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Who's Yer Daddy? No...Really.
Steve Olson writes in The Atlantic ($) about the unintended consequences of genetic screening for diseases:

Geneticists and physicians would like us all to have our DNA sequenced. That way we’ll know about our genetic flaws, and this knowledge could let us take steps to prevent future health problems. But genetic tests can also identify the individuals from whom we got our DNA. Widespread genetic testing could reveal many uncomfortable details about what went on in our parents’ and grandparents’ bedrooms.

The problem would not loom so large if non-paternity were rare. But it isn’t. When geneticists do large-scale studies of populations, they sometimes can’t help but learn about the paternity of the research subjects. They rarely publish their findings, but the numbers are common knowledge within the genetics community. In graduate school, genetics students typically are taught that 5 to 15 percent of the men on birth certificates are not the biological fathers of their children. In other words, as many as one of every seven men who proudly carry their newborn children out of a hospital could be a cuckold.

Non-paternity rates appear to be substantially lower in some populations. The Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which is based in Salt Lake City, now has a genetic and genealogical database covering almost 100,000 volunteers, with an overrepresentation of people interested in genealogy. The non-paternity rate for a representative sample of its father-son pairs is less than 2 percent. But other reputed non-paternity rates are higher than the canonical numbers. One unpublished study of blood groups in a town in southeastern England indicated that 30 percent of the town’s husbands could not have been the biological fathers of their children.

Even with a low non-paternity rate, the odds increase with each successive generation. Given an average non-paternity rate of 5 percent, the chance of such an event occurring over 10 generations exceeds 40 percent.

Ego and the ensuing disbelief that a woman could cheat on them stop a lot of men from seeking paternity testing. But, there are a lot of men who'd be surprised to find who actually fathered the children they think are theirs. I just spoke to Psychology Today about family -- about how family are people who act like family to each other; not necessarily blood relatives. That was for a story on when you cut off toxic parents or family members but it does relate to this piece as well. You can act like a father to somebody and by that action be their father. But, how many guys here, if you found out your child was not really your child by blood, would feel or act differently to that child?

Posted by aalkon at June 22, 2007 10:38 AM


If I did ened up in such a situation (it's not biologically mine) I would act no differently towards the child. The issue is not the childs fault, I'd still love and care for the child in all the ways that I can. A child is brought into this world by the actions of adults not by her/his own actions. To do anything else would be unethical. It might be a little differnt if I discover this at birth but after a few months of caring for the kid it shouldn't matter.
The wife would be a completly different story.

Posted by: Vlad at June 22, 2007 7:52 AM

Our neighbor has two daughters; even though she swears her ex-husband sired them both, he believes he is the father only of the older. We know nothing first-hand about the family's early emotional life, but our neighbor says the man treated the younger daughter like an outcast from the first.

We do know that when the older girl reached the age of sixteen, he gave her a car. When the younger turned sixteen--nothing, not even a card.

Hard to say what might have happened if he had bonded with the girl before deciding she was not his own, but the anecdote does sound a cautionary note.

Posted by: Axman at June 22, 2007 8:41 AM

But, Vlad, how you act to the wife is sure to have an impact on the child. And see Axman's comment above. When reality and potential paternity fraud meet.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 22, 2007 9:14 AM

To some extent yes it will, but it will have far less of an effect then what Axman is describing. If all I do is stay away from her outside of interacting with the child and go bar hopping I would think that the effects would be minor. If I'm mistaken about that then would leaving be better?

Posted by: Vlad at June 22, 2007 9:55 AM

This is all assuming I stay as I am and am not sleeping around myself. If I'm doing it as well then I can't really complain.

Posted by: Vlad at June 22, 2007 9:56 AM

I have been curious for awhile if kids look more like their mothers or their fathers or if it is split 50/50.

My kids look very much like me.

I could see evolutionary pressures might exist to favor having kids look like their fathers.

(My kids look like me, but I am not sure they are mine. They don't like ice cream.)

Posted by: jerry at June 22, 2007 10:08 AM

I would think the real problems come in when the guy finds out, say, 10 years in, that he's not the real father.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 22, 2007 10:08 AM

With regard to paternity fraud used to collect child support, well, it's a big industry now. And there are laws that have "compassionate reasons and the best interest of the children" for not allowing victims of paternity fraud to be repaid for their losses, or in many cases, even be allowed to not pay future support.

Glenn Sacks wrote about a case of this just yesterday.

Many states are now garnishing the wages and distributing the funds themselves, and for that, they charge an additional surcharge to the person paying.

It would seem to be feasible to take a nickel or so from that surcharge and put it to an insurance fund meant to repay the victims of paternity fraud.

Posted by: jerry at June 22, 2007 10:13 AM

If it's 10 years later the answer is simple. The kid is yours, I have trouble understanding why anyone would see otherwise. You raised it you trained it so it's your child.

