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The Nurturing Father

by James Kimmel, Ph.D. 

Maternal behavior in primates has been investigated extensively by primatologists, and no one has objected to the use of the term "mother monkey". On the other hand, the term "father monkey" is seldom, if ever, used seriously, and most primatologists would probably object to its use. The term "father" implies a humanlike relationship based on kinship in a monogamous family and is anthropomorphic.

G. D. Mitchell
Paternalistic Behavior In Primates
1

Humans are mammals, which means that they develop initially within their mother's uterus, and after birth are nursed by their mother's mammary glands. The nurturing process natural to the human species does not end with birth; the newborns continue their development in relation to their mothers. Nurturing behavior by the mother is essential to mammalian reproduction. Males are necessary to create new life, but once a male's sperm has fertilized a female egg, his biological role in reproduction ends. The fertilized egg in the womb, and the infant after birth, do not require nurturing from their male parent to continue to live and develop.

In spite of the fact that males are biologically unnecessary for development of the young, it has been estimated that direct paternal2 care is found in ten per cent of mammals.3 This figure may tell us more about the nature of male-female interaction in mammals than about the potential in mammalian males to be nurturing. It is important to the understanding of paternal behavior to recognize that mammalian offspring become attached to their mothers. If the father does not regularly associate with the mother, he will have no significant contact with the life he has shared in creating.

Male-female attachment is not the usual case among the mammals. It is more common for them to associate with each other only to mate. In such instances, there is no paternal behavior, since the father is not present when the babies are born or as they grow to adulthood. In animals that live in herds, male and female are both part of a group but there is little contact between them. Males are often protective of the group, but not specifically of their own offspring.4

There are, however, exceptions to the separate living of male and female. Among some mammals, such as wolves and lions, pair bonds between male and female are formed. Male and female also live together in animal groups that hunt in packs. In such instances, males are involved with their offspring. They are often protective of their mates and the newborn and help in finding food for the young after they are weaned. It can safely be concluded that paternal behavior is unusual in mammals, but not unusual in those mammals that are monogamous or form pair bonds (even if the bond is temporary while the newborn are developing).5

Humans are also primates. Among the primates, parenting behavior by males is rare. This isn't necessarily because males have less interest in infants, but because primate mothers generally will not allow males to get very close to their newborn. The males of many primate species have been known to harm infants. On the other hand, males also display protective behavior toward mothers and their young.6

The opportunity for primate males to interact with infants is to a great extent determined by the nature of the group in which they live. There are a variety of social groupings among the primates. There are all-female and-young groups, all male groups, female groups, one male and several females, and mixed male-female groups. Some groups are loose and open, whereas others are rigid hierarchies. The only consistent relationship found in all groups is the one between mother and child. The special attachment of infant and mother is not typical of infants and fathers, even when males and infants are part of the same group This does not mean that males do not display nurturing behavior to the young. They have been observed to protect, groom, play with, provide food for, and form attachments to them.

Among several species of new-world monkeys, the male clearly demonstrates nurturing behavior. The male Titi monkey, for example, carries the infant virtually at all times. The male's behavior toward an infant is similar to the behavior of mother and infant except for the lack of suckling. Carrying and caring for infants by both parents is common to the Night monkey of Panama and to the Marmoset. Male and female form pair bonds in all of these species.7

Paternal behavior is less pronounced among old-world monkeys and the apes. However, males are frequently protective of the young and playful with them. Baboons display considerable paternal behavior. Among several species of Baboons males carry and even adopt infants.8

One cannot generalize to the primate order about paternal behavior. There is too much inconsistency between species and within each species. But, similar to other mammals, the crucial factor in male paternal behavior in the primates is the association of the mother and a male companion. Newborn primates become attached to their mothers who nurse them. Unless the father has, or forms, an attachment to the mother; and she to him, it is unlikely that the father will have much contact with his offspring.

