I read in a book and have heard this argument by many social scientists that Fatherhood was an invention by humans during the time when we first started living as societies. This was presumably in order to strengthen the grip of males on human society and provide patriarchy a stable foundation.

I do not seem to agree with this. As a male aged 15 I have strong urges to become a father and really love children. If fatherhood is unnatural and not a product of our evolution how is it possible that males have an urge to father children and feel a strong, genuine love for their offspring?

The argument that Fatherhood is rarely found in the animal world as it is primarily the mother who rares and cares for children is valid, but then again human beings are so much different in other respects from animals, too.

Is it then not possible that the love a human father feels for his offspring is just as natural as the love a human mother feels for her offspring?

Here is one research I found: Origins of Fatherhood

Further more Bertrand Russel in his "Conquest of Happiness" says:

For my own part, speaking personally, I have found the happiness of parenthood greater than any other that I have experienced. I believe that when circumstances lead men or women to forgo this happiness, a very deep need remains ungratified, and that this produces a dissatisfaction and listlessness of which the cause may remain quite unknown.

For those people who say that this is not entirely philosophical; I do agree with them, but then again philosophy also deals with the means of acquiring happiness and the best way to do so.

Bertrand Russell seems to indicate that Fatherhood is rewarding; but is it just a personal opinion or has some more deeper and general implications?

(Note: This is my first time so please be kind)

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not a philosophy question, but a biology or a social science question
    – jeroenk
    Jun 4, 2015 at 12:08
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    "I read in a book and have heard this argument"... you don't happen to remember which one, do you? Jun 4, 2015 at 13:55
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    I'm inclined to leave it open - while there are aspects of sociology, still seems philosophical. Jun 4, 2015 at 13:57
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    @jeroenk This question is philosophical in a) he is asking whether "fatherhood" is a social construct or not and b) this seems to me like it would touch on Freud at some point. Jun 4, 2015 at 15:58
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    At least to me, the philosophical question lurking in this question is about what qualifies something as "natural." Because the premise seems to be that something is unnatural if it occurs only in human animals as distinct from their proto-human ancestors (the premise may itself be false for reason of counter-examples like those Cheers and hth ... mentions), but the question about what makes something qualify as "natural" remains and the dictionary alone won't answer that.
    – virmaior
    Jun 4, 2015 at 21:59

7 Answers 7


Even if we accept your basic assumption --that responsible fatherhood in human beings dates back only as far as the dawn of human societies --that doesn't imply it can't be part of an evolutionary process. Suppose that human societies have been around 10,000 years, and that being a good father provides a strong advantage to your children. That's plenty of time for an impulse towards responsible fatherhood to become a dominant trait within the species.

As far as the concept that fatherhood is designed to support the patriarchy, I don't find it convincing. Being a responsible and involved parent has the advantage of better survival rates and outcomes for your children. In the case that would support the patriarchy, that would be a secondary side effect, not a primary cause. But in any case, I'm not aware of any evidence that responsible, involved fatherhood is more prevalent in strongly patriarchal societies.

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    10,000 years is not "plenty of time" for evolution, and the consensus is that humans did not biologically evolve to any significant degree for at least 40,000 years. According to Harvard evolutionary psychologist Pinker: "Simple traits such as blue eyes, which arise from a single mutation in a single gene, continued to be selected for. But complex traits, such as a new emotion or cognitive ability, simply could not have been installed in such a brief period of time".
    – Conifold
    Jun 5, 2015 at 1:09
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    @Conifold: Evolution can be extremely rapid, e.g. as you're probably aware, the influenza virus evolves with a new strain about every 4 years. In some birds evolution has been observed over spans such as tens of years, but there is dispute about whether not possibly the selection is just of hardwired alternatives (so to speak), that then evolved properly earlier. Sorry, no refs. For humans cases of short time evolution are controversial, but not the concept itself. See e.g. ~1200 yr (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…). Jun 5, 2015 at 3:38
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    @Cheers and hth. - Alf "Controversial" sounds very different from "that's plenty of time for an impulse towards responsible fatherhood to become a dominant trait within the species". And for your reference controversial is an understatement, "the CH&H study quickly became a target of harsh denunciation and morbid fascination." And what they are suggesting it for is IQ difference of "one-half to one standard deviation above the mean", i.e. something below the margin of statistical error, not a "dominant trait". pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/…
    – Conifold
    Jun 5, 2015 at 5:03
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    @Conifold: Your comment has many relevant associations. But the point here was not that anything to do with superiority of Jews is controversial. It was that it's not controversial that human traits like this can evolve on such short time scales as 1000 years, and if you look beyond the associations his first words bring up for you, your psychologist Pinker, in the article you refer to, acknowledges that. I.e., you're very wrong about 10 000 years not being plenty time. 1000 years is plenty time, it's 40 generations. Jun 5, 2015 at 5:47
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    Here's an example of human evolution over just 200 years, in New Scientist, namely the evolution of a defense against the Kuru disease, (newscientist.com/article/…). See also (sciencelife.uchospitals.edu/2009/11/19/…) (University of Chicago). I submit that 200 years is much less than 10 000 years. Jun 5, 2015 at 5:53

