When I was three, a 20-year-old girl who used to play with me got married and left home. I nagged my mother with questions. Where did she go? With whom will she stay? Why couldn’t she stay at home? My mother explained that married women have to live with their husbands. At that time, it was the norm for grown men to live with their parents. Thereafter, whenever I got annoyed with my parents, I threatened to get married and go away to my in-laws. The warning never worked; my parents laughed.
Then a couple of years later, my brother was born. At some point, I began to fear I would be sent away from my parents, while a strange girl who married my brother would take my place. I demanded to know why only girls had to leave their homes. Why not boys? It’s just how things are done, I was told.
My fate in a traditional Indian household was not very different from female chimpanzees. When females reach adulthood, they are kicked out of their natal troop. They wander around until they find another troop that will take them in.
Leaving one’s home and going to live with a family of strangers is a scary journey for both, women and female animals. They are deprived of support from female kin, which leaves them vulnerable to male (and female) aggression. Many animals lose their lives in the process. Neighbouring troops may react violently to trespassers on their territory. If the neighbours don’t get you, predators will. Finding food in a strange area is a challenge and the threat of starvation imminent. Women spend their married lives among people to whom they are not genetically related. Their survival and well-being depends on being accepted.
The purpose of leaving home and family is to avoid inbreeding and competing with relatives, and to seek better pastures. Why would one gender leave the comfort of its home, and take on the burden of keeping the species fit at risk to its own life? Does the way our family life is organised determine which sex disperses?
Several males and females live together in macaque troops, and pubescent males typically move out. Orangutans are solitary and sons disperse while daughters live close by. Teenage males leave gelada harems. But in gorilla harems, young females set out to join another harem. Chimpanzee groups are similar to macaques, but daughters leave. In nominally monogamous pairs of hoolock gibbons, offspring of both sexes leave their parents’ home.
There seemed to be no pattern. Besides, our family structures bore little resemblance to chimp troops, gorilla harems, or lone orangutans.
One thing seemed certain: If my brother and I belonged to any of the vast majority of primate (yes, we are primates too, but I’m referring to non-human primates here) societies, he would have to find another troop, while I stayed at home. This arrangement makes the best reproductive sense for females because they have family support and shelter. Their sisters, mothers, and aunts help with baby-rearing duties. Daughters inherit hierarchical position in the troop without having to jostle for it. I wished Indians were like these males-go-away monkeys.
I took another stab at approaching the question. Was dispersal related to making babies? In macaque society, low-ranking males stand little chance of passing on their genes, while high-ranking ones father most of the next generation. Males at the bottom of the ladder have a better chance of reproducing when they leave their troops and join others. However, whether females rank low or high, they are assured of making babies and so they stay. That is one theoretical explanation for the dispersal of males. But macaque society isn’t rigid. Some silly females forsake their families and join other troops. Why would they do that?
I was on the verge of tearing my hair out.
(To be continued…)