Solving The Mystery Of Paternity, Once And For All

23:13 minutes

a smiling dad hands his infant an orange in a grocery store
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These days, a scientific paternity test is easily acquired, and its results are seen as almost indisputable. But what about the days before so-called foolproof DNA analysis? For most of human history, people considered the identity of a child’s father to be more or less “unknowable.” Then in the 20th century, when a flurry of events sparked the idea that science could help clarify the question of fatherhood, and an era of “modern paternity” was born. 

The new science of paternity, which includes blood typing and fingerprinting, has helped establish family relationships and made inheritance and custody disputes easier for the courts. But it’s also made the definition of fatherhood a lot more murky in the process. 

Nara Milanich, professor of history at Barnard College of Columbia University joins Ira to discuss the fascinating history of paternity science from her new book Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father

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Segment Guests

Nara Milanich

Nara Milanich is a professor of History at Barnard College of Columbia University, and author of Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father (Harvard University Press, 2019).

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: These days, a scientific paternity test is easily acquired, and its results are almost indisputable. But what about the days before so-called foolproof DNA analysis? For most of human history, people considered the identity of a child’s father to be more or less unknowable, until the early 20th century when a flurry of events sparked the idea that science could help clarify the question of fatherhood, and an era of modern paternity was born. 

The new science of paternity, including blood typing and fingerprinting, has helped establish family relationships and made inheritance and custody disputes easier for the courts, but it has also made the definition of fatherhood a lot more murky in the process. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about. If you have a question or comment about the definition of paternity, how it’s changed over the course of human history, give us a call, our number 844-724-8255, or you can tweet us @SciFri. 

And joining me now to share the fascinating history of paternity science and mull over some of the big questions it has yet to answer is Nara Milanich. She’s professor of history at Barnard College at Columbia University, author of the new book Paternity– The Elusive Quest for the Father, out now. Dr. Milanich, welcome to Science Friday. 

NARA MILANICH: Thank you so much. 

SPEAKER: Very fascinating. Boy, I had no idea of the long history of this. 

NARA MILANICH: Yeah, this is a history that really hasn’t been explored, I think. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and you have explored it. Let’s get into this. Our current version of the paternity test– it’s rooted in DNA analysis and the scientific method. But beforehand, what did people do in the 19th century to identify a baby’s father? 

NARA MILANICH: Yeah, so we may think of DNA– I mean, DNA is so familiar. It’s such a familiar part of our social and cultural landscape today that it’s easy to forget that it’s really only in the 1980s that we had a foolproof scientific test of the father. And it’s really only in the 1990s that we see the commercialization of these technologies so that they really become a part of our social and cultural world. 

But that doesn’t mean that people didn’t know who fathers were in the past. They had alternative methods for knowing them. So there was a whole discourse about how biological paternity was not just unknown but unknowable prior to the 20th century. So you have French jurists in the 19th century saying things like, paternity is as mysterious as the source of the Nile. That is to say it is something that we don’t know and indeed can’t know. Nature has shrouded it in a veil. 

But there were alternative ways of knowing paternity, social and legal definitions of paternity. And so there are really two definitions that prevailed. The first was the definition of paternity in marriage. And that said that marriage makes the father. So if a married woman gives birth, her husband is automatically considered to be the father of her child. 

IRA FLATOW: Kaboom. 

NARA MILANICH: Kaboom. Very easy. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s it, yes. 

NARA MILANICH: What happens in the case of women who aren’t married? Who’s the father of their child? Well, in that case, paternity is defined through a series of social behaviors and reputation, or in the old Roman formulation, nomen, tractatus, fama– name, treatment, reputation. So in other words, the father was the man who gave the child his name. The father was the man who was seen leaving the woman’s house at suspicious hours of the night– reputation, right? The father was the man who treated the child in public as his own by giving baby booties as a gift or paying the wet nurse or the midwife. So these were all social behaviors. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Nara Milanich, author of Paternity– The Elusive Quest for the Father. Continue. It’s a fascinating history. 

NARA MILANICH: Sure. So in other words, we could say that paternity is not an identity that flows directly from the act of procreation. It is rather a social relationship that really comes into being as a result of a father’s behavior and his intent and his will. That’s a very different definition of paternity. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and let’s talk about that, because the law says that, especially now with all these sperm donors or whatever, you could father a hundred people, but you’re not considered the legal father, right? There has to be the intent, as you write in your book, that you want to be the father and will take care of the child. 

