RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's talk about mammals and monogamy. You know, fewer than 10 percent of all mammal species are monogamous. In fact, biologists have long disagreed about why monogamy exists at all. Two teams of scientists have coincidentally just published their latest findings about this and the two teams have come to opposite conclusions. NPR's Richard Harris delved into the dueling theories.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Animals that leave the most offspring win the race to spread their genes and to perpetuate their lineage. So for most mammals, males have a simple strategy: Mate with as many females as possible. But Dieter Lukas at Cambridge University says even so, some mammals are monogamous.
DIETER LUKAS: Now, monogamy is a problem. Why should a male keep to one female?
HARRIS: Over the years there have been three main hypotheses. One is that a male-female couple does a better job of raising their offspring and assuring their survival. A second idea is males hang around their mates to fend off other males who would otherwise kill their offspring. But Lukas argues this instead all comes down to food scarcity.
For some species, females scattered and become solitary in order to have better access to food. But that also meant that males who sought them out couldn't tend to more than one female at a time, and so was born monogamy.
LUKAS: Female behavior is influenced by the distribution of food, and male behavior is influenced by the distribution of females.
HARRIS: Lukas studied the mammalian family tree for more than 2,000 species and found that in almost every case, monogamy arose from these unusual conditions. They see it, for example, in wolves and in beavers, as well as in solitary primates such as certain tamarin species. The scientists don't find monogamy, though, in large herbivores, which move together in herds, or highly social species like the great apes.
Lukas hoped that he'd finally solved a major biological mystery with his analysis of these family trees. It's being published in Science magazine. But as it happens, a second team of scientists using somewhat different genetic techniques reached a different conclusion. Now, this answer only applies to a subset of mammals - the primates. That includes us. Kit Opie at University College London argues that monogamy all starts with a special anatomical feature.
KIT OPIE: Primates have large brains.
HARRIS: And as a result of these large brains, primates breast feed for a long time. And while females are breastfeeding, they aren't fertile.
OPIE: A rival male can speed up her return to ovulation by killing the infant, and then has a chance of mating himself.
HARRIS: So Opie and his colleagues tested the idea that monogamy evolved in primates as a way for males to protect their offspring. Their analysis found that to be the most plausible explanation. It's published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
OPIE: We are confident of our results, and we think it far more plausible too, amongst primates.
HARRIS: The two groups weren't aware of their conflicting results until the two research papers came out this week. So they do plan to get together and see if they can hash out their differences. Of course one reason we care about monogamy is the human context. But Dieter Lukas's co-author, Tim Clutton-Brock, treads very gently around that topic.
TIM CLUTTON-BROCK: We are cautious of really extending from this to making any very definite statement about the evolution of human breeding systems.
HARRIS: Clutton-Brock says humans share the evolutionary history of the apes, which are not monogamous. But our behavior is driven by culture as well as biology. So it's not a big surprise that there are harems as well as single-family homes in different parts of the world. Richard Harris, NPR News.