The idea that it exists to strengthen the patriarchy is silly; the concept of fatherhood directly benefits the female vastly more than the male.

According to evolution, it likely came about as a consequence of human's extended childhood. Because of the immense amount of resources that a human child requires, and the fact that a human woman is very limited in the number of children she can have in her lifetime, her mating strategy necessarily becomes primarily about picking a male who can share that burden...providing and protecting the child.

Both males and females 'want' (in the Darwinian sense) to continue their bloodline. Males can become a father with very little investment, but children who have a father who invested in them are far more likely to survive and prosper, and are more likely to have children who do the same. Mothers who select fathers that do so are also more likely to have surviving descendants.

This doesn't really address the purely ethical considerations of fatherhood; that's a philosophical question that depends on what ethical structure you have adopted. I'd say that most ethical frameworks have a conception of responsibility, though, which describes half of fatherhood... and of maximizing happiness, which is the other half. Men who haven't raised children are missing a fundamental joy in life, like men who haven't fallen in love or never appreciated art.

  • You say most ethical frameworks, but don't I already need an ethical framework to assign an order to actions, so that "most" makes sense?
    – Nikolaj-K
    Jun 23, 2015 at 7:49

Insofar as fatherhood means loving ones offspring, I do not believe that it is common understanding that fatherhood is unnatural. In fact, many species' males display affection and protection for their offspring [link].

  • Yes, that is true but I am specifically talking about Fatherhood in humans as different species have different characteristics and social structures. Thank you for your help though. Jun 4, 2015 at 16:16
  • @AbdurRahman This is relevant in as much as it demonstrates that fatherhood does not exist solely as a human invention. If it can arise naturally among other species, it becomes more likely that it can rise naturally among humans. Jun 4, 2015 at 20:46

I Second Chris Sunami, and I would like to add that everything we observe and do as humans is natural (additionally, setting up a dichotomy between what is natural and not only leads to strange forms of domination and humans inability to cope with environmental concerns). As Leslie Thiele and George Carlin, among many others, note, humans and their experiences are natural. "Human genetic adaptation and cultural development have mutually reinforced each other from time immemorial" (Thiele 1999, 11). Put another way, plastic bags are part of evolution and nature, as are fatherhood, morals, and contraceptives. Birth control and cultural mores are not man's triumph over nature nor separate from it, we are naturally created and what we create is natural. "Our sophisticated brains and rational capacities that challenge primitive drives are neither independent from our genes nor wholly antagonistic to them. Indeed, they are the consequence of the proper functioning of our genes" (Theile 199, 22). Fatherhood is as natural as blinking, motherhood, blue eyes, lions, tigers and bears.

Now, if you are interested in discussing the nature of human, and not whether cultural features are natural, you may quickly observe that most things are not consistent across all societies. For instance, Karl Friedrich (1963) identifies only six basic traits of human and explains that they offer no systematic insight into how we order society. Thus, beyond forming communities, adaptability, experiencing oneself as self, communicating with others through language, and reason, human society has no other basic consistencies. We may use these basic traits to create fatherhood or not. Similarly, we stand on these basic traits to form motherhood, friendship, love, hot food, etc. In other words, fatherhood like motherhood and hot food, are not basic human traits, but nothing beyond these six could be considered basic or the nature of human. So identifying human nature provides little insight into whether our customs, culture and behavior are valid or natural. Nevertheless, if you deviate from Friedricks six characteristics of society, lets say you do not have a sense of yourself or communicate through language, you are only now acting, in some sense, against basic nature (but with time our view of basic nature could always change, and this would be natural). Furthermore, humans are genetically disposed to develop more complex brains, culture and moral understandings that "challenge unmediated drives" (Theile 1999, 15), which means searching for basic human factors does not tell us about what is man's natural condition nor will it help inform his normative stance.