NARA MILANICH: That’s exactly right. So even in the era of DNA where we have this foolproof 99.999% certainty test, scientific test that can tell us who the biological progenitor is, that doesn’t mean that we have embraced a biological definition of paternity. And sperm donors are a great example. Very few people would consider a sperm donor to be the father, legally and socially speaking, of the child or children that are born of his donation, shall we say. 

IRA FLATOW: In about the minute we have left before the break, let’s see how fast we can answer this, and we can go over the break. Why did we suddenly become so obsessed with paternity in the early 20th century? What was going on there? 

NARA MILANICH: Yeah, so I think there’s a confluence of both scientific and political events that explain why people get so interested in paternity, really, starting in the 1920s. On the one hand is the science. Of course, this is the heyday of hereditary science, right? People are obsessed with eugenics and racial science and the idea that heredity can be harnessed for the good of human societies. 

So paternity science is very much coming out of that hereditary moment. So in part, this is a story about scientific developments, but it’s also a story about how social and political issues spur the interest in paternity. New ideas about gender and family and welfare and childhood also help explain why paternity and knowing the father becomes an issue of intense interest in this period. 

IRA FLATOW: And there are very famous cases that come up that we’ll talk about after the break. It’s a fascinating story talking with Nara Milanich, author of Paternity– The Elusive Quest for the Father. Our number, 844-724-8255. Also, you can tweet us @SciFri. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after the break. 

In case you just joined us, you’re listening to Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about Paternity– The Elusive Quest for the Father. It’s a new book written by Nara Milanich. She is here with me talking about the modern era of paternity testing and how it arose out of a past era. We were talking about why it became so popular at the turn of the 20th century. What was going on? 

NARA MILANICH: Right, so as I was saying, there are certain social and political trends that helped to explain why people became so interested in knowing who the father is as a biological and scientific matter. And that has to do with new ideas about gender and childhood that arise in, say, the 1920s and the post World War I era. So on the one hand, we have new women’s rights movements and new roles for women. And there’s an increasing propensity to question old ideas about gender. 

So if we think about the 19th century trope of the fallen woman, the Victorian fallen woman, the unmarried woman who bears a child out of wedlock and must bear the stigma of that transgression on her own, by the 1920s that idea seems a little archaic. And people start to think, hey, maybe men also should be responsible for their children. So in part, this is a story about gender, new ideas about gender. 

IRA FLATOW: But you also mention many times in the book that it’s also an idea about race. 

NARA MILANICH: That’s exactly right. So one of the things that I didn’t expect when I was doing this research– I knew that this would be a story about gender and the family and childhood. I didn’t anticipate the extent to which the history of paternity testing would be so intertwined with the history of race. And that has to do with how the science grows out of eugenics science and racial science and is very much in dialogue with the science. 

And it also has to do with how paternity and race are both understood as these essential natural essences that can be concealed or made secret or hidden and that they can be, in turn, revealed somewhere on the body through scientific expertise. So there’s a parallel in the way people have thought about paternity on the one hand and race on the other. 

IRA FLATOW: I think most contemporary people, when we look back, let’s say, toward World War II in Nazi Germany, think about race and paternity as the Nazis defining who was a Jew by your paternity, right? 

NARA MILANICH: That’s exactly right. So one of the things that I found is that Nazis were– and we, of course, know that Nazis were obsessed with race and racial definition. I found that they were obsessed with paternity. And the reason has to do with the definition of race in Nazi racial ideology. So the way that you know who is a Jew or an Aryan, according to the Nazis, is you got to know who their parents are and their grandparents, right? 

It’s a genealogical definition. So that made the Nazis very interested in genealogical proof, the ability to prove who a father, in particular, is, right? So they were very concerned with scenarios of adoption and illegitimacy in which paternity might somehow be obscured. They wanted to always know who the true biological father was, because that was necessary knowledge to know the so-called race of the individual. 

IRA FLATOW: Right. And in fact, you write that, after 1938, paternity suits flooded civil courts from Munich, Vienna, to Hamburg. Women came forward to repudiate the paternity of Jewish husbands. Children filed suits to challenge the paternity of Jewish fathers. The Reich’s victims took advantage of the logic of racial paternity to save themselves and their family members. 

