Life is anything but a fairy tale for stepchildren

Matt Ridley

This article originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph, 3 December 1996

Having spent the last few weeks vigorously plugging my new book (something I promise not to do in this column: it's called The Origins of Virtue and it's published by Viking), I have come up against a conundrum involving common sense: education can drive it out.

My book assumes that there is such a thing as human nature  and that our behaviour is a mixture of genetic as well as environmental influences. We behave the way we do partly because of instinct and partly because of learning, This assumption is standard ommon sense. Nobody I know who has an ordinary job in the real world finds it strange: of course people have natures as well as nurures; characters as well as backgrounds.

But it is an assumption one constantly has to defend among academics and intellectuals generally. Social scientists in particular are adamant that human beings are instinct-free.

Instead, they have things called cultures, which rigidly determine the way they behave. It is animals that have instincts. To say otherwise is politically incorrect.

These great minds are unmoved by glaring evidence for human instincts: that human beings get hungry whatever their culture teaches; that they universally learn to speak language without being taught (an instinct), but have to be taught to read and write it (not an instinct). No matter. My point is not to retread the argument, but to emphasise how often the common sense of the man in the street can be superior to that of intellectuals.

I came across an even more striking illustration of this the other day at a fascinating lecture at the London School of Economics: one of its Darwin Seminars. The proposition being put forward in the lecture was this: folk wisdom on step-parents is better than conventional sociology.

The folk wisdom on step-parents is simple: they are a danger to step-children. Fairy tales in 150 cultures all agree with the author of Cinderella that step-parents are wicked. A recent compilation of folk tales from around the world categorised all references to stepfathers in the index under just two headings: 'cruel' and 'lustful'.

Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, two Canadian scientists, set out to see if there was any truth behind the myth. Their statistics are not surprising (except to the experts). Children who live with step-parents are far, far more likely to be abused or to die than children who live with their genetic parents. This is and was true in Canada, Chicago, England and Wales, l8th century Germany and among hunter-gatherers in Paraguay. In Canada, for instance, a child living with a step-parent is 10 times as likely to be physically abused and 100 times more likely to be killed than one living with true parents.

This is not to say that either is very likely. Most step-children are safe and secure. Nor even is it to say that more step than true children are killed. Because relatively few children live with step-parents, more children are killed by parents than by step-parents (though usually with different motives: in despair rather than rage). But the difference in relative risk is the important point: any individual child runs a greater risk of death if he or she lives with a step-parent than a true parent. Income, family size and age of mother make little or no difference.

As I say, none of this should or would surprise the man in the street, reared on Cinderella and equipped with common sense. It is an unremarkable finding. But what is remarkable is that the professionals have missed it. One recent review of child abuse listed 89 different risk factors. Paternity was not even mentioned. The Home Office does not even record the difference between parents and step-parents in the household when collecting statistics on crime against children. As Daly and Wilson put it, 'It is remarkable that almost two decades of intensive child-abuse research elapsed before anyone asked whether step-parent households are really more dangerous than genetic-parent households.'

Evolutionary logic led  Daly and Wilson to ask the question. Step-parenting was probably fairly common in the hunter-gatherer past, because violence and accidents widowed many people. Like other animals, humans are probably programmed to favour children in the family they know to be their own over those they know not to be. Folklore clearly pointed in the same direction.

Daly and Wilson were asked at the LSE what use their studies might be. Might they not stigmatise the step-parents unfairly as murderers? After all, very, very few step-parents harm children. Yet this risk applies to all social science. Studies that try to link family violence to poverty risk stigmatising poor people. We have already long ago accepted that knowing risk factors does more good than harm.

It is vital not to withhold from us the knowledge that people find it much easier to harm their stepchildren than their genetic children. Women with children who are about to remarry need to know that fact, police investigating crimes need to know it, social workers trying to prevent crimes need to know it, politicians trying to frame policies that do not encourage family break-up need to know it. And above all men - for it is men that commit most violence - about to become step-parents needs to know it, and so know themselves.