Friday, February 22, 2008

Mutual monogamy? Surely you jest!

Here's something interesting (W11, author Christine Rosen) about paternity testing (something in which I am quite interested as a soon-to-be-official biologist) and cultural norms (is anyone not angry about them?). Rosen begins:

The cultural stereotype of infidelity is well entrenched: The lousy, cheating husband...in made-for-TV movies.

There's a but, as usually happens.

Yet the problem of female infidelity is equally serious, particularly when it results in the birth of a child. When a woman strays, how can a man know if the child is really his?
Rosen clarifies that ""paternal discrepancy" is the official term for a situation where a man is unknowingly raising another man's child." Unfortunately, it doesn't get much press unless that press is accompanied by paparazzi--Anna Nicole Smith's infant, for instance. According to "a 2005 article in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health," total daddy-dunno hovers around 4% in the large handful of countries/subcontinents participating. Not too bad, but one would hope that it would drop to a whole lot less (you know us, moral *prudes*, advocating things like absolute morals, fidelity,...).

What's the cost of all this? Well, with a grand total of 310,490 people buying paternity tests in 2001, and with an OTC option for $29.99 + $119 fees, that works out to about $46,259,905.10 plus tax. Then, for some, are court-ordered ones that can extract up to a trifling $500 from one's pocket. Concerning the ethics of the testing practice, Rosen (an ethicist herself) writes (bold parenthetical material mine):

There are some questions raised by paternity testing that even the most devoted ethicists (and marriage counselors) might have trouble answering. These tests are really tests of trust...they make it very easy, perhaps too easy, to indulge our doubts about our significant others.

Perhaps the growing interest in paternity testing reveals a broader cultural anxiety about fidelity in contemporary society, an anxiety exacerbated by the fact that an increasing number of parents bear and rear children outside the institution of marriage. (Hmm, did I just read that correctly? That doing marital activities without marriage perhaps causes stress?) Adam Phillips, a British psychotherapist who has published a book of pithy observations on monogamy, writes: "Not everyone believes in monogamy, but everyone lives as though they do. . . . Believing in monogamy, in other words, is not unlike believing in God." (Interesting observation, that one!)...New technologies might help us discover infidelity with more accuracy and convenience, but they are unlikely to solve the more vexing and timeless dilemma of why we stray.

And for that, we have (drum roll)...morals! Rules! Not living exactly as we please, because it might harm us! Shocking!

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