If you are one of the many fans addicted to the TV phenomenon that is Game of Thrones, chances are you are counting the hours to tonight’s season finale, especially after the most recent episode, Battle of the Bastards. However, before the episode airs, I’d like to go all the way back to season one and revisit some of the events that led to the war in Westeros, all from an evolutionary perspective of course. You do not need to be a Game of Thrones connoisseur to understand this post, so even if you are not into the show, I promise you will still read a few interesting things in this blog entry, and if you are a fan, do not worry for there are no spoilers, although I do give a crash explanation and recap of season one.
As many may know, Game of Thrones is set in the fictitious medieval land of Westeros, and like many medieval worlds, it is composed of different houses, all under the rule of one king. When the show begins, Westeros is ruled by king Robert Baratheon (his house sigil a stag) who overthrew the previous king with the help of several houses. House Stark lent its forces mostly because Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark was a close friend of Robert, and because he wanted revenge for the death of his father and brother at the hands of the previous king. House Lannister (house sigil a lion) joined Robert’s army when Lord Tywin Lannister made a deal by which his men would aid Robert so long as he married Tywin’s daughter, Cersei.
Robert Baratheon was an awful king, but I will not go into details regarding his reign. Suffice is to say that despite his ruling abilities, he won the throne by right of conquest. Years later, Cersei Lannister gave him three children, and for a time the land of Westeros was at peace. Additionally, because Robert had no interest in ruling, he left most of the job to his advisor or Hand of the King, Jon Arryn. It is during these years that the show begins, shortly after Jon Arryn dies and Robert decides to appoint a new Hand, this time his beloved friend Ned Stark.
Fast forward a few episodes and we learn that Jon Arryn died because of poison, which led Ned to believe Jon knew something of uttermost importance. Eventually Ned finds out that Queen Cersei was having an incestuous relationship with her brother Jamie, and that, perhaps more importantly, all three of her children were Jamie’s and not Robert’s. He confronts Cersei, but coincidentally Robert has a hunting accident and dies shortly, never knowing that his children were actually not his. To ensure that no one would pose a threat to her children, Cersei plots to have Ned accused of treason. Eventually Ned is beheaded and the war begins, and although there are many other motives for the war, the whole series is set in motion by the Lannister’s incest and the fact that the royal children are not the king’s.
In evolutionary terms, poor Robert was cuckolded. Cuckoldry occurs when a man invests resources on offspring that are not genetically his. From an evolutionary perspective, the end goal is not merely to survive, but to be able to reproduce and pass our genes into future generations. Additionally, humans tend to invest a lot of time and resources into making sure offspring reach reproductive age. There are also gender differences with regards to parental investment. According to Trivers (1972) women and men pay different costs when it comes to the effort spent reproducing. For women, having one child requires at least the 9 months of gestation, time during which she cannot have other offspring regardless of how many men she copulates with, not to mention the chances of dying at childbirth, which were significantly greater during our ancestral past. Meanwhile, the cost for men is smaller because the minimum effort required to produce one heir is merely the time required to impregnate the female. A single man could benefit from impregnating as many females as possible because this increases the likelihood that at least some of them will become pregnant with his children. The downside to this strategy is that the time the man spends impregnating females is time that could be spent ensuring any children of his survive. As a result, many men prefer to forego extra mating opportunities and spend more time investing in a few offspring. Think of it as a quantity versus quality deal. The point is that because men invest time and resources into their offspring, paternal certainty is essential. If a man is raising a child that is not genetically his, then his efforts are benefitting a rival’s genes, and he is losing the evolution game. A woman does not have this problem because, thanks to internal fertilization, she can be entirely sure that whatever children she has are hers.
To be fair, Robert went for both reproductive strategies. In fact, he was known for sleeping around with anyone but his wife, and even fathered 20 illegitimate children, yet the offspring who benefited from his investment (at least when it comes to resources since he was never much of a caregiver) were not his! These children were to inherit the crown and all the prerogatives that come with it, whereas Robert’s bastards, who did carry his genes albeit not his name lived in the Westerosi slums, likely to die any given day if not for the secret aid Jon Arryn provided once he discovered them, which brings us to another lesson in paternity: how Jon and Ned discovered the truth about the royal children. Both Hands had their eureka moment when they finally realized that all of the king’s bastards had inherited his dark, black hair, while the princes and princess had the golden locks typical of the Lannister house. Actually, when Ned met one of the bastards, he only had to look closely at the boy to realize he was one of Robert’s sons because the kid greatly resembled his father. It was paternal resemblance, or lack of it, that ultimately led to the truth.
Paternity resemblance is a major paternal assurance tactic, and it happens even without the male consciously analyzing whether a child looks like him. Platek, Burch, Panyavin, Wasserman & Gallup (2002) morphed participants’ faces with a variety of children’s faces and asked them to make hypothetical investment decisions such as which child was most attractive, which child they would be most likely to adopt, which child they would like to spend the most time with, and so on. They found neither males nor females were particularly good at picking out which child face was morphed with theirs, yet when asked which children they would invest in, males constantly chose the face that had the highest resemblance. This finding did not hold true for females, who instead tried to spread out their investment as much as possible.
Another study (Burch & Gallup, 2000) found that the higher the perceived resemblance between a man and his child, the fewer mate guarding tactics the male used on his partner; the less physical violence the male perpetrated, and the lower the frequency of the couple’s arguments regarding commitment and communication. Additionally, new mothers and relatives are more likely to report alleged paternal resemblance of newborns than maternal resemblance, suggesting that allegations of resemblance are responses to the problem of paternal uncertainty (Daly & Wilson, 1982).
Perhaps one of the reasons Robert was such a neglecting father was because he, without any conscious awareness like the men in the Platek et al (2002) study, did not perceive any resemblance with his children. Then of course, his neglect may have also been due to the fact he never cared for anything else but drinking and sleeping around. One thing is certain, though, Cersei did an incredible job at keeping him in the dark with regards to her children, and like any mother, she went to great extremes to ensure her babies, the carriers of her genes, got to sit on the throne. Whether they will remain on it is a very different matter altogether, but only time will tell.
Burch, R. L., & Gallup, G. G. (2000). Perceptions of paternal resemblance predict family violence. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21(6), 429-435.
Daly, M., & Wilson, M. I. (1982). Whom are newborn babies said to resemble?. Ethology and Sociobiology, 3(2), 69-78.
Platek, S. M., Burch, R. L., Panyavin, I. S., Wasserman, B. H., & Gallup, G. G. (2002). Reactions to children’s faces: Resemblance affects males more than females. Evolution and Human Behavior, 23(3), 159-166.
Trivers, R. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. Sexual Selection & the Descent of Man, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 136-179.