Having had a particularly bad morning with my 8 year old daughter who, despite being the most intelligent, beautiful and lovable child in the history of humanity, does have a tendency to have some fairly unbearable moments, I emailed my favourite evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. I asked him why children should have evolved the fairly universal parental-insanity inducing behaviours of incessant talking about absolutely nothing, arguing with everything (for my daughter this morning it was why I always say 'knives and forks' and never 'forks and knives' and 'habit' was not an aceptable answer) and asking for things in that whiny voice which almost never makes parents feel like granting the request. It occurred to me (and not for the first time) that this very common behaviour is unlikely to INCREASE childrens' chances of surviving to adulthood and procreating.
Here was his response which I found very interesting. I will not be taking his advice!
'Thank you for your message. That's a very interesting observation. In general, raising children today is difficult and frustrating because our environment, our laws, and our customs are so completely different from the conditions of our evolutionary environment. Most things that are difficult for us to do today involve some evolutionarily novel environment.
I assume that your daughter is the youngest of your children or quite possibly the only child you have. I have a few comments on your observation.
First, all children are designed to monopolize their parents' attention away from other siblings. While children share 50% of their genes with their full-siblings, they share 100% of their genes with themselves. So if a child can divert resources (food, care, attention, energy) away from its siblings toward itself, even at the cost of letting other children starve or die, then it is evolutionarily designed to do so. Many of children's "annoying" behavior can be construed as their attempt to monopolize and divert parental attention away from their siblings (or other important matters), even when there are no other siblings.
Second, in the ancestral environment, by the time she is eight years old, your daughter would have had three or four younger siblings, whom she would have to help you take care. There'd be no school, no TV, no play time; she would have to contribute to the family by caring her younger siblings and possibly helping you gather food during the day. Many of children's "annoying" behavior can also be the results of having nothing important to do.
Third, it also occurs to me that your daughter (and her genes) might implicitly know that she does not have other siblings (if that is indeed the case). If you have 10 children, and if one of them misbehaves or is annoying, then you might (in the ancestral environment) be tempted to neglect or even kill it so that you can focus your parental resources on other "good" children. In that case, your daughter might not act out for fear that she might be neglected or killed. If, however, your daughter's genes implicitly know that there are no other children for you to prefer, then she (and her genes) might feel freer to act out, in their attempt to achieve the goal of monopolizing your attention (as I mention above), knowing that you would never neglect or kill her because you have no other way to promote your reproductive success.
It's not my job to give advice to people (parents or otherwise), but if I'm right in my views above, then one possible logical consequence is that you might be able to stop your daughter's "annoying" behavior by having three more (younger) children. :)'