Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Why parents care for their children

Harry at Crooked Timber asks:

Do parents have an interest in rearing biologically related children?

This is in the context of the cloning debate and I'm not quite sure I understand what he is getting at but this seems to be the essence:
...rearing a child biologically related to oneself is a different activity (or project) than rearing a non-biologically related child. Sure it is different. But it doesn't seem to me that it is incommensurable, nor that it is more valuable, or even that it contributes more value to the person who is doing the rearing. And much of the activity is the same (when described at what seems to me the same level of abstraction): providing for the needs, including the developmental needs, of a child, and participating in a loving relationship with that child.
I know the folks at Crooked Timber have a certain disdain for evolutionary psychology but I am truely puzzled by this. Surely it is a rather uncontroversial observation that the links between biologically related parents and children are of a different quality to those that are unrelated.

Rearing related and unrelated children is certainly not incommensurable as adoption proves. Parents of adopted children generally experience all the joys as if they were their own children. But this is most often a second choice. By far the most common desire is to have one's own children. And that desire ultimately has its roots in our genes.

There is one major piece of evidence that we treat people who are related to us differently - Families. Blood is indeed thicker than water and this overwhelming biological fact is one reason we need such structures as the State - to stop families feuding, and the UN - again to stop extended families, otherwise called ethnic groups, feuding.


Blogger Greyshade said...

Evolution is not purpose. Within an evolutionally significant timeframe a human (or other ape) with a desire to have children of their own would have no advantage over an ape that just liked sex (even if they knew one caused the other - which they probably wouldn't). A mammal which cares for its young will (under some circumstances) gain a net advantage and evolution will then favour individuals which have a built-in tendency to nurture their young. This tendency is normally produced by bonding.

Animals do not bond to their young because they have figured out that this is to their gene's advantage but because they have an innate tendency to bond to young.

Where (but by no means only where) both parents are involved in childcare (humans, wolves, birds) the bonding tendency is usually non-specific (the father has no way of identifying his genetic offspring) and so sparrows will quite happily raise a cuckoo in their nest. They don't do this because they believe that they are promoting the survival of their own genes but because the emergence of the cuckoo hatchling triggers their bonding/parenting response.

Modern humans make decisions about the timing and size of their families and whether to adopt or not at a purely intellectual level but, once the baby arrives (by whatever means) the bonding that occurs is purely instinctive, reaches far further back into our history and has nothing to do with genetic relationship.

I'm not at all convinced about your last paragraph. I suspect (perceived) extended families, tribes and races are largely cultural artifacts and bear litle relationship to genetic relationship. In fact I believe current DNA evidence suggests thee is more genetic diversity within many African villages than in the entire non-african human population.

15 September 2004 at 1:33 PM  

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