Foreign Affairs in Genes

August 20, 2004

SOME yearsago my friend Sydgot married to adelightful womannamed Kate and atthe wedding receptioneveryoneagreed it was a marriagemade in heaven.They produceda darling boy, andto all intents andpurposes showedevery sign of marriedbliss.Until a year ago, when Kate up and leftSyd for a Hollywood bit player named JimHobart, leaving behind her child and a tersenote saying ‘gone with Jim.’ Then sheapparently vanished off the face of theEarth.I myself, being a linear, inside-the-boxthinker, could find no explanation for thisextraordinary behavior. Then a few monthsago I bumped into Kate at a Hollywoodparty. She and I had always been goodfriends, so I felt no compunction indemanding an explanation.“Persistence,” she said. “Jim just kepton and on at me, exaggerating the tiny differencesbetween Syd and me, and threateningto kill us both if I didn’t give in to him.Well, I gave in, and afterward I felt tooashamed to tell Syd.“Then Jim just kept right on at me, untilfinally I believed all his promises and wentoff with him. We had a child, but of courseit didn’t last. I hadn’t the gall to go and askSyd to take me back, so now I don’t have areal job and if it weren’t for my little girl Ithink I would just lie down and die.”I knew that Kate had been a pretty goodlawyer before she went wrong, so I took herinto my firm and started working on Sydwith the idea of getting them together again.ACTUALLY, I didn’t have to try veryhard, as Syd was still in love with Kate andnow he could have the little girl he alwayswanted, so he didn’t think there was anythingto forgive. At last they look asthough they are fulfilling the original predictions.But I wasn’t satisfied just being a FairyGodmother to the couple; I wanted to knowfor real why she did it. Oddly enough, themajority of wives I consulted said thatwhile they didn’t condone her behavior,they found it perfectly understandable,though they couldn’t explain why. Whichwasn’t much help.Finally, I met up with a UCLA zoologistwho had demonstrated that the offspring ofmonkeys often show DNA patterns characteristicof neighboring tribes that are at warwith them.“Males,” he said, “almost universallywant to ensure that their progeny are reallytheirs and not someone else’s, so wanderingmales who attempt to mate outside tribalboundaries are usually slaughtered. But nosuch prohibition applies to wanderingfemales, who in fact bring new blood intotheir tribe without offending any localmales.“Females tend to recognize instinctivelythe dangers of mating within a small genepool, so the practice of surreptitious extraterritorialmating is well-establishedamongst female primates. We can hardlyhope to escape our own heritage. Does thisanswer your question?”I guess so.

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