NARA MILANICH: That’s right. So Jews really took advantage of this noxious racial ideology to save themselves. So you see this rash of paternity suits in which women come forward and children come forward to disavow the paternity of their husbands or fathers and thereby reclassify themselves racially and to save their own lives and that of their children. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, 844-724-8255. Alice in Denver, welcome to Science Friday. 

AUDIENCE: Hi, there. 

IRA FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead. 

AUDIENCE: Yeah, I’m a schoolteacher, and I’ve seen a huge rise in the number of blended families, where who the father is, who the legal father is doesn’t really matter so much as who’s choosing to raise a child. And in my family, my husband has three different fathers based on a variety of backgrounds of the paternity versus the person who raised him. And we’re choosing to raise our daughter with a relationship where there’s lots and lots of people who are the parents. 

And I’m wondering if there’s a historical precedent for people to raise their children with a variety of different parents, maybe because they’re in an open marriage or something like that. And what is the current direction that we’re moving in as we see blended families that are consistently more diverse than just the mother and father and child scenario? 

IRA FLATOW: Great question, Alice. Thanks for calling. 

NARA MILANICH: That is a great question. And I think that, very often, we’re encouraged to think about families in the present as somehow radically different from families in the past, so this idea that the family has always been a nuclear family or maybe an extended family. But at any rate, it’s always been a family of a father, a mother, and biological children. And that’s just not the case. And it’s hard to generalize historically across thousands of years on the entire globe, so we would have to ask this question in relation to very specific societies. 

But the short answer to your question is the family that we think of as modern or new– families have changed over time. And so there absolutely are historical precedents for the kinds of families that you’re talking about. Just think about the fact, for example, that there were very high rates of mortality in the past, so that many children had to be reared by people other than their biological parents. Just that one simple little demographic fact alone accounts for a whole series of different social practices for raising children other than biological ones. 

IRA FLATOW: You talk about some very bizarre stories you encountered in your research. And one familiar bizarre story that I’ve followed in my lifetime is that of Charlie Chaplin and his paternity suits. I mean, tell us how bizarre that was. 

NARA MILANICH: Yeah, so we might think about celebrity paternity scandals as something that is new. But in fact, I found that celebrity paternity scandals have really been with us since the 1920s. And probably the most famous such scandal in the 20th century involved Charlie Chaplin, the Hollywood legend, who was a famous cad. He was famous for his womanizing and his predilection for much younger women. 

And at some point in his career– he was in his 50s. It was the early 1940s. He was accused of being the father of the baby of his young protege, a woman by the name of Joan Barry. And so there was a very loud suit that was followed very closely by the newspapers. And the suit, of course, was aimed to determine whether Charlie Chaplin was, in fact, the father of this adorable red-haired baby who would accompany her mother to the courtroom every day. 

And so the lawyers presented the typical evidence that would be shared in a paternity suit of this kind. There were various witnesses, the handyman of Charlie Chaplin’s estate who testified that he had seen this young woman leaving his house at odd hours of the night and testimony of that kind. But then Chaplin’s lawyer brought in a very different kind of evidence, namely a blood test. And three doctors presented their findings. 

A couple weeks before, they had taken blood samples from Chaplin, Joan Barry, the young woman, and her baby, Carol Ann, and tested the blood types, determined the blood types. And they discovered that the mother was type A blood, the baby type B, and Charlie Chaplin type O. In other words, he was not a compatible blood type and could not biologically have fathered that baby. So the jury disappears into its chambers and deliberates for several hours. It comes back into the courtroom and declares that Charlie Chaplin is, in fact, the father of baby Carol Ann. 

IRA FLATOW: Even though the science says that’s impossible. 

NARA MILANICH: Even though the science says that’s impossible. So what is going on in this case? Well, the scientists have a field day. They say, what is wrong with California? It is declared black is white, and white is black, and up is down. Other critics said the problem is the law is too conservative. It doesn’t keep up with the science. The jurors are ignorant, and they don’t understand. 

But I think there’s something else going on here that’s actually more interesting than either of those explanations. And that’s that the jury really understands paternity in a very different way than the doctors. So for the jury, paternity is a social relationship. It derives from Chaplin’s romantic relationship with the mother as opposed to his biological relationship with her child. 

IRA FLATOW: And that goes back to what we were talking about earlier, is that paternity is assigned rather than genetically determined. 

NARA MILANICH: That’s exactly right. So we see the rise of these new technologies and new scientific methods for knowing the father over the course of the 20th century. And indeed, by the 1940s, blood group science is pretty indisputable. I mean, there’s a very strong scientific consensus that there are four blood types, and they’re inherited according to incontrovertible laws. And yet, we can see, even in a courtroom, a very different logic playing out. 

