The fatherhood post yesterday has gotten (for this blog), a lot of readers and some interesting responses. As I wrote out some extended, disorganized comment responses, I realized I may as well elevate them to an independent post (still a disorganized rant though).
I like the discussion by the authors on the Scientific American blog suggested by szopeno. Like I said in the original post, it’s quite reasonable that caring behavior affects hormone levels, as we know things like stress and fear do as well, with all kinds of mental and physical effects. If you randomly subjected some people to competitive athletic coaching, and handed others an infant, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the competition people behaving more aggressively and the baby-holders being more nurturing on average three months later. That would be interesting.
What is the implication? Are we shocked that some aspects of fatherhood (or childcare or sex) provoke a “biological” response? If that shocks you, you might like to know that by simply showing people pictures of other people behaving in certain ways, their bodies are are more likely to undergo spontaneous physical transformations. Just from sitting there looking at pictures! Also, if you inject an athlete with testosterone he can ride his bike really fast.
It does not follow from these findings of a hormonal response to life events that we should promote certain family arrangements as “natural,” which is where Wilcox and the religious-sociological-complex is taking this. If the goal is to change men’s testosterone levels, that might be done with medication. If the goal is to reduce aggressiveness, try teaching meditation in public schools. If we want people to be better parents, we can give them jobs, healthcare, housing and childcare support.
We have lots of ways of trying to promote happiness and pro-social behavior. However, like the crazy list of potential risks and side effects for men taking low-T medication, there are consequences to any such intervention.
Fortunately for individual freedom and human rights, some of us know that we can punish or prevent bad behavior — and reward or encourage good behavior — without attacking or rewarding whole status categories of people. Children with rich, married, college-educated parents are more likely to get into and finish college. So, we ought to fund a public school system, fund student loans for college — and also protect the children of the evil, sick or ineffective rich, married, college-educated parents from harm. But that doesn’t mean we should sterilize poor people.
So, is fatherhood good?
It’s not a question with one answer. One of the things Wilcox and the family “gold standard” promoters do is find ways that people in “traditional” families are doing better on average and use that to promote family conformity. But the averages conceal the sources of variation. Comparing the average father to the average non-father won’t tell you much about how fatherhood affects men because fatherhood occurs along with so many combinations of other transitions, experiences and resources. If you randomly assigned fatherhood to random men — at random moments in their lives — you could come up with an answer. Otherwise I’m not optimistic, and if it’s not answerable I doubt it’s a good question for social science.
Imagine three sets of outcomes: money, happiness and healthiness. Each is affected by social background and context. Then consider men entering fatherhood with different levels of each beforehand, and see how each outcome changes for all the different combinations (e.g., income changes for rich, happy, healthy; income changes for poor, happy, healthy; etc.). The possibilities multiply. If you’re Brad Wilcox you can work back from your goal — married nuclear families — and compare them to everyone else to cherry-pick any worse outcome at any time, and lo, discover that the Bible was right after all. If you really want to know it’s not so easy.
I haven’t yet read Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, the new book by Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, but that seems promising for an in-depth look at fatherhood in the flow of men’s lives, with a lot of attention to the social context (education, employment, incarceration, complex families and relationships, etc.).
Don’t take my Word for it
If you start from a God-given definition of what’s good, and science can’t change that, then science becomes just a convenient way of explaining what you already knew, which is not science — it’s what the Church calls “natural law.”
Wilcox denies that’s how it works, naturally. At a conference on the family and natural law, he was quoted as saying,
Our support for the renewal of marriage is not predicated on some … religious worldview. Rather, it’s based on a reasonable understanding of the human condition that is accessible to all men and women of good will. … Evidence suggests to us that intact, biological marriage is still the gold standard.
That depends on what you mean by “predicated.” Years before the “Regnerus affair,” during which Mark Regnerus joined Wilcox in a scheme to use science against marriage equality in the courts, Regnerus gave his view of the importance of (a certain kind of) marriage, and it did not originate from his scientific training:
The importance of Christian marriage as a symbol of God’s covenantal faithfulness to his people—and a witness to the future union of Christ and his bride—will only grow in significance as the wider Western culture diminishes both the meaning and actual practice of marriage. Marriage itself will become a witness to the gospel.
That divine law and natural law do not conflict is an article of faith (literally). I think Pope Leo XIII put it well when he wrote:
Now, reason itself clearly teaches that the truths of divine revelation and those of nature cannot really be opposed to one another, and that whatever is at variance with them must necessarily be false. Therefore, the divine teaching of the Church, so far from being an obstacle to the pursuit of learning and the progress of science, or in any way retarding the advance of civilization, in reality brings to them the sure guidance of shining light.
Thus, rather than see science as a candle in the dark, natural law says that science needs a candle in the dark, and God has one. Could any research penetrate that mindset? If your research contradicts the “truths of divine revelation” then your research is wrong. Try again! Science in this vein is just looking for ways to convince secular society that the Church is already right. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy (literally). From the same natural law conference news report:
While there’s limited data on the effects of same-sex marriage on children, Wilcox hypothesized that in a few years, research will show that children in lesbian or gay family situations will exhibit some of the same problems as children from father-less or cohabiting relationships.
That conference was in January 2011. At that point Wilcox already had the New Family Structure Study machinery in motion, which would end up confirming to the faithful what they already knew.