The following is the second chapter from my disinformation book, 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know: Volume 2, published in 2004. For more on me go to The Memory Hole or follow me @RussKick on Twitter.
Geneticists, disease researchers, and evolutionary psychologists have known it for a while, but the statistic hasn’t gotten much air outside of the ivory tower. Consistently, they find that one in ten of us wasn’t fathered by the man we think is our biological dad.
Naturally, adoptees and stepchildren realize their paternal situation. What we’re talking about here is people who have taken it as a given, for their entire lives, that dear old Dad is the one who contributed his sperm to the process. Even Dad himself may be under this impression. And Mom, knowing it’s not a sure thing, just keeps quiet.
Genetic testing companies report that almost one-third of the time, samples sent to them show that the man is not father to the child. But these companies are used when there’s a court order in a paternity suit or when a man gets suspicious because his kid looks a lot like his best friend or his wife’s coworker. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the non-paternity rate for these tests hovers around 30 percent.
The shocker comes when we look at the numbers for accidental discoveries, those that occur when paternity isn’t thought to be an issue. Sometimes this happens on an individual basis; other times, due to large-scale studies of blood types, disease susceptibility, kinship, and other fields of medical and scientific investigation.
Dr. Caoilfhionn Gallagher of the University College Dublin gives an example of the former:
The paradigmatic situation is that three people come to a hospital together, a husband, wife and their child who they fear has cystic fibrosis. If the child has the incurable disease she must have received two copies of the CF gene, one from each parent. Tests at the hospital confirm the family’s worst fears — she has the disease — but also reveal something unexpected. The child’s mother carries one of the culprit genes, but the father’s DNA shows no such sign, which means he is not the carrier and therefore cannot possibly be her biological father.
The latter type of discovery occurred in the classic case from the early 1970s. Scientists were eyeballing blood types in the British town of West Isleworth, taking the red stuff from entire families. They realized, to their dismay, that fully 30 percent of the children had blood types which proved that they couldn’t possibly be biologically related to their “fathers.” The true rate of illegitimacy was still higher, though, because even some fathers and bastards would have matching blood types due to coincidence. The researchers estimated that the true rate was around 50 percent.
Other studies have found a 20–30 percent rate in Liverpool, 10 percent in rural Michigan, and 2.3 percent among native Hawaiians. The overall figure of 10 percent is actually an average estimate based on many studies taking place in sundry regions over the course of decades. In his book Sperm Wars: The Science of Sex, biologist Robin Baker, PhD, summarizes the stats:
Actual figures range from 1 percent in high-status areas of the United States and Switzerland, to 5 to 6 percent for moderate-status males in the United States and Great Britain, to 10 to 30 percent for lower-status males in the United States, Great Britain and France.
The prestigious medical journal the Lancet concurs: “The true frequency of non-paternity is not known, but published reports suggest an incidence from as low as 1% per generation up to about 30% in the population.”
The research shows that the lower a purported father’s socioeconomic status, the more likely his wife got someone else to father the child. From a Darwinian standpoint this makes perfect sense, since she wants her offspring to have the highest-caliber DNA, which may not come from the stiff she settled for at the altar.
This knowledge should make Father’s Day a much more interesting, and introspective, holiday…
References: American Association of Blood Banks. “Annual Report Summary for Testing in 1999.” § American Association of Blood Banks. “Annual Report Summary for Testing in 2001.” Oct 2002. § Baker, Robin. Ph.D. Sperm Wars: The Science of Sex. HarperCollins, 1996. § Child Support Analysis website. “Misattributed Paternity.” 5 July 2004. [www.childsupportanalysis.co.uk ]. § Gallagher, Caoilfhionn. “In the Name of the Father? Legal and Ethical Dilemmas Surrounding ‘Accidental’ Findings of Non-Paternity.” Annual Conference 2003, Socio-Legal Studies Association at Nottigham Law School. [www.nls.ntu.ac.uk/slsa2003]. § Lucassen, Anneke and Michael Parker. “Revealing False Paternity: Some Ethical Considerations” Lancet 357 (2001): 1033-5. § Philipp, E. “Discussion: Moral, Social and Ethical Issues.” Law and Ethics of A.I.D. and Embryo Transfer. Ciba Foundation Symposium (Vol. 17), G.E.W. Wostenholme and D.W. Fitzsimons (eds.). Amsterdam: Elsevier, Excerpta Medica, North-Holland, 1973: 63-66.