Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Natural History of Families

A Natural History of Families

Scott Forbes
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 256
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Natural History of Families
    Book Description:

    Why do baby sharks, hyenas, and pelicans kill their siblings? Why do beetles and mice commit infanticide? Why are twins and birth defects more common in older human mothers?A Natural History of Familiesconcisely examines what behavioral ecologists have discovered about family dynamics and what these insights might tell us about human biology and behavior. Scott Forbes's engaging account describes an uneasy union among family members in which rivalry for resources often has dramatic and even fatal consequences.

    In nature, parents invest resources and control the allocation of resources among their offspring to perpetuate their genetic lineage. Those families sometimes function as cooperative units, the nepotistic and loving havens we choose to identify with. In the natural world, however, dysfunctional familial behavior is disarmingly commonplace.

    While explaining why infanticide, fratricide, and other seemingly antisocial behaviors are necessary, Forbes also uncovers several surprising applications to humans. Here the conflict begins in the moments following conception as embryos struggle to wrest control of pregnancy from the mother, and to wring more nourishment from her than she can spare, thus triggering morning sickness, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Mothers, in return, often spontaneously abort embryos with severe genetic defects, allowing for prenatal quality control of offspring.

    Using a broad sweep of entertaining examples culled from the world of animals and humans,A Natural History of Familiesis a lively introduction to the behavioral ecology of the family.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3723-6
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Chapter 1 Blame Parents
    (pp. 1-8)

    On September 25, 1994, Lele, a giant panda at the Beijing Zoo, gave birth to twins. Pandas are critically endangered in their native habitat—the bamboo forests of western China—and any addition to their number is welcome. But the joyous mood was dampened by the dark side of panda parental care. Leleʹs babies were born 23 minutes apart, the first weighing 5.7 ounces, the second just 1.8 ounces. Almost immediately she abandoned the larger infant in favor of her smaller second-born. Ironically, the name Lele means ʺdouble happiness,ʺ hardly the case here. Such behavior is not unusual for pandas....

  5. Chapter 2 The Optimistic Parent
    (pp. 9-31)

    InA Christmas Carol, Dickensʹs curmudgeon confronts the question of whether the future is already foretold. Scrooge himself puts it best: ʺ ʹMenʹs courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,ʹ said Scrooge. ʹBut if the course be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!ʹ ʺ

    Much would change if we indeed knew what the future would bring. Why carry a spare if tires are puncture proof? Why buy fire insurance for a house built of asbestos? Health insurance perhaps, fire insurance no. We use backups as...

  6. Chapter 3 Why Parents Play Favorites
    (pp. 32-42)

    Though he was the eleventh of twelve sons, Joseph was his fatherʹs favorite. His fatherʹs gift of a coat of many colors reflected his special status as the designated heir and also, sadly, aroused the enmity of his brothers. This favoritism triggered a fratricidal conspiracy. Josephʹs life was spared only when Reuben, his eldest brother, objected to the plot to murder him. Instead, Joseph was stripped of his coat, cast into an empty pit, and then sold into slavery. The brothers dipped the coat in goat blood before returning it to their father, who mourned the loss of a son...

  7. Chapter 4 How Parents Play Favorites
    (pp. 43-54)

    Human progeny are not exempt from the rules of parental optimism, and primogeniture is a clear example of how humans play favorites. With the family property passed to the eldest son, older and younger progeny are rendered decidedly unequal, even though from the parentsʹ perspective the offspring are on average genetic equals. Ceteris paribus they are equally worthy of investment. But all else is not equal. In a vast array of species, parental—and usually maternal—manipulations of phenotype (the morphology, physiology, and behavior of an individual) place some offspring at a disadvantage at the very start of life.


  8. Chapter 5 Family Conflict
    (pp. 55-77)

    At age thirty-nine Charlotte Brontë found herself the final survivor of six children. Tragedy had hung gloomily over the Brontë clan, but now in the new year of 1855, newly married and pregnant with her first child, she might look forward with some optimism. Looking back was surely painful, as the family that had given rise to the most famous trio of siblings in literary history was plagued by misfortune. Her mother had died when Charlotte was only five, followed shortly after by the deaths in childhood of her two older sisters. Her brother Branwell, the model for the character...

