What are the chances that your dad isn’t your father?

How confident are you that the man you call dad is really your biological father? If you believe some of the most commonly-quoted figures, you could be forgiven for not being very confident at all. But how accurate are those figures?

Questions of paternity are built over the deepest well of human insecurity, for children searching to know who they are, for fathers wanting to know whose kids they are raising and for mothers uncertain about the strength of the bonds holding their families together.

I consulted on an episode of SBS’s Tales of the Unexpected documentary series, “Who’s Your Daddy?” (screening this Sunday April 20) which looks at the issue in some detail.

The program explores the question of paternity certainty, combining three moving tales – each involving a DNA paternity test – with a poll of sexual behaviour in Australia and the US and an exposition of why uncertain paternity presents such a sensitive issue.

One of the three?

How many children are the genetic offspring of someone other than the guy who thinks he is the father?


If you have read, heard or watched anything on this question, you will have encountered many estimates, from 9% to more than 30%. The idea that almost one in three people might be the result of what we biologists rather matter-of-factly call “extra-pair copulations” titillates and horrifies in equal measure.

These estimates surprise most people when they first hear them. So much so that the numbers tend to stick in our minds. But do these numbers bear any truth?

The problem with most data on paternity is the near impossibility of obtaining an unbiased sample. A paternity clinic, for example, is a bad place from which to estimate the rate of misattributed paternity. Many clients are there because at least one party isn’t convinced.

Likewise, any study recruiting families – however randomly – might have more success recruiting mothers who harbour no doubts about their children’s paternity.

Questionable figures

Swinburne University sociologist Michael Gilding, who also appears in the SBS program, has thoroughly researched the origins of the popular belief that 10% to 30% of paternities are misattributed.

He traced the source of the high estimate – 30% – to the transcript of a symposium held in 1972 in which British gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Elliot Philipp mentioned an estimate from a small sample of parents.

This brief conversation took on a life of its own, despite the fact that Dr Philipp never published the findings of his study. As a result, his precise tests and his population sample were never identified.

Of the many studies that have attempted to estimate the rate of misattributed paternity, the higher estimates have tended to grab headlines, whereas more modest estimates sink without trace.

In whose interest?

Prof Gilding implicates two groups for inflating the public perception of misattributed paternity rates: evolutionary psychologists and fathers’ rights groups.

Evolutionary psychologists, according to Gilding, are so invested in their ideas about the nuanced mating decisions women make that they overestimate how often women mate outside their long-term relationships. My impression is that this may be an accurate assessment of some headline-grabbing research but not universally true of the field.

Fathers’ rights groups represent men negotiating the heartbreak of family break-up. Some such groups also host strident activists propelled by a conviction that the law and society have been utterly corrupted by feminism, gynocentrism and misandry.

The blogs and forums of this netherworld amplify any finding, however flimsy, implying that women are rampantly promiscuous or cynical swindlers looking to part men from their hard-earned cash or dupe them into caring for kids that don’t bear their DNA.

They call this “paternity fraud” and some claim it “worse than rape”.

You won’t find on their websites a critical analysis of the sampling methods or techniques used to estimate paternity misattribution rates, just titanium-reinforced convictions that 25% to 30% of children are being raised or supported by the “wrong” guy.

Why does it matter?

In the ever-dynamic game of sexual relations, the one factor that has always weighed decisively in the favour of womankind is the secure knowledge that she is the mother of her children. According to an old aphorism: “Maternity is a matter of fact, whereas paternity is a matter of opinion.” At least it used to be.

Paternity testing now much easier and cheaper.

Fast-moving developments in molecular biology make paternity testing faster, cheaper and more accurate than ever before. Analysis of foetal DNA in the mother’s blood enable paternity assignment as early as eight weeks into a pregnancy.

Interweaving strands of evolutionary research suggests that paternity confidence forms part of the glue bonding men to their children and to the women who bore them. Undermine that confidence and men invest less readily in the subsistence and safety of their families, and become more likely to abscond.

That is not to say that all men are calculating Darwinian cynics. Many men make magnificent fathers to children that do not bear their DNA. But men get immoderately touchy about paternity. Insecurity over paternity has tectonically shaped much that is least admirable about male behaviour and twisted societies.

But knowledge about paternity can be empowering. It can reassure an uncertain father. It can vindicate an impugned mother or assist her in a paternity suit. And it can help a child understand who they are and where they come from.

What’s the answer?

So how many children are sired by someone other than “Dad”?

Population-wide random-sample DNA testing remains financially and ethically unviable. But to understand some of the behaviours that might lead to paternity misattribution, the SBS documentary producers commissioned Roy Morgan Research to poll samples of Australian and American women.

They asked a number of questions including whether they had conceived a child at a time when they had multiple sexual partners? I was surprised that no more than 2% of women admitted to this.

