The Evolved Family
Helena Cronin

Introduction Since the late nineteenth century, many of Darwin's ideas have been discredited through their association with Herbert Spencer and theories of a master race. Helena Cronin suggests that we shouldn't be so quick to reject Darwin's current role in understanding human nature.

Darwinian theories can and should influence policy. For Cronin, Darwinian ideas offer the chance to get human nature "right", rather than suggesting that we implicitly understand people's motivations and desires.

There is a strange lack of humanity in the UK government's most recent pronouncements on the family. They deal with dramas--parenting, divorce, underage pregnancy. Yet real people are missing. In their place are stock characters from doctrinaire sociology, robotic actors mindlessly performing "roles" or activating "relationship skills." Confined to the pages of textbooks, notions so misguided could be dismissed as harmless socio-babble. But now they appear increasingly to be influencing policy. This should alarm anyone with an interest in social justice: policies based on such shallow assessments of the human condition, however politically correct their credentials, will inevitably leave serious problems untreated.

Assumptions about human nature play a role in all political theorizing. They are usually implicit--and often wrong. Darwinian theory offers the prospect of at last getting them right. For human nature is our evolved nature, the evolved psychology of our species, and in the past decade or so evolutionary theory has begun to reveal that psychology. (For more information on the role of evolutionary theory for understanding the human mind, see Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works.) An understanding of our motivations and desires is vital for anyone, including government, who wants to change people's behaviour.

But, if human nature is the result of evolution, aren't we stuck with it? Surely there is little that policymakers can achieve. Not at all. Human nature is fixed, but the behaviour that it generates is richly varied, the result of our evolved minds reacting to different circumstances. In particular, we are designed by natural selection to respond appropriately to the ever-shifting sands of social conditions. So it is mistaken to think that biology is relevant only to what is constant in society. On the contrary, very rapid social change can be brought about by evolved minds responding in predictable ways to changing environments. Change the environment and you change the behaviour. Thus the task for the policymaker is to work out which aspects of our environment need to be altered in order to achieve the desired ends.

Why do families break up?

"Why can't fathers be more like mothers?" goes the fashionable cry. But for an evolutionary biologist the striking question is the opposite: Why do males invest so much in their children--a commitment so profound that it puts all other mammals, including our closest primate cousins, to shame? After all, in the evolution of our species, women had little choice but to invest nine months' hard labour, nutrient-rich milk and unceasing vigilance. But men could get away with the briefest of encounters. Why then do they contribute so much more? Because in our species offspring are so dependent that providing resources and protection pays. Thus, although fathers don't put in the intimate care that mothers do, they nevertheless make a hefty investment. And natural selection has favoured them with the appropriate emotional dispositions--love, solicitude, commitment--for becoming good fathers under the right conditions.

But what are the right conditions? And how might they have changed in recent years? Given that the difference between a family and a broken family is generally the presence of the father--there is, after all, no Child Support Agency in the UK chasing absent mothers. The answers to these questions are of crucial importance to a British government that has set itself the goal of "supporting families."

Inequality among men

Darwinian analysis suggests that a potent cause of family breakdown is likely to be a marked inequality among men. Increasing inequality (particularly in a winner-take-all economy) creates increasing numbers of relatively high-status and low-status men, and that gives rise to two conditions under which fathers become more likely to abandon their families.

First, men who lack access to resources--because of low pay or unemployment--find it difficult to be adequate providers and adequate husbands. Families break down in such circumstances because fathers have become liabilities rather than assets to the domestic economy. And sometimes fathers jump before they are pushed. Study after study of what the sexes find attractive in a partner has shown that (unlike men) women in all cultures put a high value on economic prospects in a mate, and that a husband's failure to provide resources is a major cause of divorce. David Buss's work The Evolution of Desire is one of the largest studies into human mating ever conducted. It spans 37 diverse cultures and more than 10,000 people worldwide, and shows that the male "provider" is still important in human relationships.

Second, men toward the top of the social ladder can seize opportunities to start new families. This needn't involve abandoning the existing one. In societies that practise polygyny--common in traditional societies--rich men acquire multiple wives (while poor men are consigned to monogamy or celibacy). But in our society, some rich men practise serial monogamy--which is, effectively, polygyny straining at the leash of institutionalized monogamy--and leave single mothers in their wake.

