Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Parent-Offspring Conflict over Mating and the Evolution of Mating-Control Institutions

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Parent-Offspring Conflict over Mating and the Evolution of Mating-Control Institutions

Article excerpt

Parents and offspring often have conflicting interests over mating, which results in the ideal spouse not being the ideal in-law and the ideal in-law not being the ideal spouse. This induces parents to control the mating decisions of their offspring, which in turn gives rise to social institutions that uphold this control. Based on this theoretical framework, it is predicted that these institutions intend predominantly to control the mating decisions of the female offspring when they are young, that they are more prevalent among the upper strata, and that they arise only in an ecological context where parents are able to exercise some degree of control over the mating decisions of their offspring. These predictions are examined on a number of institutions, such as arranged marriage and female circumcision.

Key Words: Parent-offspring conflict over mating; Arranged marriage; Infant-child betrothal; Female circumcision; Clitoridectomy; Infibulation; Foot-binding; Breast-ironing; Evolutionary sociology; Mating control institutions; Social institutions.

Man is not only a tool-making animal; he is an institution-making animal (Chapin 1928, p.375).

'Among the Nandi in Kenya, when a girl is still very young, her parents betroth her to a man of their choice. When she enters puberty, she goes through puberty rites, which involve the alteration of her genital organs. After the conclusion of this procedure, she is ready for conjugal life and her parents arrange her marriage with the parents of her betrothee' (Langley 1979).

These customs and practices, absent from Western post- industrial societies (at least over the last few generations), are associated with restricting and regulating mating behavior, and as such can be called mating-control institutions. The wide prevalence of these institutions across human cultures (Apostolou 2007b; Blood 1972; Frayser 1985) begs the question of their roots, function and purpose. Notably, their existence cannot be attributed to regulating mating; arguing that mating-control institutions exist to control mating is a circular hypothesis since it does not explain why mating needs to be controlled in the first place.

Although mating-control institutions are commonly found across different cultures, theoretical work in this area has been rather thin. Goode (1982) has argued that humans predominantly depend on culture and not on their innate predispositions. Thus, human societies rely on the effectiveness of socialization of their younger members. Due to this dependence, the community must shape and guide its younger members who will eventually pass on their social values to the next generations. The increasing dependence on culture then requires the human community to control mate choices (Goode 1982).

A theory that aspires to explain these institutions should account for their shared characteristics. Nevertheless, the socialization theory does not predict the asymmetric nature of the mating-control institutions, where more control is exercised over women. Also, it is not reasonable to assume that a given society aims at shaping and guiding its female members without paying much attention to the male ones. Moreover, the socialization theory does not explain why in Western post-industrial societies these institutions are not present. It would be difficult to argue that in post-industrial societies people are guided more by instincts and less by socialization. In fact, the socialization theory fails to make any predictions on the workings of these institutions.

Dismissing human nature as a causal force is unlikely to produce any fruitful results in the endeavor to understand social institutions. A more productive approach is to view these social structures as cultural epiphenomena associated with phenomena grounded in the interaction of individuals who have a specific nature, a nature shaped by evolution (Murdock 1971; Tooby & Cosmides 1992). To take one example, prostitution is not a social phenomenon that can be explained solely by social forces such as poverty. …

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