An Evolutionary Perspective on Parental Care

Offspring are designed by selection to transfer parental genes into future generations. However, not all offspring reproduce. Some are more likely to survive, have greater mating possibilities, and are better bets for successfully transferring the parent's genes. Some children are more likely to benefit from parental care than others.

What is Parental Care?

Parental care refers to characteristics shown by parents towards their children that improve their fitness (development or survival). These characteristics frequently come at a cost to the parents' survival and reproduction. Mammals, where females first nourish developing embryos via a placenta and then provide the young with milk after birth, are familiar examples, as are many birds, where females first nourish developing embryos via egg yolk, and both parents later provide the nestlings with arthropods or some other food source.

Reptiles, amphibians, fishes, arthropods, molluscs, annelids, and other invertebrates have less well-known instances. Some of these examples contain elaborate types of care equivalent to those found in mammals and birds. In contrast, others include far simpler kinds, such as those found in most invertebrates, where care is limited to embryo nutrition via egg yolk.

Parental care is a highly variable attribute that varies within and between species in terms of its shape, intensity, and duration and the extent to which it is delivered by the male, female, or both parents.

As a general rule, selection will reward adaptations for parental care—the preferential investment allocation to one or more children at the expense of other forms of investment—that increase the parent's fitness. As a result, parental care mechanisms will favour some kids over others, a situation known as parental favouritism. To put it another way, selection will encourage the evolution of mechanisms in parents that favour kids with a better reproductive return on investment. Both fathers and mothers should be aware of these factors because father-child relationships, while frequently weaker than mother-child bonds, appear universal throughout cultures.

Evolutionary Origin of Parental Care

Early attempts to understand the origins of parental care highlighted the impact of external forces, such as environmental harshness and the utilisation of abundant but fleeting resources. At the same time, ecological factors are a significant driver of the evolution and diversification of caring in some taxonomic groupings. However, the environment's stability, organisation, and harshness do not frequently explain the evolutionary origins of care.

The presence of behavioural precursors or accidental parenting impacts that can be transformed into parental care may also help to explain the evolutionary origins of parental care. Guarding of eggs and young, for example, is thought to have evolved from ancient defensive or aggressive behaviours in non-caring species, mainly when parents identify and encounter their genetic kids regularly.

How much Care?

Parental care is not an all-or-nothing activity; instead, it is dynamically adjusted to individual circumstances. What, then, are the fundamental reasons underlying adult parental investment decisions? The amount of parental care offered is influenced by certain primary factors. They are −

Brood Size

Due to its direct relationship to brood value, the number of offspring in a brood getting care is expected to indicate how strongly parental investment is delivered. Much caring male fish, for example, construct nests, attract females, fan the eggs, and protect both eggs and fry from predators.

The number of eggs in a nest will vary due to various factors, including the number of females attracted and the number of babies lost to predators. As a result, we expect male fish to assess the amount of offspring in their nests and change their parental investment following their expectations for future nesting occurrences.

Genetic Relatedness

The most obvious conclusion from a Darwinian perspective on parental incentives is that substitute parents will generally care less deeply about children than natural parents, resulting in children raised by persons other than their natural parents being exploited and placed at risk. Parental investment is a valuable resource, and selection must favour parental personalities that do not waste it on nonrelatives.

This prediction is supported by research on parental feelings. In one stepparent research in Cleveland, Ohio, only 53% of stepfathers and 25% of stepmothers claimed to have any "parental sentiments" towards their stepchildren. In a Trinidadian tribe, Darwinian anthropologist Mark Flinn discovered a similar result: stepfathers' interactions with their stepchildren were less frequent and more hostile than equivalent interactions involving genetic dads and their children.

Furthermore, the confrontational encounters were unpleasant for the stepchildren, as they left home at an earlier age than genetic children. Stepparents must be far less likely than genetic parents to direct parental affection and resources towards their children.

Sex Difference in Parenting Adaptations

Because mothers are always assured of their maternity, but putative fathers are not, natural selection should promote parental adaptations in women that differ from those in men. According to the "primary caretaker theory," women will have evolved traits that increase the likelihood that their offspring will survive. According to one study, ladies preferred examining images and silhouettes of infants more than males.

Female interest in infants peaked during childhood and adolescence: "the role of early female attraction to infants is likely to aid the learning of parenting abilities through observation and hands-on experience. To guarantee that females have enough parenting experience, female interest in newborns should begin early in development and remain high until the first reproductive event. Women are better at recognizing the infant's emotions.

Parents 'Investment in Children

Humans live in a modern milieu that differs significantly from ancestral situations in many respects. Modern people have monetary economies that did not exist before the Pleistocene epoch. One benefit of cash economies from the research standpoint is that they give clear quantitative investment metrics. Three evolutionary anthropologists used this occasion to assess the consequences of men's questionable paternity on their investment in their children's college education.

The anthropologists made three predictions −

  • Men will devote more resources to their biological children than to their stepchildren

  • Men who are unsure whether their children are genetically their own will invest less than men who are confident the children are their own

  • Men will devote more resources to children whose mother is their current mate than to children from previous mateships

This third prediction is accurate for both biological and stepchildren. Predictions 1 and 2 are directly derived from the evolutionary theory of parental care, namely the concept of genetic relatedness. Prediction 3 is based on the notion that males employ parental care as a method of mating. That is, males, transfer resources to children in order to attract and maintain a partner. The data to validate these predictions came from 615 males in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

These men fathered 1,246 children, 1,158 of whom were genetic offspring and 88 of whom were stepchildren. The researchers collected data on three dependent measures −

  • Whether the child received any money for college from the respondent (69 per cent);

  • The total amount of money each child received for college from the respondent, adjusted to 1990 dollars (on average, each offspring received $13,180 from the respondent)

  • The percentage of the child's college expenses that were paid by the respondent (on average, 44 per cent of college expenses were paid by the respondent)

The findings well validated all three expectations. It made a significant impact to be genetically linked to the respondent rather than a stepchild. Genetic children were 5.5 times more likely than stepchildren to get some college funding from parents; they received $15,500 more for college on average and had 65 per cent more of their college expenditures paid for. Forecast I, that males will choose genetic children above stepchildren received overwhelming approval.

The second prediction was about the impact of men's confidence that they were dads. The males in the study named every pregnancy they thought they were responsible for. They were then questioned whether they were convinced that they were the dads. If a guy stated that he was convinced he was not the father or was confused if he was the father, he was classed as having low confidence in paternity.

Children of men with poor paternity confidence were only 13% more likely to get any college funding and got $28,400 less than children whose fathers were convinced that they were the genetic fathers. As a result, prediction two is supported.

The final prediction that males will invest more in their present mates' children than their past mates' children, regardless of whom the genetic parents are, also garnered high support. If the kid's mother was the respondent's companion when the child started college, the child was about three times more likely to get money from the respondent.

When all other factors were equal, children received $14,900 more while their genetic parents remained together; an additional 53% of such children's college expenditures were paid for when the children's moms were still mated with the responders.


Studying the evolutionary causes and consequences of the variety in parental care is an important field of inquiry in evolutionary biology. Essential goals in this field are to understand how selection and genetic architecture generate and maintain diversity in parental care.

How diversity in parental care drives or is driven by selection on other traits of interest, such as life histories, mating systems and sexual selection, and sociality; and how genetic conflicts of interest among family members shape the allocation of resources from parents to offspring.

Updated on: 11-Apr-2023


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