Responses on fatherhood: hormones, science and god

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.

4 thoughts on “Responses on fatherhood: hormones, science and god

  1. Relatedly, here’s my father’s day op ed suggesting that lack of good, affordable childcare affects the rate at which fathers can participate in their children’s upbringing by raising the costs associated with family:
    Childcare (or its lack) is a pivot around which many other social effects turn. The requirement that we pay exorbitantly for it, even for middling or poor care (think Jessica Tata), affects the way that we form families today.
    Does include ref to Edin/Nelson.


  2. This- “Science in this vein is just looking for ways to convince secular society that the Church is already right.” YES!

    This – “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.”

    But one more thing, what is really bad, what is really egregious is when you literally set up your science experiments in such a way as to guarantee the result you ere after.

    Take the Regnerus study. He should have asked every person if their parents had an extra marital or extra relationship romantic relationship. Then he could have at least compared people who grew up in homes where one of their parents had an “affair” , he could have compared them via two categories, was the “affair” same sex or opposite sex, then how did the kids turn out. But he quite deliberately does not do that.

    It is simply not fair to compare children raised in homes that experience divorce to children AND their mother had a same sex romance to children whose parents never divorced and are still married today, and then say “Viola! look the kids whose mother’s had a same sex relationship did worse.”

    I have seen the latest documents released via a Freedom of information act request. They show that Wilcox who was for a long time during the research project, he was the Director for the Witherspoon Program that funded Regnerus, in other words the funder and the Prinicipal Investigator collaborated. These latest documents show that as little as 8 days before Regnerus submitted his research paper to the Journal Social Science Research they were collaborating on how to constitute the family groups. Keep in mind that Regnerus without telling the Editor, hadn’t even finished collecting all the data, that would not come in for 22 more days after data collection.

    Wilcox is advising Regnerus to make the same family groups as somebody I forget the name, (I just remember that the name was the same last name as the guy who wrote the bell curve book/paper). Murray, I think it is Murry (not positive but that is what I remember, is that who wrote the Bell Curve?). Correct me if I am wrong, but aren’t you supposed to at the start of your project develop your hypothesis establishing what groups of people you want to compare/study and then you test the hypothesis? You don’t go literally 8 days before you submit your paper jiggering around what family groups you want to compose for the comparison groups, do you? Legitimate question is that the right way to do science?

    The report was carefully written to use for the purposes of the general population, not for other scientists to read, this also was revealed in the Freedom of Information Act docs.

    Regnerus must have learned a new term. I listened to his talk at the Ruth Institute, they have a podcast and also a pod cast of the Q & A afterwords. And I listened to another recent talk by Regnerus, I forget where that one was from. But he just lately has come up with a new term, “Diminished kinship.” For one who year you never heard him say that now it is his newest term, “Diminished kinship.” This is his newest theory on why the respondents in his survey didn’t score as well, must be (new term for him) diminished kinship. Especially for lesbains who use a sperm donor. The other mother has diminished kinship, this is what Regnerus is now touting.

    I am very very familiar with the diminished kinship philosophy having spent a long time listening to Elizabeth Marquardt on David Blankenhorn’s blog. I have a competing theory on kinship. Two lesbains go through a huge process to bear their children, and they do it together, even though only one mother is genetically related to the child. Why does the other mother feel kinship to their joint child? It is because together they completed the act of conception. An egg is just an egg, is just an egg. A sperm is just a sperm is just a sperm. It is only the joining of the egg and sperm that creates life. This joining of the egg and sperm is what the women do together, together they and only they (ordering their doctor) complete the act of conception and they do it together. And that is how they created a new life together and this is why there is no diminished kinship for the non biological mother with the child.

    It is the manipulation of science to bend to your religious views that is so bad. And if you go back and read Regnerus’ original report he does to claim causation, read it again, the ending paragraphs. Unless and until this study is retracted it will be used to suppress the rights of sexual minorities world wide. Just a few examples, the Supreme Court in Puerto Rico denied second parent adoption of same sex parents and they directly cited Regnerus in their Supreme Court decision. In France where there continues to be huge protests, the Catholic organization that is able to pull together 300,000 people to protest until just recently when they redesigned the website, had the Regnerus study on the Home Page of their website, and fully translated into French. This video will give you just a quick glimpse of what it is like to be a sexual minority in France, what they have gone through. It has English subtitles.

    The imprimatur of the University of Texas on a peer reviewed published study is impossible for non professionals to refute. You may think it is good enough that it is refuted within the academy, it is not.
    I hope this comment is not to long, but I had a lot to say.


    1. I can confirm, as a French, that that Regnerus “thing” has been intensively used & taunted on christian or right-wing gay rights opponents to discredit same-sex parenting.
      One of the most popular claims among these guys is the “23% percentage of sexually abused children in lesbian families”…
      For example, there is that child psychiatrist who reports before french MPs (at the “Assemblée Nationale”, during the long legislative process of “auditions”), and declares that:
      “It took about 20 years to get rid of the
      ‘no-difference’ dogma between children raised in
      a ‘homo-educational’ situation (and no
      ‘homo-filiative‘) and other children.
      Now, little by little, studies emerge where there
      are differences and -well, though the law must
      not rely on them- in any case, these
      differences exist and the less risky situation
      is the man-woman-child one.
      Well, it’s more or less the same time it took
      -20 years- for studies on adoption to let us get
      rid of the ‘all adoptive parents are able to adopt’
      dogma; it’s always the same taboos that are
      debunked, it takes time to have them debunked.”

      Here (at ~ 57 min):


  3. On the political side of this — when we were assembling the evidence that Wilcox as a Witherspoon representative had participated in designing Regnerus’s study, the NFSS, Wilcox took to the Family Scholars website, stated that he had been involved in study design and other aspects of the study — but he stated absurdly that his title of Director of Witherspoon’s Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy had been “honorary.”

    In an interim, Witherspoon president Tellez, Wilcox and Regnerus all told The American Independent that Wilcox had not functioned as a Witherspoon official when he was involved in the NFSS.

    Subsequently, we obtained documentation showing that Regnerus thought of Wilcox as a Witherspoon official and that Wilcox responded to him as one in e-mails.

    Wilcox has yet to acknowledge that he lied to the public.


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