Can quality of fathering really be measured by the size of a man’s testes?

Better fathers have smaller testicles; Testicle size linked to father role. These are the kinds of headline accompanying the reports of a study in the US that concludes that men who nurture their children have smaller testes. Seventy men with children between the ages of one and two were examined and the results were correlated with the volume of their testes. There were two parts to the study. In one the men’s brains were scanned while they were shown images of their children, and those whose brains were most activity in the reward areas had smaller testes than the others. The men were also interviewed with their partners about their involvement with their children and those who stated that they spent most time caring for their offspring similarly had smaller testicles.

Thus as The Telegraph comment: the study reveals,

that men with larger-than-average testes are also less likely than other men to show an interest in the skills and effort of child rearing, such as changing nappies or bathing a child, suggesting that some men are biologically predisposed to being poor fathers.[i]

Interestingly, the coverage acknowledges that the researchers did not draw any firm conclusions. They  noted that other social and cultural factors have some part to play in the degree to which men are nurturing and state that it is not clear whether men’s testosterone levels decrease because they care more for their children, or whether they care more for their children because their testosterone levels are lower.

AS0000033FB14 Baby care, dressing baby

I’m no expert in ‘Life History Theory’, the evolutionary thesis which the scientists are testing in their research, so I can’t comment on its theory that there is a trade-off between mating and parenting effort. In other words, presumably, the thesis and the findings which confirm it are that men are biologically motivated to either be reproducers, spreading their seed and fathering lots of offspring, or nurturers, having fewer but better cared-for children.

Expert or not, this biological determinism makes me pause. In fact I think there are a couple of flaws with the research.

What seems to have escaped notice is that assumptions about fatherhood and manhood shape the study as well as the reporting of its findings. Underlying the research’s evolutionary premise is biology as destiny: that feminine equates with nurturing, masculinity with the act of reproduction, even promiscuity. So though the coverage doesn’t explicitly state it, what we infer is that men who are good fathers – in modern society’s terms – are feminine.

This is problematic. As a historian of fatherhood I know that ideas about what forms good fatherhood vary.  In other words, although the components of fatherhood are fairly similar over time: affection, provision, discipline, and instruction, their relative importance changes, influenced by social, cultural, economic and political factors.

So, for example, when the capacity of men to show their emotions is considered part of being a man, as in the Georgian period and today, then affection for children is what is often most prioritised in descriptions of fathers. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this was what was called the ‘tender’ father and today is what sociologists call the ‘involved’ father. When expressive emotions are less favoured, then the breadwinning element of fatherhood can come to the fore, as with the Victorian paterfamilias or the hard-working Dad of the mid twentieth century.

Secondly, ideas about fatherhood are also usually closely correlated with ideals of manhood. In other words, there are times when being a nurturing father is not coded feminine. To be affectionate and caring can be seen as part of an ideal masculinity.  The ‘nursing’ father is a good example of this.

The Old Testament Book of Numbers 11:12: describes Moses complaining about the burden of leading his people through the desert:

Have I conceived all this people? Have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries the term nursing father was used as a paternal metaphor in England in two main ways. First it was used to discuss the authority of a ruler, so monarchs were described this way. Though this paternal metaphor is rooted in the concept of the father’s love, with the monarch-father displaying love and generosity towards his subjects, it forefronts benign authority. The second main use of the metaphor ‘nursing father’ was to define the relationship between the church and the state.

Very often the bodily aspect of ‘nursing’ was stressed. In 1736 Benjamin Atkinson explained that the ‘nursing father’ ‘is a metaphorical Expression, and signifieth the most tender Care, and parental Affection, which Parents commonly have for their Offspring, especially during their Infancy and Childhood’. He went on: ‘A Nursing Father and Mother will take Care of their Child, that dear Part of themselves, and Pledge of their mutual Love; they will take what Care they can, providing for it, and protecting it, especially in its helpless Age’, before applying the metaphor to explain that the king was thus a nursing father to the Church.  Although the phrase evoked in detail the physicality and tenderness of the father it was not feminine. These uses of nursing father emphasised the procreative, protective, governing and educational responsibilities of a patriarch/father.

What worries me is that ignoring the historical and social construction of fatherhood means that prevailing gendered ideas about men and women can pre-determine research questions and surely skew the findings. So since modern fathering is about affection and being involved, this structures the ‘tests’ of men in this study. Affection is being ‘measured’ in the brain scan and the interview with the father and his partner is constructed to find out how the couple perceive the father in terms of his involvement with his infant.

But would the research questions of a study in fathering ‘types’ differ in a periods of time when fathering was predominantly understood to be about providing economically for one’s offspring? Even though this generally entails a man being physically separate from his children because he is working to earn money, he would be defined as an excellent father in many eras, even arguably for some men today. Would scientists measure the breadwinning man’s testicles? Or would they measure his bank balance?

In the end it seems to me that this biologically deterministic approach is somewhat insulting to men. I certainly know that I would not like my capacity to mother to be correlated with the size of my breasts!

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