Why marriage & fatherhood might not matter as much as you think

By Razib Khan | June 26, 2012 12:11 am

While I was on blogging hiatus single motherhood and the whole Dan Quayle flap came back into the news. Here’s Mitt Romney:

The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family.

The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Senator Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2%. But, if those things are absent, 76% will be poor. Culture matters.

I’ve been ragging on the cultural Left on this weblog recently because of the delusions that those of this bent simply won’t let go of in the quest for utopian egalitarianism. But one aspect of the American cultural and political scene is that Left and Right often operate with similar presuppositions, only weighting the emphasis differently. While the cultural Left puts the focus on nearly infinite possibilities of individual self-actualization, the cultural Right has backed itself into a corner of individual moral perfectionism which borders on the farcical.

The most extreme form of this is the attitude toward homosexuality. Though many social conservatives are now accepting the proposition that homosexual orientation can be innate, many deny this likelihood. Ultimately the morality of homosexuality doesn’t necessarily depend on whether it is innate or not, but obviously the injustice of the situation becomes more stark when you are arguing that a human being must suppress their natural impulses.

But speaking of natural impulses, modern social conservatives are asking people to maintain monogamous commitment for 50+ years. This is a profoundly extreme expectation, as pre-modern mortality rates were such that the likelihood of such a long pair-bond was low in any case. This does not mean that such long-term monogamy is not a laudable goal (I have such a goal myself), but many social conservatives haven’t grappled with the daunting hand which they’ve been dealt. This isn’t 1600 any longer.

Perhaps the most striking disjunction between the world which social conservatives assume exists and the world as it is comes to the role of the nuclear family: it doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it matters. Here’s a major reason why:

Dividing the children of the NSFH into four groups – those with no family disruption, those who lost a parent to death, those whose parents divorced, and those born to never-married mothers – we find significant differences in educational outcomes. Those whose mothers divorced or never married clearly suffer the most negative effects. Adjusting for the factors that predate father absence and are known to influence school failure, we find that children in these two categories are several times more likely to drop out of school than their peers with intact families. The dropout risk is 37 percent for those with never-married mothers and 31 percent for those with divorced parents, in contrast with the 13 percent risk of those from families with no disruption. Significantly, the risk for children who lost a parent to death is 15 percent, virtually the same as that for children from intact homes. Clearly, children of a widowed mother enjoy economic and other advantages over their peers from households headed by divorced or never-married parents.

Those “other advantages” includes particular genes. The null hypothesis which the media and the public intellectual complex sell us is that destabilized households lead to late life destabilization in individuals. What this misses is that destabilized individuals lead to destabilized households, and destabilized individuals also produce other destabilized individuals. In other words, one reason that kids whose parents didn’t stay together and are messed up is because they have the same crappy dispositions as their parents. They share genes with their parents.

This isn’t to deny that all things equal being in an intact nuclear family is preferable to being raised by a single parent. Ask anyone who grew up in a situation where they lost one of their parents to cancer or some such thing. But naive assumptions that simply increasing the marriage rate will reverse social dysfunction are going to be dashed against the reality that putting together explosive impulsive people under the same roof is not going to turn them into Ward and June Cleaver.

Addendum: Rule-of-thumb, parental environment/social influence explains about ~10 percent of the variation in behavioral or cognitive characteristics. The balance is split about evenly between genetic influence, and other random unaccounted for environmental/stochastic factors.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics
  • David

    I sometimes wonder if children with profound discipline problems might also cause divorces.

  • Dwight E. Howell

    As one parent said, “If my first child had been ADHD I’d never have had another.”

    You do realize that you are arguing for eugenics? According to this point of view way to many people who have decided to have one child should have had at least three or four while a lot of people who have had many children should have been neutered.

    I don’t necessarily disagree about the logic but I can promise you that you will catch bleep for having gone anywhere near the topic assuming the thought police realize what you were thinking.

    Dr. Kellogg among others came through personal experience to the view that the apple does not fall far from the tree and after 39 years teaching in most cases I agree. There are exceptions.

