Today’s selection, Homicide, is ev psych with a side of anthropology; I am excerpting the chapter on people-who-murder-children. (You are officially forewarned.)
Way back in middle school, I happened across (I forget how) my first university-level textbook, on historical European families and family law. I got through the chapter on infanticide before giving up, horrified that enough Germans were smushing their infants under mattresses or tossing them into the family hearth that the Holy Roman Empire needed to be laws specifically on the subject.
It was a disillusioning moment.
Daly and Wilson’s Homicide, 1988, contributes some (slightly) more recent data to the subject, (though of course it would be nice to have even more recent data.
(I think some of the oddities in # of incidents per year may be due to ages being estimated when the child’s true age isn’t known, eg, “headless torso of a boy about 6 years old found floating in the Thames.”)
We begin with a conversation on the subject of which child parents would favor in an emergency:
If parental motives are such as to promote the parent’s own fitness, then we should expect that parents will often be inclined to act so that neither sibling’s interests prevail completely. Typically, parental imposition of equity will involve supporting the younger, weaker competitor, even when the parent would favor the older if forced to choose between the two. It is this latter sort of situation–“Which do you save when one must be sacrificed?”–in which parents’ differential valuation of their children really comes to the fore. Recall that there were 11 societies in the ethnographic review of Chapter 3 for which it was reported that a newborn might be killed if the birth interval were too short or the brood too numerous. It should come as no surprise that there were no societies in which the prescribed solution to such a dilemma was said to be the death of an older child. … this reaction merely illustrates that one takes for granted the phenomenon under discussion, namely the gradual deepening of parental commitment and love.
*Thinks about question for a while* *flails* “BUT MY CHILDREN ARE ALL WONDERFUL HOW COULD I CHOSE?” *flails some more*
That said, I think there’s an alternative possibility besides just affection growing over time: the eldest child has already proven their ability to survive; an infant has not. The harsher the conditions of life (and thus, the more likelihood of actually facing a real situation in which you genuinely don’t have enough food for all of your children,) the higher the infant mortality rate. The eldest children have already run the infant mortality gauntlet and so are reasonably likely to make it to adulthood; the infants still stand a high chance of dying. Sacrificing the child you know is healthy and strong for the one with a high chance of dying is just stupid.
Whereas infant mortality is not one of my personal concerns.
Figure 4.4 shows that the risk of parental homicide is indeed a declining function of the child’s age. As we wold anticipate, the most dramatic decrease occurs between infants and 1-year-old children. One reason for expecting this is that the lion’s share of the prepubertal increase in reproductive value in natural environments occurs within the first year.
(I think “prepubertal increase in reproductive value” means “decreased likelihood of dying.”)
Moreover, if parental disinclination reflects any sort of assessment of the child’s quality or the mother’s situation, then an evolved assessment mechanisms should be such as to terminate any hopeless reproductive episode as early as possible, rather than to squander parental effort in an enterprise that will eventually be abandoned. … Mothers killed 61 in the first 6 months compared to just 27 in the second 6 months. For fathers, the corresponding numbers are 24 vs. 14. [See figure 4.4] … This pattern of victimization contrasts dramatically with the risk of homicide at the hands of nonrelatives (Figure 4.5)…
I would like to propose an alternative possibility: just as a child who attempts to drive a car is much more likely to crash immediately than to successfully navigate onto the highway and then crash, so a murderous person who gets their hands onto a child is more likely to kill it immediately than to wait a few years.
A similar mechanism may be at play in the apparent increase and then decrease in homicides of children by nonrelatives during toddlerhood. Without knowing anything about these cases, I can only speculate, but 1-4 are the ages when children are most commonly put into daycares or left with sitters while their moms return to work. The homicidally-minded among these caretakers, then, are likely to kill their charges sooner rather than later. (School-aged children, by contrast, are both better at running away from attackers and highly unlikely to be killed by their teachers.)
Teenagers are highly conflictual creatures, and the rate at which nonrelatives kill them explodes after puberty. When we consider the conspicuous, tempestuous conflicts that occur between teenagers and their parents–conflicts that apparently dwarf those of the preadolescent period–it is all the more remarkable that the risk of parental homicide continues its relentless decline to near zero.
… When mothers killed infants, the victims had been born to them at a mean age of 22.7 years, whereas older victims had been born at a mean maternal age of 24.5. Thi is a significant difference, but both means are signficantly below the 25.8 year that was the average age of all new Candian mothers during the same period, accoding to Cadian Vital Statistics.
