Marriage, Children, and Surnames

In most countries around the world it is convention that the wife take the husband’s surname at marriage. It is equally conventional for a child to then also take this same name. Evolutionary psychology is the reason behind this phenomenon, as discussed briefly in the book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

One of the author’s reflects further on this idea in a number of posts looking at why wives and children take their husband/father’s last name.

Nature may or may not help the father convince himself of his paternity by making the baby (kind of) resemble the father rather than the mother. However, […] people (especially maternal kin) appear to help, by telling the father that the baby resembles him, regardless of whether it does or not. […] After all, the maternal kin, unlike the paternal kin, have no interest in finding out the truth. They know that the baby is genetically related to the mother for sure – there is no such thing as maternity uncertainty – and all they want is to make sure that the father is convinced of his paternity enough to invest in the offspring, regardless of whether or not he is the actual genetic father.

The convention of giving the child the father’s last name is another means for the mother and her kin to convince the father of his paternity.



4 responses to “Marriage, Children, and Surnames”

  1. Paul

    I did hear an astonishing but rather politically incorrect statistic some time ago that between 10% and 25% of fathers are unwittingly bringing up a child that is not biologically theirs.

    But what of the ever-so-fashionable option of double-barreling the mother and father’s surnames? As in “This is our baby Gavin Smith-Reeves”? Delightful, eh.

  2. You’re right; that is a rather astonishing statistic!

    I can’t help but feel that the current system of a wife taking her husband’s name may one day in the relatively near future become a bit of a novelty.

    I say this because of the growth of personal branding—or Me, Inc.

    For example my previous partner and I discussed this often as she was a psychologist well on her way to a lucrative career in research and academia. For her, a name change would have caused countless problems for her personal brand. It would have become a never-ending chore to update and correct articles/papers citing work she had done before a name change.

    I was initially taken aback by the suggestion, but soon realised that keeping our own names would have been best. No mention of children, however.

    My current partner is Dutch. To take my surname would remove part of her cultural identity. We haven’t discussed this, but while a double-barreled surname would be a fair choice, it also would not make sense in Dutch. Not only that, but as you seem to suggest, it will give off an air of faux-proper’ness!

    What to do, what to do?

  3. Len

    Traditionally wealth is passed down to the male child. The reasons behind this I will leave aside, but this would clearly be a reason for the children taking the fathers name. The name and the wealth go hand in hand as the boy grows up and inherits the wealth. Inheriting the less wealthy mother’s name does not benefit the child as much. All generally speaking. This seems to be an obvious reason that was left out of the linked article.

  4. Interesting, Len — I didn’t consider this.

    It begs the following question: when male–female equality becomes a reality in the workplace and home, will we see a reduction in this? What if the wealth is on the mother’s side?

    This is still, regrettably, fairly rare so to do so now would seem strange. But I do wonder of the future of this strange tradition.