  • marcel

    I’ve been ragging on the cultural Left on this weblog recently because of the delusions that those of this bent simply won’t let go of in the quest for utopian egalitarianism…. While the cultural Left puts the focus on nearly infinite possibilities of individual self-actualization, the cultural Right has backed itself into a corner of individual moral perfectionism which borders on the farcical.

    “Cultural Right” maps pretty well into colloquially used political categories, socially conservative and (given the Pauls, father and son) some libertarians: anyway, certainly social conservatives, including the religious right. Have you previously defined who or what you mean by “cultural Left”? It’s the first time that I’ve noticed “Left” modified by “cultural” on this blog (or more generally).

    I’m on the left, and I tend to skim pretty quickly the raggings on the left, because, with my apparently restricted social life, I almost never come into contact with the types that drive you up the wall and am not much aware of their existence more generally (Lewontin and Gould being exceptions to this). So I would be interested in this definition and curious to see concrete examples of cultural leftists.

  • FredR

    What do you think of James Chisholm’s theory in “Death, Hope, and Sex” that early attachment experiences determine life-history strategies?

  • April Brown

    @2 – I think it’s a pretty big leap to say that pointing out that genes affect behaviour in families is tantamount to arguing for eugenics. Pointing out that ‘phenomenon A exists’ is a far cry from ‘therefore action B’.

  • FredR

    When I asked Henry Harpending that question he replied (along with noting that there was some evidence for the simple genetic transmission view):

    “Jim thinks that there is stress involved in the effects of father absence, while we suggested that it was just learning going on in the kids. Our point of view was that kids ought to have evolved to learn from their mothers because of the shared genes. Strangers, on the other hand, would have more reasons to deceive. So our idea was that children raised by single or unbonded mothers would convey to their offspring that males are not vital to fitness while two-parent family mothers would convey that males are important for successful reproduction.

    In intensive studies of families the biggest difference seems to be that divorced moms have very low regard for their exmates and don’t hesitate to say so, married mothers do not broadcast this message. Interestingly widows are to the other extreme, “losing your dad was the greatest tragedy of our lives”, and so on. This fits with social surveys showing sometimes that father absence effects are reversed in offspring of widows (vs. offspring of divorce.)”

  • http://jayman.blog.com/ JayMan

    Beautifully said! This issue of parents (which was blog post #1 for me) is one where even most HBD’ers are stubbornly dogmatic. All the evidence clearly shows that parents matter a whole lot less than people think. One quibble, 10% for the shared environment component of the variance is on the high side. Most larger studies tend to produce shared environment estimates closer to 0.

    But I think that this is a case similar to free will, where it doesn’t matter if it exists or not (it doesn’t), but whether people think it exists and the attitude they have towards it. One example of this is the correlation between parenting styles and outcomes; these are sign of temperament that are passed down from parent to child.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Dwight E. Howell, you’re being stupid in your ‘logic.’ think more clearly, or i’m not going to publish your comments anymore. i demand more than 8 year old level cognition.

  • Chad

    Razib, forgive me upfront if anything I say sounds stupid. I admit that I am not very familiar with the social sciences or their methods.

    1) Are you familiar with any studies that have looked into genetic contributions to family instability and child outcome? I agree that this is likely to be a factor, but I suspect that given the bias of the social sciences to focus primarily on environmental factors, such studies have not been done.

    2) In the limited reading I have done I have seen studies that have attempted to control for the mother’s mental health, which I think would arguably to a limited extent control for some genetic factors, such as predispositions to depression and other mental health affects.

    “The primary hypothesis under examination is that father involvement partially mediates the effects of family structure on adolescent behavioral outcomes. The results provide clear support for this hypothesis, as father involvement reduces both the size and the significance of nearly all the statistically significant family structure effects on adolescent behavior. This is true regardless of whether father involvement is added before or after the other mediating factors (economic status, mother’s mental health, mother involvement, and number of siblings). These results underscore the importance of high-quality paternal time as a mechanism for family structure effects. Although previous studies have examined mothers’ parenting, this is the first study to directly measure variation in fathers’ as well as mothers’ parenting across family structures and to show that father involvement partially accounts for differences by family structure in adolescent well-being.”

