DNA Tests Aside, True Paternity May Be in the Eye of the Beholder

It was a Maury Povich-style drama decades before the talk-show era. In the early 1940s, actress Joan Berry claimed that Charlie Chaplin had sired her baby daughter, Carol Ann. Chaplin copped to having an affair with Berry but insisted the child was not his. After Berry filed suit against Chaplin to secure child support, the court case transfixed the nation. Reporters buzzed in like vultures as lawyers testified before the jury.

BOOK REVIEW“Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father,” by Nara B. Milanich (Harvard University Press, 360 pages).

It wasn’t long before someone proposed a simple way to resolve things. Scientists had recently discovered that blood types were inherited in Mendelian fashion. Since Berry’s blood was type A and Carol Ann’s was type B, experts deduced that Carol Ann’s real father must have had either type AB or B blood. Chaplin’s blood, however, was type O, so he could not possibly have fathered the child. From a scientific perspective, it looked to be a slam dunk.

But cases like this are more opaque than they seem, as Nara B. Milanich argues in “Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father.” Milanich, a history professor at Barnard College, sifts through decades worth of family sagas, articles, and court records to reveal how cultural ideas about fatherhood have remained stubbornly consistent in the face of scientific progress.

These days, we assume that DNA analysis and other cutting-edge tests nullify the kinds of paternity disputes that long went unresolved. But while that might be true on the surface, Milanich makes a convincing case that biological evidence has failed to override powerful social forces that have long defined true paternity.

For millennia, the objective fact of paternity was thought to lie behind an “impenetrable veil.” It was the performance of fatherhood that mattered most: claiming parentage, supporting children day to day, and leaving them an inheritance. Roman law acknowledged this de facto principle by declaring a woman’s husband the father of her children by default. Though the specter of unsanctioned paternity hovered through the centuries, it was most often ignored due to its social stigma and potential legal repercussions. Few spoke publicly, for instance, of the light-skinned slave children on Thomas Jefferson’s estate.

This entrenched social landscape began to shift by the early 1900s, thanks to some experts’ proclamations that lab-tested techniques could settle questions of fatherhood beyond doubt. Predictably, these techniques evolved alongside social Darwinist ideas about the power of eugenics and biology to dictate destiny. “If in the past the father was sometimes better left unknown,” Milanich writes, “modern paternity advanced the imperative to reveal.”

Early on, most researchers fell short of meeting this imperative. Dr. Albert Abrams of San Francisco claimed a child’s paternity could be deduced from how its blood vibrated in a machine called an oscillophore, and a Brazilian doctor, Luiz Silva, analyzed the shape of subjects’ jaws to establish parentage. Techniques like these were soon tossed onto the scrap heap of patent medicine-era quackery. Some early 20th-century media reports, however, waxed rhapsodic about methods like the oscillophore, leaving the public justifiably uncertain about which tests were legitimate and which were bunk.

Milanich fills out her narrative with details of historical paternity cases to illustrate the gathering tension between science and custom — a litany that can start to feel repetitive. But the cases do support her theory that people often clung to tradition over science in matters of fatherhood, not just because the science was initially shaky, but because the social fallout of casting out a presumed father — or accepting a new one — was too overwhelming.

Her case studies also reveal how biological paternity testing was co-opted for sinister ends, as when the Nazis screened German citizens to root out hidden Jewish parentage, or when the U.S. government used blood-group paternity testing as a seeming excuse to turn away Asian migrants in the 1950s.

As the 20th century progressed and paternity testing’s validity went mainstream, the advances of genetic science spawned tests that were much more detailed and exacting than before. Nowadays, you can buy a DNA paternity test at the drug store, swab your cheek, and get confirmation of your child’s parentage, or your own.

But Milanich reveals how this scientific certainty can be its own kind of party trick. DNA-based paternity testing might be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat, but there is often no encore worth mentioning. In a recent article in Los Angeles Magazine, for example, more than a dozen young adults discovered through registries and genetic testing offered by 23andMe that they had all been fathered by the same sperm donor. The gaggle of half-siblings arranged a kind of family reunion, but none of the attendees had illusions that their donor was a paterfamilias on par with the parents who’d raised them.

It’s these kinds of postmodern paternity tales that “recapitulate rather than challenge deep cultural beliefs about what kinship is and how it works,” Milanich writes.

With drugstore shelves now stacked with cheek swab kits, it might seem a tall order to contend that the question of fatherhood was less fraught in the past than it is now. But Milanich’s argument, though counterintuitive, is compelling. Even though DNA testing has exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry, courts continue to rule that a man’s social actions — his marital status, his presence in the home — define paternity, and that genetic test results alone are not enough to allow absent fathers to stake a legal claim to children.

In other words, the question of what being a father means, or should mean, is still a matter of fierce debate. “The father,” Milanich concludes, “is as ambiguous, as deeply contested, indeed as elusive, as ever.”

For the jurors in the Chaplin case, overarching cultural attitudes ended up trumping biological truth. Despite blood-group evidence to the contrary, they ruled that Chaplin was Carol Ann’s father, citing his romantic ties to her mother. The verdict, though ballyhooed, proved strangely prescient: It foresaw the ways fatherhood would go on resisting scientific attempts to bring it into focus.

Elizabeth Svoboda is a freelance writer based in San Jose, California.

Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer based in San Jose, California. Her most recent book for children is "The Life Heroic."