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Celibacy: family history of Tibetan monks reveals evolutionary advantages in monasticism – podcast

Monks in red garments gather outside a monastry in China.
Tibetan monks at a monastry in Gansu province in China. New research shows sending a child to a monastery can have surprising evolutionary advantages for a family. Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock

In the first episode of Discovery, an ongoing series available via The Conversation Weekly podcast, we hear about new research with the families of Tibetan monks that suggests celibacy might have some surprising evolutionary advantages.

High up on the Tibetan plateau in a remote province of China called Gansu, lie clues to help answer an enduring puzzle about human behaviour. Why would somebody do something that, on the face of it, appears costly to their chance of evolutionary success?

In the case of the Amdo Tibetan people, why would parents choose to send one of their young sons off to a life of celibacy in a monastery if it meant reducing the chance of having grandchildren? And by extension, reducing what they could pass down to future generations, be it genes, learning or cultural practices.

There are historical accounts of one in seven boys being sent to monasteries in this region of China, often at around the age of seven. “It has been described as mass monasticism,” explains Ruth Mace, a professor of anthropology at University College London in the UK.

After interviewing family members of monks in Gansu about their families and their livelihoods, Mace and her colleagues recently published research which found that people with a monk for a brother had higher reproductive success than others.

Listen to the full episode to find out more about how Mace and her team went about their research and what it reveals about evolutionary biology.

More episodes of the Discovery series will be published via The Conversation Weekly every couple of weeks.

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Listen to episodes of Discovery by searching for The Conversation Weekly wherever you listen to podcasts.


This episode was produced by Mend Mariwany, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. The executive producer was Gemma Ware. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here. A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

Listen to The Conversation Weekly via any of the apps listed above, download it directly via our RSS feed, or find out how else to listen here.

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