Get the FREE DIGITAL BOOK: The Case for Killer Robots
Mind Matters Reporting on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Father And Young Son Reading Book Together At Home

Fatherhood Is Not “Subpersonal”

Human fathers care (but gorillas don’t) because fatherhood depends on explicitly human ideas

Why do men see themselves as “fathers” but male gorillas don’t? Proposed answers from evolutionary psychology provide a context for the recent explosive critique of the entire discipline by University of New Hampshire philosophy prof Subrena E. Smith.

First, here’s the problem, as stated at Forbes:

Being a “dad” is uncommon in the primate world. Most male primates have little to do with their offspring, especially apes. Other primate males are invested in mating. They typically don’t take the time to care for their young. They donate their DNA, and then they are on their way to mate with as many females as possible. So why are human males different?

Elizabeth Fernandez, “Why “Fatherhood” Is Unique To Humans Among The Primates” at Forbes

Well, evolutionary psychologists have tried to answer that question. We learn from a media release,

An oft-invoked explanation for the evolution of paternal provisioning in humans is that ancestral females started mating preferentially with males who provided them with food, in exchange for female sexual fidelity.

Boston College, “Reexamining the origins of human fatherhood” at ScienceDaily

But a new group of evolutionary psychologists does not like that explanation. And they have a knack for connecting with popular culture by clever messaging: They compare “Dads” to “Cads”:

In response to ecological change, ancestral hominins adapted in various ways, including efficient bipedal locomotion, dietary flexibility, and an ability to thrive in diverse environments, facilitated by tool use. Complementarities between males and females would have resulted from the nutrients that each sex specialized in acquiring: protein and fat acquired by males paired well with carbohydrates acquired by females.

Complementarities between males would have resulted from higher returns from hunting in groups instead of in isolation, and from food sharing to lower starvation risk. Dietary reliance on animal products is thus a key feature underlying these complementarities between and within sexes.

These complementarities would have led to a substantial increase in the impact of food provided by a Dad on the survival of his mate’s offspring.

Using evolutionary game theory, the authors show that this impact can lead Dads to gain a fitness advantage over Cads, although Cads may still co-exist with Dads under certain conditions. If sons inherit their biological father’s traits, then over time Dads will increase in number in a population. Theoretically connecting the evolution of paternal provisioning to ecological change allows the authors to make novel predictions about the paleontological and archeological record.

Boston College, “Reexamining the origins of human fatherhood” at ScienceDaily

Before we address the researchers’ hypothesis, note an odd grammatical construction used by evolutionary psychologists when narrating one of their proposed histories. This construction—we can call it the “would have”—is used liberally in the quotation from the media release above: “would have resulted from the nutrients,” “would have resulted from higher returns,” and “would have led to”.

Grammar isn’t your favorite subject? Okay but, we promise, this one is dead easy. Consider a snatch of everyday dialogue:

Susan: Jane would have studied astronomy at the university and she surely would have got a job at the observatory. Then she would have stayed in the area …

John: So, you’re telling me she didn’t?

No, she didn’t. John realizes that Susan is saying that Jane didn’t do those things. Had Jane done them, Susan would use simple verbs like “studied,” “got,” and “stayed,” without any “would haves” cluttering her explanation.

Essentially, this “would have” construction, favored by evolutionary psychologists, fudges the fact that we have no evidence for any of their theorized events. If we had such evidence, it might support their theory. But no real-world test is available.

That said, the evolutionary psychologists’ explanation of fatherhood falls prey to much bigger problems than manipulative grammar.

Man helping his kid in learning to ride a bicycle

In her critique, Prof. Smith draws attention to the subpersonal approach that evolutionary psychology favors: According to evo psych, human behavior around survival and mating is governed by modules, theorized to exist in the human brain, that were inherited from our ancestors. These modules rule our choices without our realizing it.

The fact that such modules do not correspond with neuroscience findings isn’t the only problem with the evo psych thesis. A bigger problem is that humans are not subpersonal. So what happens when actual human thinking comes into play? When comparing human fathers in a given ancient group to, say, males in a troupe of gorillas, two questions immediately arise:

● Did the group generally understand the direct relationship between sex and babies? It is not an immediate cause-and-effect relationship. It involves some level of abstraction, which rules out the gorillas but creates intellectual and moral complexities for the humans. The human notion that parenthood confers responsibilities stems in part from awareness that our actions cause the children to exist. Children don’t just happen to us, like the weather.

● Did the human group generally understand that children come to exist as a result of specific sex acts (as opposed to sex, generally)? Thus, one specific man is the “father” of a child. Monogamy doubtless aids such a discovery. A number of conclusions follow, including the idea that the father of a child should be especially concerned with that child’s fate. Hence… fatherhood.

These ways of thinking are available to persons (perhaps not to subpersons?). They do not require any high degree of technological development but they do require a human mind. It is fair to say that the human mind creates fatherhood, not some accidental happenstance on the savanna millions of years ago.

Given that we don’t know when information about the genesis of children began to be available to our ancestors, the subpersonal approach of evolutionary psychologists is a speculative choice with no justification—unless, of course, they choose to assert that human consciousness is an illusion and that its outcomes are without any effect on our behavior.

It’s no wonder evolutionary psychology is coming under scrutiny.

Note: The paper, Paternal provisioning results from ecological change, Ingela Alger, Paul L. Hooper, Donald Cox, Jonathan Stieglitz, Hillard S. Kaplan, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2020, 117 (20) 10746-10754; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1917166117, is open access.

Further reading:

Philosopher flattens evolutionary psychology. There is no such thing as a fossil mind. Rejecting evolutionary psychology means realizing that we cannot both claim to represent “Science!” and refuse to be bound by its standards.

Mind Matters News

Breaking and noteworthy news from the exciting world of natural and artificial intelligence at

Fatherhood Is Not “Subpersonal”