Saturday, February 23, 2008

Who's your daddy?

~the rise in the over-the-counter paternity DNA testing kits. From The Wall Street Journal
Between 1991 and 2001, the number of people seeking paternity tests more than doubled in the U.S., to 310,490. Although it is difficult to measure whether infidelity is on the rise, these numbers suggest that suspicion about it might be.

For every burgeoning cultural crisis there is a product that offers to solve it: Enter Identigene, a company owned by Sorenson Genomics that is now selling an over-the-counter paternity test. Available in Rite-Aid and Meijer drugstores nationwide (as well as over the Internet), the test has a suggested retail price of $29.99 (plus an additional $119 lab fee). The box features a tasteful sketch of mother and child and promises test results "admissible in most courts of law" three to five business days after you send in cheek swabs from the child and "alleged father." As Identigene's Web site promises, "Putting your mind at ease, or making sure that a potential parent acts responsibly, has never been more convenient, confidential, affordable, or accurate."

The benefits of over-the-counter paternity testing are clear, particularly for men, and Identigene seems subtly to be marketing the test to them. The Web site notes, for example, that "32% of all paternity tests exclude alleged fathers." Inexpensive paternity testing could theoretically level the playing field for men involved in child-support cases; court-ordered tests can cost as much as $500. Paternity fraud litigation is on the rise; a 2006 study in New Hampshire found that nearly 30% of fathers paying child support were not the biological parent of the child they were helping. Fathers' rights advocates have been working to change state laws that, although well-intentioned in their effort to protect children from the taint of illegitimacy, have long held that married men are legally assumed to be the fathers of children born to the marriage, even in the face of genetic evidence to the contrary.

In fact, the increasing popularity of paternity testing seems to confirm what sociobiologists have been noting for years: From a strictly genetic point of view, it has always been in some women's interest to adopt a "mixed mating" strategy -- acquiring supposedly superior genes from one man but turning to another for the resources to raise the child. Indeed, a recent study in the Journal of Theoretical Biology argues that one reason men produce so many defective sperm during any given sexual interaction is that they are required to produce so much so quickly -- as part of a broader evolutionary strategy to try to compensate for the fact of female infidelity.

But paternity testing raises new challenges as well, not least with regard to privacy and consent. Identigene hawks a version of its product called the "Discreet Paternity Test," which encourages consumers to send in "licked stamps, ear wax, fingernail clippings, socks, chewed gum" or a "used razor" to surreptitiously test another person. Although it notes that such test results might not be legally binding in court, the company adds that "sometimes it is important that the DNA test is done without the knowledge of others."
This is a deeper issue than just a sociological or materialist problem. It's called sin. It's interesting that the article ends thus:
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." In the church of monogamy there are many secret heretics. 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.

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