The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time

Missing Father’s Day?

Looking for an airplane or Skype connection with the kids.

With Father’s Day on Sunday, sentiments of many turn toward their fathers. As fathers ourselves, where will we be on the occasion? Kermyt will be flying back from a conference out-of-state, hoping to catch his kids before they fall asleep. Peter, out of the country, hopes to connect with his kids via Skype. How did work throw off this year’s Father’s Day for the two of us?

This question opens a larger discussion of men’s work and family relationships. How do men juggle these potentially competing agendas? Can fathers have all they desire—a combination of social status and resources obtained through their work, meaningful relationships with other men, and sufficient involvement in day-to-day family routines? For some deeper evolutionary reflections on these issues, forget Kermyt and me, and consider two of our evolutionary heroes: Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

In his early 20s, Darwin undertook a five year voyage on the HMS Beagle, travels that would subsequently help lay the groundwork (e.g., career prospects) for a family. Beginning in his 20s, Wallace would spend about four years in Brazil, and another eight in southeast Asia. Eventually, he too would find a path to family life, but not until age 44, and after having one marriage proposal declined (“The blow was severe, and I have never in my life experienced such intensely painful emotion").

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At least three themes concerning work and family relationships in Darwin and Wallace’s lives stand out. The first is that they undertook dangerous, extensive, and ultimately fruitful work early in their adult lives. This work helped them establish the reputations and resources that made their later lives possible. Second, their status and career prospects were largely on course before they married and had children. They had proved their worth as men, something that a potential partner and her family might appreciate. Third, they continued working throughout their family years, but in ways more compatible with it. After marrying and becoming a father, Darwin, in part due to illness, but perhaps for family reasons too, never left England again. Wallace still traveled - he marveled at Pike’s Peak while on a later-life book tour, among other trips—but he gave up the long, difficult, feverish trips into the rainforest.

So wherever you are on Father’s Day, and however work/family/relationship issues work their way into that equation, note that (like so many subjects in evolutionary biology) Darwin and Wallace have been there too. They found a path from natural history to fatherhood, one that still gives us pause, even as we look for an airline or Skype connection.

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the coauthor of Fatherhood.

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