Saturday, March 04, 2006

Wise Children

That maternity is a fact, paternity a conjecture, is a feature of human reproduction that has shaped the mating institutions of many, perhaps most, human societies. Men want to know which children are theirs, and the only way to do so with at least reasonable confidence was for a man to have exclusive sexual access to a woman.

That is no longer true. It no longer requires a wise child to know its father—a well equipped lab will do. Paternity testing is the stealth biotech, a technology that, unlike more newsworthy competitors such as human cloning, is now well established, reliable, and in common use.

So far, the most notable consequence has been to sharpen the three-way conflict between women with babies, men who don't want to support them, and welfare departments that want someone other than them to pay the bill. In the old days, the mother and the welfare department could convincingly argue that the husband—more recently the lover—was the father, and so owed duties of paternal support. They are now in the uncomfortable position of trying to claim that a husband who is provably not the father of his wife's child—who is therefore most naturally described as the victim of his wife's marital fraud—is still obliged to provide child support, and similarly in cases where the relationship is less formal than marriage.

The longer run implications are more interesting. From a technical standpoint, it is now possible to combine any mating pattern from strict monogamy to complete promiscuity with assured paternity. How many of those options actually go into common use will depend, among other things, on how much of our sexual behavior is hardwired and at what level.

If, for example, male sexual jealousy is itself hardwired by evolution—as a mechanism to make sure that men don't waste their scarce resources supporting other men's children—nothing much can be expected to change. Men will still have a strong preference for sleeping with, and having children by, women who are their exclusive mates, and the likely result is something close to conventional monogamy. If, on the other hand, evolution has simultaneously provided men with a desire for assured paternity and a taste for promiscuity—both of which make sense from an evolutionary point of view—we may end up with a form of group marriage, or some less structured alternative, becoming common.

To some extent this has already happened, driven by a slightly older technology—reliable contraception. We already have a society where a level of female pre-marital sexual activity that would have been considered scandalous in most past societies is widely accepted and widely practiced—because it only rarely leads to unwanted children. The implication of the newer technology of paternity testing is that a similar pattern is becoming possible for reproductive as well as non-reproductive sex.

Readers interested in what might—or might not—be the cutting edge of such developments may find the alt.polyamory web site of interest.


Gabriel M said...

It always seems to me that the polyamory crowd aims at standardising and otherwise defining their practices (or area of study), perhaps in a search for social legitimacy, and I always thought it was unnecessary.

People are natural utility maximizers and they usually do the right thing for them without over-analysing the issue. Better let one thousand flowers bloom according to individual preferences and the agreements that can be reached and see what works and what doesn't.

Trying to justify alternative household arrangements ex ante doesn't seem a productive enterprise to me.

Lioness said...

Y'know, if monogamy were only about turning sperm into old-age care providers, why are so many homosexual people wanting to get married? And why are there so many happily married, vehemently child-free couples. There must be something more to monogamy than just child-rearing strategies.

Anonymous said...

Lioness: I wonder if monogamous couples have lower rates of STDs?

This topic, which probably could have been titled Mama's baby, Papa's Maybe, reminds me of Kanye West's song Gold Digger.

18 years, 18 years
she got one of yo kids got you for 18 years
I know somebody payin child support for one of his kids
His baby momma's crib is bigger than his
You will see him on TV any given sunday
Win the Superbowl and drive off in a Hyundai
She was spose to buy ya shorty TYCO wit ya money
She went to the doctor got lypo wit ya money
She walkin around lookin like Michael wit ya money
Should of got insured got GEICO for ya moneeey
If you aint no punk holla We Want Prenup
It's something that you need to have
Cause when she leave yo a** she gone leave wit half
18 years, 18 years
And on the 18th birthday found out it wasn't his

Anonymous said...

Here in Colorado the state lege has made it illegal for husbands to try to disprove paternity via DNA in child support cases. You can try to guess at the motivation behind that legislation.

David Friedman said...

Query for Walter:

Did the legislature make it illegal or fail to make it legal?

Lord Mansfield's rule, which is the old common law rule on the subject, forbade a husband to question the paternity of a child conceived by his wife when they were cohabiting. California used to have the statutory equivalent, but amended it in response to technological progress. If Colorado didn't, they would end up with the result you describe.

But I agree about the motive.

Anonymous said...

David Buller's book Adapting Minds has fairly strong evidence that the function of jealousy is mainly to ensure that a spouse remains in the relationship (to ensure continued sexual access and child care), and that ensuring paternity is a less important function.