There is no doubt that there are aspects about humans that make us spe­cial in the ani­mal king­dom – our fathers are one of these.

The phe­nom­e­non of the father play­ing a role in the upbring­ing of his off­spring is incred­i­bly rare in mam­mals – in fact, stud­ies show that this only hap­pens in about 5% of mam­malian species.

Human fathers are a sci­en­tif­ic rid­dle, says sci­en­tist David C Leary. In his book, Fam­i­ly Rela­tion­ships, he says: Men’s par­ent­ing is high­ly unusu­al when we con­sid­er that males in at least 95% of oth­er mam­malian species, includ­ing the two species most close­ly relat­ed to humans, that is, chim­panzees (Pan troglodytes) and bono­bos (Pan panis­cus), do not par­tic­i­pate in parenting.”

Brendon Billings

Bren­don Billings, Maropeng’s res­i­dent Bone Detective

Bren­don Billings, the Bone Detec­tive at Maropeng, agrees that although we do see males play­ing a sig­nif­i­cant role in child rear­ing in cer­tain ani­mals, it is a rare phe­nom­e­non when it comes to mammals.

In their book, Father­hood: Evo­lu­tion and Human Pater­nal Behav­ior, anthro­pol­o­gists Kermyt Ander­son and Peter Gray say that when a man becomes a father, it actu­al­ly alters his bio­chem­istry, as well as chang­ing him emo­tion­al­ly and socially.

Ander­son says, In the short term, the lack of sleep and expo­sure to every new germ on the play­ground wors­ens men’s health, but in the long term, fathers seem to live longer, health­i­er lives than non-fathers. Also, while the hor­mon­al and phys­i­cal changes fol­low­ing child­birth are nowhere near as pro­found or exten­sive in men as in women, father­hood does appear to alter men’s brains and change their hor­mon­al profiles.”

Although the males of our clos­est liv­ing pri­mate rel­a­tives, chimps and bono­bos, play no role in the upbring­ing of their off­spring, every human cul­ture is char­ac­terised by male involve­ment with their chil­dren”, Ander­son says.

So when exact­ly did our male ances­tors begin to play an active role in the upbring­ing of their children?

Our Bone Detec­tive says, In order to answer this ques­tion, we first have to iden­ti­fy the need for males or fathers in the ani­mal kingdom.”

Billings agrees with sci­en­tist Stephen Jay Gould, who believes that males are around to pro­vide vari­a­tion, genet­i­cal­ly, phe­no­typ­i­cal­ly and behav­ioural­ly. These vari­a­tions allow a species to sur­vive the com­plex diver­si­ty that the envi­ron­ment forces upon it and males there­fore have a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to ensure the sur­vival of the species.”

So, as we evolved to become what we are today, males played a role in mak­ing sure that our ances­tors sur­vived. But when did this role change from being bio­log­i­cal to social?

When we think of a father’s role in soci­ety, we typ­i­cal­ly see his pri­ma­ry role as being the pro­tec­tor of his fam­i­ly, but Billings says that it is not that simple.

He explains a the­o­ry, devel­oped by sci­en­tist David Bell, on the evo­lu­tion of parental care­giv­ing from the lev­el of rep­tile to mammal:

In more prim­i­tive types of ani­mals, such as rep­tiles, sci­en­tists have observed a behav­iour called stranger rejec­tion”. Ani­mals can detect a stranger by their smell, and areas of the brain are trig­gered that dri­ve the ani­mal to either run away from or kill the stranger.

But, as ani­mals evolved fur­ther, anoth­er com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent behav­iour devel­oped – the phe­nom­e­non of bond­ing with oth­ers, dri­ven by the hor­mone oxy­tocin. In humans, when we bond with one anoth­er, we expe­ri­ence feel­ings of attach­ment and there­fore the desire to pro­vide parental care.

Billings believes that this change in the neu­ro­chem­istry from mere stranger rejec­tion to include bond­ing is what [is] respon­si­ble for both males and females being respon­si­ble care­givers accord­ing to human standards”.

He does say, how­ev­er, that this is just one the­o­ry, and there are things that influ­ence the way that ani­mals care for their chil­dren – for instance, the fact of live birth (viva­pari­ty), and of course culture.

Billings also explains that humans are con­sid­ered to require a lot more nur­tur­ing because of the slow devel­op­ment of our very large brains, hence the require­ments in terms of parental care is of greater impor­tance”. He says that he believes that human males there­fore have a greater inter­est and invest­ment in care­giv­ing in order to ensure the sur­vival of their prodigy”.

So, to thank your dad for being such a spe­cial mam­mal, take him to one of the first places where men might have cared for their chil­dren – Maropeng.

There are some spe­cial events at Maropeng this week­end to cel­e­brate Father’s Day, such as the brandy pair­ing lunch at the Maropeng Hotel and the Father’s Day lunch at the Tumu­lus Restaurant.

Many mys­ter­ies and ques­tions still sur­round our evo­lu­tion, but if you are look­ing for answers, Maropeng is a good place to start.