The Evolution of Fatherhood by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

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Inspired by the wonder of his own experiences as a parent, former psychoanalyst and New York Times best-selling author Jeffrey Masson offers a remarkable look at one of the most fulfilling roles in the animal world: fatherhood. In The Evolution of Fatherhood, he examines the extraordinary behavior of outstanding fathers, heroes among animals, including: the male emperor penguin, who incubates the egg of his young through Antarctic blizzards; prairie dog dads, who teach their pups to play; the South American tamarin monkey, who “coaches” his mate through labor and delivery; and the wolf—and why wolves make good fathers, whereas their close relatives, dogs, don’t. With captivating writing and impeccable research, Masson celebrates the unique and often surprising role that males play in the lives of their young.

Masson also looks at nature’s worst fathers: lions, langurs, bears—and humans. He shows that when a father cares for his young, as does the beaver, we immediately look for a biological, and not an emotional, explanation. But Masson demonstrates that for these animals fatherhood is a profound, all-encompassing experience. Compelling and inspirational, The Evolution of Fatherhood is a book that will forever change our perceptions of parenthood and family love.


There is a popular belief that in almost all primates, indeed, in almost all mammals, the males are at best uninvolved fathers, contributing nothing to their offspring but their sperm; at worst, they supposedly kill their young. It is not surprising, then, that there is no book written for a general audience about the role of fatherhood in the lives of animals. This, I believe, is the first such book.

How did I come to this topic? My interest in animals dates back to my years as professor of the languages and literatures of ancient India at the University of Toronto. As a Sanskrit scholar, I was aware that animals played a major role in Sanskrit literature: There were ancient stories like the Vancatantra (which influenced European fables), with wise turtles; Buddhist legends of compassionate tigers; Hindu narratives about faithful mongooses; Jain accounts of remorseful elephants; folk tales of nostalgic deer.

Wherever one turned, the literature was alive with imaginative accounts of the relations between animals and humans. The great epic of India, the Ramayana, is about a devoted monkey, Hanuman, who could fly and speak Sanskrit and who helped Prince Rama to defeat an animal-like magician who ruled Sri Lanka. The world of the Ramayana is teeming with animals, and their depiction (as of the great-hearted buzzard Jatayu) has influenced Indian attitudes toward these animals down to the present. I was aware that many of these myths may have been purely imaginary, but I was also convinced they answered some deep need for a bond between humans and other animals. I also considered that while these stories projected human qualities onto animals, perhaps animals truly did have lessons to teach us as well. Could the emotional realities underlying these descriptions hold true not only for humans but for animals, too? Zoomorphism might parallel anthropomorphism.

I put these thoughts on hold, however, while I turned my attention to the mysteries of the human mind. In mid-career, I decided to become a psychoanalyst. What intrigued me was the complexity of human emotions. I thought nothing would be more interesting than to study in depth such feeling states as nostalgia, disappointment, sadness, joy, gratitude, sympathy—both clinically (as they occur in the lives of people who go to see a therapist) and in the literature. After eight years of training as a Freudian psychoanalyst, I came away with the heretical conviction that when it comes to human emotions such as love, or even sadness, there are no experts, and that we are all as knowledgeable or as ignorant as anyone else. This career led to a series of books, including a study of Freud and child sexual abuse (The Assault on Truth), an account of my analytic training and the flaws inherent in it (Final Analysis), as well as a perennially unpopular account of the hollowness at the very heart of psychotherapy (Against Therapy).

But I was still fascinated by the range of emotions. What emotions were not just universal in the sense that all humans everywhere were capable of them, but also transcended our own species and could be found equally represented among animals? In attempting to answer these questions, I wrote two books, When Elephants Weep (with Susan McCarthy) and Dogs Never Lie About Love. I was convinced that animals felt many of the same emotions we do, and felt them just as powerfully; indeed, I was persuaded that some animals, such as dogs, may feel some emotions more purely than do humans, and that when it came to certain feelings, dogs were superior to humans. (This, by the way, is the reason I often use “who” for animals instead of the usual “which” or “that.”)

