Kinship and Human Thought

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Science  25 May 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6084, pp. 988-989
DOI: 10.1126/science.1222691

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In 1860, Lewis Henry Morgan heard an Iowa man on a Nebraska reservation describe a small boy as “uncle.” Fascinated, he embarked on lifelong research into the kinship systems of the world's cultures, which culminated in a typology of kin categories (see the figure, panel A) (1, 2). Work on kinship categories flourished for a hundred years, but then became unfashionable. Yet, kinship is crucial to the transmission of human genes, culture, mores, and assets. Recent studies have begun to reinvigorate the study of kinship categories (3, 4). On page 1049 of this issue, Kemp and Regier (5) explore the relation between observed kinship systems and all possible such systems (the potential “design space”). They suggest that actual kinship systems optimize both ease of conception and communicative import. On page 998 in this issue, Frank and Goodman (6) provide an experimentally grounded characterization of communicative optimization.