The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time

Do Fathers Matter? They do in Paul Raeburn's new book.

Just in time for Father's Day, a new book explores the science of fatherhood.

Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked. Paul Raeburn. 257 pages. Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Science journalist Paul Raeburn asks Do Fathers Matter? The answer is clearly yes—at least for one Sunday every June, on Father’s Day.

Over the rest of the year, such a question recedes against a backdrop of other pressing issues. In my own experience as a university professor and in conversations with others, discussions of dads rate well below those about dogs and cats.

Raeburn’s book is a warm, enjoyable collection of stories about the science of fatherhood. He draws upon an array of studies, some fresh and others from recent decades. He quotes from published work and interviews scholars involved in some of the classic works on the science of fatherhood. He interweaves his own experience as a father of five—three older kids from a first marriage and two from a more recent partnership. This perspective helps him embrace how science and popular culture sees fathers, and how his own experiences are or aren’t mirrored in those wider lenses. The result is a highly readable account of some of the deeper scientific meanings of fatherhood.

The book loosely follows the developmental course of becoming a father and covers aspects of conception, a partner’s pregnancy, caring for an infant, interactions with older children, parenting a teenager, and older men fathering children. The studies Raeburn discusses under these progressions are not comprehensive and are not subject to an overly critical eye. Raeburn largely emphasizes studies in the last decade or two from Western countries; that reflects where much of the latest science on fatherhood is conducted, but it does leave many open questions about fatherhood ‘s wider international and cross-cultural landscape.

Still, the studies and scientific figures featured in the book are well chosen.  A few of them may be familiar to the curious father from recent years’ social media rounds, but many likely will be utterly new. As someone who also thinks about fatherhood, I encountered some intriguing work I was unaware of. The result is that the book may have appeal to lots of fathers, and even scholars focused on fatherhood will find a few new gems.

Here are some examples of what a reader encounters:

  • Male rats in Australia that were given high-fat diets and became obese had offspring that were more likely to have metabolic disease, including diabetes.
  • While the Y chromosome once had some 800 genes in common with the X chromosome, they now share just 19.  Yet the loss of genes on the Y chromosome occurred many millions of years ago, suggesting we shouldn’t fear last few genes being flushed down some contemporary evolutionary toilet.
  • Family interventions intended to increase paternal involvement were most effective when targeting fathers and mothers together. This is because, as researchers note, “the single most powerful predictor of fathers’ engagement with their children is the quality of the men’s relationship with the child’s mother, regardless of whether the couple is married, divorced, separated, or never married.” 
  • In captivity, a long-term study with rhesus monkeys (a species in which males do not provide paternal care in the wild) found that when infants were removed from mothers and hand-fed by humans, fathers became effective caregivers and played more with the infants than mothers.
  • A captive study of voles found that pups raised without a father displayed more anxiety and less activity and social behavior than those raised with a father.
  • Children born to older fathers are at greater risk of various developmental disorders, including autism, schizophrenia and cleft lip and palate. The age-related increase in mutations known to occur in males may underlie those observations, prompting  Raeburn to ask: “The female biological clock is talked about so often that it’s become a sitcom cliché. Why do we hear so little about these biological clocks in men?”

Few books on fatherhood feature interdisciplinary behavioral biology. But this is the basis of Do Fathers Matter? Consider fatherhood-related offerings on Amazon or in a bookstore and you’ll see plenty devoted to inspirational stories, to famous fathers and to jokes and sports focused on fathers. Raeburn’s book fills a complementary niche. He values the insights gleaned from studies of human hunter-gatherers, from the paternal behavior of other species in the wild and in captivity, from lab investigations of paternal care’s proximate mechanisms (for example, brain imaging and hormones), from epidemiological studies of children’s development in relation to father involvement, and more. There is scholarship from psychology, biology, anthropology, sociology and medicine, brought under one fold, even in areas where fatherhood scholars aren’t talking with each other as often as they could.

So, do fathers matter? They’re not essential (unlike water or oxygen). There are plenty of families in which fathers aren’t actively involved and a variety of family configurations (from those in which a father’s role ended with sperm donation to ones in which grandmothers take more prominent roles than fathers in day-to-day child-care). But fathers can fulfill various roles in families and can have various effects on children. Exactly how those roles and impacts evolve is highly contingent upon wider issues of work, partnering and other considerations. Fathers can provide childcare, be emotionally supportive of a child’s mother, help provide the daily bread, serve as moral guides and offer protection, among other services. Paternal contributions can have consequences for children.

For humans, those effects aren’t readily apparent in survival (unlike California mice, for which removal of a father increases pup mortality). Instead, they’re more often witnessed in children’s social development. A study found that teenage fathers have sons who are more likely to become teenage fathers too, and research on Norwegian sailors and World War II soldiers (in which fathers were away for extended periods) showed their children had altered play and peer relationships. Many children draw great meaning from the roles their fathers played during the children’s upbringing. In his book’s afterword, Raeburn uses anecdotes to convey some of these meanings.

I’m a father, and I’m fond of showing my daughters what my life would be like without them—I frown, pretend to sob loudly and say how much I wish I could be their dad because they’re so fun. They find this ridiculous. But it’s true for many men: Being a father is life’s crowning experience, and it’s refreshing to find a book that speaks to the value and substance of this role, even if it’s primarily recognized on a single day each June.

 

This review also appears in Scientists’ Bookshelf (http://scientistsbookshelf.org/?post_type=features&p=1072).

 

Peter B. Gray is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has researched and written about the evolution of human reproduction, including coauthoring "Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Behavior" and "Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior." He blogs on Psychology Today (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-evolving-father) and enjoys family life.

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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