The Evolution of Fatherhood

A new book by a UNLV professor highlights how far dads have come

Modern dads are more involved in their children’s lives than in any time in history, thanks to evolution (and perhaps a few armed and dangerous cavewomen).

That’s the subject of a new book by UNLV associate professor Peter Gray. He and University of Oklahoma associate professor Kermyt G. Anderson co-authored Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Behavior, which was published last month by Harvard University Press.

Just in time for Father’s Day, Gray took a few moments to speak with us. Here’s what we learned:

Fathers Have Evolved

If you look at the closest living relatives to human beings—bonobo monkeys and chimpanzees—you’re not going to see a lot of father-son or father-daughter bonding. That’s because the male primates’ sole role in fatherhood is, to put it bluntly, knocking up a fellow simian and continuing through the trees, searching for a new place to hide the banana.

Human males have evolved to the point that they not only stick around, they are increasingly involved in providing for and nurturing their children. “We’ve got some of the most invested fathers probably in human evolutionary history spending a remarkable amount of time with their young kids,” Gray says.

Fatherhood Changes Men Physiologically

Studies have shown that men who are married and men who are fathers have lower testosterone levels than their single counterparts. It also changes the way that men allocate time, having less leisure time to spend with other men, and it impacts the relationship with the wife. “You often see a decline in marital relationship quality once you have young kids,” says Gray, pointing to lack of sleep and less time for emotional and physical intimacy, all of which take a toll on a marriage.

Dads Get Postpartum Depression, Too

Gray’s book points out that it’s not only mothers who get postpartum depression; dads do, too. “The best predictor is that your wife suffers from postpartum depression,” Gray says. Because husbands and wives share the same environment, economic reality and emotional outlook, they can also share the same depression. “Men often pick up emotional cues from their partners. And if your wife is depressed, that’s going to rub off on you.”

Men and Women Have Learned They Need Each Other

It’s hard raising a family. As our society becomes more transient and mothers find themselves farther away from their own mothers, they need help. Fathers are filling that role, helping out around the home with cooking, cleaning, changing diapers and more.

The flip side of that coin, Gray says, is the deadbeat dad. In those situations, the woman may be better off on her own, evolutionarily speaking. “It’s hard having kids; it’s expensive to raise kids,” Gray says. “A lot of men’s incomes and educations don’t make them worthwhile mates. They’re not even worth having around, and they would be net drains if you did keep them around.”

Economy Impacts Fertility

If you look over annual numbers of kids born throughout the 20th century, Gray says, you’ll find declines in challenging economic times, such as during the Great Depression. “I think it’s as simple as taking the day-to-day realities people face economically and emotionally and so forth, tallying it up and realizing, ‘Hey, it’s just not the right time to have the kid.’” Gray says he expects to see similar declines during the current economic slump.

Stay-At-Home Dads Still Have It Hard

We’ve come far enough that in some moms’ clubs you might even find a stay-at-home dad. However, Gray says studies show that males still have it pretty hard when it comes to full-time child care. It can be harder for them to fit into mom circles, which can be isolating. He says dads have a better shot at success if they start caring for kids who are a little bit older (the younger the kids are, the harder it is). He says it also helps if the dad is caring for a son.

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