The other day, I thought, for a brief moment, that I discovered a new species, the homo matrimonous. Its members are the long-time married couples. And this is how it happened
I met with them in my office. The man, Bernard, was in his eighties, and his wife, Sarah, looked several years younger. They sought advice for the husband's medical problem but it was Sarah who answered most of my doctorly questions. She did the talking and Bernard did the nodding. "So what did you do for a living?" I addressed him directly. "He was a university professor," she said. "And how long have you been married?" I tried to extract at least a few words from his mouth. "We have been married for so long, that;" he said. "That we complete each other's sentences," she said, "we were high-school sweethearts, I could not have picked a better husband, could I?"
That night, I stumbled upon the new issue of 'Science' magazine. In it (was it divine intervention? I wondered) were two articles that could shed light on the subject of long-term relationships. 'Why Male Mammals are Monogamous?' opened with a statement and then a question: male mammals have a greater potential for producing offsprings than female mammals (a man, for example can have multiple children from many different woman). Why, then, would a male sacrifice his potential reproduction and confine his reproductive activities to a single female?
Shahar Madjar, M.D.
In an attempt to answer this fascinating question, D. Lukas from the Department of Zoology in Cambridge, United Kingdom, analyzed no less than 2545 non-human mammalians species. He found that monogamy is not common among mammalian species: in 68 percent of mammalian species, females were solitary (live independently and encounter males only during their mating); in 23 percent of mammalian species, females were living in social groups (several females share a common range, or forage); and only in 9 percent of these species, females were socially monogamous (a single male and a single female sharing a territory).
After analyzing the data and considering the evidence, D. Lukas arrived at an interesting conclusion: social monogamy, he claimed, evolved in mammals where competition for feeding between females was intense. This caused females to be intolerant of each other and live far apart. Under these conditions, the best breeding strategy for a single male was to guard a single female, and to live with her on one territory, hers.
As to man, the question 'Why Monogamy?' lingers. Evolutionary biologists believe that our ancestors were polygynous. And Lukas writes "the evolution of human monogamy could have been the consequence of the need for extended parental investment." Or, "the result of a change in dietary pattern that reduced female density and limited the potential for males to guard more than one female."
When Sarah and Bernard came for a repeat visit, I noticed that when I presented them with his diagnosis, she looked concerned, and then she reached for his hand. In my imagination, I saw Sarah and Bernard, the high school sweethearts: Sarah was young and pretty, Bernard was tall and full of life. I imagined them on their wedding day, and a year later holding their first child. I saw him sitting in his La-Z-Boy and reading the newspaper while she was working in the kitchen. I saw them bickering with each other and then making peace. I saw them sending their kids to college.
I saw them sitting around the Thanksgiving table with their children and grandchildren. And when my mind shifted back, they were sitting in my office again, waiting. I forgot species and territories, I ignored mammalian evolution, dietary patterns, and competition for feeding. I dismissed breeding strategies and solitary females. I even forgave the miserable attempt to explain man's behavior by reducing it to a mere strategy of gene propagation. I saw Sarah and Bernard: two people sharing their histories and hopes, a man and a woman carrying a basket full of each other's memories.
And when Sarah asked me to keep Bernard alive for a few more years because she does not know how she could live without him, I promised her to do my best.
Editor's note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Bell Hospital in Ishpeming. Read and comment on prior columns by Dr. Madjar at DrMadjar.com.