Thursday, October 2, 2008

Take My Ten Kids - Please.

The biggest shock to public officials came last week, when a single father walked into an Omaha hospital and surrendered nine of his 10 children, ages 1 to 17, saying that his wife had died and he could no longer cope with the burden of raising them.

(From a New York Times article on parents abandoning older children pursuant to a law designed to prevent "dumpster babies.")

Frequent abandonment of older children, considered by some to be an abuse of the Nebraska safe surrender law, is just another piece of evidence that children and their parents often have radically different interests. The most you can say about procreation is that it might, under very special conditions, be altruistic (unless David Benatar is right). Even heathen evolutionary biologists tell us that parents have a strong genetic predisposition to behave altruistically toward their children, once those children are born.

But, in practice, it is more complicated than that. Parents and children have somewhat overlapping, but largely opposed, evolutionary interests. Parenting is often far from altruistic. Parents abandon their difficult children. Parents maim, kill, and rape their children. In jurisdictions that allow it, they sell their children. Under conditions of starvation, they eat their children.

Are we really sure that parents, in general, have their children's best interests at heart?

9 comments:

  1. And let's not forgot all the parents who have children for criminally self-serving reasons, sometimes even resulting in a price to be paid by the child:

    1.) I want someone to take care of me when I'm old, or if I ever come upon hard times.

    2.) I want someone to plow the fields and feed the pigs.

    3.) I want to trap my lover into marrying me.

    4.) I want an excuse to stay home for another 5 years.

    5.) I want the attention that comes from being pregnant and having younger children to parade around.

    6.) I want someone to look up to me and think I'm groovy (related: I want someone to depend on me; I want someone to obey me and make me feel powerful).

    7.) I want someone to carry on the family name. (This one is extra idiotic...)

    7.) I want.

    8.) I want.

    9.) I want.

    Children are so often mere pawns in adults' selfish, half-baked schemes. I pity every child born.

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  2. "heathen evolutionary biologists"

    what?

    i enjoy your blog, if enjoy is the right word. i think you're smart. but now i have to question that a bit.

    when you call evolutionary biologists "heathen" does that mean you think they are wrong?

    and i assume you really mean evolutionary psychologists. there are almost no biologists that do not believe in evolution.

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  3. "heathen evolutionary biologists" was just a joke, brother. I think more scientists need to approach social science from an evolutionary perspective, like Daly & Wilson do in the papers in their book Homicide. Sorry if my humor doesn't come through.

    I'm an atheist and I think evolutionary biology has major insights for social science.

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  4. The point I was trying to make is that folk sentimentality definitely promotes the belief that parents care for their children above all, but also, even evolutionary biology supports that view, to a point.

    But if you look at the full complexity of the ev bio data, you see that the interests are far from aligned (as the data on infanticide, familicide, mate selection for children, differential treatment of siblings, etc. demonstrate).

    So to repeat: that was a tongue-in-cheek reference to ev bio folks (I'm not the kind of person who uses the word "heathen" except as a joke). Ev bio is good. What I'm advocating in this piece is a more nuanced understanding of the issue.

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  5. Don't have a substantial comment, but as to misaligned interests, I recommend "In Praise of Nepotism," by Adam Bellow. It's a major theme.

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  6. Parental love is not a myth. But it is commonly understood among parents that once you have a kid, you will never have another night of peaceful sleep. In other words, your worry is unending.

    I think some people are not up to the stress of parenthood. And our society provides little in the way of either preparation or assistance. Our culture has isolated the 'nuclear family' and the extended family barely exists anymore in the US.

    Despite the tragic failures of some parents, the ones I know are all deeply grateful for the gifts attendant to loving and raising a child.

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  7. Great blog. I can't wait to delve further into it.

    Whereas infanticide or child abandonment may be a successful survival strategy when a parent runs up against limited resources (at least in a traditional hunter-gatherer environment), I would guess that this kind of thing is still extremely rare. I would think a man abandoning his children would be much more common than a woman doing it, though, simply because a man's potential for procreation is nearly unlimited, while a woman is limited in both the number of children she can have in a given time and the number of years she can continue to breed.

    Bottom line, what might look like altruism is ultimately preservation of one's own genes. People can rationalize all they want, but that's ultimately what they're doing when they have children. If people only cared about raising "happy" children, why would they care so much whether they had grandchildren?

    Not having children is really the ultimate self-sacrifice. You sacrifice your own genetic stake in the future, and you have to fight millions of years of evolution to make that decision.

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  8. Thank you for your comment.

    It's true that people's concern for their children is determined by evolution, but, as Sister Wolf points out, that doesn't make it any less real. Of course, pretty much all praiseworthy traits of human beings are determined by evolution - things like loyalty, rationality, cooperation, and curiosity.

    I do agree that deciding not to have children is a particularly selfless decision. In some sense, despite the beauty of parental love, it's not exactly the greatest self-sacrifice to dedicate one's resources almost exclusively to one's genetic offspring.

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  9. I am amazed at the quality of debat on this issue 6 years ago. I would have hoped your erudite and water-tite articles and others like it would have affected the discourse somewhat. This makes me despair because while I can give a good account of myself in an online debate, it seems all of us can't get the numbers we need into the discussion. It sucks for me as an efilist who sees all life as enslaved by a douchebag replicator (in many senses that is dna-Douchbag Natality Apparatus), to be unable to convince the only species with the requisite tools and abailities is depressing. I could never have kids in a society sick enough to be pro-life ;)

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