Although we do not know if fathers were always a part of the human family of mother and child, we do know that at some point in our history, males began to assume a parental role. As Margaret Mead has indicated:

When we survey all known human societies, we find everywhere some form of the family, some sort of permanent arrangements by which males assist females in caring for children while they are young. The distinctively human aspect of the enterprise lies not in the protection the male affords the females and the young this we share with the primates. Nor does it lie in the lordly possessiveness of the male over females for whose favors he contends with other males this too we share with the primates. Its distinctiveness lies instead in the nurturing behavior of the male, who among human beings everywhere helps provide food for women and children... Somewhere at the dawn of human history, some social invention was made under which males started nurturing females and their young... Man, the heir of tradition, provides for women and children. We have no indication that man the animal, man unpatterned by social learning, would do anything of the sort.9

It should not be surprising that the human male, even though he has no biological parenting role, is attached to and nurturing of others who are important to him. The capacity to care for another besides oneself has contributed to our evolutionary success. This is not only a characteristic of the female of our species, but also of the male.

Nurturing and attachment behavior are not oddities; they are found everywhere in the natural world. Being cared for and caring for others is common to all the social species. In spite of this fact, the nurturing behavior of the human male is usually considered something he must learn or something that is imposed on him by his culture.

Margaret Mead believed that male nurturing behavior was a social invention. This is a common belief in Western civilization, in which perceives human beings (mothers are a temporary exception) are perceived as innately unsocial and uncaring of others. The view that the male of our species is not naturally nurturing of his young is widely accepted by scholars who have delved into the subject of fathering. Most recently, David Blankenhorn has stated:

...fatherhood, much more than motherhood, is a cultural invention. Its meaning for the individual man is shaped less by biology than by a cultural script or story a societal code that guides, and at times pressures, him into certain ways of acting and of understanding himself as a man.10

Blankenhorn further points out that:

A father makes his sole biological contribution at the moment of conception nine months before the infant enters the world. Because social paternity is only indirectly linked to biological paternity, the connection between the two cannot be assumed. The phrase 'to father a child' usually refers only to the act of insemination, not to the responsibility of raising a child. What fathers contribute to their offspring after conception is largely a matter of cultural devising.11

The belief that fathering is not a natural role but a cultural invention is supported by the fact that throughout civilization the male of the species has made babies and then had nothing to do with them after they were born. Nature has allowed fathers to ignore their creations by the fact that, unlike females, they do not know when they have made a baby. In addition, they frequently do not want to know or do not care if they have made one. It is not unusual for individual fathers to have little or no involvement with their children. It is also not uncommon for fathers to be cruel, harmful, and abusive to their children. Although humans are the only primate species in which fathering behavior is consistently found, it is clear that not all children have grown up having a nurturing father or even any father at all.

Studies of groups of people living outside civilization have indicated that it is rare for children to have fathers who are absent or who are not nurturing. In hunter-gatherer societies, both mother and father, as well as other male and female members of the group, are usually described by anthropologists as indulgent of, and nurturing toward, all children. Despite the commonly held belief in Western civilization that the individual is primarily governed in his behavior by selfish motives and instincts, that "man is a beast to man", it is much more probable that our prehistoric ancestors were individuals who cared for, and about, each other. The idea that the human individual is basically selfish and uncaring of others, and that to become socialized, he must repress and control his self-serving impulses, ignores the human nurturing necessity and its powerful influence on individual development and group living.

Both male and female evolved to continue their development after birth in relation to a nurturing mother. The natural nurturing process does more than keep infants alive. It initiates them into a way of living in which there is someone who cares for and about them. Nurtured children learn that security and satisfaction are found in attachment to another human. For these reasons, sociability and socialization are natural outcomes of appropriate mothering. Our requirement of mothering is the root of our connection to each other. The mother in her attachment and commitment to her child establishes that human life is about affirming the life of another as well as oneself.

Human males do not have a biological parental role. But this does not exclude them from developing a nurturing attitude toward others, and specifically, toward children. They are, in their infancy and childhood, the other half of the nurturing process natural to our species. We are not a species that must learn to be social. Human babies ( both male and female) are innately social. They could not live if they were not. Their sociability must, however, if they are to remain social, be matched by a nurturing mother and nurturing others.

It is not only mothers who are mammals. Both males and females become nurturing persons like their mothers when they are cared for in the mammalian way natural to our species. The fact that human males in all known societies nurture their mates and children would seem to prove that nurturing behavior is not exclusive to the female of our species." We can all become "mothers" to others even if we do not have a uterus or produce milk from our breasts. The fact that human males in all known societies nurture their mates and children would seem to prove that nurturing behavior is not exclusive to the female of our species.