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2006.00239.x/full

    Of course, that only gets at the mental health of one of the parents…

  • http://www.gwern.net gwern

    > This is a profoundly extreme expectation, as pre-modern mortality rates were such that the likelihood of such a long pair-bond was low in any case.

    Are they? We all know how infant mortality skews life expectancy and mortality rates: once you pass your teens, in many societies you have life expectancies in your 50s-60s, and if you marry in your teens or early twenties, that’s a good 40 years right there.

  • Kaviani

    This also tangentially explains why women are the target of conservative “activism”. Anything BUT the 1600 social model threatens paternalists.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    1) Are you familiar with any studies that have looked into genetic contributions to family instability and child outcome? I agree that this is likely to be a factor, but I suspect that given the bias of the social sciences to focus primarily on environmental factors, such studies have not been done.

    see the bibliography in the nurture assumption.

    Are they? We all know how infant mortality skews life expectancy and mortality rates: once you pass your teens, in many societies you have life expectancies in your 50s-60s, and if you marry in your teens or early twenties, that’s a good 40 years right there.

    give me a mortality curve, don’t make one up (the citation). last i checked the peak in mortality was as you describe, but the basal rate of death was still considerably higher than today. though that’s somewhat conditional (e.g., land surplus vs. labor surplus matters a lot in infectious outbreaks in pre-modern conditions).

    Anything BUT the 1600 social model threatens paternalists.

    no, this is an idealized social model of the 1950s. even during the victorian era visits to prostitutes were not uncommon among bourgeois males.

  • Dm

    Of course inherited genetic traits isn’t an unreasonable null hypothesis, but so is any non-genetic heritable factor which would have predisposed both parents and their offspring to low economical or educational status. Like shared cultural, regional, ethnic, local, socio-economic class factors. Say if they both grew in neighborhoods with bad schools / high crime / poverty among neighbors, then both generations would be more likely to take a hit. Just like with your genetic null hypothesis, the predisposition factors are shared between family members, but the actual condition isn’t “transferable” from mothers to children. If said mother were to have better matrimonial luck or education, the children would still be at a higher risk; and conversely, if a mother of a privileged class and / or lucky genes were to have out of wedlock children, they’d still have a better chances of economic success in their lives.

    Culture and class alone are heritable enough to confound simple correlations with putative genetic factors of predisposition to social success.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #13, yes. bit you are too strong when you say “confound.” such background conditions are known and understood. also may be “non-shared environment.” but what do you say toward adoption studies which still indicate strong genetic effects? are they still not sufficient to be plausible to you? (i don’t want a long answer, keep it succinct, i’m curious how seriously to take you and if you know the literature)

  • ed

    I think peer influence is important, and that a major channel through which parents cause outcomes is by indirectly determine peer group choice, by choosing neighborhoods, schools, churches, etc.

    I would guess that this effect is larger than home environment, and may be nearly as large as genes. But it usually gets left out of discussions like this.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #15, i talk about peers constantly. have readers here not read judith rich harris? anyway,

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2007/08/you-are-your-peers-sort-of/

    there is a hypothesis that ‘non-shared environment’ are peers. so yeah, that might be the parents’ biggest choice. and that’s why adoption studies are particularly informative.

  • Dm

    Why, I think I carefully mentioned *simple correlations*? Shared background can, in some studies, be eliminated (e.g. studies of adoptees) or partially corrected for (by carefully controlling social and economic factors – although not all aspects of culture, locality, or clan are easy to control for).

