Human Nature

, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 381–401 | Cite as

Abnormal births and other “ill omens”

The adaptive case for infanticide
  • Catherine M. Hill
  • Helen L. Ball


We summarize the ethnographic literature illustrating that “abnormal birth” circumstances and “ill omens” operate as cues to terminate parental investment. A review of the medical literature provides evidence to support our assertion that ill omens serve as markers of biological conditions that will threaten the survival of infants. Daly and Wilson (1984) tested the prediction that children of demonstrably poor phenotypic quality will be common victims of infanticide. We take this hypothesis one stage further and argue that some children will be poor vehicles for parental investment yet are not of demonstrably poor quality at birth. We conclude that when people dispose of infants due to “superstitious beliefs” they are pursuing an adaptive strategy in eliminating infants who are poor vehicles for parental investment.

Key words

Breech birth Infanticide Multiple birth Natal teeth Parental investment 


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Copyright information

© Walter de Gruyter, Inc. 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of DurhamDurhamUnited Kingdom

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