In 1996 I married Leila Siller, a German pediatrician, in San Francisco. Our one-year-old son, Ilan, was the ring bearer. I was a father for the second time, after an interval of more than twenty years. My first child, Simone, born in Toronto in 1974, was in her twenties. As I cradled tiny Ilan in my arms, his eyes would lock onto mine, then a smile would light up his face with unmistakable delight, or I would see him look puzzled and worried. I now had cause to wonder about emotions in a whole new light. How and when did they originate? Now, at almost three, Ilan exhibits all of the major emotions. I have seen him look highly embarrassed when praised, scream with delight while running on the beach, bend over and carefully examine a hurt ant with obvious compassion on his face, tell me emphatically whom he likes and does not like—in short, express his emotions without restraint in words and deeds and facial gestures. He is a bundle of raw and unmediated emotions, as pure as they are in my dogs. Was this true for other animal children as well? In order to answer this question, I needed to learn a great deal more about animal families and their children’s earliest upbringing. I found that the topic of mothers and motherhood was amply represented, whereas there was far less written about fatherhood in the animal world. Was this because there was so little to know, or had this topic been neglected for other reasons? I set about finding an answer.

At the same time, of course, I had good reason to think about fatherhood in a direct and personal way. I was reliving fatherhood. But now I had the benefit of my psychoanalytic training (which at the very least had raised certain important questions about emotions, even if the answers it provided did not satisfy me), my training as a historian of ideas, and my immersion in the literature about animals and their feelings. I read everything I could find (and it turned out to be an enormous literature, though scientific and academic) about the topic of paternity in animals. It was much more difficult than I anticipated, and I had to go much further afield than I first intended. I combed the literature in primatology, ichthyology, ornithology, herpetology, evolutionary biology, sociobiology, and paleontology, looking for information and examples about animal fathers. I collected more than fifteen hundred books that bear on the topic and gathered almost that many articles. At times I felt I had gotten in over my head. After all, I was not a trained field biologist, ethologist, physical anthropologist, or zoologist. I was merely an interested and very curious layman. But, gradually, certain themes began to emerge as the most important ones that I wanted to convey.

At first I wanted to call this book The Truth about Fathers. This is because I felt that humans could learn something about the essence of fatherhood by studying how other animals fathered. By the same token, I thought of calling the book Natural Fathers. But I realized that the truth about human fathers, at least, is that since earliest times many have used the excuse “it’s only natural” to justify their bad behavior, in fact behaving in the way they thought animals behaved, by abandoning, hurting, ignoring, and even murdering their children. Some animal fathers do all these things (though none murder their own young that I know of, except perhaps the bear). Many do not. The behaviors of the more benevolent animal fathers—penguins, wolves, sea horses, marmosets, beavers—are far less known and almost never invoked for the lessons we can learn from them.

How real are the parallels between animals and humans? Certainly the question is anything but trivial. We like to believe that animals behave the way they do because of their genes. Then we ask: Are we, too, prisoners of our genes? Are we creatures destined to behave in certain ways because we have been programmed to do so? Does our conscious choice, our will, count for little? To what extent are we merely a bundle of instincts? This is a topic that could obviously occupy whole books, and has already done so. It is inevitably linked to the idea that there is such a thing as “natural” behavior, ways nature intended us to behave. There are two problems here. One is that we rarely know how much behavior in animals is under tight genetic control, as biologists like to say—that is, inherited—and how much is learned, or acquired. Second, for humans the problem is that, as Margaret Mead pointed out long ago, every society believes its way of doing things is inevitable and natural. Of course there are behavior patterns, actions, even feelings and states of mind that appear more “instinctive” than others. A mother rat, raised in total isolation, will nonetheless build a nest and groom her young; a spider spins a web; a beaver constructs a dam; and the honeybee sculpts a honeycomb. Turtles return to the beach where they were born; the female wasp provides grubs as food for the larvae that will hatch from her eggs. The rat does not need to see her own mother build a nest, the spider spins immediately, the beaver and the honeybee all act from instinct. Their behavior appears to be fixed, unalterable, unlearned, unmodified by direct experience. But once we use certain powerful words, like “innate,” “biologically determined,” “stereotypic,” all words used commonly by ethologists, we think we have done with the matter, that no further inquiry or thought is required. Their use can stifle the search for subtleties. These terms are often used to distinguish animal behavior from human behavior, which is considered, by contrast, to be flexible, learned, modifiable by experience, acquired.

But even a songbird is more than the sum of its instincts, as everyone knows who studies the development of song. When young male chaffinch birds are raised without being allowed to hear the song of an adult male, they do not develop the full adult song. For the full song to develop, young birds must hear, at an early stage, the song of an experienced adult. They store this somewhere, and somehow do not reproduce it until much later.

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