Debate Magazine

Dishonor Thy Father

By Cris

From the metaphorical standpoint of selfish genes and their male human vessels, the worst possible fitness outcome is to invest in another man’s child while mistakenly believing the child carries half your genes. This view, espoused by evolutionary psychologists, receives ironic support from marriage rules and adultery sanctions promulgated by many world religions. But, as I explained in One Flew Over the Cuckold’s Nest and EP & Paternity Paranoia, this view is wrong.

In these posts, I noted that biological paternity is a non-issue for many hunter-gatherers. Among foragers, children are usually raised by large alloparenting groups in which the biological father may or may not play an important role. Thus, the identification and attribution of “father” is fluid, malleable, and often inconsistent with genetic parentage. Despite this variability, there is usually at least one person, or several, who are identified as “father.”

It is therefore surprising to learn that an ethnic group in China’s Himalayan region, the Mosuo, take this paternity-plasticity to another level: the Mosuo do not recognize “fathers” and do not even have a word for “father.” This remarkable fact is a product of “walking marriages” which give women the right to have overnight male visitors as they wish. These visits, which obviously may result in biological paternity, do not consequently lead to fatherhood:

Most significantly, when children are born, the father may have little or no responsibility for his offspring (in fact, some children may not even know who their father is). If a father does want to be involved with the upbringing of his children, he will bring gifts to the mother’s family, and state his intention to do so. This gives him a kind of official status within that family, but does not actually make him part of the family. Regardless of whether the father is involved or not, the child will be raised in the mother’s family, and take on her family name.

This does not mean, however, that the men get off scot-free, with no responsibilities for children. Quite the opposite, in fact. Every man will share responsibilities in caring for all children born to women within their own family, be they a sister, niece, aunt, etc. In fact, children will grow up with many “aunts” and “uncles”, as all members of the extended family share in the duties of supporting and raising the children.

Although the Masuo are agrarian, there are strong echoes here of hunter-gatherer practices and flexibility. Though there is no historical data by which to judge the issue, this could be a cultural survival that has been adapted to new ways of life. It seems to be working for the Masuo:

The result – as different as it may be from other systems – is a family structure which is, in fact, extremely stable. Think about it. Divorce is a non-issue…there are no questions over child custody (the child belongs to the mother’s family), splitting of property (property is never shared), etc. If a parent dies, there is still a large extended family to provide care. 

So here we have another ethnographic example of a society that contradicts the standard and widely-accepted stories about pair bonding and ritual marriage. Among the Masuo, there is no “marriage” of the kind theoretically envisioned by evolutionary psychologists and doctrinally affirmed by post-Neolithic religions. With all this in mind, a more apt aphorism might be “Honor thy Alloparenting Group.” These groups, variably consisting of genetic and fictive kin, bear little resemblance to the historically and biologically peculiar ideal of nuclear families.

Triptych Holy Kinship_Frankfurt, Staedelsches Junstinstitut_1509


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