The belief in Western civilization that the human species is composed of selfish individuals who are chiefly governed by self-interest is not universally true. It is not the case in many societies living outside civilization. This is a belief which reflects the nature of individuals when they must adapt to living in the cultures of Western civilization, rather than the way individuals evolved to adapt to living in the natural world. Indeed, in the natural world in which we evolved, we could not have survived as rugged individuals alienated from each other. Our success as a species rested on our ability to collaborate and share.

The roots of fathering behavior do not lie in male biology or in their need to pass on their "selfish genes", but in their genetic and biological need for mothering. How males are mothered largely determines if, and how, they will father. Without mothering, there would be no fathering. With inadequate or deficient mothering, the male does not develop the nurturing attitude that is necessary to be, as an adult, a caring mate and parent. Fathering behavior in the human species evolved because males, as well as females, developed in relation to a nurturing mother and nurturing others.

The requirement of nurturing and its fulfillment through mothering is not enough for the mammalian male to participate in nurturing his offspring. As we have seen, most male mammals and primates, in spite of their developing in relation to a nurturing mother, have very little to do with their young. In addition to early positive nurturing experiences, fathering requires the opportunity for the male to associate with his own young as they are developing. To do so, the human male and female had to become more than sexual partners.

As I have indicated, humans evolved as individuals who collaborate and share. It is doubtful that our sharing was limited to food and possessions. We shared ourselves with others and we shared life. It is natural for humans to care for, and about, those with whom we are involved. That is how our mothers evolved to respond to us for many years after our birth. Why would males, as well as females. not identify with, and incorporate within themselves, their mothers' nurturing behavior? It is entirely possible (based on the attachment, intimacy, and tenderness intrinsic to the mother-child bond) that the adult male and female paired as a mutually nurturing couple long before the development of the modern brain. Pair-bonding may be as natural to the human species as it is to other species.

Paternal behavior in all primates requires that the individual male is nurtured by his mother as he develops and that he has the opportunity as an adult to associate with the young. The human male primate has a third requirement: his culture must support nurturing behavior by fathers. Just as culture can support fathering behavior that is nurturing, it can also encourage fathering behavior that is not nurturing. The latter has certainly been true of the history of childhood in Western civilization, where harsh and cruel treatment of children, particularly by fathers, has been considered an appropriate part of child rearing.12

The nurturing father has been found in all societies living in the natural world. It seems likely that the nurturing father was a part of all prehistoric cultures and that he is as natural to the human species as the nurturing mother. Indeed, Margaret Mead speculated that we first became human when the nurturing father joined the original family of infant and mother.13

When we lived in the natural world, the nurturing father fit our species and the organization of the group. He was his mother's creation, and in his likeness to, and identification with her, he would have supported his mate's nurturing efforts and been (as she was, and his mother and father had been) caring of his children. The human child, unlike most other primates, had two nurturing parents, not just one.

The same cannot be said when one views the history of childhood in civilization. Civilization brought with it patriarchy, which changed the relationship of male and female, mother and child, and father and child. Children still had a mother and a father, but as natural mothering changed or was eliminated in the patriarchal world, the biological nurturing mother became a relic of the past. By eliminating her from children's development, we have also eliminated the nurturing father and the nurtured child. Rather than having two nurturing parents, many children have none.


1 G. D., Mitchell, "Paternalistic Behavior In Primates." in Perspectives on Animal Behavior. Ed. Gordon Bermant. Glenview, Il: Scott, Foresman, 1973.
2 It is difficult to ascertain fatherhood among the mammals, since females in heat frequently mate with many males. Therefore, it is best to speak of "paternal behavior" rather than "fathering" when discussing the relationship of males to the young.
3 Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy. When Elephants Weep. New York: Delacorte Press, 1995.
4 Carrighar, Sally. Wild Heritage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968, page 84.
5 Carrighar, ibid.
6 Gary D.Mitchell, "Paternalistic Behavior in Primates." Psychological Bulletin, 1968 399-417.
7 Lloyd de Mause, The History of Childhood. New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974.
8 Mead, ibid.
9 Mitchell, ibid
10 Mitchell, ibid.
11 Mead, Margaret. Male and Female. New York: William Morrow, 1967, 188-190.
12 Blankenhorn, David. Fatherless America. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
13 Blankenhorn, ibid.


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