  9. Chapter 6 Selfishness Unconstrained
    (pp. 78-86)

    Loki the shape-shifter is the most intriguing character of Norse mythology. He is the trickster who keeps the company of gods, whom he sometimes angers and sometimes pleases. Loki persuaded the gods to accept the challenge of a solitary mason whose task was to rebuild the stone wall surrounding Asgard, the home of the gods. Should he succeed, the mason demanded the hand of Freyja, fairest of all the goddesses, in marriage. Six months was the time allotted to the seemingly impossible task, for Asgard was vast in expanse. The gods were convinced by Loki that they could not lose,...

  10. Chapter 7 Screening for Offspring Quality
    (pp. 87-108)

    Oneʹs fate was determined early in ancient Sparta. A council of elders screened each newborn for defects. Fathers were ordered to rear babies found stout and sturdy, and the infant was assigned one of the nine thousand shares of communal property. But those found wanting were cast into a ravine—anapothetae—at the foot of Mount Taygetus to perish. Spartan decision making was a conscious decision to protect the public good from the perils of defective progeny. One wonders whether Kafka could have produced a more nightmarish tandem: committees and infanticide.

    More privately, human mothers practice an unconscious version...

  11. Chapter 8 Why Twins?
    (pp. 109-128)

    By the standards of Victorian England, Charles and Emma Darwin led lives of privilege. They received £18,000 as wedding gifts from their parents and a further £45,000 inheritance with the death of Charlesʹs father Robert in 1848. By 1882 shrewd investment had more than quadrupled the estate to £282,000. Their independent wealth allowed the Darwins to live a quiet life and raise a large family in the village of Down. Freed from the pedestrian concerns of having to earn a living, Charles Darwin was able to devote himself to a life in science. Even before the publication of theOrigin...

  12. Chapter 9 Fatal Sibling Rivalry
    (pp. 129-146)

    The Roman Empire had endured a succession of tyrants and despots when the emperor Pertinax reluctantly came to power. He set out to right the wrongs of his predecessors, to purge a corrupt administration, and to lift the burden of oppression from Romans. For this the Praetorian Guard, who had grown accustomed to the perks of power, quite naturally murdered him. These second-century thugs then proceeded to auction the emperorʹs throne to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus, a wealthy senator, outbid another pretender and claimed the throne albeit briefly. Julianʹs reign ended when the general of the Pannonian armies, Septimus...

  13. Chapter 10 Family Harmony
    (pp. 147-170)

    Eros, the god of passion in Greek mythology, was the son of Aphrodite. His mother was troubled that her son remained forever as a child, and vexed, she took her problem to Themis, the wise goddess of justice who provided the solution. Eros needed a brother, for love must be returned to grow. Aphrodite soon gave birth to Anterios (Returned Love), and as Themis predicted, Eros grew rapidly in both size and strength. Here a brotherʹs love was a necessary synergy for Eros to thrive.

    Conflict and cooperation are logical counterparts, and both are routine components of family relations. In...

  14. Chapter 11 Cannibalism and Infanticide
    (pp. 171-181)

    In 1729 Jonathan Swift made ʺA Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.ʺ Swiftʹs solution? Fatten young babes on motherʹs milk and then, at a year, slaughter and eat them. At ten shillings per child, a fee paid by persons of quality and fortune, mothers could earn a handsome profit, as Swift estimated the rearing costs for each child to be no more than two shillings. What he suggested was of course dark satire, a bitter commentary on life...

  15. Chapter 12 Brave New Worlds
    (pp. 182-196)

    Darwin was mistaken about the existence of infanticide. He and almost all others who were to follow for the next century did not see because they did not want to see. Like it or not, infanticide is part of the human behavioral repertoire. This comes as no surprise to evolutionary biologists. It is a trait we share with virtually all other species that extend the umbrella of postzygotic parental care to their offspring. The same principles that explain the rude habits of sharks that devour siblings, pandas and bears that abandon their progeny, and murderous rivalries of pelicans and eagles...

  16. Chapter 13 Debunking the Family Myth
    (pp. 197-200)

    When a white booby or black eagle nestling pummels its younger brother or sister into a bloody, pulpy mass, is this a dysfunctional family? Is it pathological behavior when a burying beetle cannibalizes its own brood, or a sparrow hawk eats a sibling? Is a male langurʹs or lionʹs or mouseʹs abuse and killing of the infants, cubs, or pups sired by a different male aberrant? In short do we need a battery of animal psychologists (and plant pathologists) to treat seriously deranged parents and offspring, or are these behaviors, spectacular and brutal as they may be, part of the...

  17. Selected References
    (pp. 201-228)
  18. Index
    (pp. 229-234)