    We should also keep in mind that the studies of heritability of societal success largely focused on general intelligence, and it is more or less reasonable to assume that heritable IQ has a monotonous effect on most measures of success (the more the merrier). However many cognitive and social genetic traits are certain to be pleiotropic, beneficial in one setting, deleterious in another (after all, if a genetic factor was always beneficial, why didn’t it evolve to fixation already?)

    The following examples are simplified; true pleiotropy works in even more convoluted ways. But say if you are predisposed to creativity as opposed to rote learning, then do you become an inventor or a thief? If you are predisposed to loyalty, to you become a general or a narco minion? If you disregard authority of the higher-ups, do you become a scientist or a prisoner?

    I would argue that the genetics of personality has a huge level of heritable variation precisely to assure long-term reproductive success in the face of unpredictable social conditions (no matter feast or famine, war or peace, ascendance or subjugation, some progeny should be well suited for the settings)

  • Anthony

    What this misses is that destabilized individuals lead to destabilized households, and destabilized individuals also produce other destabilized individuals. In other words, one reason that kids whose parents didn’t stay together and are messed up is because they have the same crappy dispositions as their parents. They share genes with their parents.

    Social patterns can affect this, too – in a society with stronger expectations of lifelong marriage, etc., women are somewhat less likely to choose really destabilized men as the fathers of their children. While destabilized women will not have a great range of choices – the more stable women will marry the more stable men – that sort of culture will lower the chances that the really unstable men will reproduce. In a more free-for-all society, certain types of destabilization in men will become more sexually attractive, and those sorts of men will be more likely to have children.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    nice comments fwiw.

    I would argue that the genetics of personality has a huge level of heritable variation precisely to assure long-term reproductive success in the face of unpredictable social conditions (no matter feast or famine, war or peace, ascendance or subjugation, some progeny should be well suited for the settings)

    not sure i would put it this way. rather, frequency dependence so that one ‘strategy’ never fixes.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    2 -

    Might be dead and buried by now, but the only way you can take Razib’s argument to mean a call to eugenics is if you assume there’s something wrong with people with crappy dispositions existing. Razib is pretty far from a utopian, so I don’t know where you’d assume he believes making the entire human race into an emotionally balanced monoculture is a good idea. And even if he did, believing it was ethical to do something merely because it ultimately would have a positive outcome is fairly totalitarian.

    More generally on the post -

    I think Razib is being a bit too hard on the Right on this particular issue. From my experience, many on the social right understand that various individual issues can make marriage harder for one person than another – perhaps not openly thought of as genetic, but still fairly inherent “failings” of the individual. And to the degree they focus on the “broken homes” of the present day, it’s indeed seen more as a “cultural” thing rather than something caused by witnessing a dysfunctional family growing up.

    On the other hand, all data I’ve seen suggests born-again Christians are more likely to divorce than atheists. Similarly, polls have suggested that conservatives would rather their teenage daughter have a baby out-of-wedlock if the alternative was abortion – the inverse again of liberals. Still, these fit with a certain aspect of social conservative psychology, where public adherence to ideals, even if not personally attainable or feasible in terms of policy, is more important than compromise which would result in practically better outcomes. I could go on here, but this probably isn’t the proper place. The bottom line is I think many on the Religious Right more just want society to be seen as lauding two-parent households, and stigmatizing single-parent families, than actually enacting policies which would alter the balance significantly.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #20, high divorce rate is a function of high marriage rate.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Razib -

    Of course it is. However, I’m fairly certain that social conservatives would say as a hypothetical it’s better to avoid marrying entirely if you believed divorce was a possible course of action. However, in practice, they do not act this way – at the most extreme end use serial marriage in roughly the same way that more secular people would use serial monogamy.

    Of course, everyone is a hypocrite to some degree, as political ideology is more a tribal signifier for the vast majority of people than a guide as to how to personally live your life.

  • Sandgroper

    Karl, wouldn’t you say religion is the same?

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    FWIW, there is considerable evidence to suggest that both unmarried child bearing and divorce are powerfully driven by economics. Families with economically successful fathers stay undisrupted and prosper. Families with economically unsuccessful fathers crumble or never form in the first place. The dad’s of unmarried women are not typically princes and affluent playboys. The poverty causes family disruption direction of causation is better supported than the family disruption causes poverty direction of causation.

