The human brain and its adaptation to fatherhood

traditionally raising and caring for children has been one of those areas associated with women: In this case, more precisely, with the role of the mother. The maternal realm seems to encompass everything that concerns us in the first months of our life. A mother provides warmth, nourishment, affection, and the first contact with the tongue (even before birth, her voice is audible from the womb).

Going a little further, we could argue, as the French psychoanalyst suggested. Jacques LacanThat the gaze that a mother directs towards us is in itself the mirror before which we forge a very primitive idea of ​​our own “me”. In this sense, the germ of what will one day be our identity is thrown to us by a loved one.

Male paternity

While it is not uncommon for psychoanalysts like Lacan to emphasize the figure of the mother, it is surprising to see to what extent the conception of the mother as something sacred is rooted in the deepest part of our culture. And yet, adult males of our species prove to be perfectly capable of raising and educating their offspring (and even adopted children). This is also true in cases where the traditional nuclear family model, with father, mother and offspring, is not given.

In addition, we realized a long time ago that the human being is a unique case of paternal care among all forms of life. This is fundamentally so, because in most animals in which sexual reproduction takes place, the role of the father is quite inconspicuous. Let’s see.

evolutionary scarcity

First, the normal thing in vertebrates is that the reproductive paper of the male is limited to the search for couple and copulation. Obviously, this means that the moment of “being a father” and the birth of the puppies take place in two well differentiated phases. By the time the poor puppies have come into the world, the male sire is far away, both in time and space. The role of the “father who will buy tobacco” is perfectly normalized in the genetics of the animal kingdom.

Second, because, if we look in the distance at the other branches of the evolutionary tree in which we are included, we will have many opportunities to see the following scheme applied:

1 one strongly cohesive couple formed by female and offspring.

2. A father figure, the role is quite secondary, Responsible for ensuring that the relationship maintained on the day of breeding females can last long enough to raise an adult organism to all of its capabilities.

In cases where the male is actively concerned about the safety of his offspring, his role is usually limited to the same, trying to ensure the survival of their offspring in the face of any threats. You could say, for example, that for a large Dorsic gorilla parenting means trying to sniff out anything that might bother your offspring.

Therefore, there are very few species where the functions between males and females with regard to the care of the young are close to symmetry.. It is only in birds and in some mammals in which the degree of sexual dimorphism * is weak and weak that the paternal-filial bond will be strong … and this occurs in very few occasions. In addition, at least in other animals, a strong paternal role is synonymous with monogamy **.

The funny thing about it is that these conditions are rare, even in animals as social as apes. The closest extinct relatives to us, the male caretakers of the young are the gibbons and the siamangs, and both are primates that do not even belong to the hominid family, to which the Homo sapiens. Our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and the bonobosThey are not monogamous and the relationships between males and their offspring are weak. The case of humans, on the other hand, is special, because it seems that we tend only partially towards monogamy: ours can be social monogamy, but not sexual monogamy.

Break the paradigm

Anyway, in modern humans we come across a species that exhibits little sexual dimorphism and a tendency, at least statistically, to social monogamy. This means that participation in the care of children is similar to that of parents (although it is highly debatable whether this involvement on both sides is equal or symmetrical).

However, you may be wondering who is reading these lines. what exactly is based on the affection men have for their children and everything related to their parenting behavior (Or, in other words, “fatherly instinct”). We have seen that, most likely, social monogamy is an option that has recently taken place in our chain of hominid ancestors. It has also been pointed out how rare the truly fatherly role is in the evolutionary tree, even among the species most similar to ours. Therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that, biologically and psychologically, women are much better prepared to raise children, and that parenthood is a circumstantial imposition to which men have no choice but to adapt. »Last minute in the evolution of our species.

To what extent is the paternal care of the offspring at the heart of men’s behavior?Is the brain of all Homo sapiens ready to adapt to the role of father?

While drawing a comparison between the suitability of male and female psychology for the role of parenting would give rise to eternal debate, whether there is scientific evidence to support that, at least in part, fatherhood alters the structure of the brain. men, what also happens to pregnant women. During the first months of postpartum, gray matter present in important areas of the human brain in the processing of social information (lateral prefrontal cortex) and parental motivation (hypothalamus, striatal nucleus and amygdala) increases. At the same time, the reconfiguration of the brain affects other areas of the brain, this time reducing its volume of gray matter. This occurs in the orbitofrontal cortex, the insula, and the posterior cingulate cortex. In other words, the repertoire of new behaviors involved in being a parent corresponds to a repertoire of physical changes in the brain.

All this leads us to think that, for more or less genetic, more or less social reasons, the adaptation of human behavior to his new role of caregiver is strongly anchored in the biology of his own brain. This explains why, as a rule, all humans can adapt to the new responsibilities that come with the birth of a son or daughter.

moral tints

However, one could say that the question of knowing whether the interest in children is of the same nature in men and women is tinged with a moral, emotional or even visceral component. The seemingly aseptic question “Can fatherhood be compared to motherhood?” it turns into “do men have the same capacity to indulge in a noble and pure love for children as is clearly the case with women?” This question, although perfectly legitimate, is difficult to answer.

We know that the reality is a very complex thing and can never be covered by every single investigation that is carried out on a daily basis. In a way, translating a subject that arouses personal interest into an affordable hypothesis derived from the scientific method involves leaving elements of reality out of the research ***. We also know that, since reality is so complicated, they always remain in the theoretical body provided by science. uncertainty cracks from which it is possible to rethink the conclusions of an investigation. In this sense, the scientific method is both a means of generating knowledge and a tool for systematically testing what seems obvious to us. For the present case, this means that, for the moment, the good repute of the paternal role can be out of danger in the face of common sense …

However, one could argue, for example, that the interest in the offspring shown by males of certain species (and their corresponding neuroanatomical adaptation) is only a strategy of careful monitoring of the offspring and females with whom have been procreated, even going so far as to deceive themselves as to their nature feelings; all this to ensure their own genetic continuity over time. It should be noted, however, that the heart of this problem is not just a question of gender differences, but depends on how we understand the interplay between genetics and our affective relationships. Feeling affection for the offspring for purely biological reasons is a bit of what women might also be wary of.

Some people think, not without reason, that intense and too continuous scientific speculation can be daunting. Fortunately, alongside purely scientific thinking, we come with the certainty that our own subjective feelings and states of consciousness are authentic in and of themselves. It would be a shame if a radically physicalist conception of human psychology ruined a paternalistic experience.

Author’s Notes:

* Differences in appearance and size between men and women

** There is however a very curious case in which the male takes care of the offspring apart from the female. In fish of the syngnathidae family, to which seahorses, for example, belong, the males are responsible for incubating the eggs in a cavity in their body. After the eggs hatch, the male expels the young in a series of convulsive movements and then ignores them … or at least those that have not been eaten since. In short, this is not a particularly endearing case and it is better not to draw a parallel between this and what is happening in humans.

*** In philosophy of science, this dilemma is approached from a position called reductionism and the philosophical approaches that are opposed to it.

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