Santa Fe Institute

When leaving your wealth to your sister’s sons makes sense

Oct. 16, 2012 12:25 p.m.

To whom a man’s possessions go when he dies is both a matter of cultural norm and evolutionary advantage.

In most human societies, men pass on their worldly goods to their wife's children. But in about 10 percent of societies, men inexplicably transfer their wealth to their sister's sons -- what's called “mother's brother-sister's son” inheritance. A new study on this unusual form of matrilineal inheritance by SFI Omidyar Fellow Laura Fortunato has produced insights into this practice.

Her findings appear in the October 16 online edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Read Fortunato's paper (October 16, 2012)

“Matrilineal inheritance is puzzling for anthropologists because it causes tension for a man caught between his sisters and wife,” explains Fortunato, who has used game theory to study mother's brother-sister's son inheritance. “From an evolutionary perspective it's also puzzling because you expect an individual to invest in his closest relatives -- usually the individual's own children.”

For decades research on the practice of matrilineal inheritance focused on the probabilities of a man being the biological father of his wife's children -- probabilities that lie on a sliding scale depending on the rate of promiscuity or whether polyandrous marriage (when a woman takes two or more husbands) is practiced.

Of special interest has been the probability value below which man is more closely related to his sister's children than to his wife's children. Below this “paternity threshold” a man is better off investing in his sister's offspring, who are sure to be blood relatives, than his own wife's children.

In her work modeling the evolutionary payoffs of marriage and inheritance strategies, Fortunato looked beyond the paternity threshold to see, among other things, what payoffs there were for men and women in different marital situations -- including polygamy.

“What emerges is quite interesting,” says Fortunato. “Where inheritance is matrilineal, a man with multiple wives 'wins' over a man with a single wife.” That's because wives have brothers, and those brothers will pass on their wealth to the husband's sons. So more wives means more brothers-in-laws to invest in your sons.

The model also shows an effect for women with multiple husbands. The husband of a woman with multiple husbands is unsure of his paternity, so he may be better off investing in his sister's offspring.

“A woman does not benefit from multiple husbands where inheritance is matrilineal, however,” Fortunato explains, “because her husbands will invest in their sisters' kids.”

Family structure determines how societies handle relatedness and reproduction issues, Fortunato says. Understanding these practices and their evolutionary implications is a prerequisite for a theory of human behavior.

Learn more about Fortunato's research here

Read Fortunato's interview in the journal Human Biology (September 2012)

Read a LiveScience article in which Fortunato comments about another researcher's work (November 27, 2012)

More about the SFI Omidyar Fellowship here

Support the SFI Omidyar Fellowship here

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