In a society that doesn’t need to aggressively populate, why does this primal urge to have dozens, or hundreds of children still exist?
To find the answer, the documentary 40 Kids By 20 Women tracks the lives of four different men who have fathered over 70 children in just over three decades.
From a young age, it seems, sexual urge would define the narratives of the four men in 40 Kids By 20 Women. Many of them talk of losing their virginity alarmingly young, with children following soon after. “He will flirt with any girl”, says Nick Portman’s fiancée, who is 27 years his junior. “Half the time he doesn’t know he’s doing it.”
As for Mike Holpin, he's tattooed a family tree on his back to keep track of who’s who in the family. “I’m as fertile as sin," he says.
While these men have gained a large degree of infamy for their indifference to contraception (and often, to the mothers of their children), their serial paternity links them to a now-outmoded symbol of ‘powerful’ men throughout history. Some were conquerors, some were religious leaders, but they were of a type: a biological and evolutionary phenomenon determined not only to survive, but to thrive.
While contemporary societies may have moved on from panicked states of trying at all costs to populate, the drives that come from our genes are more fixed. The reptilian brain is powerful. Lust and desire are ancient biological drivers implanted in human beings for the purpose of continuing the human race. The same can be said for procreation. Often we make decisions with our reptilian brain without even realising it.
When it comes to historical figures with hundreds of children, recorded accounts overwhelmingly skew towards men of great power. Kings, pharaohs, religious leaders and the odd business magnate make up the bulk of the list on Wikipedia, with the occasional outlier of a prolific sperm donor.
Genghis Khan is the seminal Lothario father. Geneticists generally agree that around 8% of the male population, across 16 different ethnicities, were descended directly from him. The Mongol emperor fathered anywhere in the vicinity of 1000 to 2000 children from his 3000 partners (many of them wives, many of them victims of rape).
This list also includes contemporary figures like rock star Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who fathered 75 children, and Ziona Chan, a cult leader who by 2011 had 94 children and 39 wives. Multiple interviews source bizarre quotes from Chan where he labels himself “a lucky man” and calls his cult “the largest family in the world”.
Evolution can explain why these types of fathers exist, but society struggles to find a place for them today. Can these natural evolutionary markers be utilised usefully within contemporary societal structures? Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. writes in Psychology Today:
“Doubtless, it's regrettable that puberty comes so early in life--way before, frankly, either sex has developed the judgment and self-control to have children, let alone raise them well. Many centuries ago, when our life span was far shorter than it is today, it made good evolutionary sense for us to be ready to conceive as soon as we physically could--even before our minds had matured to the degree that we could handle such procreative capacity responsibly. Back then, prior to modern medicine, life was extremely fragile; and so it was clearly adaptive to be able to "deliver" babies (as, well, "replacements") as promptly as possible. Thus, unfortunately, did Nature contrive to have us arrive at sexual (or reproductive) maturity much earlier than we could possibly acquire commensurate mental or emotional maturity.
“And, alas, now we're left--biochemically--with the legacy of our forefathers.”
For a closer look at what motivates these men – and the consequences of their lifestyle - watch 40 Kids By 20 Women at SBS On Demand: