Traditional psychology thinks of functional families as lacking conflict. A traditional psychologist might label familial strife as dysfunctional but evolution actually predicts- if not demands- a certain level of conflict within families. Every individual in a family has her or his own reproductive interests that have to interact with the reproductive interests of everyone else. A child that helps raise a younger sibling may be passing on part of her or his genes at the expense of being able to mate and pass on the whole package.
Welcome to the third article in my ongoing series that looks at how the human animal has evolved and how evolutionary pressures continue to influence how men and women relate to each other. People like to think that we’ve moved beyond our evolutionary history but nothing could be further from the truth. Our bodies may inhabit themodern world but our brains still inhabit the primordial jungles and savannas of our evolutionary youth.
Today, I’m going to explain how the seeds of conflict are built into the fabric of our closest relationships. Home Sweet Home is a sweet myth but the truth is that home life is rife with built-in opportunities for strife. The common notion that humans are becoming more violent thanks to TV, declining morals, etc. is pure myth. The truth is that humans today are far less violent today than at any time in our 5-million year history. The difference is that mass media feeds us horror stories in an ongoing ratings war using the maxim “if it bleeds, it leads.” I am certainly not advocating child or spousal abuse and I am just as horrified by some of the news reports I see as anyone else. Understanding how and why the potential for these conflicts are hardwired into our existence is a critical first step to making conscious changes in how we choose to live our lives… because as much as we are slaves to our evolutionary history, we are also capable of making deliberate choices.
Here are just a few examples of the built-in domestic conflict humans can face at home.
In The Womb
Conflict may begin in the womb. A fetus has its own interests to protect and is therefore more interested in its own survival than the mother’s, even if its own survival depends on its mother. Meanwhile, the mother is evaluating the fetus’s reproductive potential and may spontaneously abort the pregnancy if the fetus is found lacking. Far from uncommon, miscarriages (spontaneous abortions) occur about half the time.
Once born, the baby may still face infanticide at the hands of a rival male or even its own mother. Mothers who kill their babies tend to be young, poor and unmarried. In other words, they lack the experience, resources and help normally needed to raise a healthy child that is capable of passing along the mother’s genes. The mother’s own reproductive potential has been proven by virtue of a successful pregnancy; the child represents a huge gamble that could result in both mother and child losing the ability to reproduce. From an evolutionary standpoint, individuals who fail to reproduce have missed the entire point of living. As horrible as infanticide is, it is nonetheless justifiable when seen from the evolutionary point of view. I am certainly not advocating or defending infanticide; I am merely saying that I understand it.
Medical technology has enabled women to consciously make the same evaluations their bodies have been making automatically for millions of years and opt to terminate the pregnancy through an abortion procedure. The only difference between spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) and deliberate abortion is the deliberateness of the action. Either way, a failed pregnancy is the natural result of a decision process that finds the fetus lacking.
Weaning And Walking
The next major conflict occurs around weaning as the child is increasingly expected to fend for itself instead of simply nursing. Around this time, the child’s increasing mobility and natural curiosity foster a growing need for independence while at the same time needing the reassurance of parental presence and involvement.
Siblings are another source of conflict. Every sibling carries some percentage of each other’s genetic material but only an identical twin is 100% genetically identical to the other. Here again, the competing needs of each individual to pass along her or his genes comes into play as each sibling vies for food and status within the family. Helping parents raise siblings is a good way to help ensure that at least some of one’s genes get passed on but that fractional benefit can come at the expense of delaying the ability to reproduce on one’s own. Siblings also tax parental resources such the amount of time and attention that can be lavished on any one child. Firstborn children are often accorded special privileges and attention. The youngest sibling often receives extra attention such as diapering and feeding while older children take care of themselves. Middle children are the ones who usually receive the least attention because they lack both the firstborn’s status and the last-born’s needs. This can result in a middle child making extra efforts to gain attention. I’ve witnessed this firsthand in several families, including some very close friends of mine. One of these friends once expounded at length about an argument he was having with his older (firstborn) brother and his frustration at feeling unheard and misunderstood. He wanted his older brother to sit down and listen to his side in exquisite detail. I remember advising my friend repeatedly to just let it go only to realize much later that he couldn’t for all of the reasons I’ve just described.
Parents vs. Children
Conflict between parents and children is also part of the scheme of things. Think about this: Every resource that goes into feeding and raising a child is one less resource that the parents have for themselves. This is a fine line to walk. Allocate too many resources to the children and the parents’ own fitness will be reduced, potentially impacting their ability to care for their young and thus pass on their genes. Too few resources and the children will suffer, with consequences for the parents. It really is a fine line. It is even possible that some child and parent attributes might have evolved to compete with each other.
