Intergenerational Transmission of Conjugal Stability in a Caribbean Community *

Article excerpt

We are interested in whether family relations are replicated from generation to generation. Is the daughter of a single mother, for example, more likely to become a single mother herself? Inter- and intra-cultural variation indicates that environment has strong influences on the development of family behavior. Different cultures each have distinct systems of mating and parenting, including patterns of within-culture variation. Reproductive behavior may be strongly influenced by environmental conditions and social experience during ontogeny (Alexander, 1990). There is controversy, however, concerning the effect of family environment on children's long-term developmental outcomes (Collins et al. 2000; Harris, 1995).

We use an evolutionary theoretical framework to explore intergenerational patterns of conjugal stability. The objective is to examine the effects of a child's family environment on her or his subsequent mating and parenting behavior as an adult. We test the hypothesis that father absence during early childhood is associated with conjugal instability as an adult. In contrast to this hypothesis, we suggest that adolescence may be more important than early childhood in shaping adult reproductive behavior. Lack of parental control of adolescents' sexual behavior may permit the formation of early and unstable conjugal unions.

A cross-cultural comparative perspective is essential for evaluating theories of family formation and development. We compare evidence of intergenerational transmission of conjugal stability in Western industrial populations with multi-generation patterns of conjugal stability in a rural Caribbean community. In addition, we compare the influence of parental supervision on children's behavior in Western populations and in a rural Caribbean community. Data analyzed include genealogies and quantitative behavioral observations collected during a twelve-year ethnographic study of Bwa Mawego, a rural village on Dominica in the Lesser Antilles.


Family environments presumably affect child development (Bornstein, 1995; Bowlby, 1982). Children in turn become parents, and generate family environments that are influenced by their own early experiences. The evolutionary basis for intergenerational transmission of family behavior, however, is controversial.

In their seminal work, Draper and Harpending (1982, 1988) propose that humans evolved psychological mechanisms that use conjugal stability in the early childhood family environment as a cue for development of subsequent reproductive strategies. Unstable conjugal unions of parents cue the child to develop a "mating effort strategy" (early maturation, short term mating relationships, high fertility). Conversely, stable conjugal unions cue the child to develop a "parental effort strategy" (delayed maturation, stable long term mating relationships, low fertility). Early childhood (the first five to seven years of life) is proposed as a sensitive period for reproductive development. Developmental canalization of reproductive behavior may be adaptive when adult environment is reliably predicted by childhood environment. In effect, toddlers can use cues in their family environment to prepare for their reproductive future.

Following the logic of parental investment theory (Trivers 1972), resource abundance is linked to father-absence: "If there is abundant food, then a male does not benefit from provisioning his offspring to the extent that he does if food is scarce, so the payoff to male labor must be a crucial element in our theory" (Draper & Harpending, 1988, p. 351). Mating effort strategies are hypothesized to be adaptive in environments with plentiful resources, because the added effort of a second parent may do little to improve children's survival and eventual reproduction. Parental effort strategies are hypothesized to be adaptive in environments with scarce resources, because biparental care is important for child survival and ultimate reproduction (i. …