    Survivor’s benefits and life insurance provide economic support that few unmarried or divorced women have available,in part because there isn’t a strong moral hazard to encourage you to become a widow for the money, and widows are at the peak of the “remarriage market” because their single status doesn’t reflect on their inability to be a good spouse.

    Also, many of the statistics put children who live with a divorced parent and a step-parent in the intact rather than divorced category, since the parent is married rather than “divorced” as marital status, skewing the numbers to include only people who are not only have an economically fully contributing father but also have an unmarriagable parent.

    The Romney quote, likewise, is almost tautological. Who knew that people who don’t have full time jobs (forget all the other conditions) are much more likely to be poor than people who do have full time jobs? For people who aren’t independently wealthy, lack of a full time job and poverty are pretty much the same thing. Someone can do a fair amount to improve their ability to get a job, but until we find the philosopher’s stone of macroeconomics, some people are going to get stuck at the bottom of the heap and will be unemployed regularly or irregularly for their entire lives.

    Not graduating from high school works just great if you have a full time job that pays well or are married to someone who is.

    Dropping out also isn’t as voluntary as it seems – the typical high school dropout was a couple years below grade level by third grade, was flunking classes already in middle school, and never catches up. In those shoes, the marginal benefit of staying in school a couple of years more after a decade of dismal academic failure may reasonably seem a bit questionable. Some high school dropouts simply make bad choices, but most have seen the educational system fail to meet their needs for a long time before they gave up.

  • Himpston Lillypeg

    “Ultimately the morality of homosexuality doesn’t necessarily depend on whether it is innate or not”

    What if Greg is right and you can catch gay? Pathogen networks are hard to morally isolate…

  • http://www.misscellania.com/ Miss Cellania

    Very interesting. I was a widow with kids who married a divorced man with kids, so we have both rolled into one family now. His kids are split between living with mom, living with dad, and on their own as adults. And everyone has different issues that are too complicated and personal to put here… but I agree that you can’t just paste a cause into correlations, because there are multiple issues that could either cause other problems, be the result of other problems, or just correlate.

  • http://www.gwern.net gwern

    > give me a mortality curve, don’t make one up (the citation). last i checked the peak in mortality was as you describe, but the basal rate of death was still considerably higher than today. though that’s somewhat conditional (e.g., land surplus vs. labor surplus matters a lot in infectious outbreaks in pre-modern conditions).

    If you agree that the phenomenon exists largely as I describe, doesn’t that defeat your point already? Citations are otiose.

    But since you insist… 10 seconds in Google for ‘medieval French life expectancy’ and ‘ancient Roman life expectancy’ pulls up a number of useful hits like https://www.utexas.edu/depts/classics/documents/Life.html or http://archive.worldhistoria.com/life-expectancy-in-the-ancient-world_topic20230_post372531.html#372531 or http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/life-expectancy-muslim-world-verses-christian-world-in-the-middle-ages/

    The first is most useful: we see that for a strapping young Roman lad of 20, he can expect another 34 years of life – putting him right in his mid-50s, or if he spends his 20s working hard to build his fortune, then by age ~30 when he feels established he can look forward to being with his wife until he’s 59 or 61.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    If you agree that the phenomenon exists largely as I describe, doesn’t that defeat your point already? Citations are otiose.

    i didn’t agree. don’t ever put words into my mouth. the issue here is simple: a life expectancy of ~40 years at 20 is different from a life expectancy of ~60 years at 20. (if you think of years past 40 as decline, you’re doubling the “golden years” right there) in any case, you’re pulling up high bound numbers. do you think that a 20 year old in 14th century europe had 40 year life expectancies? i’ve actually looked into this, have you? it’s all fine and well to understand pre-modern life expec values are skewed by high infant mortalities. but the next stage of actually understanding pre-modern demographics is that the emergence of public health, antibiotics, and uniformly sufficient nutrition did change the morbidity and mortality distribution of even adults. if you don’t think that specifying this detail is useful, you can shut the fuck up.

