In an existential moment, maybe you have pondered who and what you are. Informed by evolutionary biology, you might consider whether “you” really exists. The vast proportion of cells in “you” are really from something else (e.g., foreign cells inhabiting your gut). The implications of intragenomic conflict mean that “you” are an amalgamation of competing gene- and individual-based agendas. You are also a package of competing psychophysiological mechanisms, some of which operate under the radar of consciousness: you think you are something, but maybe that is just self-deception. You might also be a chimera of cells derived from other family members.
If that is enough to twist your mind, then add the latest Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) practices to the mix. Several chapters in a new edited book—Globalized Fatherhood—tackle some of the complexities of ART and fatherhood. Let’s imagine that you are a man struggling with infertility. That could be due to a variety of reasons, some of which might be treatable. You could use Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI) to have one of your sperm injected directly into an egg in a lab, with that fertilized egg then implanted into a partner’s uterus. This technique bypasses typical barriers and mechanisms to fertilization “in vivo,” maybe to the advantage of some sperm that would not have made the journey successfully, but also at some potential risk to the resulting offspring’s health conditions. Maybe you obtain the sperm of a male provider to mix with a partner’s egg “in vitro,” with the resulting fertilized egg placed in her uterus. This latter case mixes genetic and social fatherhood—do you consider yourself the offspring’s father? Legally and culturally, is such a procedure allowed? It might be in the U.S., but not in parts of the Middle East where different views of sperm and conception hold.
What if you are a gay man in Australia seeking to raise children with a partner, and you have sought ART support in India to this end? While the legal basis of such international childrearing and technical bases is rapidly evolving, this might have been feasible (with lots of money and the appropriate contacts) until very recently. Imagine that you and your male partner identified a South African egg donor, used one of your sperm to have her eggs fertilized in a lab, and then had those eggs implanted in the uteruses of one or two surrogate Indian women. You have intertwined a globalized legacy, combining genes from multiple continents and subject to the maternal effects of yet another continent. You have also opened up fascinating discussions of human inheritance: genetic, epigenetic, and cultural. How do these shape your sense of who your child is, and who her or his father(s) are? What are the implications for that child’s development? Several related bodies of research on Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) would point toward potential long-term non-genetic effects of the early maternal environment (e.g., on insulin sensitivity), meaning that more than a surrogate’s kindness and willingness is at stake in undertaking such evolutionary experiments in human reproduction.
Perhaps you celebrate “Mother’s Day” or “Father’s Day.” These might have seemed straightforward: holiday cards don’t question whether “you” exist or point to distinctions among genetic, epigenetic and social legacies. Yet contemporary evolutionary biology and ART show just how complicated the status of a “father” and “mother” can be, and how that can yield multiple and seminal contributions to our next of kin.
A few references for such concepts include:
Burt, A., & Trivers, R. (2009). Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Dunn, R. R. (2011). The Wild Life of our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners Shape Who We Are Today. New York: Harper.
Haig, D. (1999). What is a marmoset? American Journal of Primatology, 49, 285-296.
Inhorn, M. C., Chavkin, W., & Navarro, J-A., Eds. (2015). Globalized Fatherhood. Oxford: Berghahn.
Kurzban, R. (2012). Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution of the Modular Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Von Hippel, W., & Trivers, R. (2011). The evolution and psychology of self-deception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34, 1-16.