Who's your daddy?
High-profile paternity suits point to a
trendy obsession for the ultimate proof of
But to evolutionary psychologists, they're
just a recent and hi-tech twist on age-old
Since hunter-gatherer times, men have relied
not on DNA swabs but on a little-understood
calculus of physical resemblance to decide
whether to invest in little Emma or Ethan. In
the infant's upper face and eyes, the skeptical
pater familias looks for clues.
Comedian Chris Rock probably went through a
similar mental process after a Georgia woman
claimed he fathered of a child she had 13 years
ago. Ditto Larry Birkhead and Howard K. Stern
when they first saw Anna Nicole Smith's baby
daughter, Dannielynn, born last September.
Birkhead, after DNA testing, was determined the
biological dad and won custody of his little
look-alike following Smith's death last
The latest study, done early this year by
Brock University psychology professor Anthony
Volk, show cues of genetic relatedness are more
important to men than women. He showed photos of
infants' faces to male and female subjects, and
asked them to make hypothetical adoption
choices. In the journal Evolutionary
Psychology, Volk reported that men reacted
more positively to children with facial traits
resembling them, while women's decisions were
influenced more by healthy looks.
Research by Volk and other psychologists over
the past five years has refined the parental
"investment" model that was first put forward by
American evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers
Trivers held that parents prefer to invest in
offspring that are biologically theirs. But
males, unlike females, aren't obliged to provide
care. It followed, researchers theorized, that
males literally look for their genes and that
things like similar eye colour, features or the
shape of the face can serve as cues of
resemblance.A trio of U.S. studies in the past
decade have found it is not uncommon for
stepchildren to receive significantly less time,
financial support, and emotional resources than
biological children. As well, the less the male
thinks the child resembles him, the worse he
treats the child. The three studies determined
infanticide and spousal murder are often
committed by men who learn a child isn't theirs,
or who come to believe it.
Males may have acquired their skill at
discerning resemblance to deal with "extra-pair
paternity" – sex outside of a monogamous
relationship – explains Steven Platek, the
author of several studies in this field and a
lecturer in evolutionary psychology at the
University of Liverpool, in Britain. The
extra-curricular coupling, particularly among
animals, helps females ensure "good gene"
It's not clear who started this
co-evolutionary tit-for-tat, but female
infidelity represents a significant "cost" to
men, Platek says in a phone interview from the
Non-paternity estimates are very much in
dispute. University of Oklahoma anthropologist
Kermyt Anderson concluded in a 2006 study that
between 1.7 and 3.3 per cent of men who have
"high paternity confidence" are not the
biological fathers of their supposed children.
Yet those numbers are much lower than the
oft-cited "non-paternity" rate of 10 per cent
offered by one researcher in 2002 and Platek
suggests the rates may be even higher. He notes
uncertainty around female fidelity means "your
line of genes could actually be (deleted from)
the population if you're raising offspring that
aren't related to you," he says.In a 2004 study,
Platek and colleagues from two other U.S.
universities scanned the brains of men and women
during a hypothetical adoption exercise. They
found that males activated an area of their
brains responsible for complex decision-making,
as though they were thinking about whether, or
not, to invest in a child.
Volk says his studies suggest that "women,
involved in the care of the baby, are most
concerned with `Is this baby healthy? Am I going
to have to spend a lot time with this baby?' and
`Is this baby cute: will it be successful?"
Which all contributes to men being
preoccupied with resemblance – and, perhaps, a
nagging fear of cuckoldry.
Despite all of this, there's no actual proof
that males are any better than females at
In fact, facial similarities are relatively
tough to spot, and some researchers believe
that's by design.
Volk says he's tempted to believe that the
"anonymity" of babies' faces is due to a desire
to "hide their identity" in the 24-month period
in which they are most at risk of abuse and
And yet males aren't "locked into" their bias
towards resemblance, Volk is careful to stress.
A significant number of fathers raise children
that are not theirs – and raise them
successfully. Such fathers have often been
ridiculed in popular culture, although there
have been sympathetic portrayals in recent
films, including the ailing patriarch in last
year's Oscar-nominated Danish film After the
Wedding, and R.H. Thomson's character in
Who Loves the Sun by Montreal filmmaker
Then again, it's possible these males were
heavily influenced by what researchers call the
"social mirror" – people being told the child
looks like them. Maternal relatives are
reportedly eight times more likely to say the
baby looks more like dad than the mother. This
can be seen as an effort to persuade men "that
resemblance is there, even if it's not," Volk
The tactic can be very effective. Studies
have found that, when presented with photos of
strangers and told there are resemblances,
people are biased to look for resemblances. But
the strategy is delicate and can backfire. Some
statements "may raise suspicions and change his
behaviour," as opposed to the casual "Oh, he's
got your eyes," Platek quips.
In addition to facial characteristics,
there's some evidence to suggest that males even
look for similar upper torso shapes, expressions
of youth, or personality traits "at least in the
mind of the father," Platek says.
"Our evolutionary history has designed us to
think along those lines at a subconscious level.
"Nowadays, with DNA paternity testing, and
the media, it's become more of a conscious
mechanism, sort of playing off our evolutionary
history," adds Platek.
High-profile celebrity paternity
cases in the news lately:
Eddie Murphy agreed this month to
a paternity test for former Spice
girl Melanie Brown's baby, Angel
Iris, born in April. Brown was set
to take Murphy to court.
Former German tennis star Boris
Becker sought a paternity test after
Russian model Angela Ermakova
claimed, in 2001, that he fathered
her daughter. Ermakova, who got
$5,000 a month in child support,
said the baby was conceived in a
broom closet at a London restaurant.
Hollywood millionaire producer
Steve Bing took British model and
actress Elizabeth Hurley to court
over allegations he fathered her
son, Damian Charles, born in 2002.
DNA proved it was Bing.
Brazilian model Luciana Morad was
awarded $10,000 a month in 2000
after tests proved Mick Jagger
fathered her son. Morad's pregnancy
led supermodel Jerry Hall to divorce
From Sheila Dabu