    (no response to this comment is needed, i’ve had enough of this exchange)

  • DG

    There are many things that you mentioned in this post that I would say are not necessarily accurate, particularly in regard to how you are defining the two groups the cultural right and left, and on the right the concept of moral perfectionism and the left unlimited actualization. But since I am at work I want to address something that I think is more fundamental and interesting in your post.

    The assertion you make is that the ‘nuclear’ family isn’t as important as you think. You make a chicken vs. egg argument leaning on the side of the egg (genetics). So please feel free to correct me if I am misinterpreting your core position.

    If I read your post correctly you believe that genetics and random events influence individuals more than social modeling in the context of durable monogamous heterosexual relationships and a nuclear family structure. This means that individuals who have a genetic predisposition and fortunate circumstances are more likely to remain in a long term durable monogamous relationship than those who have poorer genetic traits (as it relates to creating a durable monogamous relationship). Is this accurate? I think that summarizes your post in general and this particular quote “What this misses is that destabilized individuals lead to destabilized households, and destabilized individuals also produce other destabilized individuals.”

    Now I have in the past read research that challenges your assertion of the distribution of behavioral factors weighing less on the social side and more on the genetic and other side, but lets assume for the sake of discussion that your assertion is true.

    We then have two scenarios – 1) That genetic traits cannot have their expression mitigated by social learning and modeling or 2) That genetic traits cannot be mitigated by social learning and one is pre-destined to follow their biological fate.

    If you believe in point #1, which I do based upon my years of experience in community development work, research and economic development work and seeing people ‘adapt’ you view your post with a different lens.

    From my standpoint mitigating negative genetic personality traits making it possible for the “destabilized people” to be “stable enough” in the the context of creating durable monogamy is possible. So from this point of view, even though I disagree with your viewpoint on the cultural right and left, if I used your definitions then I believe that you can combine the infinite self actualization and the moral perfectionism in theory helping people achieve a durable monogamous relationship.

    So I guess my point is that even if many are reasoning from the opposite side of where you are coming from the rational pursuit of creating stronger communities through building nuclear families and durable monogamy because of their benefits (we can discuss the economics of two family households if you like) through social learning is a good strategy. This is particularly in disadvantaged areas.

    Any way, good post and interesting take.

  • http://www.gwern.net gwern

    > don’t make one up (the citation).

    > do you think that a 20 year old in 14th century europe had 40 year life expectancies? i’ve actually looked into this, have you?

    I see no citations to show that you have…

    I’m disappointed that this is what you are like to actually discuss things with; I had expected better since your posts are often so good.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    I’m disappointed that this is what you are like to actually discuss things with; I had expected better since your posts are often so good.

    i have a day job and a child. just because i don’t talk incessantly about non-blog life doesn’t mean i don’t have one. do you really think i’m going to go extra mile for every commenter? you gave it 10 fucking seconds to actually look into this issue. if you don’t think i know what i’m talking about you can go fuck yourself, if you read my posts you should be aware that i try not to pop off on shit i don’t know about or haven’t made at least a cursory attempt to ascertain. it is not imperative upon me to prove anything to you, especially when it is manifestly obvious you aren’t going to be bring value-add to the table. you expressed an opinion which is correct to the first approximation, but you lacked more fine-grained knowledge. when you were called out on it you reacted defensively instead of digging deep into the literature yourself. now i’m banning you, and i trust you’ll never read me again.

    i hope that this exchange is educational for EVERY commenter here. for various reasons which i don’t want to rehash or recollect i never slept more than 3-4 hours a night last fall. but i still tried to keep up with the comments on this blog and answer questions. in return i expected, and still expect, some substantive engagement, instead of stupid posturing. i try not to waste time with stupid conversation in real life, and the same applies to the blog.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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