Women's independence

Darwinian theory also suggests that the standing of men relative to women is important; and that, too, is liable to be affected by such factors as unemployment. Buss's 37-culture study also found (as have many other studies) that women prefer to marry men of higher status than themselves and that they find cues to higher status (including income) attractive. In sharp contrast, in none of these cultures do men prefer to "marry up," whatever their own social or financial circumstances.

Other studies have shown that the higher the economic power of the husband relative to the wife, the less likely that the marriage will break up. The divorce rate among American couples in which the woman earns more than her husband is 50 percent higher than among couples in which the husband is the higher earner, irrespective of the financial standing of the couple. In addition to David Buss's work, several studies, from Cameroon to California (most recently among female graduates leaving university), have found that women who are successful educationally, professionally and financially prefer men who are even more successful. Indeed, they put an even higher priority on resources and status in a mate than do less successful women.

Thus, however valuable the promotion of women at work as an end in itself, the UK government should be aware that there might be a conflict between its stated policy goals of "enhancing financial independence especially in women" and achieving "fewer broken relationships between parents." This is because as women become better off relative to men, the incidence and success of marriage is likely to decrease in line with the decrease in the pool of desirable male partners. The Ally McBeals will find that fewer men meet their exacting standards for a love match, while the dearth of dependable men will leave the mother on the housing estate with little choice but to turn to social security or take that part-time job at the call-centre.

Changes in male-male inequality and male-female relations have put monogamy under pressure, reducing marriage rates and increasing divorce. But why aren't families just happily reconstituting themselves? Why are they so dogged by problems that the government is hurrying to the rescue?

Why blood is thicker than water

If the UK government is to win its game of "Happy Families," it needs to understand the rules--most fundamentally, why blood is thicker than water. Evolutionary theory provides a meticulously precise account. Family psychology was forged in the context of a shared genetic inheritance. To the blind forces of natural selection, altruism toward kin is just one way of replicating genes: help those who share your genes and you help the genes. But from this cold genetic reckoning arose our most cherished family values. For evolution equipped us with an elaborate physical, cognitive and deeply emotional repertoire--such as maternal devotion and brotherly love--dedicated to lavishing altruism on our kin as on no others.

That is why it has been found that working mothers would rather leave their offspring with kin, particularly grandparents, than with strangers (albeit professionals) (see "Women's attitudes to combining paid work and family life," on the Web). In his book Evolutionary Psychology, David Buss has also shown that our priorities in rescuing people from a burning house, leaving money in our wills or choosing whom to turn to for advice neatly tracks our genetic closeness.

This is of course not to suggest that altruism is confined to the family. It also flows between unrelated individuals, such as friends. But friendship operates according to its own rules and is quite distinct from kinship; whereas maternal love is largely unconditional, even the closest of friendships can founder if it becomes one-way. Thus these two kinds of altruism are not interchangeable and do not result in the same level of support or personal sacrifice. As family relations become disrupted (by factors such as divorce, migration or working far from home) a growing cohort of people take on family commitments without being family members. But the government cannot realistically expect these reconstituted "families" to generate the same care or social cohesion.

Stepparents epitomize the distinction between kin and non-kin. These are people who have chosen a mate but acquired children as part of the package. And they don't find that simply being placed in loco parentis automatically evokes heartfelt parental devotion or its emotional rewards. A wealth of evidence shows that, on average, compared to their genetic counterparts, stepparents and children view the relationship as less loving and less dependable emotionally and materially; that stepparents withhold investment and look forward to the children leaving home; and that stepchildren do indeed leave earlier.

One chilling consequence of this predictable difference in feelings is an enormous differential in the risk of violence. Children are up to 100 times more likely to be killed by a stepparent than by a genetic parent. Even after taking into account confounding factors (including poverty, the mother's age and the personalities of people who remarry), Daly and Wilson have shown in their book The Truth About Cinderella that the presence of a stepparent in the home is the single most powerful risk factor for severe child maltreatment yet discovered.

