Monday, June 18, 2012

Rejected: Extreme Fatherhood

Extreme Fatherhood
"Rejected" is a new series wherein I post things that have been utterly rejected by reputable publications, but remain too cool for consignment to oblivion. This was a Father's Day piece written by my father and myself, and intended as a newspaper column. I have added some crude jokes because this is the Internet.

Leo Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own ways. While celebrating the human conception of fatherhood, we can also look to the natural world for perspective. Most land animals parent their young in familiar ways. But those in the ocean, more diverse by far, have thrown out all the rules.  Like miserable Russian aristocrats, each has constructed its own hair-raising family structure. Seahorse males do the single-dad routine, trucking their offspring in a belly pouch like an underwater kangaroo. But their genetic relatives, the pipefish, are incorrigible cads. If they spy a more attractive mate, they’ll simply abort their own embryos for a better roll of the genetic dice.

The first step towards becoming a father is finding a prospective mom. Conspicuous consumption is popular among both humans and fish. Tropical damselfish work to clear patches of the reef, scrubbing them clean and aggressively claiming the territory. Females peruse the offerings, and lay their eggs on the best before departing forever. The males stay behind, guarding the eggs and trying to accumulate more. Just like in high school, ugly men have to cultivate other talents.  A bottom-dwelling toadfish called the “singing midshipman” projects humming tones through the murky water, singing to attract females to his nest. Toadfish are hideous, male and female alike, but they’re able to tolerate each other through magic of music.

Some fathers are too successful, accumulating mates like Antonio Cromartie on a Vegas bender. Caribbean Blue-Headed Wrasses lead harems of up to a hundred females, mating daily until they’re exhausted. So dominant is the patriarch that smaller males have no chance. Female wrasses are insatiable, and will abide no interruptions in their breeding. Should the patriarch die, the biggest female in the harem changes sex at shocking speed. Within a day she’s acting like a male, driving off smaller interlopers, and can produce sperm in two weeks. But there is a ray of hope for the weak, nerdy males. They can charge into the harem, launching sperm at fertile females in a kind of sexual strafing run before the patriarch chases them off.

Some regions of the sea are horrible dating markets, like Nebraska in the winter or Stanford University in any season. The deep sea is the world’s biggest habitat: millions of square miles of deep, dark ocean with little food and less light. It’s rare to find a prospective mate, between the darkness and empty expanses of water. Deep-sea angler fish cruise with huge jaws agape and needle-like teeth exposed. Marine biologists were puzzled never to find an adult male; just females sporting curious fleshy parasites. As it turned out, those parasites were the fathers. Young male anglers, should they be lucky enough to spot a female, sneak in from behind and bite her flank. He never lets go, fusing instead with the female’s body. Powerful enzymes break down his jaws, gut, fins, and finally his brain. Eventually he is nothing more than a set of gonads, attached to the female forever. It is ever the dream of nerds to marry their first girlfriends; anglerfish have no choice in the matter.

How do you find a mate if you have no eyes or even a brain? Sea urchins and corals are in this predicament, blindly launching sperm and eggs into the water to form the next generation without the parents ever meeting. The gametes even decide which combinations are the right species: when they touch, proteins on their surfaces do some speed dating and exchange DNA within milliseconds. Sponges further remove parenting from fatherhood. Males jettison sperm into the sea, and females swallow it like food. They eat the sperm but don’t digest it; neither do they spit it into the basins of public bathroom sinks. Instead, the female pipes the sperm through her own body, leaving it to a crew of mobile amoebas that scour her tissues for unfertilized eggs. These rovers do their own matchmaking, manually adhering sperm to their egg counterparts.

Detachment takes many forms, and males will generally do as little fathering as possible. The Sperm whale is the world’s largest oblivious father, spending his years on a bachelor lifestyle while distributing sperm to mates half his size. Sperm whale mothers rely on each other for protection, forming bands of mature females and their young. When predators attack the babies, the females form three-dimensional defense grids: the young in the center, mothers arrayed tail-first towards the exterior to beat off attackers with their flukes. If you played the superb RTS game "Homeworld," you're familiar with the formation. Humpback fathers are more involved,  migrating thousands of miles along with their mates and calves while they sing slow mournful tunes. Floating deep in the clear blue waters of Hawaii, a male’s song reverberates for miles. Males as far apart as Hawaii and Baja change their songs seasonally, but do it in unspoken unison. Somehow, the season’s biggest hits traverse the entire ocean. It is the hipster's fever dream: new music traversing the globe without, like, interference from THE MAN.

If you’re reading these words, your parents probably worked hard at nurturing.  Human beings have a hard time succeeding without that care. We are a race of nest-builders, with fragile young demanding decades of attention. Whatever the challenges of being a modern-day father, the ocean reassures us there are as many ways of succeeding as there are fish in the sea. Fatherhood in nature obeys no particular rules. Yet, every strategy has one thing in common: a maze of contortions, uncertainty and sacrifices. Our offspring are their own creatures; they don’t come with a road map. We can only hope we get it right. And try to avoid $8 drinks in the process.

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