Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:
Five days a week, you can tune into “Paternity Court,” a television show featuring couples embroiled in disputes over fatherhood. It’s entertainment with a very old theme: Uncertainty over paternity goes back a long way in literature. Even Shakespeare and Chaucer cracked wise about cuckolds, who were often depicted wearing horns. But in a number of recent studies, researchers have found that our obsession with cuckolded fathers is seriously overblown. A number of recent genetic studies challenge the notion that mistaken paternity is commonplace. “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Maarten H.D. Larmuseau, a geneticist at the University of Leuven in Belgium who has led much of this new research.
The term cuckold traditionally refers to the husband of an adulteress, but Dr. Larmuseau and other researchers focus on those cases that produce a child, which scientists politely call “extra-pair paternity.” Until the 20th century, it was difficult to prove that a particular man was the biological father of a particular child. In 1304 a British husband went to court to dispute the paternity of his wife’s child, born while he was abroad for three years. Despite the obvious logistical challenges, the court rejected the husband’s objection. “The privity between a man and his wife cannot be known,” the judge ruled. Modern biology lifted the veil from this mystery, albeit slowly. In the early 1900s, researchers discovered that people have distinct blood types inherited from their parents. In a 1943 lawsuit, Charlie Chaplin relied on blood-type testing to prove that he was not the father of the actress Joan Barry’s child. (The court refused to accept the evidence and forced Chaplin to pay child support anyway.)