In an article published by Forbes, data were revealed that compared spending patterns for Mother’s Day versus Father’s Day. Your hunch is probably right. On average, Americans were found to spend $168 on their mothers compared with a relatively measly $120 for fathers. That is a 40 percent difference!
Hey, I’ve been in the business of being a father since 2000—so I could easily be offended by these data. But I have also been in the business of studying human behavior from an evolutionary perspective for decades (see Geher, 2014 ). And you know, like it or not, the fact that dads come in second compared with moms makes tons of evolutionary sense.
The Evolutionary Reasoning for Fathers' Second-Rate Status
In most mammals like us, fertilization occurs internally—inside the female, whose body takes care of the fertilized zygote from early on. The fact that fertilization takes place inside the female makes for an interesting asymmetry in parenting right off the bat. That asymmetry is well-summarized by the following colloquialism:
"Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe."
Yup, that’s right. Across the lion’s share of human evolutionary history (and with very few exceptions that are the result of very modern biomedical technologies), women could be assured that any babies that they gave birth to were, in fact, their babies.
Men, on the other hand, have not been blessed with such parental assurance. Since it is possible for a woman to have intercourse with multiple males during the fertile part of her cycle, it is highly possible that a woman could give birth to a baby that is, actually, not her husband’s biological child. Named after the cuckoo bird, which lays look-alike eggs in the nests of other species, and thus tricks members of other bird species to care for their young, the verb for a guy being duped into raising someone else’s offspring is “cuckold”—as in “that guy was cuckolded, and he had no clue! That kid is totally the pool boy’s son!”
While estimates of how big of an issue this kind of thing is on a global scale vary across different research reports, all researchers who have studied rates of cuckoldry across human groups have found these rates to be significant—especially in cases where the male has even an ounce of suspicion that his partner may have cheated on him (see Anderson, 2006).
On top of this issue of cuckoldry, men tend to score much lower than do women in terms of basic physiological factors associated with parenting. Consider the following:
- Men have sperm cells which, unlike egg cells, provide zero nourishment to developing offspring.
- No man has ever been pregnant.
- No man has ever birthed a child.
- No man has ever breastfed anyone.
Evolutionists talk about this in terms of “low required parental investment” (when it comes to what it means to be male (see Trivers, 1972))—and, well, it’s pretty much true!
So with the stage set as such, let’s consider five specific ways in which dads really, truly, are, on average, just not up to par in the domain of parenting in comparison to moms.
5 Evolution-Based Reasons That Dads Do Not Stack Up to Moms
1. Under ancestral conditions, parenting was mostly done by all-female communities.
In a recent treatise on the nature of parenting across primate species, renowned primatologist Sarah Hrdy (2009) reveals strong evidence regarding what parenting was likely like in ancestral human groups. Spoiler: Not a lot of paternal involvement. According to Hrdy’s analysis, the most natural form of parenting in humans is what she calls parenting by “Mothers and others”—all-female parenting communities, where women help other women out with the process, providing a safe and supportive environment for developing kids.
2. Moms are less likely than dads are to play favorites.
Becky Burch (2017) and her colleagues conducted a study that showed a bunch of baby faces to both male and female college students. Some of the faces were morphed with photos of their own faces, so they included a degree of resemblance to the person making the judgment. These participants were then asked to make ratings related to how much they would prefer the kid. For males, the degree of self-resemblance mattered. For females, self-resemblance did not matter. (Remember, only males have had to deal with the issue of cuckoldry across human evolutionary history—so this difference makes sense).
3. In cross-cultural research done around the world, women hold babies at much higher rates than men do.
Humans are altricial, meaning that our babies are born in such a state that they need a ton of help. A specific need, early in life, is the need to be picked up, because human infants are not very mobile. In his textbook on evolutionary psychology, David Buss (1999) summarizes research on sex differences in terms of holding babies across various human cultures. The answer is pretty straightforward. Moms hold babies much more than dads do. Everywhere.
4. Male step-parents are considerably more likely to abuse their step-children than are female step-parents.
In eye-opening research on the evolutionary psychology of step-parenting, the data are clear. Step-parents are considerably more likely than are biological (and adoptive) parents to physically abuse the children in their household (see Daly & Wilson, 1988). And this effect is stronger for step-fathers than it is for step-mothers.
5. Across development, moms spend more time with their kids than dads do. Everywhere.
In a recent report published in The Economist , data revealed that parents are spending more time than ever with their kids. But there is an important caveat: In virtually all the countries included in this research, moms spend more time with the kids than dads.
This article was not meant to offend—it’s just evolutionary science! And the data presented here are, as is usually true in the behavioral sciences, just average trends—meaning that there are, of course, exceptions!
Like many guys I know, I take my job as a dad seriously. And I changed more than a diaper or two in my day. Also, my dad has been a huge motivating force in my own life. And I’d be nothing without him! In fact, I have to finish this blog post now so that I can get ready to bring the family for a barbecue at his house in Jersey!
To all you dads out there, I say hey—stand in the face of evolution and buck the system! Change those diapers, read to your kids, bring them places, and have fun with them! They grow up very, very quickly—this I know from experience.
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Anderson, K. G. (2006). How Well Does Paternity Confidence Match Actual Paternity? Evidence from Worldwide Nonpaternity Rates. Current Anthropology 2006 47:3, 513-520
Buss, D. M. (1999). Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (1st Edition). New York: Allyn & Bacon.
Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988) Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Economist (2017). Parents spend twice as much time with their children as 50 years ago. https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2017/11/27/parents-now-spend-twice-as-much-time-with-their-children-as-50-years-ago
Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Trivers, R. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man: 1871-1971 (pp. 136-179). Chicago: Aldine.