kin recognition

greg cochran said: “[Y]our comment implicitly assumes that people somehow _know_ just closely related family members, and of course they don’t.”

i think he meant that kin recognition isn’t something innate in humans, although maybe i’ve misunderstood what he wrote (wasn’t completely clear to me). i disagree. i think there is good evidence that people do somehow “know” their relatives. it’s not a perfect system, but it does exist.

first, a little anecdotal evidence (which obviously isn’t scientific evidence in any way):

nearly everytime i go back to the “old country,” some stranger that i’ve never seen before in my life is sure to stop me in the street or in a cafe and say: “you must be one of the so-and-so’s.” this, you understand, happens in or near the town where my family is from — not at the other end of the country, of course (although come to think of it, i actually have another anecdote related to that which i’ll tell you below). two interesting examples of this come to mind. on one occasion, a very old man stopped and asked me if i was one of the “so-and-so’s” and he was referring to my maternal grandmother’s side of the family. because i’m pretty aware of my family history, i was able to confirm that i was, indeed, one of the “so-and-so’s.” he was quite old and he claimed that i looked just like my great-grandmother who he remembered from when he was a boy. the second example was a guy who told me i reminded him of his sister in both appearance and mannerisms, so we sat down and tried to figure out who each other was, and we eventually worked out that we were, in fact, second-cousins.

i said that this usually happens to me when i’m in the area where my family comes from in the “old country,” but here’s another example: one of my cousins, who like me did not grow up back where our parents came from, was on vacation in another country when a stranger she had never met before asked her if she was one of the so-and-so’s. this stranger was from the area where my and my cousin’s family came from, and he recognized her as one of us. (^_^)

(this sort of stuff that i’ve experienced my whole life is why this did not surprise me at all.)

so, people in traditional societies are attuned to appearance and personality in other individuals and they use them to identify relatedness (is this person a member of my family or of another family? if another family, which other family?). i’m sure their success rate is nothing like 100%, but they seem to me to be pretty good at it.

i think most americans are unaware that this sort of thing goes on in other societies simply most americans don’t do this. and that’s because the population in large parts of the u.s. is so jumbled up. why would you look for family resemblances in order to identify people in a place like new york or los angeles? pretty pointless. maybe it happens in areas of the country that have been settled the longest and haven’t experienced many changes in their populations. dunno.

but those are just a couple of anecdotes. now for some scientific studies:

– one of my faves: Grandma plays favourites: X-chromosome relatedness and sex-specific childhood mortality (posted about here). because of the differential inheritance of the x- and y-chromosomes, grandparents are not related to each of their grandchildren equally — and this seems to show up in the amount of time/resources a grandmother invests in each of her grandchildren. the more dna grandma shares with you, the more she’s going to invest in you. and vice versa. you’d think this must be some sort of innate behavior, ’cause i don’t imagine grandmas in nonliterate societies go around calculating the genetic relatedness between themselves and their grandkids.

The neuronal substrates of human olfactory based kin recognition — smell tests showing that women can identify their sisters vs. their female friends via odor.

The sibling uncertainty hypothesis: Facial resemblance as a sibling recognition cue“Within families, individuals reported greater closeness and altruism toward siblings who more closely resembled them.”

Kin recognition: evidence that humans can perceive both positive and negative relatedness“Participants made trustworthiness and attractiveness judgements of pairs of opposite-sex positive and negative self-resembling faces. Analyses revealed opposing effects of positive and negative self-resembling faces on trustworthiness and attractiveness judgements.”

– and from the chapter entitled ‘Cooperation, Conflict, and Kin Recognition’ in The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Family Psychology:

“[T]echnological innovations now make it possible to experimentally manipulate a postulated label of kinship — facial resemblance — to investigate phenotype matching mechanisms. In these studies, images of participants’ own faces are used to digitally alter the appearance of a set of faces, unfamiliar to the participants, to generate realistic, self-resembling stimuli (Fig. 20.2). Participants’ responses to selfresembling faces, relative to control faces, are then used as indices of cooperative and sexual inclinations toward kin (for a review of the methods and findings, see DeBruine et al., 2008).

“In an experimental task assessing monetary transfers between pairs of individuals, DeBruine (2002) found that participants were more trusting of selfresembling partners than controls. Furthermore, in a test of theoretical predictions that cooperation in ‘tragedy of the commons’ contexts — wherein there is a conflict between individual and collective interests — is enhanced by genetic relatedness, Krupp, DeBruine, and Barclay (2008) found group cooperation (as measured by monetary transfers to the group) increased as a function of the number of self-resembling members of the group.”

there are more studies out there showing that innate kin recognition is something real. there are also those that have found that it does not exist. (you can sift through some of them here on google if you like.) i’m inclined to believe that we can, on average, identify our close relatives (out to first-cousins maybe?) using resemblance clues with pretty good accuracy, but i’m happy to accept that the jury is still out on the matter (more research is required! (~_^) ).

something that greying wanderer has suggested is that maybe inbred peoples are better at this — i.e. have better innate skills to identify family — than outbred peoples. interesting idea. i like it!

