Archive for December, 2010

Attachment – Chapter 4

Posted in attachment, John Bowlby on December 17, 2010 by Steve

In this chapter Bowlby builds on the importance of an evolutionary perspective for a scientific understanding of the behavioural system of the mother-child attachment relationship. This is crucial because the environment in which this behavioural system became adapted (the natural environment) was a very different environment to those in which we now live and raise children.

Modern humans are believed to have emerged around 2 million years ago (Tobias, 1965; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974), whereas the modification of environments in which we dwell began only 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. Accordingly, the environment which presented the hazards which selected the behavioural systems of humans is likely the natural environment of primeval man. Furthermore, the modification of our environments is not instinctive (such as in the nest building of birds), but is culturally acquired and constantly changing with each generation. Bowlby thus asserts that our instinctive behaviour can be properly understood by reference to the environment in which it evolved, and that for such an understanding we must turn to these three areas of study:
– anthropological studies of primitive human societies (where their environments are still fairly ‘natural’).
– archaeological evidence of how early humans lived
– the study of primates (primatology)

Bowlby then goes on to describe the ways in which humans and primates are similar, affirming that the similarities between humans and primates are equally, if not more, important than their differences for the purposes for which he is writing. Bowlby agrees that the mother-child bond may be the core unit of society, rather than the nuclear family (Fox, 1967; as cited in Bowlby, 1969/1974), making humans very similar to primates in terms of their social group structure. Bowlby then highlights the characteristics of social cooperation and communication which means the whole group can be protected from predators. Other similarities include:
– calls, postures, gestures
– tool use
– a long period of immaturity during which skills can be learnt
– the protection of the ‘home base’
– the practice of sharing food
– the differentiation of roles between males and females
– cooperative hunting

To summarise then, Bowlby proposes that studying the way in which primates interact with their environment provides an approximate understanding of the evolutionary environment of adaptedness of humans. This will therefore provide a means of understanding the behavioural systems which tie the mother to the child (which he will discuss in later chapters).


Bowlby, J. (1974). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Rev. ed.). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.