In other words, impulsive fuckups who get accidentally pregnant are likely to be violent impulsive fuckups.
We find a similar result with respect to marital status: Mothers who killed older children are again intermediate between infanticidal women and the population-at-large. Whereas 51% of mothers committing infanticide were unmarried, the same was true of just 34% of those killing older children. This is still substantially above the 12% of Canadian births in which the new mother was unmarried …
Killing of an older child is often associated with maternal depression. Of the 95 mothers who killed a child beynd its infancy, 15.8% also committed suicide. … By contrast, only 2 of 88 infanticidal mothers committed suicide (and even this meager 2.3% probably overestimates the assocation of infanticide with suicide, since infanticides are the only category of homicides in which a significant incidence of undetected cases is likely.) … one of thee 2 killed three older children as well.
Anyone else thinking of Andrea Yates and her idiot husband?
In the Canadian data, it is also noteworthy that 35% of maternal infanticides were attributed by the investigating police force … [as] “mentally ill or mentally retarded (insane),” verses 58% of maternal homicides of older children. Here and elsewhere, it seems that the sots of cases that are simultaneously rare and seemingly contrary to the actor’s interests–in both the Darwinian and the commonsense meaning of interest–also happen t be the sorts of cases most likely to be attributed to some sort of mental incompetence. … We identify as mad those people who lack a species-typical nepotistic perception of their interests or who no longer care to pursue them. …
Violent people go ahead and kill their kids; people who go crazy later kill theirs later.
We do at least know the ages of the 38 men who killed heir infant children: the mean was 26.3 years. Moreover, we know that fathers averaged 4 years older than mothers for that substantial majority of Canadian births that occurred within marriages… . Since the mean age for all new Canadian mothers during the relevant period… was 25.8, it seems clear that infanticidal fathers are indeed relatively young. And as was the case with mothers, infanticidal fathers were significantly younger than those fathers who killed older offspring. (mean age at the victim’s birth = 29.2 years). …
As with mothers, fathers who killed older children killed themselves as well significantly more often (43.6% of 101) than did those who killed their infant children (10.5% of 38). Also like mothers is the fact that those infanticidal fathers who did commit suicide were significantly older (mean age = 30.5 years) than those who did not (mean = 25.8). Likewise, the paternal age at which older victims had been born was also significantly greater for suicidal (mean = 31.1 years; N = 71) than for nonsuicidal (mean =27.5; N = 67) homicidal fathers. And men who killed their older children were a little more likely to be deemed mentally incompetent (20.8%) than those who killed their infants (15.8%). …
Fathers, however, were significantly less likely to commit suicide after killing an adult offspring (19% of 21 men) than a child (50% of 80 men.) … 20 of the 22 adult victims of their father were sons… three of the four adult victims of mothers were daughters. … There is no hint of such a same-ex bias in the killings of either infants… or older children. …
An infrequent but regular variety of homicide is that in which a man destroys his wife and children. A corresponding act of familicide by the wife is almost unheard of. …
No big surprises in this section.
Perhaps the most obvious prediction from a Darwinian view of parental motives is this: Substitute parents will generally tend to care less profoundly for their children than natural parents, with the result that children reared by people other than their natural parents will be more often exploited and otherwise at risk. Parental investment is a precious resource, and selection must favor those parental psyches that do not squander it on nonrelatives.
Disclaimer: obviously there are good stepparents who care deeply for their stepchilden. I’ve known quite a few. But I’ve also met some horrible stepparents. Given the inherent vulnerability of children, I find distasteful our society’s pushing of stepparenting as normal without cautions against its dangers. In most cases, remarriage seems to be undertaken to satisfy the parent, not the child.
In an interview study of stepparents in Cleveland, Ohio, for example–a study of predominantly middle-class group suffering no particular distress or dysfunction–Loise Duberman (1975) found that only 53% of stepfathers and 25% of stepmothers could claim to have “parental feeling” toward their stepchildren, and still fewer to “love” them.
Some of this may be influenced by the kinds of people who are likely to become stepparents–people with strong family instincts probably have better luck getting married to people like themselves and staying that way than people who are bad at relationships.
In an observational study of Trinidadian villagers, Mark Flinn (1988) found that stepfathers interacted less with “their” children than did natural fathers; that interactions were more likely to be aggressive within steprelationships than within the corresponding natural relationships; and that stepchildren left home at an earlier age.
