Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Childcare, Testosterone, and the Marital Industrial Complex

Testosterone drops when men care for kids. Anyone's kids?

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters

of life's longing for itself

— Kahlil Gibran

 

The New York Times article on the new study about reduced testosterone in fathers starts off with a bang of inaccuracy: "Testosterone, that most male of hormones, takes a dive after a man becomes a parent."

This isn't what the study showed. In fact, as far as I can tell, there was no control group of men who spent time with children they hadn't sired, which would be the control group necessary to demonstrate that becoming a parent was the experience that triggered the reduction in T. The following sentence furthers the untested assumption that this effect is about being a biological father: "The more he gets involved in caring for his children — changing diapers, jiggling the boy or girl on his knee, reading 'Goodnight Moon' for the umpteenth time — the lower his testosterone drops."

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If, in fact, the study showed that this effect only applies to a man caring for his children, then it may be warranted to describe this as a study about "the biology of fatherhood." Only near the end of the article, is primatologist Sarah Hrdy (author of "Mothers and Others") quoted asking the crucial question:  Would similar results occur “if you have an uncle or brother or stepfather living in the household and they care for the baby?”

Good question. Too bad the researchers didn't ask it and the journalist didn't take it seriously enough to frame the article around the science, as opposed to lazy assumptions about the eternal ubiquity of the nuclear, heterosexual, biological family. Does this drop in T occur when gay men adopt a baby? Does it occur when a straight couple adopts a child? Does it occur when any man spends time nurturing and caring for children—whether or not they are biologically related to him?

My money says it does, which would suggest precisely the opposite of what every mainstream news story I've seen concludes from this study. The real news would be that men, like women, are evolved to care for children—whether or not they are biologically related to them. To me, this is a much more touching, hopeful (and scientifically accurate) story, but nobody seems eager to tell it in their rush to buttress conventional marriage which, despite its oft-assumed "naturalness" always seems to be in desperate need of such unquestioning support.

 

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Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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