Paternal Care

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Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
Absolute Difference
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Paternal care refers to the time and resources given by a biological father to his offspring. The presence of paternal care varies across human cultures. However, most societies exhibit some degree of paternal care. In some cultures, fathers are only responsible for male children after they reach a certain age, when skills need to be passed on - while in others, fathers may play important roles from children's early ages onward. Paternal care is nearly absent in great apes.

Related MOCA Topics

Timing of appearance of the difference in the Hominin Lineage as a defined date or a lineage separation event. The point in time associated with lineage separation events may change in the future as the scientific community agrees upon better time estimates. Lineage separation events are currently defined as:

  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and old world monkeys was 25000 thousand (25 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and chimpanzees was 6000 thousand (6 million) years ago
  • the emergence of Homo ergaster was 2000 thousand (2 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and neanderthals was 400 thousand years ago
  • the common ancestor of modern humans was 100 thousand years ago

Possible Appearance: 
2000 Thousand Years
Probable Appearance: 
500 Thousand Years
Definite Appearance: 
100 Thousand Years
Background Information: 

Paternal care refers to the time and resources given by a biological father to his offspring. Paternal care is a broader category of behavior than related concepts such as paternal investment, with the latter referring to investment by a male in biological offspring at some reproductive fitness cost to himself and reproductive fitness benefit to his offspring.
There are various types of paternal care. In a classic typology of primate paternal care, Kleiman and Malcolm (1981) divided paternal care into direct and indirect forms. Direct care includes forms such as holding and carrying offspring. Indirect care includes forms such as defense, whether against predators or threats from members of the same species, and food provisioning.

How do patterns of human paternal care compare with those among Great Apes? Viewed broadly, the magnitude of human paternal care is a distinguishing characteristic of our species, and one that appears to have been derived during the past couple of million years of hominin evolution (Gray and Anderson 2010; Hewlett 1991; Lancaster and Lancaster 1983). Characterizing more specific forms of paternal care—types of direct care as well as indirect care—these features may have been derived at different time points during recent hominin evolution. We'll consider the evolutionary origins and Great Ape comparisons for features of a) indirect care such as food provisioning and protection, b) direct care such as holding and time spent in proximity to offspring, and c) roles of fathers in offspring social and moral development. This last category does not easily fit the distinction between direct and indirect care applying to comparative patterns of paternal care but is of notable importance too.

The Human Difference: 

Anthropologists and other evolutionary biologists have long suggested that the evolutionary origins to human pair bonds and paternal care entailed some version of a “man the hunter” hypothesis (Lovejoy 1981; Lancaster and Lancaster 1983). The idea is that during hominin evolution a sexual division of labor, in which men and women performed mostly complementary economic and reproductive tasks, emerged, with males specializing as hunters and women as gatherers and in providing offspring direct care. From the standpoint of paternal care, this type of scenario highlights a presumed deep evolutionary history in hominins of male indirect care in the form of resource provisioning, particularly of meat. This type of scenario enjoyed support from analogies drawn from recently studied hunter-gatherers and archaeological evidence such as stone tool cut marks on presumed prey bones as well as postulated meat-processing benefits derived from stone tool traditions tracing back 2.6 million years.

However, others have challenged such “Man the Hunter” scenarios on various grounds. One contention is that in hunter-gatherer societies men tend to focus on large game for purposes of showing off or costly signaling rather than for purposes of provisioning one’s wife and offspring (Hawkes 1991). There is support for the view that among hunter-gatherer societies some of men’s provisioning efforts have wider social benefits than family provisioning, with enhanced male status perhaps translating into reproductive fitness benefits. However, there is also evidence—such as men targeting resources such as small game and honey that disproportionately flow to their wives and offspring, and men providing more resources to biological offspring than stepoffspring—that is consistent with provisioning (Gurven and Hill 2009; Marlowe 2010).

More full consideration of potential human paternal care in the form of paternal provisioning entails several other issues. The history of hunting technology innovation, with spears first found approximately 400,000 years ago, and bows and arrows around 30,000 years ago, means that hominin male hunting efficiency in the past was likely much lower than that observed among recently studied foragers (Marlowe 2005). Furthermore, a major feature of human reproduction is that hunter-gatherers interbirth intervals (time between successive births) of approximately 3-4 years are considerably lower than would be expected for an ape of our body size (Robson and Wood 2008). Orangutan interbirth intervals in the wild are approximately 8 years, the longest of any terrestrial mammal, whereas interbirth intervals of chimpanzees and gorillas in the wild tend to be around 4-6 years. A combination of enhanced hominin female foraging efficiency (e.g., through use of technologies such as digging sticks) and food provisioning by other group members such as grandmothers and husbands enables humans to reproduce at faster rates—the lower interbirth intervals—than would otherwise be expected. To the degree husbands contribute to these reductions in interbirth intervals, the main benefit of paternal provisioning may be in facilitating faster reproductive rates rather than having impacts on offspring survival. There is no good analogy or homology for paternal food provisioning among Great Apes, indicating that whatever the evolutionary timing of its origin among hominins, and cautious over the mixed role of paternal care/costly signaling, this is a derived feature of humans.