Posted by: Vlad at June 22, 2007 10:38 AM

As far as paternity suites that's a differnt story. I was speaking from the ethical stand point. Legally I feel that if the child is not yours you should at least be able to stop paying child support. As far as getting the money back, I'm not sure if that's practicle. If the parent who has custody of the child (the one getting child support) can't afford to return the money you can't make them destitute to pay it back. Even the tabacco companies are sheilded from prosecution that would lead them to bankruptcy.

Posted by: Vlad at June 22, 2007 10:44 AM

These dilemma's reminded me of this recent post via reddit:

(The blogger's pompous, but Hrdy's brilliant.)

Posted by: Crid at June 22, 2007 11:25 AM

One thing I do wonder about: Artificial insemination has been around for a lot longer than most people realize (there are rumors, probably baseless, that Queen Elizabeth and her sister were conceived in that manner, although - I hasten to add! - with the sperm of her legal father, aka the future King). There are thousands, if not millions, of men in the U.S. living today who deliberately and with knowledge aforethought have put their names down as "father" on the birth certificates of children their wives bore who were conceived with donor sperm. This is probably an almost statistically insignificant portion of the 5 to 15 percent...but maybe not. I would like to know how much of a role it plays, though.

I am female and childless, so I can't offer any direct insight into the question at hand. I do find it somewhat interesting, however, to throw in Robert A. Heinlein's perceived thoughts on the matter, since the issue of paternity fraud comes up so often in the types of places, such as "Reason" and this blog, written by people who have read and enjoyed Heinlein. Heinlein's books have several instances of men raising children as their own despite not being said children's biological fathers and knowing that fact. One character ends up being cuckolded three times, each with a different wife. Heinlein's longest-running and longest-lived character, Lazarus Long, remarks once about how he has suspected that he has had Cuckoo in his nest many times over the centuries that he's been marrying and impregnating; he says that he has always been careful to be an especially good father to such children, and not let on that he suspected anything. Of course, I think many of us would be more relaxed about something like this if we all lived hundreds of years and had countless children and spouses in a society in which strict monogamy wasn't the norm.

As for Vlad's point, it is a tricky situation. Trying to get the money back is tempting, but, unless you're dealing with a trust fund baby of a spouse, if you do manage to get a judgment rendered, the kid you've been raising is going to be negatively affected by suddenly being thrown into poverty. And generally, the U.S. legal system doesn't allow someone to maintain visitation/custodial rights to a child while giving up financial responsibility for said child. Which I think is fairly sensible, given how people in general tend to act when given decision-making authority without financial responsibility (think of Congress, and you'll know what I mean)...but which means that, if you could manage to get child support stopped forever and/or a judgment for collection of past child support rendered, you'd probably end up having to sacrifice any legal rights to the kid whatsoever. Which some people may be fine with; others, like Vlad, I'm guessing, would not.

Sigh. It's a tricky situation. All I know is that if I were a judge and a guy came in front of me wanting custody of a child from a previous marriage and he was able to prove that the mother in question had known that this child wasn't biologically his but had claimed otherwise AND had been accepting child support from him for multiple years, I'd give the guy full custody, with limited or no visitation rights for the mother. Same in a story where a woman literally tricked a guy into impregnating her - i.e. said she had had her tubes tied, provided condoms she had screwed with, etc. etc. Obviously not a great solution, but I do wonder if the rates of these would drop if women thought they'd be a ticket to rarely getting to see a child for which they had to pay child support, rather than to 18 years of court-guaranteed payments.

Jerry, there have been a couple of studies indicating that the vast majority of newborns have faces shaped like those of their biological fathers...and, since most babies have pretty generic features to begin with, having the same face shape often means that they look like their dads to some extent. Obviously, these studies aren't the most rigorous, as they depend on perception to a great degree...but it does seem that the people of the past who ended up being our ancestors are the ones who looked like the guys raising them at the times of their lives when they were the most vulnerable and needy.

Posted by: marion at June 23, 2007 12:04 PM

Marion, maybe in the States your legal system says that if you don't pay for a child you don't get to see it, here child custody and visitation are completely separate from child support. It shouldn't be a case of if *you* don't pay for the child, *you* don't get to be a part of the child's life. All the rights belong to the CHILD, not the adults.

And children, here anyway, have the right by law to be in touch with all the significant people in their lives, regardless of separation/divorce/custody, except where it could harm them physically/psychologically. Of course, children also have the right to be financially supported by both parents. Just as kids of divorced parents have the right to remain connected to both sets of grandparents and to ex-step-parents (who obviously don't pay child support), they should also have the right to remain connected to dads who turned out not to be their bio-dads even through it will be the bio-dad and not the "other" dad paying child support.

Again, maybe it's just here, but the two biological parents share financial responsibility of the child unless it's adopted or the product of assisted reproduction, but that doesn't mean that someone who was a part of that child's life for any significant time would not get to remain just that.

Posted by: chris at June 24, 2007 1:59 AM

Well, it might depend on how many times Momma had shrilly blamed misbehaviour of her offspring on defective genes inherited from Poppa's side of the family ...

"Momma's baby,
Poppa's -- maybe."


Posted by: Brian H at June 26, 2007 12:14 PM

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