August 11,2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

Do You Know Who Your Father Is?

If Britain recognized partible paternity, between four and ten percent of children could claim multiple fathers.

R. Robin Baker, 1999

We tend to forget that the science of genetics, as it exists today, really started at the beginning of the nineteen hundreds, when Gregor Mendel's work with peas was rediscovered. That a single sperm fertilized one egg was discovered in 1879, a mere 120 years ago. Considering how long man has existed, it is less than the blink of an eye. What did people believe before that, and what do people who haven't had the benefit of a modern education believe now?

It must have been obvious long before Mendel that children tend to resemble their parents. The most obvious trait is skin color. If a black women is married to a black man and she has a brown(mulatto) colored child, one might reasonably suspect that her husband is not the father of the child. Similarly, with two white people who have a mulatto child. Two mulatto-colored people can have children with colors ranging from very black to very white. A knowledge of genetics isn't necessary to be aware of this. People knew from observation alone that a child resembled its parents of both sexes.

There is a Bill Mauldin cartoon that shows two World War II soldiers amid a number of people who look just like one of the soldiers who had very distinctive features, who says, "My father told me about this town in World War I."

Among dog breeders, there is a common belief that if a pedigreed bitch has a mongrel litter, that she has in some way been contaminated and that it will affect subsequent purebred litters. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge about how the sperm and egg interact to form an offspring knows that this is just plain nonsense.

In at least 18 societies around the world, people believe that a child can have more than one biological father. These are isolated societies. For example, the Canela people of Brazil believe that a fetus keeps incorporating semen until birth. Consequently, some women try to have sex with many men that they would like their child to resemble. This apparently does not stop the husband from being jealous, but it does provide a socially acceptable excuse for extramarital sex. This belief that a child can have more than one father is called "partible paternity." Do women really believe this, or is it merely an excuse for having some fun? I haven't the faintest idea.

This is hardly a unique example of large numbers of people believing the ridiculous. Lest you snicker at these people who haven't had the benefit of a modern education, consider the large number of "educated" people who believe things that are just plain impossible. I could point to examples in every culture and religion that I am familiar with, but I don't wish to offend those of my readers who belong to those cultures or religions. If you look at your own culture, or the culture of your neighbor, you are sure to come up with some doozies. However it is much more likely that you will come up with examples if you look at someone else's culture or religion.

Next column

Return to the Science Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page