That suggests a low rate of misattributed paternity; but note the data are presented per woman, not per child. The poll does suggest that mating with multiple men around the time of conception is neither rampant nor pathologically rare.

These results marry comfortably with DNA estimates of misattributed paternity from samples that cross a broad range of societies which suggest the rate is between 1% and 3%, and with Prof Gilding’s estimate of between 0.7% and 2%.

The number of children whose biological father isn’t their social dad is probably far smaller than you’ve been led to believe, although the 30% figure seems to be a zombie-statistic that refuses to die.

But even a 1% rate of misattributed paternity still adds up to millions of individual children, world-wide, each part of an interesting, sometimes tenuous and often heart-breaking story.

The Conversation

Rob Brooks receives funding from the Australian Research Council. He consulted, without remuneration, with the production company (Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder) on the design of the paternity poll and the content of the show, and appears in the program mentioned here.

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Blurred double standards

All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same. All these bad books have one thing in common: they don’t ring true. (Robert Harris: The Ghost)

The same can be said, probably more so, for pop songs.

For months now I’ve been resisting the temptation to write about Robin Thicke’s international nerve-toucher, Blurred Lines. And for the past week, that temptation has doubled, since Miley Cyrus’ bizarre VMA Awards performance alongside Thicke. Yesterday’s accounts that YouTube pulled the plug on a Blurred Lines parody video was the last straw. I can no longer resist the temptation to write about the same damned thing everyone else on the interthewebz is writing about.

I’ll try to keep it brief.

My interest in Blurred Lines springs from a fascination for those songs that tap into the dark and fascinating ambiguities at the heart of sex. My own research concerns the sometimes cooperative, often conflict-ridden tensions that thrum between mates, and between sexes in humans and other animals.

To misquote Robert Harris, bad love songs all have one thing in common: they don’t ring true. Torch songs and saccharine ballads seek to paper over the darker and more delectable aspects of sex. Which is why songs imbued with the sinister or ambiguous make much more fascinating listening.

Thinking about my younger years, the music that lasted was definitely not the stuff about being young and wild and free. Yes, for my dear friends, the best days of our lives had a Bryan Adams soundtrack. But for me, R.E.M. (think I Took Your Name), the Violent Femmes’ (Prove My Love), and The Cure (Lullaby) sang about rejection, insecurity and unrequited love in far more fascinating ways.

And I was not an especially melancholy youth.

At its best, and I use the term “best” with some hesitation, Blurred Lines threatens to explore the space between two people orbiting one another. Orbiting with mutual, if not explicit, intention to get it on. In the end, however, it merely prods at the hellz-tricky issue of how a “good girl” can want it too.

The sanitised video of “Blurred Lines”.

What starts out as a rather catchy lament of the ambiguous line between Madonna and whore descends into a rather nasty description of what Robin Thicke is offering to do to the nasty-good girl. I’ll leave you to decipher the lyrics or read them yourself, but one isn’t left wondering why Thicke is considered by some to personify misogyny and “rape culture”.

Listening to his lyrics is a bit like watching a Connery-era Bond film. It’s vaguely enjoyable until the bit where you recognise that you’re witnessing a sexual assault.

The enormous traction of Blurred Lines comes not only from the dubious lyric, but also from the not-safe-for-work version of the video featuring several women, topless and wearing the scantiest flesh-coloured briefs, writhing for Thicke and, we are led to believe, whatever rhymes with Thicke.

But the impression I’m left with is that it’s fine for the good girls to get nasty if they’re under tight masculine control. It’s as sexless as Robert Palmer’s contrived video for Addicted to Love. I’ve never fathomed why some people find that video sexy. I think the lipsticked droid-like automata float some people’s boats because they don’t threaten to talk.

Addicted to love. A joyless, lifeless piece of work.

In my opinion, Blurred Lines ultimately fails because the balance is all wrong. And as a result the song, like Addicted to Love fails to ring true. Thicke man-splains a feminine dilemma with the transparent say-anything cynicism of the desperate would-be seducer. The clean lines of the music and the spotless video serve to make a rather sordid story more clinical. A story ripe for parody.

The Blurred Lines parody video – currently not banned from YouTube.

Apparently this parody by a group of Auckland University law students was blocked by YouTube, but it is up and running today. Nonetheless, accounts of it’s banning certainly created a teachable moment about sexism and double standards. And granted it the kind of notoriety necessary for viral success. First objective achieved, I imagine. If UNSW Law Revues were consistently like this, I might even consider going.

But what about Miley Cyrus?

If you have been living on a remote planet for the last ten days, then you’d better find a way to avoid watching this:

Miley Cyrus’ now-infamous performance at the VMAs. The key bit happens around 4.00.

Yes, it was a bizarre performance. But not bizarre enough to be considered avant-garde. There’s been a lot of talk about the performance. Maybe, maybe too much talk. Mostly in faux-concern for Ms Cyrus, general uproar about sexualising children (Miley, it turns out was once a child), or flat-out misogyny. I won’t add to these lines of considered analysis.

