Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Planned Obsolescence? The Four-Year Itch

Helen Fisher, author of "Why We Love" and an anthropology professor at Rutgers, has written a brief essay with the title of this post. She did a cross cultural survey of when divorces occur and found that divorces regularly peaked during and around the fourth year after wedding (no evidence for the commonly assumed seven year itch indicated in the graphic). Divorces peaked among couples in their late twenties. And the more children a couple had, the less likely they were to divorce: some 39% of worldwide divorces occurred among couples with no dependent children; 26% occurred among those with one child; 19% occurred among couples with two children; and 7% of divorces occurred among couples with three young. In trying to figure out so many men and women divorce during and around the 4-year mark; at the height of their reproductive years; and often with a single child, she had an "a ha" moment:
Women in hunting and gathering societies breastfeed around the clock, eat a low-fat diet and get a lot of exercise — habits that tend to inhibit ovulation. As a result, they regularly space their children about four years apart. Thus, the modern duration of many marriages—about four years—conforms to the traditional period of human birth spacing, four years.

Perhaps human parental bonds originally evolved to last only long enough to raise a single child through infancy, about four years, unless a second infant was conceived. By age five, a youngster could be reared by mother and a host of relatives. Equally important, both parents could choose a new partner and bear more varied young.
Her theory fits with data on other species:
Only about three percent of mammals form a pairbond to rear their young. Take foxes. The vixen's milk is low in fat and protein; she must feed her kits constantly; and she will starve unless the dog fox brings her food. So foxes pair in February and rear their young together. But when the kits leave the den in mid summer, the pairbond breaks up. Among foxes, the partnership lasts only through the breeding season. This pattern is common in birds. Among the more than 8,000 avian species, some 90% form a pairbond to rear their young. But most do not pair for life. A male and female robin, for example, form a bond in the early spring and rear one or more broods together. But when the last of the fledgling fly away, the pairbond breaks up... Like pair-bonding in many other creatures, humans have probably inherited a tendency to love and love again—to create more genetic variety in our young.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:04 PM

    This is rather old old news. O.K. old old old news.

    Besides, is it true about the hunters and gatherers? Or is it romantic speculation?

    Maybe there is a natural female drive to mix genetic material. Mothers get some of the fetus' stem cells. This may provide benefits to the mother.