Why Pretend: MonogamyHolly McKelvey, Monday November 6th, 2006
Today's topic: why pretend to be monogamous, even if we aren't? Not just in an angsty, drama-ridden soap opera way, but biologically. We talked about it today in Bio, and it was fascinating. We're not the only species that sneaks around behind its mate - apparently a few scientists recently did some paternity tests both in a preschool and in a community of songbirds. Sad to say, but 30% of the tested children and baby birds were not their father's offspring. Yet the mother remains with the father, and the father thinks the baby is his. In the case of the songbird, the father leaves if he finds his mate cheating.
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So if animals are so prone to cheat, why think of ourselves as monogamous? In the case of humans, it's because we want the support and stability of a relationship, we develop emotional bonds with our partner, we need help raising the child(ren).... how much different can it be for songbirds? It's difficult to prove if they have emotional attachments, but definitely the mother bird will need help raising the baby birds - it's got to be hard work to build a nest and feed four or five hungry baby birds without a mate. So they pretend that their mate is the father, and it's all good (of course, the male is off mating with as many females as he can, too).
Looking at it with respect to genetics, the male is cheating to make sure his genes stay in the gene pool; meanwhile the female may get a wandering eye because she sees other males whose genes may make for stronger, better offspring. Rather than lose her mate by openly being polygamous, she secretly mates with the other bird, and remains in an apparent monogamous relationship.
The thing is, I think that we associate relationships and cheating with humans alone - when we look at an animal that's not as big-brained as us, it's surprising to think that they have the same dramas as we do. But it's all genes, the same genes that are telling a bird to find a better mate without leaving its partner are also attracting people in relationships to someone else. Yet we'll keep on insisting that we're monogamous, as will the songbirds. That's what we've evolved to do best.
Holly McKelvey spent a year in Italy, where cheating is considered the "national sport".