2013—Sarah Hrdy

Photo of Sarah Hrdy
A. D. White Professor at Large, Cornell University; Professor Emerita, UC-Davis; Associate, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is one of the leading primatologists and evolutionary theorists in the field today. Her work focuses on the evolutionary origin of infanticide, female sexual behavior in primates, and the evolutionary basis of mothering and parenting in humans.

Hrdy graduated summa cum laude from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts and received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard. At present, she is the A. D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University; Professor Emerita at UC-Davis; and an Associate at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Professor Hrdy has been called the leading Darwinian feminist of her generation. She certainly was one of the first to prove that one could be both a Darwinian and a feminist. She first gained attention for her dissertation research on infanticide among primates, presented in The Langurs of Abu: Female and Male Strategies of Reproduction (Harvard University Press 1977), where she argued that females as well as males have complex strategies of survival for themselves as well as their young—strategies that can and do sometimes include infanticide. She continued to challenge simplistic evolutionary theories about human nature and sexual difference in her third book, The Woman That Never Evolved (Harvard University Press 1981) by arguing that the pressures of natural selection encourage the evolution of competitive, independent, and sexually assertive female primates.

Her subsequent book, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection (Pantheon 1999), offers a complex and compelling argument about how mothers navigate the inevitable trade-offs involved in raising offspring. One of the most significant arguments in this book was about the importance of cooperative parenting, a claim that became the basis of Professor Hrdy' s most recent book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Harvard University Press 2009). Here she disputes the claim that the distinctive human trait of mutual understanding was inspired by warfare and the need to fight others. In a move that proves the value of a feminist perspective, she contrasts the paucity of evidence about warfare among early homo sapiens to the plethora of evidence about the need for cooperative parenting among all primates, including homo sapiens, and explains how this parenting imperative contributed to the emergence of intersubjectivity in the human species.

Professor Hrdy’s books have been translated into numerous languages. She has over forty peer-reviewed articles, and the list of scholarly work written for a general audience is impressive, including articles in Time, Science, Natural History, and the New York Times Book Review. She has delivered the Spencer Lecture at Oxford University, received the Howells Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Biological Anthropology from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 2001, and was named one of Discover Magazine's "Fifty Most Important Women in Science" that same year. Hrdy’s book Mothers and Others has been awarded both the 2012 J.I. Staley Prize from the School of Advanced Research and a second Howells Prize.