Studies suggest that many people cannot be the child of the man they know as their father. Now they can get a paternity test over the counter. Catherine Nixey talks to a man who took one ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2010

The carton is blue and white, small, and made of cardboard. It looks innocuous enough. But according to its critics, it is little less than a Pandora’s box, capable of unleashing untold woes upon those curious enough to open it. It contains a DNA testing kit which, for the first time, is being sold over the counter in Britain. At the Clockwork Pharmacy in Hackney, north-east London, you can find it between the baby lotion and the bunion plasters. “You would be surprised”, says the shop’s owner, Prashant Patel, “how many children don’t actually belong to the man who seems to be their father.”

“Surprised” might be understating it. According to current estimates, the levels of “non-paternity” (when a child turns out to have been fathered by someone other than the ostensible father) lie somewhere between 1% and 30%, with the “best estimate” being in the region of 10%. So one child in ten is not the child of the man assumed to be their father. Which is perhaps why so many groups have opposed their sale.

The people of Hackney have proved rather more enthusiastic: Clockwork is doing a steady trade. Among the takers is Masende Landu, a softly spoken 52-year-old Congolese-born cab driver from north London. “A few months ago”, he tells me, “I was called by an ex-girlfriend of mine from Kinshasa. She phoned to say that I was the father of her son.” How did he feel about this? “Surprised. I had never even heard of his existence.”

The mother, who still lives in Kinshasa, nevertheless insisted that her son was Landu’s. It was certainly possible: the two had been lovers when they were 18, until their parents intervened to stop the relationship – at which point Landu moved to England. He heard no more from her until last year, when the phone call came. She said that, at the time the baby was conceived, she hadn’t slept with any other man, and so the boy must be his. “At first I wasn’t pleased,” says Landu. But having recovered from his initial shock, he started to warm to the idea of fatherhood, and to his son. “He started to ring me. We would talk on the phone as often as five or six times a day.”

He also started speaking regularly on the phone to the boy’s mother. The family seemed to be on the point of being reunited. The mother, keen to put matters on a definite footing, asked both men to take a DNA test. They willingly agreed and Landu went to the chemists to buy a test. He and his son took cheek swabs (the son’s was conveyed by post); Landu gave the swabs to Patel and they were sent to the lab. Then they all waited.

While individuals such as Landu may be in favour of paternity tests, public opinion has so far tended to be rather cooler. Their sale is an indirect but unavoidable admission of infidelity within a society. Further evidence, murmur the Jeremiahs, of the depravity of our species. But is this depravity? Or simply biology? For if humans are depraved, then there may be some comfort in knowing that many other species are even worse. Unappealing though such behaviour may be, it seems to make excellent biological sense.

“Being unfaithful enables females to have their cake and eat it,” says the zoologist and author Matt Ridley. “In many species of bird, the female needs a male to help bring up the kids, but she’s unlikely to get the best male in the world to hang around for that. She’s much more likely to end up with a boring one with a straggly beard. But why should she settle for his genes?” With infidelity, she needn’t. And there is much evidence to show that she doesn’t.

Research on swallows is illuminating. In their eyes, attractiveness correlates with tail length. Scientists have found that females mated with lesser, shorter-tailed males are much more likely to be unfaithful than females mated with more attractive specimens. And their bit on the side is likely to be a male with longer tail feathers than her mate. It seems that, when faced with a choice between a bird in the hand and a bird in the bush, the female swallow opts for both.

“You don’t want to get too anthropological about this, but the human parallel immediately suggests itself,” says Ridley. “Which is of the otherwise happily married secretary getting a few genes off her plutocratic boss.” It may sound dated, but sociological studies tend to support the idea: they have shown that women, like swallows, tend to be unfaithful up the social scale, seeking the human equivalent of long tails--fat wallets.

Precise statistics on human infidelity are hard to come by. What evidence there is tends to indicate that human lovebirds are little better than their feathered counterparts. In 1970 a group of researchers looking into blood groups tested the blood types of inhabitants in a block of flats in Liverpool. They were startled to see that their results indicated a paternal discrepancy of 20-30%. Thinking, perhaps unfairly, that this might be something to do with Liverpudlians, they moved south and repeated the test, only to find similar results. In 1984 a group of scientists in Nottingham looked at women seeking fertility treatment because their husbands were sterile. Despite their husbands’ sterility, 23% of the women managed to become pregnant before receiving treatment.

Other studies have produced a more comforting picture. Recent research in Sweden and Iceland found rates of non-paternity between 1% and 2%. But while these figures may be reassuring in one sense, scientifically they are far from comforting. The disparity between them is enormous. Clearly large-scale, randomised testing is needed to find reliable average levels of non-paternity. The results would not just be interesting but useful in areas such as heritable diseases. There’s just one problem: such tests could be a source of considerable distress. As a result, much of the information that is available on paternity has emerged, like the 1970 Liverpool study, as a by-product of studies with other aims.

Now, the sale of over-the-counter tests may mean that large-scale testing will occur anyway. It is a prospect that many genetics, religious and parenting associations have reacted to with alarm. Their anxiety is the same as that of the reluctant researchers: they fear that such tests will sow doubt and discord. Prashant Patel would disagree. “These tests do not create problems within families,” he says. “The problems are there already.”

Problems with which Masende Landu is already more than familiar. I speak to him the day after the result of his paternity test has come back. It is negative. His long-lost son is not his son after all. How does he feel now?

“Sad,” he says. “And confused. I had believed all she had told me. She still insists she is telling the truth, but I don’t know anymore. Who knows what actually happened all those years ago? No one really knows. Except for God.” He pauses. “And the chemist.”

(Catherine Nixey writes for the Times, the Spectator and the Tablet.)


Picture Credit: mrhayata, Mark Cummins (both via Flickr)