Saturday, April 11, 2015

Do Fathers Matter? by Paul Raeburn****

Think of a father in popular culture. I'm guessing that that father is comically inept (Homer Simpson, Uncle Vernon Dursley, George McFly, Archie Bunker, Jim Baker in 16 Candles, or Harry Wormwood in Mathilda). A few are downright evil (Darth Vader) and some are excellent (Cliff Huxtable or Mr. Bennet). Do Fathers Matter? by Paul Raeburn opens with how science has neglected the subject of fathers.
[Fathers] were repeatedly being told they were irrelevant, except as the providers of the family income.
The embarrassing back story is that
The record shows that fathers were--and are-- widely overlooked in scientific studies.
Searching PubMed
"Maternal" pulled up 279,519 entries; "paternal called up fewer than one-tenth as many.
This is the reason Raeburn wrote this book, and the reason all (as in both mothers and fathers, but especially fathers) should read it.

Science writing presents two challenges. The first is to translate science for the general public to make it clear, interesting, and relevant. In this, Raeburn finds the Goldilocks middle where the research is presented, but doesn't get bogged down in the mind-numbing detail that is the foundation and structure of all science.

The second challenge is the dynamic nature of scientific knowledge. Science is always moving forward, so what is accepted today, might not be accepted tomorrow. Much of this book is about presenting new research to debunk the accepted wisdom of fatherhood past.

For example, it has long been assumed it would be possible the combine the genetic material from two women to produce a viable fetus. The story always included the detail that since women had two x-chromosomes, the child would necessarily have two x-chromosomes, and thus be female. As reported by Raeburn, this parthenogenesis turns out to be impossible. Recent science has shown that both males and females contribute unique and vital genetic material, so a new life is not possible with contributions from both sexes.

On the other hand, Raeburn repeats that story about children needing years of post-natal support because no bigger head could pass through the birth canal, and if the birth canal was any bigger women would not be able to walk properly. You've probably heard this story yourself. However, recent research finds that women can walk fine (thank you) even with broader hips. This research suggests that the baby is born at the point where the mother can no longer eat enough to supports the baby's energy requirements.

Science marches forward, and even the best science writers have difficulty keeping up with all the research.

Raeburn delivers a comprehensive survey on the subject of fatherhood. He starts with evolutionary biology and the history of fatherhood prior to homo sapiens sapiens. Then he presents the scientific data for paternal contributions: pre-conception, conception, during pregnancy, and during the various post-natal stages.

Fortunately for all concerned that last 50 years has seen a surge in fatherhood research, so there is plenty of material and many unintuitive conclusions. I can easily recommend this book to those thinking about becoming parents, parents of all ages, and even grand parents.


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