From Human Families: Identities, Relationships, and Responsibilities, edited by Jacob M. Kohlhaas and Mary M. Doyle Roche, College Theology Society Annual, Vol 66. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2021).
Families are often described as the essential building blocks of human cooperation, training grounds in which children gain the capacity for trust and empathy, while internalizing pro-social norms. There is certainly some truth in this. Children who cannot trust their parents to protect them have a hard time learning to trust and extend protection to others. Adults who cannot or will not take on obligations to children, parents, and other kin seldom meet their obligations to larger social groups. For every saint who renounces family ties to serve the larger community, there are probably several sociopaths who renounce their family ties to prey on the larger community.
But the elevation of “family values” to a central pillar of social morality is justified neither by the actual history of how human social cooperation evolved nor by the early traditions of Christianity. The relationship between family bonding and social bonding, between fulfilling obligations to relatives and participating in larger circles of social cooperation, turns out to be more complicated than is often claimed. The Golden Rule implies a much larger set of reciprocal obligations than doing right by one’s own family.
Consider the family and community patterns of the Paleolithic era, where our earliest ancestors lived in small foraging bands for tens of thousands of years—more than 90 percent of human existence. Sarah Hrdy and many other researchers now believe that our ancestors, like most contemporary foragers, cooperated in procuring and distributing food for the entire group, as well as in caregiving for dependents. Big-game hunting in such groups is generally done by men, but the products of the hunt are distributed to all, rather than claimed by the man who makes the actual kill, and then taken home to his own family. Mothers are not exclusively responsible for children but are assisted by grandmothers, fathers, other nursing mothers, older children, and unrelated band members. Hrdy calls these “allomothers,” but I prefer the term auxiliary parents, since men typically do more caregiving in such groups than in agricultural, herding, or early
industrial societies. Among the Hadza of Tanzania, babies up to age four are held by people other than their mother for about 40 percent of the daylight hours. Among the Efe of Eastern Congo, that rises to 60 percent. In 87 percent of contemporary foraging societies, mothers often nurse each other’s children. Other members of the group feed babies by mouth, chewing solid foods and then transferring them directly from the adult’s mouth to the child’s. Food sharing is not confined to infants. Among the Yora of Peru, children who have been weaned spend, on average, 40 percent of their time eating in households other than their own. Notably, such interhousehold sharing is not limited to extended kin, or at least was not in the past. Ethnographers studying such groups report being told that prior to contact with Europeans, people often lived and took meals with “friends, not relatives.” In some cases, individuals may have come to consider themselves related because they shared resources or experiences. Among the Malays of Langkawi and some other groups around the world, eating and living together are thought to create kinship.
Still, one study of more than five thousand people from thirty-two simple hunting and gathering societies found that on average only about 40 percent of band members are primary or even distant blood relatives. A quarter are linked by neither blood nor marriage.