According to David Funder, Douglas Kenrick proposed a revised version of Maslow's hierarchy from an evolutionary perspective (1). He said that human beings will strive to move from 1 to 7 in a pyramid.

  1. Immediate physiological needs.
  2. Self-protection.
  3. Affiliation.
  4. Status-esteem.
  5. Mate acquisition.
  6. Mate retention.
  7. Parenting.

But my questions are:

How can we explain from an evolutionary perspective that some "successful" species, choose consciously to avoid parenthood at all? Does it conflict with the evolutionary perspective that every human would try to parenting? If not, how is it supposed to be interpreted?

(1) The personality puzzle by David Funder (2013), Chapter 13, page 452.

  • $\begingroup$ In either way this hierarchy is flawed. I don't want "mates", I want friends (even if such a friendship involves sex). So, levels 5-7 are nonsensical to me. At the same time there are things which do not belong to levels 1-4. I think even original (yet, problematic) is less prejudiced. $\endgroup$
    – rus9384
    Oct 3, 2018 at 20:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @rus9384 Just because it doesn't fit you, that does not make it "flawed" or "prejudiced" or "nonsensical." Psychologists usually try to describe general trends, not something that will fit perfectly to every single individual. Any decent psychologist knowns that there will be variation. $\endgroup$
    – Eff
    Oct 4, 2018 at 7:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Eff I am not alone. Far from being alone. You see these open relationships and childfree trends? There were none 70 years ago. They'll become trendier. People simply were afraid of appearing nuts to other people, that's why they conformed. $\endgroup$
    – rus9384
    Oct 4, 2018 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ @rus9384 It's possible that they will become trendier. It's also possible that you're simply trying to be different to rebel (I don't actually believe that, I believe you're doing what you prefer. But the assertion is just as valid as you asserting that everyone is just trying to conform, with your implication being that most people are simply sheep and would really prefer it your way.) I think you should simply live your life in the way that you prefer. But don't take offense when people try to describe broad psychological trends which doesn't perfectly capture you specifically. $\endgroup$
    – Eff
    Oct 4, 2018 at 8:22
  • $\begingroup$ @rus9384 I'm very, very different than most people in many respects. However, when I read the psychological literature and I see something that doesn't fit with me, I don't take offense. It's good to consider the possibility that the researchers have missed something; but it's equally important to consider the possibility that I am simply different in this respect. I certainly don't call them prejudiced or nonsensical or suggest that they're simply conformists. $\endgroup$
    – Eff
    Oct 4, 2018 at 8:27

1 Answer 1


Before addressing your true question, I just want to say that you can find individuals with almost any characteristic, even non-adaptive ones. Variation can exist for many reasons including genetic (e.g. mutations), or non-genetic reasons such as developmental problems or other environmental causes.

But back the true question:

How can it be explained from an evolutionary perspective that some people have no desire to want children?

Evolutionary psychologists do not perceive the brain to be a conscious fitness calculating machine. To address such a question, it is fundamental to understand the difference between proximate and ultimate causation.

It is true that humans who didn't have any children would, by definition, be less reproductively successful in the past. Therefore, you would expect traits that lead to not having children be slowly selected out.

But you have to analyze this at the proximate level: What caused people in the past to have children? It was not mainly people thinking "I really want a child," rather it was people thinking "I desire sex with that person." What I am getting at here is that it was sex drive, rather than explicitly wanting children per se, that has been selected for.

It can often be helpful to compare us to other animals, especially animals who don't have as powerful cognitive faculties as us. Do you think that all other animals really think that "they want a child," or do you think that by some strange mechanism two individuals are attracted to each other to copulate (It might be scent, visuals, strength, or anything really)?

Of course, I have simplified things substantially. Probably there have been many psychological traits that have been helpful for reproduction other than simply sex drive. Probably also social bonding, and perhaps even the "desire for having children." However, my point here is that the desire to have children is not required, if another mechanism leads to people having children. However, it gets even more complex, because an infinitely strong sexual drive is not necessarily good, either. Being selective in who you mate with can be important as well for ultimate reproductive success.

Next question:

How can we explain from an evolutionary perspective that some "successful" species, choose consciously to avoid parenthood at all?

There is a fundamental trade-off between how much effort and energy you invest in each offspring, and the number of offspring you have. If you have 10 children, you simply do not have as much time or resources to spend on each of them compared to if you had 2 children. This can lead to differences in how many of your offspring survive and eventually have their own offspring (Especially in conditions where resources are scarce). These differences in reproductive patterns were originally explored in r/K selection theory and now in Life history theory. Ignoring parenthood has its benefits in that it allows for more offspring and investing less energy into each.

Now you may ask the following:

But what about after the child comes? For humans, if there is no one there to take care of the child, then it's guaranteed that the child will not survive.

It is clear that humans are a species where parenthood is important, because human infants are so helpless when born and for a long duration. Therefore, you would also expect it to have been selected for that people would invest time and resources in (i.e. to parent) the child when it shows up. You would probably expect this especially for women, because the child can survive without the father, but it is very difficult for it to survive without the mother (in the first few years, especially in ancient environments).

But, in fact, it is very rare that mothers have no desire to protect or care for their offspring after having it. So rare that it does not conflict with the evolutionary perspective. We also know that certain hormones are important for developing social bonds between the parent and offspring such as oxytocin.

  • $\begingroup$ very nice answer $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2018 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ Is it true that almost all women would not like to defer babysitting on other people? I guess the major driver in your last example is empathy for a child. But if there is a possibility to make someone else babysitting would most women still not do it? I think this is the real question from evolutionary perspective (which is my argument for innate division of labor). $\endgroup$
    – rus9384
    Oct 3, 2018 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ @rus9384 Would most women give off their children to free babysitting if given the choice? I don't know if there is any empirical evidence regarding this question. Intuitively (and this is just a guess), I would think that most women would love to have their children babysat to give them some free time to do other things, however they would probably want a lot of time with their child as well, because of social bond, love and so on. No one is suggesting that the parent-child bond is the only drive among women, so I don't know if I agree that this would be the "real" evolutionary question. $\endgroup$
    – Eff
    Oct 3, 2018 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ @rus9384 I don't agree that something has to be a kind of "dream job" for it to have been evolutionary selected for. Raising a child is hard work, the fact that parents even tolerate the small children (let alone love them dearly, and many people thinking it's the biggest reward in life ever), suggests to me that evolution has done things to make childrearing more enjoyable. It is also possible for parent-offspring conflict to evolve so it is not surprising if parenting has its annoying side-effects. $\endgroup$
    – Eff
    Oct 3, 2018 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ My theory is that some people are not interesting in such activities. Not even sure they actually can have strong bonds. It might be called avoidant attachment, but I don't think there is any avoidance at all. Just lack of it. So, my theory is that these people are both uninterested in family and babysitting. They can be interested in sidekicks (friends) more. My theory is that (since people of different types lived in one community) these people gave birth to children but were not interested in nursing them. So, that other people did it. While those people did other stuff. Division of labor. $\endgroup$
    – rus9384
    Oct 3, 2018 at 19:19

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