The Washington Post has an interesting story from an anthropologist who’s taken an interest in studying the relationships between people and their pets.
Anyone familiar with evolutionary biology has heard the oft-repeated idea that we’re hardwired to propagate our DNA, and every decision we make — from who we date, when we get married, whether we put career goals on the line to take care of children — is ultimately dictated by that goal.
If that’s true, then “parenting” pets doesn’t make sense. They aren’t our biological children. They won’t carry on our family names and history after we’re gone, they won’t go to college and have careers and take care of us when we’re old. In stark terms, we’re “wasting” resources on raising — and often pampering — the offspring of other species.
Yet we do it, so the question is: Why?
Shelly Volsche, an anthropologist at Boise State University, thinks the explanation can be traced back to our roots in pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies, when alloparenting — cooperative parenting — was key to raising children.
“If people evolved to alloparent, and our environment is now making caring for children more difficult or less appealing to some, it makes sense for people to alloparent other species entering their homes,” Volsche wrote. “Alloparenting companion animals can offer a way to fulfill the evolved need to nurture while reducing the investment of time, money and emotional energy compared to raising children.”
As readers of this blog know, I don’t refer to my cat as my “child” and I don’t see him as some sort of child replacement. He’s Buddy, my buddy. We’re best buds. Other people choose to “parent” their children, and that’s cool. Whatever works for you.
I think Volsche’s ideas are interesting, especially in the context of our primate cousins and the way they raise their young. Orangutans are quasi-solitary, and children stick with their moms for about eight years because it takes that long for them to mature and learn how to survive in the jungle on their own.
But more social primates, like chimpanzees, Capuchin monkeys, macaques and vervet monkeys, live in groups and cooperative parenting is a major part of how they handle raising “kids” when there’s no daycare or schools.
A mother who goes out to forage, for example, might leave her baby with an aunt or a trusted female of the troop, and it’s common to see female monkeys caring for babies that aren’t theirs.
Human and proto-human hunter-gatherer societies were essentially upjumped primate troops, so it’s that ingrained behavior we’re talking about here.
Ultimately, Volsche says we’re driven by a “need to nurture.”
“Although the details may look quite different — attending training classes instead of school functions, or providing smell walks for dogs instead of coloring books for children — both practices fulfill the same evolved function,” she wrote. “Whether child or pet, people are meeting the same evolved need to care for, teach and love a sentient other.”