Theoretical constraints: Science, caretaking, and the creation of normative ideals

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Objectives: This review explores the dualism in evolutionary anthropology that both acknowledges a broad range of familial caretaking strategies, while also remaining tethered to theories scaffolded around notions of selfish genes that constrain our understanding of who provides adequate kin care. I examine the process of norm creation in the sciences by investigating how theory may limit which data are collected and how those data are interpreted. Methods: This paper serves as a literature review and critique of prominent biological, evolutionary, and psychological conceptualizations of parental investment and caretaking in humans, and how these studies shape what is considered normal behavior in scientific literature. Results: Quantification, assessment, and theory building in evolutionary anthropology, and an oversampling of WEIRD communities in other disciplines, have limited our understanding of what constitutes both evolutionarily adaptive behaviors, and culturally specific human behaviors. Conclusions: A synthetic theoretical model of behavioral norms in childrearing must account for an exchange of psycho-social and cultural resources and skills, the transfer of energetic reserves via gestation and lactation, and the indirect benefits of genetic inheritance. The emphasis on tailoring data collection to fit evolutionary theories of the family has limited our ability to understand the diverse proximate mechanisms that humans employ in taking care of kin as biocultural reproducers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere23650
JournalAmerican Journal of Human Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2021
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Genetics


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