Do Monkeys Make Good Fathers?

We move back into the realm of the real this week with an exploration of paternal instinct. Do men have one? Or is this wishful thinking?

I dove headfirst into yet another book that I’m sure I’ll be referring to frequently in future posts:

Our Babies, Ourselves, by Meredith F. Small (professor of anthropology at Cornell).

There is a relatively tiny and unassuming section of the first chapter (which is titled “The Evolution of Babies”) labeled, “Is there a paternal instinct?” For a bit of context, Small has just finished elucidating mankind’s current best conception of how the hell we all got here: biological evolution, painfully enacted over millions of years. She focuses on the physiological gymnastics the human body had to go through to achieve upright bipedalism. (Damn you, early humans! We could still be swinging from the trees!) This is interesting in and of itself, of course, but I’m not writing about human labor and birth, nor about things like the skeletal remains of Homo habilis.

(And yet, I am. I am writing about these things, inasmuch as they are inseparable from the nexus of my topic. One cannot write about these things out of context. These concepts do not exist in a void. It requires the full litany of human development – from the first hominid stalking prey to the modern midwife double checking correct dosages on her smartphone – to really understand all of this. What I really mean when I say, “but I’m not writing about…” is simply that here, in this post, in this installment or whatever, I am not discussing these things specifically. The fount of human knowledge – deep, almost limitless as it is – informs what I’m trying to write about. I can’t separate these realities any more than I can separate my soul from my body. Each one affects every other. So, when I’m writing about paternal instincts, I’m really writing, also, about the divergent paths of our ancestors and the evolutionary nature of the mind and the existence of couvade syndrome and modern conceptions of masculinity and all the rest. It’s like I’m writing about thousands upon thousands of topics all at once, combing through the vast library of human wisdom for answers to specific inquiries of the moment. I can’t answer these inquiries without outside, relational knowledge and information. I can’t begin to tackle the question of innate male instincts without, at very least, some tacit nod to my (feeble) understanding of the myriad processes and avenues used to discuss maleness as a whole. Or perhaps even broader – personhood as a whole, or even existence as a whole.)

Oh boy. This has gone absurdly far off track. Back to paternalistic instinct…

What was I saying? Ah yes: Our researcher in question, Meredith Small, basically says, “hey, womens’ bodies have evolved over millions of years to give birth to babies in a specific fashion. This evolution (co-evolution really, taking into account the baby involved in the birthing) has had a profound impact on the way women react to the newborn – namely, they love the shit out of it. But fathers, where are fathers in all of this? Sitting at the entrance to the cave, playing with themselves. (An image which, all things considered, hasn’t really changed much over the eons.)

Perhaps we need some help to illustrate our point. Let’s invite a newly minted father to act as our guide. Please welcome Uhd. Uhd is a brand new father. He is the adult male who just moments ago was seen scratching his balls at the entrance to his cave. His darling baby girl was born minutes ago. Uhd is stunned: he’s never seen anything so beautiful in all his life. The hands and fingers are perfect, the legs and toes flawless. This little creature bears a striking resemblance to Uhd himself and to Uhd’s cave-partner, a female of his same species. Now, Uhd’s emotional range is little more than that of a fruit bat, but he feels something deep within, welling up from pools of unknown depths: joy, love, loyalty, ownership. Just moments before, Uhd was content to lounge about the mouth of his lair, slaying the stray mammal that happened upon him. His world was little more than: kill, eat, screw, sleep, repeat. Now, however, his world has been blown to fucking pieces. Uhd’s purview has gone from picking his teeth and sharpening his spear to keeping a baby alive. Quite a tall order for a neanderthal.

So, has evolution (or god, or whatever) equipped Uhd to deal with all – or any – of this? Is it possible that Uhd is hard-wired to care for his baby girl? Or is he doomed to wander the forgotten halls of ineptitude? Doomed to scratch his junk at his cave’s doorstep while his female counterpart handles the dirty, endless, often thankless work of rearing his young? Dr. Small believes there is, in fact, such a thing as paternal instinct. And, according to her, it can be just as strong as the maternal one for which mothers claim renown.

Consider the following excerpts:

“In one study mothers and fathers were wired to chart their heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conductance, and were then shown photographs of babies in various states of emotion – smiling and crying. Physiological measurements showed that the two parents reacted the same, supporting the notion that mothers and fathers have the same biological reactions to their babies.”

And further along in the same section:

“Babies, too, seem to experience little difference in their reactions to their mothers and their fathers. In experiments where babies were monitored for reactions to a mother, a father, and a stranger, babies clearly distinguished the stranger from the parent… but they made little distinction between mother and father. Babies did, when under stress, connect more with mothers; but if everything was calm, they were just as happy to see the father.”

None of this is necessarily shocking: Babies prefer their parents to strangers, and, when distressed, their mothers to their fathers. It is interesting, however, to note that when “everything was calm” that the babies were “just as happy to see the father.” Without delving too deeply into that, and similar, studies, I’m feeling pretty good about my connection to my kid – and the connection he feels toward me. It would seem that mom, dad, and baby are biologically hardwired to connect. That is, Uhd’s cave partner, Uhd, and little baby Udg, are evolutionarily engineered to respond to each other in a synaptic fashion.

This “innate connection” may not come as a surprise in an era of “overprotective” parenting, where it can seem like what both parents and children need most is a little more time to simply be, but maybe it should. It should probably surprise us a little, because biparental care (care in which fathers are as actively involved as mothers) is found “in less than 5 percent of mammalian species.” Whaaa? Let’s review that quickly: Less than 5 percent of mammal babies have fathers who help out. And here, “help out”, can mean something as simple as providing warmth or food. Let’s not miss this: Ninety five percent of all the world’s mammals have shitty, absentee fathers. And you thought your dad was lousy.

Now, in all fairness, primates (including humans) happen to top that list, but even so, the list is relatively short. Evolution, it would seem, has opted in 95% of cases (in the mammal world) to let the father off the hook. Still, those 5% include many primates and humans – the most advanced forms of life on the planet. (We might tackle birds later. In fact, I feel like I have to talk about birds at some point in the future – a whopping 90% or more of bird species exhibit paternal care characteristics. If I’m reincarnated, I hope like hell I’m a falcon or sparrow or something with wings.)

Back to our question: Are men primed to behave in a paternalistic manner? Small believes so. She cites studies that point to a father’s “instantaneous connection” with a newborn, and others that report fathers as “having the exact emotions that mothers do upon seeing their newborns” including following the “same sequence of touching the new baby [like mothers], from fingers and toes inward.”

This might not seem like so much, but keep in mind that fields like neuroscience are essentially in their infancy: a LOT of research has not even been thought of yet, let alone conducted. And also, keep in mind that this meager blog of mine is about as far from exhaustive as you can get. I’m happy to present interesting concepts like the one being discussed today, but for authority on such matters, you’ll need to look much deeper. And lastly, there is more to be said on this topic and I have some more articles I’d like to explore. I imagine I’ll explore these in a future post – Something like, Do Monkeys Make Good Fathers? Part 2. The answer to that question, by the way, is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. It all depends on the monkey. Marmosets are great fathers, while Barbary macaques are total assholes.


Small, Meredith F.

1998. Our Babies, Ourselves. New York: Anchor Books


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