But what I loved was the way in which Miley broke Blurred Lines.

A 20-year-old former child star, who the public is simply unready to see as a sexual being, had a whole lot of fun sending up Thicke and his plodding, misogynist lyrics. She’s the good girl who ain’t too worried about the fallout from getting nasty. She made sex, and the ambiguity of lines that sometimes do blur, very very messy again. She dragged Thicke away from his tightly-controlled video romp with picture-perfect topless models and into a messier world where women talk, and sing, and “twerk”.

Look at his face around four minutes into the video and you know he knows it. Hannah Montana has dragged him, dick first, far off-brand.

What was Miley thinking? I couldn’t tell you. And that’s the interesting bit. I know rather too much about the content of Robin Thicke’s controlled and sterile fantasy. And I’d rather not.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Shutting that whole thing down: Todd Akin, rape, pregnancy and abortion

Like almost everybody else I spoke to today, I was staggered, this morning, to hear Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” and pregnancy. The Missouri Republican, who is running for Senate, was justifying his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape, when he offered up the following cringeworthy utterance:

From what I understand from doctors, [pregancy resulting from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

It’s possibly the biggest news story in the world right now, but if you missed it, Nicole Hemmer has done a wonderful job here at The Conversation dissecting the responses to Akin’s comments and their likely campaign-aborting implications.

As Hemmer and others point out, Akin’s comments are very much an extension of the so-called “Republican War on Women”. The Republican party finds itself unfortunately captive to evangelical zealots whose bronze-age cosmology is matched only by an antediluvian attitude to sexuality, sex and reproduction. It should surprise nobody that women (like atheists and homosexuals) are far less likely to vote Republican than men are. What surprises me is how many women do vote Republican.

I couldn’t do justice to just how ignorant Akin must be to even consider qualifying “actual rape” from any other. Fortunately columnists, bloggers and tweeters everywhere have been hard at it since Sunday morning. But what struck me most was his pseudo-medical contention that “the female body has ways to try shut that whole thing down.”

That is an assertion that strays right into my research specialty: the biology of sexual conflict. I’ve written many times before about the fact that the reproductive interests of a man and a woman are seldom perfectly aligned and can be quite profoundly out of whack. A wife and husband who differ on whether to have another child are in mild sexual conflict, whereas a rapist and his victim are – it would be hard to overstate this – at profound odds (evolutionarily and otherwise).

Women and men, like all sexually reproducing animals, negotiate the decision over whether to mate or not. The outcome isn’t always a happy compromise because sometimes the mating is worth much more to one party than the other. But in some species, a female can choose – after copulating – not to use the sperm of a male.

In the Australian Black Field Crickets we use in my lab, the male cannot copulate forcibly with the female. She has to mount him voluntarily and she is unlikely to do so unless he has a sexy song. But once she has mated him and he has attached a bag of his sperm (a spermatophore) to her abdomen, she often chooses to remove it before its entire contents enter her body. This isn’t in the male’s interests and he harasses her to prevent her reaching around and removing the spermatophore.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing Todd Akin had in mind? Post-rape female choice in humans in which women have some kind of adaptation that prevents conception with the sperm of a rapist. I always savour the irony when an evangelical evolves into an armchair adaptationist.

If such an adaptation existed, it certainly doesn’t work particularly well. According to one U.S. study, “national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0% per rape among victims of reproductive age”.

My point here is not to get sidetracked in the largely irrelevant biology of whether women can, somehow, discriminate against the sperm of a rapist. I would rather highlight the fact that the way in which women discriminate against men whose children they do not want to carry is by not having sex with them in the first place. A measure of the extent to which a society deserves to consider itself civilized can be gained from the extent to which its citizens recognize this fundamental and inviolable right.

When this right is violated or subverted, be it via incest, or violent coercion, or any other means whatsoever, the result is rape. To suggest that some forms of rape earn that name more legitimately than others is to deny women this right and to defend the agenda of the rapist.

But in societies like ours, there are other very effective mechanisms by which women can choose not to bear a child by a particular man, including a rapist: abortifacient drugs and abortion. Bill Clinton famously asserted that “Abortion should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare”. Even the most ardent pro-choice advocates agree that abortion should be rare, but without legal and safe abortion women fare considerably worse in the messy business of sexual conflict and in society as a whole.

What strikes me about the anachronistic attitudes of evangelicals and their Republican puppets to abortion, contraception, family planning, female economic empowerment and feminism in general is just how unambiguously male these attitudes are. All of these issues are informed by what suits men’s evolutionary and economic interests. Or more precisely by what suited the interests of men, especially rich and powerful men, before the industrial revolution.

An entire political party in one of the most advanced and educated countries on earth has become a caricature of the most basal evolved insecurities about masculinity. They seem terrified of losing control over the means of reproduction and petrified of cuckoldry.


Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

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