Stepparents know that they are not kin. But even the suspicion that one is not kin can undermine families. Men can never be entirely sure that "their" children really are their own; and they are not inclined to invest in other males' children. With estimates of mis-attributed "fatherhood" running high in some urban areas (up to 25 percent in some American cities), uncertainty of paternity could be a major factor contributing to the numbers of absent "fathers" and to family patterns in general. One cross-cultural study of 186 pre-industrial societies (current and historical), for example, found that where confidence of paternity is high, men invest far more (wealth, position, personal involvement) than in situations where such confidence is low. And there are societies in which confidence of paternity is so low that--as Darwinian theory accurately predicts--the "avunculate" system is the norm: a man will invest not in his wife's children but in his sister's (his nieces and nephews), for they are likely to be his closest relatives in the next generation.

Stepparents know that they are not kin. But even the suspicion that one is not kin can undermine families. Men can never be entirely sure that "their" children really are their own; and they are not inclined to invest in other males' children. With estimates of mis-attributed "fatherhood" running high in some urban areas (up to 25 percent in some American cities), uncertainty of paternity could be a major factor contributing to the numbers of absent "fathers" and to family patterns in general. One cross-cultural study of 186 pre-industrial societies (current and historical), for example, found that where confidence of paternity is high, men invest far more (wealth, position, personal involvement) than in situations where such confidence is low. And there are societies in which confidence of paternity is so low that--as Darwinian theory accurately predicts--the "avunculate" system is the norm: a man will invest not in his wife's children but in his sister's (his nieces and nephews), for they are likely to be his closest relatives in the next generation.

Which factors raise and lower confidence of paternity? And in what ways have these factors varied in recent years? The answers are far from clear. Could it be increased inequality among males or enforced absence from home (unsociable hours or long commuting), or increased sexual freedom for women, or contraception and abortion? The UK government could perhaps set the new National Family and Parenting Institute the task of investigating some of these many unknowns.

Large levers

The UK government has claimed that there are no "large levers" that it can pull to affect family formation . But from the UK government's own reports one can see that unemployment, and in particular male unemployment, is a major contributing factor to marital instability and family breakup. A Darwinian analysis supports this conclusion, and shows how--by increasing inequality among males and lowering the standing of men relative to women--unemployment can lead to absent fathers and lone mothers.

A government committed to supporting the family could count the impact on men's desirability as marriage partners as one of the social costs of unemployment, and make the reduction of male-to-male inequality a higher priority.

Equally important, the government could recognize that achieving sexual equality between men and women does not entail treating them as identical. Contrary to fashionable "gender" thinking, women--like men--have their own distinct evolved psychology.

If the government genuinely wants to extend the scope of women's choices, then it should allow for the fact that their priorities are not always identical to those of men. Rather than taking male standards as the universal measure, or expecting the sexes to adopt the same working "roles," the government should design family-friendly employment practices that reflect the different preferences of women and men.

For example, as revealed in the UK government's recent survey of women's attitudes, women choose and are happier with a different balance of work and family. Following the birth of the first child, for instance, women work less and men work more--an arrangement that both mothers and fathers endorse.

Indeed, a recent study for the Family Policy Studies Centre by Ferri and Smith (1996) found--no doubt contrary to the expectations of its authors--that of all parents in the 1990s "the most contented groups [describing themselves as "highly contented"] appeared to be mothers and fathers in the 'traditional' single earner families in which only the father was in employment." The unhappiest mothers and fathers were those in families without an earner, followed by families where mothers were the sole earners.

Information, information, information

The British government seems convinced that if it throws sufficient "information" at problems--divorce, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, child abuse and so on--they will go away. When this approach fails, its answer is all too often to throw even more information, earlier, harder, faster. But the government should be tackling the causes of family breakdown.

There is no evidence that interfering with the symptoms--re-educating the poor with new "parenting" "roles," purveying marriage guidance, instituting prenuptial agreements or redesigning marriage ceremonies--will have any effect on marriage and divorce rates. Parasitic counsellors and well-meaning commentators who peddle "advice," "information" and other such "talking cures" are helping to perpetuate the myth that the problems created by inequality and disadvantage can be erased in a few therapy sessions. They are allowing the government to duck its real responsibilities.

Relevant links
Demos
(www.demos.co.uk)

Family Policy Studies Centre
(http://www.spsw.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/static/fpsc/index.htm)


An extended version of this story was originally published as a chapter in Family Business, edited by Helen Wilkinson and published by the leading UK left-wing think tank, Demos.