Finally, if someone attempts to say something about the nature of human primitiveness before society existed, they are describing a different species and misleading you. The article you cited mentions that agrarian settlements were the moment of social formation, but this is inaccurate as many nomadic tribes today and in the past had social aspects and fatherhood roles (see Timbuktu).


If we're to use other animals as an example of what comes natural for humans, there's no way to generalize fatherhood across different species. Among animals, there are many fatherhood strategies, with some males not caring at all about their offspring, while others (like the alligator pipefish or the marsupial frog) going as far as carrying the offspring instead of the mother.

As such, it's better to restrict our investigation to those species closest to humans : chimps and bonobos :

Compared to chimps and bonobos, the immediately striking thing about primitive human cultures is the centrality of the family. Hunter-gatherers have at least three different kinds of strong bonds: male-male bonds, female-female bonds, and the family made up of mother, father, and offspring.

Chimps and bonobos have the first two but they have no families. So far as we can tell, neither chimps nor bonobos have any idea who the father of an infant is. Among both species mothers of young offspring tend to be suspicious of males.

This is especially so among chimps, where new mothers separate themselves from the group and live largely alone because of fear that a male might kill their babies. Among bonobos infanticide has not yet been observed, but mothers are still careful around males and they stick to the center of a group of females, keeping males away on the edges.

De Waal thinks that once humans began living on the savanna, mothers could no longer support themselves and their offspring without male help. They therefore needed the father to hang around and provide support. The father would only do this if he was fairly sure the baby was his.

Thus, de Waal speculates, one of the key events in human evolution is the recognition of paternity, and this in turn is the root of the "homicidal jealousy" of the human male. Since chimp and bonobo fathers make no investment in their offspring, the promiscuity of their mates is of small concern to them.

But for human males, the key evolutionary fact is that they can increase the survival of their offspring by investing heavily in their upbringing. And they generally do, but only if they have good reason to believe that the babies are really theirs.

Seen this way, many things about human tribal societies make much more sense.


This would seem to suggest that human fatherhood strategies are unnatural, however that would be in ignorance of the fact that bobonos and chimps are cultural animals no less than humans.

While both species share about 99% of their DNA with each other, their conflict resolution strategies couldn't be more different. Chimp society is patriarchal and warlike, whereas bonobo society is matriarchal and hippie-like. Where chimps commonly engage in extreme violent behavior over eg. territory, violence is not very common among bobonos, who use sex and love as a weapon of control instead.

The reason for the opposite conflict resolution strategies of bonobo culture and chimp culture is that both cultures evolved distinctly from another along with each species' genetics. Neither behavior is more or less natural than the other.

The same happened with us. And as much as our culture may seem unnatural, it's really hard to distinguish between "natural", "unnatural" or even "anti-natural" behavior, precisely because culture isn't static and evolves across different species.

That human culture differs from both bonobo and chimp culture isn't enough to disqualify any behavior that's different from both bonobo culture and chimp culture as "unnatural". This is especially true, when we consider that this same behavior does occur among species more distantly related to us, although that consideration is rather irrelevant for reasons mentioned hereabove.


There is a tier of definitions of 'fatherhood', with different levels of naturalness. Sorry for the length, but to make my point I think I need to defend five separate definitions of 'father'.

1) Clearly fathering children in a biological sense comes natural to all male mammals (with a few notable exceptions), and no less so for humans.

2) Males among many of the primate species close to us do not actively take care of their own children, but they do keep track of which children are likely to be theirs, and they ease their way. They also defend them and to some degree mourn their loss https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fs-6SKfh4fM Some go to the extreme of surreptitiously killing off children that are not related to them, especially if those competing children come from the same mother, and are therefore competing with his own children for her resources. In some species, this goes beyond tricking the mothers and takes the form of a pointed vendetta. https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#

Male primates of various also do seem to enjoy the young, to readily defend them, and to mourn their loss. But I do not think this is associated too strongly with their own young over others.

It would be odd if humans did not have similar habits from early in our species' life. To some degree keeping an eye out for the success of your own offspring is an indirect form of fathering in a more social sense.

