The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time

The Case of the Lost Boy?

Jason Patric and the links between genetic and social fatherhood

Yesterday I spoke with a journalist, Patrick Johnson, who was preparing a piece for the “Christian Science Monitor” on the Jason Patric court case in California. That writeup is a nice example of recent media coverage of the issues at stake. Patric is an actor known for a variety of movies, including “Lost Boys,” but he is now in the limelight over concern he may lose his genetic boy. While Patric conceived a son with a former girlfriend via IVF, California’s current law does not grant him rights to the 3-year old child with whom he has spent time and wishes for more access. The discussion with Patrick Johnson prompted a number of questions raised by this case that can be amplified here.

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An evolutionary foundation for sex differences in reproductive effort often turns to the point that, among mammals like ourselves, males have a higher potential reproductive rate than females. That helps make sense of why the typical male mammalian reproductive investment ends at sperm; males may benefit more by channeling their efforts into seeking additional mates rather than tending to the offspring they’ve fathered. By this logic, a mammalian male sexual fantasy is being allowed to have offspring without being burdened by their care. But wait. Why isn’t Patric leaving his genetic legacy as it stands, instead seeking to channel his efforts into his genetic child? Humans are among those mammals in which paternal investment is a defining feature of male behavioral biology. So maybe Patric’s human. But wait again. One of the best predictors for involved fathering in men is a strong relationship with a child’s mother. Yet Patric and his genetic son’s mother seem estranged rather than passionately supportive of each other. And wait even more. As a Hollywood man raised by creative elite, wouldn’t he be able to channel his attractiveness into alternative mating prospects rather than tend to his sewed oats? This guy doesn’t make sense on so many levels. At least that’s one interpretation for why this case is compelling.

When genetic and social paternity do not align, that is an arena of fascinating evolutionary theory, family dramas, and novel legal discussions. Patric knows he’s the genetic father, but the debate is over granting him social paternity (i.e., conferring upon him a recognized role as the child’s father). How many genetic fathers seek to maintain involved fathering roles with their children but face social and legal impediments to do so? Not many like in the specifics of Patric’s case, but enough that some of the conflicts of interest can be heard. A more common contrast between genetic and social paternity is with stepfathers—men who are not the genetic father, but who adopt a role as a social father to a child. In another fairly new legal and social arena, imagine a gay couple in Los Angeles who have relied upon a surrogate and the men’s mixed semen to let the lottery of genetic paternity unfold. In that case, you’d have one genetic father and two social fathers of a child, but fresh questions about genetic and social paternity to define if the couple separated.

Another key issue is anonymity. In today’s world, a man can father lots of children as an anonymous sperm donor. That’s of course an evolutionarily-novel path to paternity: in an evolutionary perspective, social cues, including mating with an offspring’s mother, have provided the means by which males might have “guessed” they were genetic fathers, with no room for anonymity in those relations. Yet there are some good reasons why male sperm donors may remain anonymous. More are likely to sign up for that duty, especially if paid for their services. There are also good reasons not to let sperm donors remain anonymous. A child may benefit by knowing of any paternally-derived heritable disease risks, and seek to establish a social connection with his genetic male lineage that may be separate from appreciating the social fathering legacy in which s/he has been raised. In Patric’s case, he’s a known genetic commodity to the child’s mother, presumably the child, and other stakeholders. The more he’s granted an opportunity to develop a potentially mutually reinforcing relationship with his genetic child, the more a role as a social father may also deepen. In the end, there are few forces as powerful as the reproductive imperative, however a man seeks to channel his efforts into finding a mate and investing in children.

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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