Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

The often-large difference between “breeding” and “parenting”

Posted 02 Oct 2015 / 0

WNYC The Leonard Lopate Show “Options Grow For Starting a Non-Traditional Family

As I continue to work on my popular science book with the working title Breeders, Propagators, & Creators, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a parent.

Biological parenting (what I call “breeding”… why to be explained) is a key focus of my book, but of course being a biological parent does not always imply providing parental care. This is interesting because while our genetic fitness is determined by how many offspring we produce, in order to increase our cultural fitness via parenthood we have to actually provide parental care.

Because human infants are so dependent on nursing for survival, women are predisposed to provide parental care. For this reason, the most common “absentee parent” of our ancestral past was the biological father, who could conceivably provide no parental care and therefore no cultural influence on his offspring.

As this really interesting Leonard Lopate Show feature nicely explores, this is no longer the case. Due to a combination of changes in technological culture and in good-old-fashioned family traditions, “breeding” and “parenting” offspring are much more commonly decoupled. Whether this trend is significant enough worldwide to be considered evolutionarily significant is something that I want to consider further, but there is no doubt that the culture that I live in is being transformed by a variety of forms of adoption. The increased acceptability and feasibility of adopting unrelated offspring — sometimes from geographical regions half-way across the globe — is allowing some people to breed without parenting while others parent without breeding. And as this interview with Tamar Datan points out, surrogacy allows women to increase their genetic fitness while giving up their ability to shape the culture of their biological offspring. Similarly, egg and sperm donors have the potential to maximize their reproductive output without having the obligation or opportunity to parent. How could our culture evolved to embrace surrogacy, gamete donation, and adoption of unrelated offspring?

Adoption can seem a bit of an evolutionary paradox if you only speak one evolutionary language. If you are only fluent in evolutionary biology, one might ask how an adoptive parent could be “tricked” into providing parental care for unrelated offspring. After all, isn’t the “adoptive parent” harming their own genetic interests by raising the offspring of the “breeding parent”? Viewed from a strictly-biological perspective, the adoption of unrelated offspring makes no sense. Even if we appeal to a “parenting instinct” that we all have, wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage your close relatives to donate a child to you? (By the way, I know how culturally absurd that last question may seem, but it is not at all absurd biologically).

If you are only fluent in cultural evolution, one might ask how a biological parent could be “tricked” into relinquishing their potential for cultural influence by the adoptive parent. After all, if your goal is to pass on your cultural ideas, wouldn’t it make more sense to provide parental care for your offspring? Viewed from a strictly-cultural perspective, the giving up of offspring to non-relatives for adoption makes no sense. Even if we appeal to a “reproductive instinct” that compels us to potentially produce more offspring than we can parent, wouldn’t it make sense to only adopt into a culturally-similar family? (This sometimes does occur, particular in regard to religion, as some biological parents will only allow their children to adopted by parents of the same religion).

Adoption does not make sense when viewed solely from a biological perspective and adoption does not make sense when viewed solely from a cultural perspective. In my eyes, this means that adoption of unrelated offspring — particularly at its rather high prevalence in today’s populations — can only make sense if understood in light of both culture and biology. Some people are employing the breeder’s strategy and giving up their offspring for someone else to care for, while others are employing the cultural propagator’s strategy and adopting unrelated offspring so as to maximize their cultural influence. Of course I am not suggesting that the stategies outlined above are being employed consciously, but it is interesting to consider whether different people are more genetically-predisposed to adopt one strategy or another. If there is a genetic predisposition to either breed through adopting out or parent by adopting in, we have another evolutionary conundrum on our hands. Wouldn’t there eventually be no people who choose to adopt, because their genotype would be eliminated over several generations? I won’t get into the details of answering that question, but suffice to say that depends on how well cultural ideas like adoption is an acceptable (or preferable!) alternative to becoming a biological parent can spread within each generation.

I also am interested by the way that this discussion defines the idea of “kinship”. Traditionally, evolutionary biologists define kin as being biologically-related, but clearly “kinship” means something different in this radio feature. The kinship described is complex, as some of it does reflect biologically on surrogate parents. But much of what is called “kinship” is what social scientists call “fictive kinship”. Fictive kinship is closely tied to adoption, as it involves adopting another person into the role that might otherwise be reserved for a biological relative. As with adoption, there is some question as to how fictive kinship might exist, because it implies providing aid to those who are less likely to share your more altruistic genes.

The decoupling of “breeding offspring” from “parenting offspring” goes beyond the phenomenon of adoption: in modern large-scale societies, a large portion of parental burden is borne by society at large in the form of public schooling. I can attest to the fact that many parents of toddlers celebrate when their children are partially-parented by the public school system! What’s interesting is that many of us are happy to give up a bit of our cultural influence on our children in order to go back to the cultural propagation involved in our work lives.

A Major Post, Breeders, Propagators, & Creators, Cultural Evolution, Kin Selection, Parenting, Radio & Podcasts, Reproductive Fitness, Social Diversity, Sociology

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