3) But what is natural to humans has usually been sought by looking at our past. For a long time it was presumed that fatherhood arose rather late in our history because of societies that run on the "Welsh model". There are cultures where inheritance between men flows from mother's-brother to sister's-son, and women avoided sex until their mothers produced brothers, or the adopted men as brothers to defend them and their children.

This pattern is clearly presumed in early Welsh oral traditions that got folded together into traditional story-cycles and recorded as the "Mabinogion". Having a model so close at hand of a culture that did not recognize fatherhood at all, many European thinkers in past centuries have assumed that this represented the natural state, by a sort of Occam's razor: Social conventions tend to come into existence and then stay relevant, and not totally disappear only to be re-invented later. Engels incorporated this view into his class model https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02c.htm

But it is more likely, given modern genetic data about how many early men vs how many early women successfully reproduced, that the more normal form of early human social organization was one of collective polygyny, where men had either several wives, or none. (Thus almost every woman reproduced, and a a fraction of the men.)

There, a given man, perhaps a surviving grandfather with a long memory, would have ruled over an extensive land area with his many descendants, and perhaps those of his siblings, providing the majority of his workforce. Such systems still exist today, in places where it requires a lot of land to be cared for very intensively for production to support a population. Fatherhood, as a sort of benevolent monarchy is definitely a strong force in those societies today, and it is difficult to imagine how it could not have been so if this were the natural organization of human labor early in the history of agriculture.

If we step back further, to pre-agricultural societies, we can study the Amerind societies that are based around hunting and gathering in a way that matches what we surmise from fossils of our pre-agricultural ancestors. Such societies have a strong need for active apprenticeship of young hunters. When we look at surviving tribes today, we see that such apprenticeships are often tied to genetic lineage, with most boys apprenticed to fathers or uncles, and fatherless boys 'married' to gay mentors. This suggests a sort of fatherhood that occurs naturally, but begins relatively later in life, just before the start of sexual maturity.

All told, the traditional view that fatherhood is a late-arising social convention related to war, seems to be based upon an odd minority, and most other very ancient ways of life do involve some sort of fatherhood, though nothing anywhere near as potent as motherhood.

4) But there is another layer built on top of the natural connection to children which Lacan argues is an aspect of necessary early experiences we all have and not our biology. As refined by object-relational thinkers in psychology, the basic idea is that the relation of fatherhood creates in us the network of understandings around the concept of belonging and ownership. We belong with/to our mothers in a very natural way, but at some point we realize there is a larger unit to which we belong, and we have obligations to that unit that may go beyond compliance. This comes when we fully understand that our father is part of our family. Then this causes us to re-create and to similarly shape the same experiences in our children.

This can be seen as equally 'natural' even though it is an aspect of the full cultural environment. Each infant would reach this understanding in any society, or the society would not hold together. But our nuclear families with a slight distance between mothering and fathering shape it in specific ways in our shared consciousness.

5) On top of this psychological notion of fatherhood, we have built a layer of fatherhood which is, in some sense, fully artificial. We have projected this notion of family upward onto the tribe and nation, to which we belong in a much more complete way, lessening the tribal identity of women so that they can cross boundaries and leave their tribes to join their husbands'.

And the requirements of the nation have in turn been reflected back on fatherhood itself. This is the patriarchal construct that Marxist-feminists claim is the initial root of classism, and on which men's-rights activists blame things like forced military conscription.

Fatherhood in modern societies is shaped for cultural stability. If a man lends support to a woman and this becomes established to a recognized level, the state considers her children to be his. Fatherhood is bestowed by acceptance of an obligation, and not by biology.

We have the competing notion of establishing paternity via proof, but in some sense this creates a formal support obligation with none of the other aspects of fatherhood. (For instance, the biological relationship of a rapist to the resulting child may be one of obligation, but actual fatherhood is generally not workable. Rapists use this to manipulate their way back out of the paternity obligation by demanding visitation that they know the court will not allow.)

This form of fatherhood, manipulated for State benefit, one can legitimately call artificial. By tying up all of the others to it, we turn them into something that is primarily an obligation, which creates a lot of artificial resistance to becoming a father or to actively fathering. This ties up with our notions of work, particularly men's work, and our strange obligation to dislike it, and to shape it in rigid forms that are easy to dislike, so that we feel OK getting 'compensated' for doing our natural duties.

