Working paper

Evolution of the Family: Theory and Implications for Economics

Ingela Alger, and Donald Cox


Which parent can be expected to be more altruistic toward their child, the mother or father? All else equal, can we expect older generation members to be more solicitous of younger family members or vice versa? Policy interventions often target recipients by demographic status: more money being put in the hands of mothers, say, or transfers of income from young to old via public pensions. Economics makes predictions about pecuniary incentives and behaviour, but tends to be agnostic about how, say, a post-menopausal grandmother might behave, just because she is a post-menopausal grandmother. Evolutionary theory fills this gap by analysing how preferences of family members emerge from the Darwinian exigencies of “survive and reproduce.” Coin of the realm is so-called “inclusive fitness,” reproductive success of oneself plus that of relatives, weighted by closeness of the relationship. Appending basic biological traits onto considerations of inclusive fitness generates predictions about preferences of family members. A post-menopausal grandmother with a daughter just starting a family is predicted to care more about her daughter than the daughter cares about her, for example. Evolutionary theory predicts that mothers tend to be more altruistic toward children than fathers, and that close relatives would be inclined to provide more support to one another than distant relatives. An original case study is provided, which explains the puzzle of diverging marriage rates by education in terms of heterogeneity in preferences for commitment. Economists are justifiably loathe to invoke preferences to explain trends, since preference-based explanations can be concocted to explain just about anything. But the evolutionary approach does not permit just any invocation of preferences. The dictates of “survive and reproduce” sharply circumscribe the kinds of preference-related arguments that are admissible.

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Published in

IAST working paper, n. 20-109, August 2020