The analogy of loaning increasing resources to someone with the potential for payback versus cutting one’s losses applies here as well. The lifeboat adage “women and children first” makes evolutionary sense because one man can impregnate many women while each woman can only experience one pregnancy at a time. Sacrificing men to save women therefore makes sense because it has the least long-term impact on the population. One could argue that making an adult consumes far more resources than making a child and thus the children should be sacrificed. This argument ignores the fact that children carry their parents’ genes, which means that the parents have already won the great game of life. From an evolutionary perspective, saving the women and children is the best thing to do. Thank goodness that modern ships are required to carry enough lifeboats for all!
Few comedic routines are complete without at least a few lines devoted to marital strife. Untold thousands of articles discuss the most common topics of conflict between spouses and advice columns routinely offer advice to people who are at odds with their significant others. These address the stated cause of the problem (such as money) and some even delve into the feelings and motives behind the scenes. Few sources designed for mass consumption approach marital conflict from an evolutionary perspective.
Couples with children share the goal of successfully raising their young and passing along their combined genetic material. There’s just one problem: The mates themselves share no genetic material under normal circumstances and a child carries 50% of either parent’s genes at best. Each mate’s investment in the couple’s children confers a fitness benefit on the other mate. This paves the way for one or both mates to take undue advantage of the other. The male’s natural instinct is to seek out as many mates as possible to pass on as much of his genes as possible. The woman’s incentive is to throw all she has into raising her current child because she can’t hope to compete with the male in sheer numbers and must therefore focus on every child. It’s the old quantity versus quality conundrum. Even the most monogamous male has thought about investing some resources in an extramarital encounter. Any male reading this who hasn’t just did.
It doesn’t end there. Under normal circumstances, each partner in a couple has their own family of blood relatives. Devoting all of one’s attention to one’s own child helps a non-relation (the other parent) pass along her or his genes while possibly limiting the ability of other family members to pass along at least some of one’s own genes. Strife over the amount of time and energy spent on family is a common refrain in many, many marriages. If you’ve ever argued about your in-laws or seen or otherwise know about such an argument then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
I just purchased a new laptop computer. I did my homework, researching brands, prices and value before placing my order. Nevertheless, I found myself eying a competing model longingly within moments of clicking the “Place Order” button on the seller’s Web site because it suddenly occurred to me that I may have missed out on an even better value. This buyer’s remorse isn’t limited to consumer electronics. One or both parties in a marriage or other pairing may become convinced that they can get a better value for what she or he has to offer by leaving the relationship. Cases where both parties want out have the best chance for peaceful resolution. My former wife and I both decided to end our marriage and we’re better friends today than we’ve been in many years. Cases where one party wants out are where problems arise. A man I know decided to leave his marriage. The cost in time, energy and money spent on the divorce proceedings themselves could literally have purchased a comfortable house and that’s not including the division of marital property. Women who decide to end a relationship risk violence or other pressure not to go through with the breakup.
Power is another huge source of conflict. The woman invests more in child-rearing but most societies recognize the man as the head of the household. Women even give up their family names when married and the typical Western family wedding ceremony has the woman’s father “giving away” the bride in a procedure not unlike handing off a piece of property.
No discussion about spousal conflict would be complete without at least mentioning sexual infidelity. I’ll cover sexuality in depth in future articles.
As if this wasn’t enough, one or more parents may also have children from a previous partner. Children born from the current relationship reflect a mutual investment and more than one couple has remained together “for the kid’s sake”. Children born from past relationships only carry one parent’s genes and the other parent has no evolutionary incentive to invest anything in them. In fact, the stepparent has every evolutionary reason to prevent resources from going to the stepchild for the same reason that male lions kill cubs they haven’t sired: to increase their odds of passing on their own genes. Tales about children doomed to live with rotten stepparents abound all over the world and are based in real-world truth. Several studies have shown that stepchildren are far more likely to be abused than biological children regardless of external factors such as socioeconomic status. Stepchildren are a large source of conflict.
I must take care to distinguish stepchildren and adopted children where both parents opt to rear a child that is not related to either of them. Adopted children fare very well overall. Adoptive parents allegedly commit child abuse in 1% of reported cases while comprising 2 to 4 percent of the general population according to the United States Census Bureau. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 12 children out of every 1,000 aged 18 or younger were abused in 2005. The figure for adopted children is therefore 12 out of 100,000.
Most people have a strong aversion to violence against genetic relatives. That aversion does not extend to spouses, who normally aren’t genetically related to each other. Approximately 7% of married people experience spousal abuse (Statistics Canada, 2004).
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