Review of Economics of the Household

, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 421–446 | Cite as

The evolution of altruistic preferences: mothers versus fathers



What can evolutionary biology tell us about male-female differences in preferences concerning family matters? Might mothers be more solicitous toward offspring than fathers, for example? The economics literature has documented gender differences—children benefit more from money put in the hands of mothers rather than fathers, for example—and these differences are thought to be partly due to preferences. Yet for good reason family economics is mostly concerned with how prices and incomes affect behavior against a backdrop of exogenous preferences. Evolutionary biology complements this approach by treating preferences as the outcome of natural selection. We mine the well-developed biological literature to make a prima facie case for evolutionary roots of parental preferences. We consider the most rudimentary of traits—sex differences in gamete size and internal fertilization—and explain how they have been thought to generate male-female differences in altruism toward children and other preferences related to family behavior. The evolutionary approach to the family illuminates connections between issues typically thought distinct in family economics, such as parental care and marriage markets.


Altruism Parental care Evolution Reproductive success Paternity Sex ratios 

JEL Classification

D1 D13 J12 J13 J16 Z13 



Financial support for this work was provided to Donald Cox by a grant from the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (R01-HD045637) and to Ingela Alger by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) as well as the Agence National de la Recherche (ANR). The findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed in this paper are entirely our own and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or policy of the National Institutes of Health, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, or of any other government agency.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.TSE (LERNA, CNRS), IAST, IDEIUniversité Toulouse 1 CapitoleToulouse, Cedex 6France
  2. 2.Department of EconomicsBoston CollegeChestnut HillUSA

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