Failing to separate reproductive, biological, historically natural, psychological, and patriarchal versions of fatherhood in our thinking creates a range of problems of understanding, and leads a range of people to want to relativize or disown the concept or use it to enforce conventions that are not logically connected to it.


Whether fatherhood is natural is a different question from whether it is biological. Human nature does not reduce to biology, social and cultural aspects are equally important parts of it. That is what makes us "so much different". Many dominant human emotions and behaviors come from upbringing in early childhood and from social conditioning throughout life, not from genetically wired instincts, and many norms that regulate them are culturally evolved and acquired after birth also.

That does not make them any less strong or genuine, in fact that makes them more human. What human mothers feel towards their offspring does not reduce to biological instincts either, and unfortunately it is not always love and care. Self-sacrifice and suicide also demonstrate that humans can generate strong and genuine emotions that override biology. Here is more on cultural evolution from Tyson's article:"great leap forward 40,000 years ago largely freed us from the pressures of natural selection. We made clothes rather than grew more hair; we crafted better weapons rather than became stronger; we handed down learned behaviors through language rather than discovered them anew".

In evolutionary terms, 10,000 years from Chris Sunami's answer are not "plenty of time" at all. The consensus is that humans did not biologically evolve to any significant degree for at least 40,000 years. According to Harvard evolutionary psychologist Pinker: "Simple traits such as blue eyes, which arise from a single mutation in a single gene, continued to be selected for. But complex traits, such as a new emotion or cognitive ability, simply could not have been installed in such a brief period of time". Paternal behavior, being a complex of complicated emotions and activities, is not something that can be selected from random mutations in 10,000 years, regardless of its advantages. Moreover, according to a study:mothers "activate widespread brain regions including ancient regions believed to be important in rodent maternal behavior", while "fathers only activate newer regions of the brain involved in sensory discrimination, cognition, and motor planning in response to cries".

So if the question is whether fatherhood in humans is biological the answer is most likely no.

  • This answer has many basic errors. (1) Arbitrary selection of <10,000 years as duration where fatherhood is expressed. (2) Arbitrary decision of various behaviors as driven or not by "biological instincts", independent of evidence. For example, rodents practice infanticide: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infanticide_in_rodents (3) Unfounded assumption that paternal behavior is "a complex of complicated emotions and activities" rather than e.g. a simple combination of care-giving and judgment of relatedness (both shown in e.g. chimps). (4) Some primates pair-bond and we may share their genes.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jun 5, 2015 at 19:26
  • @Rex Kerr (1) "Arbitrary selection" is from Chris Sunami's answer, who blithely claims that 10,000 is enough and ascribes it to OP (2) Dolphins and whales practice suicide, but there are plenty of cases where suicide or self-sacrifice in humans isn't driven by biological reasons (3) Care-giving isn't "simple" (4) And some primates don't, we also share some genes with dinosaurs, sounds very well-founded. If you want basic errors and unfounded assumptions check out "how can a strong love not be a product of evolution", or "10,000 is plenty of time... to become a dominant trait".
    – Conifold
    Jun 5, 2015 at 22:41
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    Answers to questions should be self-contained, not arguing with other answers. Care-giving isn't simple, but it's a strongly-expressed mammalian trait in females? How hard do you think it is to switch sex-specific expression of a behavioral trait? And you're missing the point about primates--the thesis that you need a complex trait arising from scratch assumes that the machinery isn't all already there. So you must consider whether the ancestral genotype either expresses the trait or is such that it is easy to evolve (shown by convergent evolution of the trait).
    – Rex Kerr
    Jun 6, 2015 at 18:09
  • @Rex Kerr I added a reference to show that even in human females the "maternal gene" may only be a trigger to a complex of emotions and behaviors, that are not genetic. But male and female responses involve activity in different parts of the brain. So no, even if it is genetic it could not evolve by jumping sexes.
    – Conifold
    Jun 8, 2015 at 2:25
  • @Rex Kerr And no on "self-contained" also, cross-references between different answers and OP are typical in SE threads, answers are supposed to complement and/or challenge each other. Indeed, in this thread we have an answer starting with "I Second Chris Sunami", whose author confuses genome with epigenome. In fact, the main reason I bothered is the amount of junk science passed for philosophy, and not just in this thread. This is not how it is supposed to work.
    – Conifold
    Jun 8, 2015 at 2:27

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