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The Evolutionary Importance Of Your Kid’s Grandma (Also Your Mother-In-Law)

There’s an interesting duality that exists in grandmothers. While, yes, grannies are sweet, they are also someone’s mother-in-law. Which begs the question: How can people so universally loved also be so universally, grudgingly … tolerated?

Here’s a  short answer: Grandmothers, like their clear plastic-encased, 60-year-old couches, are evolutionarily indispensable.

Why Do Grandmothers Exist?
That sounds like a mean question. It isn’t! For a very long time researchers have struggled with the mystery of why human women past their childbearing years seem to hang around so much longer than those of our closest primate cousins. For almost all other animal species, once the female is too old to have babies she is off to the great jungle in the sky. How very old-world misogyny of you, nature!

flickr / Jason Lander

flickr / Jason Lander

But for those animals this might make sense, genetically speaking. Because the older a mother is, the more likely she is to produce babies with unhealthy genetic mutations. Also, raising, feeding and caring for the young means that mothers have less time to have another child. Therefore populations don’t develop quickly. Which is probably the only reason we’re not all beholden to Dr. Zaius right now.

You’re Sporting Granny Genes
Enter anthropologist Kristen Hawkes from the University of Utah and the Grandmother Hypothesis. Hawkes, along with her research team, were studying an indigenous hunter and gatherer tribe in Tarzania. After close observation, they noticed that the older women were crucial in the tribe due to their role in harvesting tubers to feed the children. And your granny only sends a check for 5 dollars on your birthday. Step it up, Memaw!

flickr / Christopher Holden

flickr / Christopher Holden

Hawkes found her theoretical light-bulb lit. She suggests that grandmothers were key to allowing homo sapiens to evolve. As ancient grandmothers began living longer, they were able to care for their offspring’s children. So, this freed up mothers to have more children more quickly, passing down the grandmother’s genes for longevity. In this way, more people began living longer, allowing for longevity to increase and strides to be made in human development. And you thought she was only watching the kids so your could go cajole your wife into seeing Suicide Squad.

Is There Proof?
Not really. Computer models, however, currently appear to back up the hypothesis. At the very least it should make you look at your mother in law in a new light. You might have thought her nagging was meant to drive you to an early grave. Turns out her traditional grandchild doting actually might be what could help you live past 70.

So, now that you know she’s basically indispensable, you may as well learn how to get the most out of her.