IRA FLATOW: So how did the blood test emerge as the best technique for testing paternity? Because in your book, you point out all the pseudoscience that came before it. 

NARA MILANICH: That’s right. And in fact, in the book, I talk about the pseudoscience and the, quote unquote, “real science” in the same breath, because I think, in retrospect, in hindsight, it’s very clear which of these techniques worked and which techniques didn’t work. But that wasn’t obvious at all at the time, right? So we have a hubris of hindsight, where we can say, well, the blood group tests obviously worked, and using fingerprints and electronic blood tests didn’t work. But that wasn’t obvious at the time. So I think it’s important to keep that in mind. 

But blood group tests were a really important way, an enduring way of knowing the father. They emerge, really, in the 1920s out of blood group research, which dates back to, really, the turn of the 20th century. So by the 1920s, scientists know that there are four human blood groups, that they are inherited, they’re passed from parent to child according to these immutable laws, that those laws are predictable, and therefore that blood groups are useful, potentially, for knowing, if not who the father is, at least who the father is not. Because of course, blood groups can exclude certain impossible fathers, but they can never tell you who the father is, right? 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Nara Milanich about her very interesting book, Paternity– The Elusive Quest for the Father. And just a few minutes left to continue talking. Do we have separate tests now for paternity for American citizens and for foreigners? I mean, when we have the Department of Homeland Security beginning a pilot DNA testing program last month at the US Mexico border, which is being used to expose immigrants suspected of posing as families, that’s not the same definition we are using to assign a father paternity for a citizen, is it? 

NARA MILANICH: That’s exactly right. So we’re really using different definitions of paternity in different social contexts. And the context of immigration law is a really great example of that. We have a so-called family-based system of immigration so that we give rights to residency or even citizenship based on the relationship between family members, right? And so that means that immigration officials might be interested in being able to prove kinship relations between a citizen and, say, their son or daughter. The problem with that is that it requires or imposes a biological definition of kinship. And we can think of many examples where biology doesn’t– 

IRA FLATOW: Well, just the simple sperm donor, the example. 

NARA MILANICH: The simple sperm donor, that’s exactly right, or the caller’s question, that we recognize socio-affective relationships and forms of kinship in all kinds of other contexts. But in immigration proceedings, we insist on a biological definition. And I think that’s discriminatory. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and in fact, the current situation at the border now is reminiscent of an era you talk about in your book in the 1950s, when Chinese immigrants were detained and their family relationships questioned. 

NARA MILANICH: That’s right. So it was really in the 1950s in the era of the Cold War that we see the origins of genetic testing in immigration proceedings, when immigration officials are concerned that there are fraudulent Chinese families who are infiltrating the country. And this is the Cold War, remember, so there is this concern about communism, that Chinese communist imposters will make their way into the country by posing as the sons of Chinese-American citizens. 

And so the State Department and the INS, what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, begin testing the blood of Chinese migrants in order to determine whether they are, in fact, related to their alleged kin. So that’s really the origins of the policies that we’re seeing in practice today. 

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. I just have about a minute left. I want to ask you about something that everybody’s doing now, and that’s taking these ancestry-testing services. What are your feelings about them? 

NARA MILANICH: So I think that the phenomenon of these tests is fascinating. We love a good paternity reveal story. DNA didn’t create those stories, right? Those stories have been with us– I mean, Shakespeare, the 19th century novelists. But DNA gives a new way of telling the story. It adds a new twist to the plot. And so I think that those cultural narratives have been with us for a long time. But DNA, and especially the mass commercialization of DNA testing, has really breathed new life into those very old stories. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m going to quote from your book. Essentially, they’re really advanced paternity tests. 

NARA MILANICH: Right. And so one of the questions when people do DNA, 23andMe, is, are they searching for ethnic origins and identity, or are they searching for long-lost family members? Are they searching for their own identity? There are many things that people are clearly searching for when they spit into that little plastic tube. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, there you have it. Thank you. This is a fascinating book. 

NARA MILANICH: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: Nara Milanich is professor of history at Barnard College at Columbia and author of the new book Paternity– The Elusive Quest for the Father. And if you go to our website, you can check out an excerpt of the book on our website, sciencefriday.com/paternity. Thank you. 


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