Human adoption in evolutionary perspective

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Exploitation is a fundamental element of the parental strategies of many species of birds. Cuckoos, for example, lay their eggs in the nest of other birds, who often unwittingly rear the alien nestlings as their own. Nest parasitism is an efficient reproductive strategy for cuckoos, who do not have to worry about building a nest, incubating their eggs, or feeding their nestlings. But not all hosts respond passively to such intrusions. In response to parasitic cowbirds, for example, robins have evolved the ability to detect and selectively eject alien young from their nests. Human parenting strategies differ sharply from the strategies of cuckoos and robins. Unlike cuckoos, we are reluctant to allow our children to be raised by others. Unlike robins, we knowingly rear strange young. What makes human behavior toward children so different from that of cuckoos and robins? Humans seem to share a number of predispositions that facilitate successful adoptive relationships, and the desire to raise children seems to be pervasive among modern humans. Despite these commonalities, patterns of adoption transactions vary greatly among contemporary human societies. This paper considers the origins and causes of cross-cultural variation in human adoptive behavior from an evolutionary perspective.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)25-52
Number of pages28
JournalHuman Nature
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 1990
Externally publishedYes


  • Adoption
  • Kin selection
  • Nepotism
  • Parental behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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