Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father

Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father

by Nara B. Milanich


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“In this rigorous and beautifully researched volume, Milanich considers the tension between social and biological definitions of fatherhood, and shows how much we still have to learn about what constitutes a father.”
—Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

For most of human history, the notion that paternity was uncertain appeared to be an immutable law of nature. The unknown father provided entertaining plotlines from Shakespeare to the Victorian novelists and lay at the heart of inheritance and child support disputes. But in the 1920s new scientific advances promised to solve the mystery of paternity once and for all. The stakes were high: fatherhood has always been a public relationship as well as a private one. It confers not only patrimony and legitimacy but also a name, nationality, and identity.

The new science of paternity, with methods such as blood typing, fingerprinting, and facial analysis, would bring clarity to the conundrum of fatherhood—or so it appeared. Suddenly, it would be possible to establish family relationships, expose adulterous affairs, locate errant fathers, unravel baby mix-ups, and discover one’s true race and ethnicity. Tracing the scientific quest for the father up to the present, with the advent of seemingly foolproof DNA analysis, Nara Milanich shows that the effort to establish biological truth has not ended the quest for the father. Rather, scientific certainty has revealed the fundamentally social, cultural, and political nature of paternity. As Paternity shows, in the age of modern genetics the answer to the question “Who’s your father?” remains as complicated as ever.

Editorial Reviews

Andrew Solomon

In this rigorous and beautifully researched volume, Milanich considers the tension between social and biological definitions of fatherhood, and shows how much we still have to learn about what constitutes a father.

Annette Gordon-Reed

‘Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe.’ DNA testing has all but destroyed the uncertainty that has attended paternity for millennia. Milanich has written a fascinating history of the ways societies have coped with anxiety about paternity, and how that anxiety has helped construct notions of fatherhood, masculinity, race, and family.

New Yorker - Margaret Talbot

Solidly researched and enlightening.

Times Literary Supplement - Michele Pridmore-Brown

Expertly uses vignettes…to richly contextualize a history of paternity in the twentieth century…The transatlantic sweep and the dense, archivally supported detail of Milanich’s analysis is breathtaking.

Undark - Elizabeth Svoboda

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.

Sonya Michel

This splendid work shows how the development and use of paternity testing over several centuries determined individuals’ fates. For millions of people, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ was not simply an idle question, but often a matter of life or death.

Rayna Rapp

Paternity offers a rich, erudite, and often humorous historical analysis of how paternity testing technologies developed at the intersection of science, national governance, and popular culture.

Alexandra Minna Stern

Original, well-written, and wonderfully researched, this exciting new book provides an analysis of paternity that is rich and global in scope.

The Economist

Milanich follows the incremental changes, through the emergence of DNA fingerprinting in the 1980s all the way to mobile units—resembling ice-cream vans—testing DNA on the streets, all part of the billion-dollar industry of genetic knowledge.

Times Higher Education - Lennard Davis

Milanich has a knack for finding a gripping story and telling it in almost novelistic or journalistic cadences. Surely, this is the definitive book on the subject of paternity testing.

Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung - Kerstin Maria Pahl

Very readable, occasionally riveting…Milanich’s basic claim, that the search for the father reveals central aspects of modernity, proves convincing.

Severance - B. K. Jackson

Milanich, a skilled storyteller, offers a fascinating social history, from the earliest times and across cultures to the rise of Big Paternity…This deeply researched and engaging exploration will likely challenge readers’ notions about paternity and shift their perspectives.

Steven Mintz

Dazzling in scope and masterfully written, Milanich’s book delves beneath the quest for certainty to find what we are really looking for in paternity and why it continues to haunt us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674980686
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 06/10/2019
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

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