The evolution of altruistic preferences: mothers versus fathers

Ingela Alger, and Donald Cox


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.


Ingela Alger, and Donald Cox, The Evolution of Altruistic Preferences: Mothers versus Fathers, TSE Working Paper, n. 12-369, December 31, 2012, revised May 2013.

See also

Published in

Review of Economics of the Household, vol. 11, September 2013, pp. 421–446