(note: comments do not require an email. kin group!)

18 Comments

  1. when you say ”old country” what nation do you specifically refer to?

    i’ve been reading your blog for several months now, and i get the impression that you’re of eastern european origin – is that so? :)

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  2. @anonymous – no comment. (~_^) (just a note though: i’ve revealed before that it’s a predominantly roman catholic country. beyond that, i’d prefer not to say.)

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  3. @ hbd chick :”i think he meant that kin recognition isn’t something innate in humans, although maybe i’ve misunderstood what he wrote (wasn’t completely clear to me). i disagree. i think there is good evidence that people do somehow “know” their relatives. it’s not a perfect system, but it does exist.”

    I’ve been reading Patrick Bateman Plasticity, Robustness, Development and Evolution. He refers back to his work with Japanes quail. They are clearly drawn to their own kin that they have never met. So they recognize kin and prefer them as mates. It seems to be a general priniciple. So of course people ought to be able to do it. In this country it is rare to marry kin. It looks to me like romantic love in our culture is overlain with so much garbage that almost nobody is honest enough about their feeling to admit they really loved that kissing cousin.

    Just a thought. I never met a cousin I didn’t fall in love with, but that’s only anecdote.

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  4. My gf tells me that this happens to her all the time. Throughout her life people in her area – and even sometimes those in far away parts of Maine – have spotted her as a member of her family. Often it was just as you describe, “you’re a so-and-so from so-and-so.” She is from an area where the de facto tradition was marrying locally (“locogamy”?), so of course, it is partly inbred (her sister is getting married to someone who is probably her 3rd or 4th cousin). It helps for me that they all look alike; the folks on her dad’s side of the family are all very much spitting images of each other; the same is true of her mom’s side, but to a lesser degree. Her dad’s side descends from colonists from the Mayflower, so they have been in the area for a very long time.

    This makes me wonder if inbred families especially resemble one another. One would imagine that this would be true by virtue of being more related to one another than more outbred individuals. That alone might be responsible for this phenomenon.

    Of course, the other factor could simply be that people from small, isolated communities are more familiar with other, because there is less movement in and out. In much of America, people are constantly coming and going, so it’s harder for the average person to become familiar with whole clans. It would be interesting to see if this phenomenon also occurs in small but not necessarily isolated communities in say continental Europe, where outbreeding was common.

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    1. @ Luke Lea “fascinating evidence” Indeed. My mother was once strolling along a street in a tiny village in the Netherlands. She had never been there. A man came along who spoke no Englsh but he asked, “Vorhees?” The last Vorhees ancestor lived through the first American War of Independence.

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    1. A Luke Lea “Then, there is “funny, you don’t look Jewish.”” A Jewish friend of mine once said that Ethiopians were claiming right of return because of their Jewish heritage. That has recently been confirmed by genetic studies. A few years ago it was said that the Ashkenazi Jews of the US were as close as fifth cousins genetically. So I guess sometimes the genes do folow the tradition.

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  5. @anonymous
    If from Eastern Europe and predominantly roman catholic country, it must be Hungary.
    Other catholic countries in EEurope are wholly catholic, the rest is Orthodox or Protestant.

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  6. Just to confirm using my ownself (don’t mind mentioning which US state I’m from) recognition within something of a group. In 1979 I was walking Magsaysay Boulevard in the Philippines. Pretty far away for a boy from the Ozark region of Arkansas.

    Somebody yelled my last name from across the street and I immediately began looking for cover from what I took to be an upcoming butt-kicking administered by some unhappy US Marine. Then, “Hey aren’t you Doc So&So’s son?” which stopped me in my tracks.

    Turned out the fellow hollering my name was from a county in Arkansas adjoining my native county. His parents turned out, did their doctoring with my Dad. The pain I’d expected put off for a day after I’d sobered up.

    @LInton Herbert

    Don’t know I’d place much (or how much anyway) on the Japanese quail. I’ve read studies where songbirds of a specfic region learn something like accents. Orca pods too with click patterns.

    Perhaps the quail are simply responding to the accent?

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    1. @ JK”Don’t know I’d place much (or how much anyway) on the Japanese quail. I’ve read studies where songbirds of a specfic region learn something like accents” Yes, possibly. The experimental design put windows between the birds but I don’ know whether that blocked all sound. Of course an accent might be a way to recognize kin, too. Maybe that’s why the songbirds do it.

