keep our family and household with a semblance of organization during this time? Of course – my mom. My mom is unique. She may well be the most capable person I know – she can do anything. By 6am, she’s got the dishes done, dinner cooked, the dog walked, the laundry completed and put a way – and she does it with a smile. She puts the US Army to shame this way! And her love for her grandchildren runs deep. The plan was to have Grandma come up from Florida and help us during this busy time.

Well, we blinked – and she goes back today – and my gosh will she be missed by all of us. I have no clue how we could have managed the past few weeks without her. But I will say that I now have strong, direct, first-hand evidence of the importance of alloparenting and the grandmother hypothesis in Homo Sapiens. Perhaps if there were more Neanderthals like my mom, we’d have some living down the street from us right now!

Thanks for everything Mom – you’re the best!


Bingham, P.M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe. South Carolina, USA: BookSurge.

Dickson, B. (1996). The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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