Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Biology, Masculinity and Fathers

A recent New York Times piece, “In Study, Fatherhood leads to Drop in Testosterone,” on research into testosterone levels and fatherhood has recently received a lot of attention, particularly from colleagues teasing me about my children. In a nutshell, the research indicates that levels of testosterone drop once a male becomes a parent and even more when the man actively participates in child care activities. The work does represent how anthropology works to integrate biological and cultural phenomena for a more complete understanding of human beings. We’re fundamentally both cultural and biological beings and separation between the biology and culture is often largely the consequence of units of analysis used by the investigators.

Commenting on the research, Peter Ellison notes:

“The real take-home message,” is that “male parental care is important. It’s important enough that it’s actually shaped the physiology of men. Unfortunately,I think American males have been “brainwashed” to believe lower testosterone means that “maybe you’re a wimp, that it’s because you’re not really a man.”

Ellison makes two important points here. First, he emphasizes the nexus of biology and culture discussed above. However, I think most readers will miss this point. The biological aspect of the study seems to get the most attention

Second, he highlights how American culture tends to view biology, particularly testosterone. While my coworkers are all intelligent, progressive folks, the jokes directed at me (and those I rebutted with) all focused on the regrettable damage fatherhood has done to my masculinity--and by my masculinity, my sense of worth and value as an individual. To be a man, but not manly is not a great place to be. Also, the cultural focus on testosterone illustrates strains of biological determinism that still threads its way through our culture. While the research profiled in the New York Times story noted the complex biocultural processes, most folks equate testosterone directly stereotypical, but still valued, masculinity. Biology equals identity.

As I was writing this post, a tweet from Lisa Wade pointed me to another story about the research, this one on the website of the National Science Foundation. This story, however, has a very different title--”Men Also Wired for Childcare: New research reveals flexible male biology adapts to fatherhood.” I wonder which angle will get more play--men are naturally nurturing or fatherhood emasculates men. Either way, it’s interesting that both approaches emphasize the biological side of the coin.


  1. Hello--I've just been reading through your blog and really like the approach. I'm also grateful for the blogroll link and hope we can be in touch.

    This post summarizes quite nicely both the positives of this testosterone study and what I too felt was an at times biologically deterministic focus. I've written some similar thoughts at a post called "Testosterone Anthropology."

    Nice blog and I'll look forward to reading more.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I've enjoyed your blog as well...actually had to update a post earlier this summer after I read yours on Mike McGovern's NY Times piece.

    Like you, I was struck by how Americans do tend to like to reduce behavior and identity down to a biological essence.