The XX Factor

DNA Isn’t All There Is To Reproducing

Twice in one day I’ve found myself considering the social impact of DNA on our ideas of fatherhood-earlier while reading an old essay by Richard Dawkins where he argues against a DNA database because it would inadvertently reveal how many fathers are mistaken about the genetic link to their child, and then by reading this New York Times Magazine feature on the way that paternity testing is doing just what Dawkins feared, creating social chaos. And causing people to rethink their understanding of what makes a father. Is it DNA or is it your presence in a child’s life?

I’d argue that the escalating ability to process and read DNA is creating a fatal flaw in the public psyche, one where people are too quick to reduce human beings and relationships to what is programmed in your DNA. This has many ramifications beyond questions of paternity. Prioritizing DNA until you ignore the importance of environment has ramifications for health care, and can cause us to start ignoring the way that we can change outcomes for people through environment, without ever referencing their DNA. (For instance, a lot of the public falsely believes that IQ is inherent and probably genetic, but in fact it’s highly malleable depending on nutrition and education.) But in terms of paternity, what’s really interesting to me is not the way that DNA undermines our concepts of what makes a “father,” but the subtle way it reinforces one of the greatest, longest-held social lies humanity has told itself, which is that men “create” children.

It shouldn’t have been this way. The discovery of genetics put to rest one of the greatest self-flattering lies that men have told themselves for eons, which is that men are the seed and women are the soil, that men make the babies and women just nourish them. The conjoining of the sex cells subtly remade most of the public’s understanding of sex and conception, except for a few Bible-thumping anti-choicers who will never be completely convinced. But for social reasons, most of us are unwilling to take the next step in believing the biological evidence in front of our eyes. We still round up and say that a child is “half” the father, reducing that child to its genetic code.

But the truth is that a baby is made up almost completely of her mother when she is born. The only thing the father contributes is half the code. The rest-the protein, the nutrients, the very fabric of the baby’s body, and all the mitochondria-comes from the mother. (This is why biologists trace human lineage through the mothers, because you can trace it through mitochondria.) Of course, after birth, you generate your own tissues through your own eating, and so you get even further away from being made from your parents. We are a lot more than our DNA, and not just in the abstract, but in the brute physical reality of it. Add to that the fact that our DNA gets so thoroughly mixed up in a few generations that you can’t rightly call it “yours” in any way, and the knee-jerk belief that a male obsession with paternity goes back to biology seems weak indeed.

No, the traditional male obsession with paternity has its roots in patriarchy and controlling women’s bodies. Fundamentally, it’s a justification for an unfair system. And now, in our more feminist era, we’ve re-utilized this obsession for the purpose of determining male responsibility to children and, to a lesser degree, to women. But is it really such a great idea to do that? On one hand, this way of thinking does mean that children receive more financial support and care than they might from men under another family system. But as this article shows, defining family lines according to DNA patterns instead of through relationships and love causes a whole mess of problems, and the actors involved in these confusing situations often feel unmoored. The fathers in this story, for instance, genuinely seem rattled because they love children they don’t share DNA with. And they use terms like “biologically intact family,” which has the uncomfortable implication that a man who impregnates a woman lays some sort of claim to her very biology.

Of course, the current system will continue because we don’t have many other competing systems. But a girl can dream, can’t she? A society that loosened its obsession with “biologically intact” families might end up being one where a child benefits from more, not fewer, adults in her life to look over her.