Pop psychology and how-to manuals for stepfamilies have become a growth industry. Serious study of “reconstituted” families is also burgeoning. Virtually all of this literature is dominated by a single theme: coping with the antagonisms…
Here the authors stops to differentiate between between stepparenting and adoption, which they suspect is more functional due to adoptive parents actually wanting to be parents in the first place. However,
such children have sometimes been found to suffer when natural children are subsequently born to the adopting couple, a result that has led some professionals to counsel against adoption by childless couples until infertility is definitely established. …
Continuing on with stepparents:
The negative characterization of stepparents is by no means peculiar to our culture. … From Eskimos to Indonesians, through dozens of tales, the stepparent is the villain of every piece. … We have already encountered the Tikopia or Yanomamo husband who demands the death of his new wife’s prior children. Other solutions have included leaving the children with postmenopausal matrilineal relatives, and the levirate, a wide-spread custom by which a widow and her children are inherited by the dead man’s brother or other near relative. …
Social scientists have turned this scenario on its head. The difficulties attending steprelationships–insofar as they are acknowledged at all–are presumed to be caused by the “myth of the cruel stepparent” and the child’s fears.
Why this bizarre counterintuitive view is the conventional wisdom would be a topic for a longer book than this; suffice to say that the answer surely has more to do with ideology than with evidence. In any event, social scientists have staunchly ignored the question of the factual basis for the negative “stereotyping” of stepparents.
Under Freud’s logic, all sorts of people who’d been genuinely hurt by others were summarily dismissed, told that they were the ones who actually harbored ill-will against others and were just “projecting” their emotions onto their desired victims.
Freudianism is a crock of shit, but in this case, it helped social “reformers” (who of course don’t believe in silly ideas like evolution) discredit people’s perfectly reasonable fears in order to push the notion that “family” doesn’t need to follow traditional (ie, biological) forms, but can be reinvented in all sorts of novel ways.
So are children at risk in stepparent homes in contemporary North America? [see Figures 4.7 and 4.8.] … There is … no appreciable statistical confounding between steprelationships and poverty in North America. … Stepparenthood per se remains the single most powerful risk factor for child abuse that has yet been identified. (here and throughout this discussion “stepparents” include both legal and common-law spouses of the natural parent.) …
Speaking of Figures 4.7 and 4.8, I must say that the kinds of people who get divorced (or were never married) and remarried within a year of their kid’s birth are likely to be unstable people who tend to pick particularly bad partners, and the kinds of people willing to enter into a relationship with someone who has a newborn is also likely to be, well, unusual. Apparently homicidal.
By contrast, the people who are willing to marry someone who already has, say, a ten year old, may be relatively normal folks.
Just how great an elevation of risk are we talking about? Our efforts to answer that question have been bedeviled by a lack of good information in the living arrangements of children in the general population. … there are no official statistics [as of when this was written] on the numbers of children of each age who live in each household type. There is no question that the 43% of murdered American child abuse victims who dwelt with substitute parents is far more than would be expected by chance, but estimates of that expected percentage can only be derived from surveys that were designed to answer other questions. For a random sample of American children in 1976, … the best available national survey… indicates that only about 1% or fewer would be expected to have dwelt with a substitute parent. An American child living with one or more substitute parents in 1976 was therefore approximately 100 times as likely to be fatally abused as a child living with natural parents only…
Results for Canada are similar. In Hamilton, Ontario in 1983, for example, 16% of child abuse victims under 5 years of age lived with a natural parent and a stepparent… Since small children very rarely have stepparents–less than 1% of preschoolers in Hamilton in 1983, for example–that 16% represents forty times the abuse rate for children of the same age living with natural parents. … 147 Canadian children between the ages of 1 and 4 were killed by someone in loco parentis between 1974 and 1983; 37 of those children (25.2%) were the victims of their stepparents, and another 5 (3.4%) were killed by unrelated foster parents.
…The survey shows, for example, that 0.4% of 2,852 Canadian children, aged 1-4 in 1984, lived with a stepparent. … For the youngest age group in Figure 4.9, those 2 years of age and younger, the risk from a stepparent is approximately 70 times that from a natural parent (even though the later category includes all infanticides by natural mothers.)
Now we need updated data. I wonder if abortion has had any effect on the rates of infanticide and if increased public acceptance of stepfamilies has led to more abused children or higher quality people being willing to become stepparents.