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June 16, 2010

Dads Matter

Science casts doubt on the conventional wisdom:

Reporting in the current issue of the journal Animal Behaviour, Dr. Fischer and her co-workers describe how male Barbary macaques use infants as “costly social tools” for the express purpose of bonding with other males and strengthening their social clout. Want to befriend the local potentate? Bring a baby. Need to reinforce an existing male-male alliance, or repair a frayed one? Don’t forget the baby.

It doesn’t matter if the infant is yours or not. Just so long as it has the downy black fur and wrinkly pinkish face that adult male macaques find impossible to resist. “They will hold up the infant like a holy thing, nuzzling it, chattering their teeth,” Dr. Fischer said. “It can be a bit bewildering to see.”

Just in time for Father’s Day come this and other recent studies that reveal surprising, off-road or vaguely unsettling cases of Males Behaving Dadly — attending to the young with an avidity and particularity long thought to be the province of the mother.

...In 90 percent of mammalian species, promiscuity is common and paternity uncertain; females gestate the young internally and then provision them with breast milk, and males rarely have any evolutionary incentive to play Ward Cleaver. Yet in that remaining 10 percent, the daddy decile, we find most of the world’s primates.

Imagine that. More grist for the mill:

While adoption is often the center of controversy, it turns out that sperm donation raises a host of different but equally complex—and sometimes troubling—issues. Two-thirds of adult donor offspring agree with the statement "My sperm donor is half of who I am." Nearly half are disturbed that money was involved in their conception. More than half say that when they see someone who resembles them, they wonder if they are related. About two-thirds affirm the right of donor offspring to know the truth about their origins.

Regardless of socioeconomic status, donor offspring are twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25. They are more than twice as likely to report having struggled with substance abuse. And they are about 1.5 times as likely to report depression or other mental health problems.

As a group, the donor offspring in our study are suffering more than those who were adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated from their families. (And our study found that the adoptees on average are struggling more than those raised by their biological parents.) The donor offspring are more likely than the adopted to have struggled with addiction and delinquency and, similar to the adopted, a significant number have confronted depression or other mental illness. Nearly half of donor offspring, and more than half of adoptees, agree, "It is better to adopt than to use donated sperm or eggs to have a child."

Posted by Cassandra at June 16, 2010 07:22 AM

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I need to go dig up some data that I posted a link to on Amy Alkon's a while back. It studied children of single mothers, and it showed a large disparity in child rearing outcomes between single moms who were divorced, and single moms who were widowed. For the children of the divorced moms, there were the usual run of problems that we're all familiar with by now -- dropping out, drugs, trouble with the law, teenage pregnancy, etc. However, the outcomes for the children of widowed moms are about the same as for children of intact families. I had a couple of conjectures on why this might be so, but I think I'll let someone else take a shot at it first.

Posted by: Cousin Dave at June 16, 2010 10:32 AM

This issue with this study is the question of control groups and the old Nature v. Nurture debate. According to studies I have read, adopted kids tend to not do as well in school as birth children and have other issues, but when compared to the kids of parents in the socio-economic groups of their parents, they are average to above average in these categories. To the extent they are above average, one could argue that nurture influences them but that nature holds them back. I think it fair to make some generalizations that tend to hold up accoding to the summaries of the studies I've read about: adopted kids come from lower-socio-economic families; such families tend to have lower IQs than better off families; the kids have lower IQs than their natural birth siblings; their real parants have more "problems" than their adoptive parents.

Thus, for the above, this is nothing new. What is the wrinkle I guess is the sperm donor issue. For one, I don't know much about the demographic of who donates sperm. Are they poor guys in need of money? Are they screened and how much? Are they smart college kids whacking off for pizza and beer money? Depending on the answer, it could be that they have no significant genetic "handicaps" over natural birth kids to better off couples or women. Then there is the fact that the woman's genetics are part of the child.

Anyway, this poses a great nature/nurture study, but control groups are needed to determine causation. I doubt this study did that - I may be wrong.

Posted by: Average Looking Male Fully Clothed and Raised By A Mom and Multiple Step-Dads at June 16, 2010 12:09 PM

OK, CD, I'll take the obvious stab: we'll find that women who happen to have been widowed don't share any obvious characteristics except for bad luck. In contrast, women who chose a mate who wouldn't stick around tended to share a lot of characteristics that (on average, with obvious exceptions) didn't make for such a hot child-rearing environment.

The divorced men weren't around to influence the kids, just as the deceased fathers were not around, but the mothers were left behind in both cases to influence the kids, and we may know some facts about the two groups of mothers that will help us distinguish between them. One group (widows) chose men who died while the other (divorcees) either chose men who went on the lam, or the women went on the lam themselves, before the kids had grown up. Not absolving the absent dads here, but women do most often have some choice about with whom they have sex. Maybe the same characteristics that led them to make poor choices in that area also do not conduce to terrific child-rearing. -- Again, obviously, subject to lots of exceptions in real life. We're talking statistics and trends. I'm sure some widows turn out to be awful mothers while some divorced women turn out to raise pillars of the community. (They all raised more kids than I did.)

I don't know whether your study included women that never married the baby-daddies in the first place. Sounds like no.

And, of course, children whose father died may just react completely differently to a mother's attempts to bring them up than children of a father whom they perceive to have abandoned them more or less voluntarily. For instance, the statistics might show a different pattern if you separated out the widows of suicides.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 16, 2010 04:08 PM

I think that widows probably tend to speak of the father in terms that a child wants to live up to, whereas there cannot help but be tension of some sort between parents in a divorce case.

And that probably contributes to the issues. Not that I have any real evidence of any sort for this.

Posted by: airforcewife at June 16, 2010 07:51 PM