Apart from food provisioning and “Man the Hunter” scenarios, human indirect paternal care could entail protective services. Considerable attention has been given to the potential role of infanticide prevention as an indirect form of paternal care among primates (Hausfater and Hrdy 1984). Among Great Apes, an interpretation that gorilla male infanticide protection services seems consistent with the attribution of infant mortality to infanticide among a fair number of cases, and apparent role fulfilled by males of offspring defense against potential male group intruders (Campbell et al. 2007). Among humans, infanticide prevention as an indirect form of paternal care among recently studied hunter-gatherers or across a wider array of contemporary societies does not seem well supported: while stepfather presence is associated with elevated offspring mortality and abuse risk in various studies (Daly and Wilson 1999), these cases are relatively rare and seem incidental to low male emotional attachment rather than adaptive reproductive strategies.
An additional potential form of indirect human paternal care is defense against predators. While relatively few hunter-gatherers die at the maws of predators such as leopards or large bears, it is reasonable to imagine that male protective services help account for some of this reduction in mortality, but also difficult to quantify this potential form of indirect paternal care.

Another form of indirect paternal care—passing along non-food material resources such as land or livestock—seems to have been derived recently in human history, consistent with the expanded array of forms of heritable wealth (Gray and Anderson 2010; Low 2000). Fathers may help their sons marry by providing resources such as livestock or land to serve as bridewealth in many societies. Fathers may leave an inheritance upon death consisting of money, a house, land, or other such material resources; often these are left with a spouse, with benefits further extended to offspring, making this also a form of indirect paternal care. Since accumulations of wealth of these sorts would only extend to some fairly recent complex hunter-gatherers and other societies relying on non-forager subsistence modes, these don’t project far in evolutionary history, and have no apparent analogy or homology among Great Apes.

As far as forms of direct paternal care, these can be assessed in various ways. Through studies of time allocation among hunter-gatherers such as the Hadza and Aka, scholars have helped clarify the amount of time fathers spend with their children primarily during waking hours, but also in some cases forms of direct care such as holding or carrying (Hewlett 1992, Marlowe 1999). Hunter-gather fathers, with the main exception of the Aka, spend a relatively small fraction of their waking hours in direct contact care of their young offspring, or even in close proximity. Part of that pattern seems related to the sexual division of labor, in which husbands and wives are often spatially segregated across the day, focused on different economic and social activities. Other caregivers such as mothers, primarily, but also grandmothers and other female relatives including older sisters play important roles in direct childcare. At nighttime, hunter-gatherer fathers tend to sleep in close proximity to a wife and their young children, providing additional time to tend to form attachments with their offspring.
The amount of time spent by human hunter-gatherer fathers in direct care is noteworthy when contrasted with the Great Apes (Smith 2005). Chimpanzee, bonobo, and orangutan males may not well know which offspring they have fathered (see control of paternity), and there has been little suggestion that fathers of these species devote any attention to maintaining proximity, holding, or carrying putative biological offspring. Among gorillas, fathers may tolerate offspring and spend waking hours near them, suggesting some modest degree of direct paternal care among gorillas too (Smith 2005). The phylogenetic pattern of human and Great Ape direct paternal care suggests that it was derived among hominins. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that hunter-gatherer fathers tend to spend more time in direct care of children than is true of many agricultural and pastoralist societies, in part a reflection of greater polygyny among such latter societies which comes at expense to direct paternal care.

A final, possibly uniquely human, feature of paternal care is that related to offspring social or moral development (Gray and Anderson 2010). Fathers can contribute to their offspring’s social success by facilitating their children’s incorporation into beneficial social networks and fostering the development of beliefs and behaviors that yield reproductive success in the local environment (e.g., practice at being a good hunter or honey collector, with later social and reproductive rewards to follow). These types of paternal care often entail mostly modeling rather than teaching in hunter-gatherers or other small-scale societies, and are often sex-specific, with fathers tending to spend more time with their sons than daughters during their children’s late childhood and adolescence. The nature of father-son interactions tends to involve fewer conflicts in hunter-gatherers, probably in part because of a lack of heritable forms of wealth, compared with agriculturalists, pastoralists, and other kinds of societies (Schlegel and Barry 1991).

Implications for Understanding Modern Humans: 

Human paternal care is a defining, derived characteristic. The specific forms of paternal care—direct, indirect, fostering social development—may have different evolutionary origins, but collectively stand out compared with Great Apes.


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