For millenia, the principle pater semper incertus est (“the father is always uncertain”) seemed an immutable law of nature. But in the 1920s new scientific advances promised to solve the mystery of paternity. The stakes of these new technologies were incalculable, for paternity has always been a public relationship as well as a private one, conferring child support, patrimony, a name, nationality, and identity. Yet even as science promised to discover the father, it revealed the social, cultural, and political nature of paternity and inadvertently challenged the very idea of paternal truth. Who’s your daddy? In the age of DNA, the answer is as uncertain as ever.
Nara Milanich is Professor of Latin American History at Barnard College, where she teaches the history of kinship, childhood, reproduction, and gender. Her most recent book, Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father (Harvard, 2019), was a finalist for the PROSE Award of the Association of American Publishers and received coverage in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Salon, Scientific American, NPR, CBC, and Time, among other places. She is currently a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library.
Nara Milanich, Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father (Harvard, 2019)