Son preference in the evolutionary perspective

This entry was written by Sophie Morrish as part of a project done in BIAN 2133 ‘Human Reproductive Strategies’ at The Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2.


Throughout history all over the world, most parents have preferred having sons to daughters in western society in more recent decades there has been a shift in this thinking, but especially in Asia where these beliefs are deep rooted in spirituality and culture the preference for sons consists. In the male dominated society that humans have lived in since the dawn of time, there have been many evolutionary and social advantages to wanting to have sons over daughters. The four main reasons, cross-culturally that sons have been preferred are reproductive potential, financial burdens, financial support and later care in life. The strong aversion to having girls leads to female foeticide and selective terminations in many counties, as well as female infanticide after the birth of the child. These four main reasons show a strong connection to the evolutionary perspectives on parenting.

Main text

Reproductive potential

The reproductive potential of boys to girls. Men have the well-known ability to reproduce with many women at many times. Ismail the bloodthirsty is rumoured to have sired 888 children over his life time (Wright, 2018). Ismail is just one of the cases proving the reproductive super ability that men can seemingly possess. Mrs. Vassilyeva, a Russian woman is reported to birthed 69 children in her life, setting the record for most children produced by a single woman (Guinness World Records 2019). These extreme examples only highlight the relative difference the alleged world record for men's reproduction is more than 12 times higher than that of a woman. The evolutionary benefit of the higher reproduction potential means more grandchildren for the parents giving birth to the offspring. “Similarly, interest in carrying on the lineage and inheritance of the property also promote son preference” (Levine, 1987, p. 299; Oldenburg, 1992, p. 2658, via Gill et al. 2013, p284). In this way it is viewed to be beneficial to have boys as they have more ability to pass on genetics carried by the parents, they produce more sperm, than females produce eggs, increasing reproductive potential. Reproductive potential connects to the evolutionary need for heritability, passing genes and traits on to further generations and continuing the genetic line.

Financial gain

The financial burden put on the family by producing and raising female offspring. Most commonly found in India and other south Asian countries a dowry is a practice of presenting the groom and his family with money on the wedding day, to help the new family accept the financial burden of accepting the bride. “Almost all the studies on female foeticide in India point out that son preference is the most important reason behind this phenomenon” (Das Gupta, 1987, p. 92; Bose, 2001, p. 3429 via Gill, 2013, p.284). The extra financial costs of having a daughter lead to female foeticide, or selective abortion. “Sen (1990) documents abnormally high sex ratios at birth (the share of male births) in large parts of Asia: this evidence is suggestive of sex-selective abortion, infanticide and neglect of female children” (Milazzo, 2014, p.469). The idea of a dowry in turn creates a demand to have a son. The son will receive financial support from his eventual brides’ family and his family will benefit from that support as well. The marriage rule in India and other parts of south Asia states that “higher ranked families will be expected to give grand weddings just to maintain their status while families of lower social status will incur the expense in order to gain full social benefits when their daughter marries into a family of higher status” (Gaudin, 2011, p.351). In a lower socioeconomic household, it is much more preferred to have a boy to avoid having to pay for the cost of a dowry and an extravagant wedding. Some Asian communities have evolved toward having a son preference as it is easier and less costly to have sons marry and reproduce.

Financial support

Financial support and stability are a major reason for son preference. As mentioned above males are preferred to alleviate the burden of having to pay for an extravagant wedding or dowry to prove the social status of the family that is needed for a daughter. “The burden of daughters is, however, not limited to the cost of marriage. Indeed, given the importance of family honour, particularly unmarried daughters’ behaviour, parents of daughters have to pay the extra cost of chaperonage” (Robitaille 2018). Chaperonage costs are not applicable to men as they are not seen as needing to be protected or pay other people to protect them. There is also no shame or burden associated with unmarried sons as they have can work to contribute to the house hold and are not limited to home duties as a lot of women in these communities are. Sons are seen to be the key to financial well-being in some Asian countries “Each family/community hopes to achieve higher social and economic power through sons” (Gill et al. 2013). The other major financially stabilising point of having a son is that, in most south Asian families after a son is born the pressure for the family to continue trying to have children is lifted, because the goal has already been achieved; having a son. Males in societies where sons are preferred are seen as the breadwinners of the society. “In patriarchal societies women have less economic input into the family and are therefore valued less” (Malhotra et al. 1995 via Diamond – Smith et al. 2008). Males don’t need to be educated and they can work and make money for the family to advance the families economic status without being a cost to the family. This links to the evolutionary idea of parental care and investment. Sons are seen to have the most benefit with the least cost, monetarily and socially.


To conclude, son preference from an evolutionary perspective can be seen as culturally necessary especially in Asian countries. In these human societies which are patriarchal, culture has been built upon the superiority of men and the inferiority of women. In cultures where females are deemed to not be worthy or not able to fulfil the same roles or duties as men, the need for and thus preference for having sons has become a big part of life. These societies depend on the care taking role of men and their contribution to the household. Men are seen as the only members of the society with the certain ability to reproduce and continue the bloodline, and therefore the most valuable.


Abhinand, R. (2016). 4 Reasons Why Indians Prefer Sons Over Daughters. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].
Das Gupta, M., Zhenghua, J., Bohua, L., Zhenming, X., Chung, W. and Hwa-Ok, B. (2003). Why is Son preference so persistent in East and South Asia? a cross-country study of China, India and the Republic of Korea. Journal of Development Studies, 40(2), pp.153-187.
Diamond‐Smith, N., Luke, N. and McGarvey, S. (2008). ‘Too many girls, too much dowry’: son preference and daughter aversion in rural Tamil Nadu, India. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 10(7), pp.697-708.
Gaudin, S. (2011). Son Preference in Indian Families: Absolute Versus Relative Wealth Effects. Demography, 48(1), pp.343-370.
Gill, M. (2013). Female Foeticide in India: Looking beyond Son Preference and Dowry. Mankind Quarterly; Washington, 53(3/4), pp.281-305.
Guinness World Records. (2019). Most prolific mother ever. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].
Milazzo, A. (2014). Why are adult women missing? Son preference and maternal survival in India. Journal of Development Economics, 134, pp.467-484. (2017). Dowry - New World Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].
Parvez, H. (2019). Why do parents prefer sons over daughters?. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].
Postulart, S. and Srinivasan, S. (2017). Daughter Discrimination and Son Preference in Canada. SSRN Electronic Journal, 39(3), pp.443-459.
Ritchie, H. and Roser, M. (2019). Gender Ratio. [online] Our World in Data. Available at: [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].
Robitaille, M. (2019). Conspicuous Daughters: Exogamy, Marriage Expenditures, and Son Preference in India. The Journal of Development Studies, pp.1-18.
Wright, M. (2018). 8 Frightening Facts About Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif — The Not So Innocents Abroad. [online] The Not So Innocents Abroad. Available at: [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License