Family Structure and Health in the Developing World: What Can Evolutionary Anthropology Contribute to Population Health Science?

  • David W. LawsonEmail author
  • Caroline Uggla
Part of the Advances in the Evolutionary Analysis of Human Behaviour book series (AEAHB, volume 1)


In this chapter, we consider what evolutionary anthropology contributes to the study of population health, focusing specifically on family structure and its relationship to child and adult physical health. Evolutionary anthropologists have now built a substantial body of literature on relationships between family structure and various dimensions of human wellbeing, particularly in the context of small-scale ‘traditional’ societies and developing rural communities most at risk of poor health outcomes. Crucially, they have also constructed theoretical models to account for variation in key dimensions of family structure in relation to individual, ecological, and cultural factors. Thus, evolutionary anthropologists have much to say, not only about the extent to which specific family structures may influence health but also why certain family forms may persist or change across time and space. Here, focusing on studies primarily conducted in sub-Saharan Africa, we review the literature on three interrelated dimensions of family structure and their relationship to health: (1) family size, (2) polygynous versus monogamous marriage, and (3) the role of extended kin. Using these examples, we highlight the theoretical and empirical contributions of evolutionary anthropology and draw out implications for population policy and related initiatives seeking to improve family health in the developing world.


Family size Polygyny Extended kin Parental investment Human behavioural ecology 



We thank Alexandra Alvergne, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Heidi Colleran, Mhairi Gibson, Laura Fortunato, Shakti Lamba, Cristina Moya, Sara Randall, Ryan Schacht, and Rebecca Sear for critique. The preparation of this chapter was supported by funding to David W. Lawson from the Leverhulme Trust and to Caroline Uggla from a University College London Impact Award.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Population HealthLondon School of Hygiene and Tropical MedicineLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyUniversity College LondonLondonUK

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