There are some things in life where women have it better. We live longer, we have higher self-reported happiness and we are always certain of the biological relatedness between our babies and ourselves. Men can never be completely certain of their paternity since fertilization takes place internally. Given that cuckoldry has large fitness costs, it is not surprising that evolution has created psychological mechanisms in men that work to prevent this from happening (e.g. sexual jealousy). Likewise, it is not surprising that women assure men of their paternity by telling them that their newborn baby looks just like them—even when it more closely resembles the alien in the latest sci-fi movie.

This week biological parenthood became more complicated for both sexes when scientists from the Oregon Health & Science University created an embryo using DNA from two women and one man. The technique transferred chromosomes from one woman’s egg to a donor’s egg whose nucleus had been removed, but the mitochondria remained. This is good news for women who have mutations in their mitochondria and want to have children without the risk of their babies inheriting the defects. However, it has raised a number of thought-provoking questions. Can a child have more than two biological parents? Are certain amounts or types of genetic material needed to qualify someone as a biological parent?

The psychological concept of multiple biological parents is not new. There are a number of tribes in the world, many in Lowland South America, who already adhere to the belief of partible parenting. They believe that the sperm of multiple men contribute to the development of a fetus. In these tribes, female sexual freedom is encouraged and extramarital relations are the norm. So children born to women who have multiple mates will have multiple fathers.

While the researchers in Oregon perform their magic in the laboratory and not the bedroom, the end result is the same, namely, to increase the survival and overall wellbeing of the child. Partible paternity in these tribes works to increase overall parental investment to the child, decrease the risk of abuse or infanticide by other men and to reduce negative outcomes in the event of father mortality.

We have already accepted the idea that children in our society can have many different non-biological parents. We are on board with the idea of stepparents, godparents, adopted parents, foster parents and so on. Accepting the possibility of more than two biological parents is certainly novel here in the West, but there should be nothing inherently upsetting about it. While it might be long time before our society embraces the idea that it takes a village to create a child, the science is rapidly making this a real possibility. 

The Hunter Games

Exploring the ancestral origins of our behavior
Coren Apicella, Ph.D.

Coren Apicella, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

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