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  7. @linton – “…Japanese quail. They are clearly drawn to their own kin that they have never met.”

    same with peacocks, apparently. i just read yesterday in The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Family Psychology [pgs. 233-34]:

    “One compelling explanation for how fine-scale kin structuring could occur is that males may learn to identify kin through brood associations as chicks [chicks! (^_^)], and then seek out familiar display associates later in life. An experimental study of feral peafowl (Pavo cristatus) found additional evidence for fine-scale kin clustering, and also demonstrated that such learned associations are not necessary for kin structure to appear in leks (Petrie et al., 1999). As part of a separate study, peacock eggs were switched between nests of different mothers, meaning that males grew up with nestmates who were not actually related, and true genetic siblings were raised in different nests. These males were then released into a preserve and followed for several years, until they were adults and set up their own display territories. Unexpectedly, the researchers observed that true genetic brothers tended to cluster on the landscape. That they did so in the absence of any social cues for relatedness suggests that males might have based their choice of display associates on aspects of their own phenotype that were genetically based and therefore shared among siblings (a mechanism for identifying relatives known as self-referent phenotype matching) (Petrie et al., 1999; Sherman, 1999).”

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    1. @hbd chick “Unexpectedly, the researchers observed that true genetic brothers tended to cluster on the landscape. ” Wow. Oh my goodness. They could recognize kin without learing it. You would expect evolution to come up with something like that, but I had never heard of it. Thanks for the reference.

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  8. @jayman – “My gf tells me that this happens to her all the time. Throughout her life people in her area – and even sometimes those in far away parts of Maine – have spotted her as a member of her family.”

    i was thinking about your girlfriend as i was writing this post ’cause i remembered that you said she is from a small town with a long history of local mating. (^_^) definitely makes sense! additionally, according to hackett fischer, the settlers in new england arrived as family groups (unlike, say, in virginia where a lot of the settlers were unmarried indentured servants) — the percent of settlers coming as families in massachusettes, for instance, was 90% (dunno what the figures for maine are) — so from the start, you have family groups in new england. then with a couple of centuries of local marriages, you really don’t have all that much genetic shuffling.

    @jayman – “This makes me wonder if inbred families especially resemble one another. One would imagine that this would be true by virtue of being more related to one another than more outbred individuals….”

    they probably do.

    @jayman – “…That alone might be responsible for this phenomenon.”

    that makes sense. could very well be!

    @jayman – “Of course, the other factor could simply be that people from small, isolated communities are more familiar with other, because there is less movement in and out.”

    absolutely.

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    1. @ hbd chick ” the percent of settlers coming as families in massachusettes, for instance, was 90% ” And I belive Albion’s Seed says the birth rate in New England was very high indeed, in contrast with Virginia. He put it down to the bracing cold weather. I hadn’t made the connection.

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  9. @jk – “I was walking Magsaysay Boulevard in the Philippines. Pretty far away for a boy from the Ozark region of Arkansas.

    Somebody yelled my last name from across the street and I immediately began looking for cover from what I took to be an upcoming butt-kicking administered by some unhappy US Marine. Then, ‘Hey aren’t you Doc So&So’s son?’ which stopped me in my tracks.

    Turned out the fellow hollering my name was from a county in Arkansas adjoining my native county. His parents turned out, did their doctoring with my Dad.”

    that is a great story! (^_^) and, of course, a lot of the settlers in arkansas were descendants of those border reiver folks.

    and, to reiterate my point, if strangers can work out the family relationships of other strangers using visual cues — even well out of context — surely family members must be able to do it, too. seems kinda obvious to me (although i’m very glad to have the phenomenon investigated/tested — perhaps only certain individuals are good at this, i dunno.)

    i think a lot of western researchers might overlook/dismiss kin recognition because they’re not used to doing it themselves and may simply not be aware that LOTS of people on the planet are doing it (side thought: must be difficult/impossible to do this in places where women wear burkas…). also, their research might be a bit skewed if they mostly use W.E.I.R.D. people in their studies.

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    1. @hbd chick “i think a lot of western researchers might overlook/dismiss kin recognition because they’re not used to doing it themselves and may simply not be aware that LOTS of people on the planet are doing it ” In fact I am thinking I get more out of the site than out of the experts.

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  10. so, people in traditional societies are attuned to appearance and personality in other individuals and they use them to identify relatedness

    Yes, it might not be 100% but it’s a good first guess. The critical point is they consider it important to know without – i assume – having thought too much about why they think it’s important. Whereas in a place like Libya they still know why.

    .
    This makes me wonder if inbred families especially resemble one another. One would imagine that this would be true by virtue of being more related to one another than more outbred individuals. That alone might be responsible for this phenomenon.

    I think this is the simplest explanation. Having lots of long runs of homozygozity is likely to include stretchs of dna that effect physical appearance simply by the law of averages. Inbreeding is DIY cloning.

    Reply

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