BMC Biology (May 2018)

Caring for parents: an evolutionary rationale

  • J. Garay,
  • S. Számadó,
  • Z. Varga,
  • E. Szathmáry

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 16, no. 1
pp. 1 – 9


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Abstract Background The evolutionary roots of human moral behavior are a key precondition to understanding human nature. Investigations usually start with a social dilemma and end up with a norm that can provide some insight into the origin of morality. We take the opposite direction by investigating whether the cultural norm that promotes helping parents and which is respected in different variants across cultures and is codified in several religions can spread through Darwinian competition. Results We show with a novel demographic model that the biological rule “During your reproductive period, give some of your resources to your post-fertile parents” will spread even if the cost of support given to post-fertile grandmothers considerably decreases the demographic parameters of fertile parents but radically increases the survival rate of grandchildren. The teaching of vital cultural content is likely to have been critical in making grandparental service valuable. We name this the Fifth Rule, after the Fifth Commandment that codifies such behaviors in Christianity. Conclusions Selection for such behavior may have produced an innate moral tendency to honor parents even in situations, such as those experienced today, when the quantitative conditions would not necessarily favor the maintenance of this trait.