Wanderlust is in the genes as humans seek to satisfy four-year itch, study says

February 12, 1993|By New York Daily News

Helen Fisher has withstood vitriolic name-calling from frenzied TV talk-show audiences and a fusillade of hate mail. But the anthropologist says the onslaught of hostility won't dissuade her from getting her message across.

Cheating is perfectly natural.

"I'm not in the business of telling people what to believe," says Dr. Fisher, a research associate in the department of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

"People can believe whatever they want. But I think the more we know about ourselves, the greater our chances of overcoming our tendencies. As Katharine Hepburn said to Humphrey Bogart in 'The African Queen,' 'Nature, Mr. Alnutt, is something we were put on Earth to rise above.' "

So, if she's not giving license to people who go out and have sex with every babe or hunk in sight, what is she doing?

Seeking the truth, says Dr. Fisher, who divorced at age 23 after a year of marriage. "I believe what Socrates said more than 2,000 years ago: 'Know thyself.' "

We have an inherent tendency to bond with one individual, become restless and cheat, says Dr. Fisher, whose recently published "Anatomy of Love, The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce" (W.W. Norton. $22.95), is causing a stir among academics and ordinary folks.

Why this drive to wander? Evolution. Five million years ago, as Dr. Fisher explains it, climatic changes in Africa caused the destruction of trees, which forced our chimplike ancestors to become bipeds. Females could no longer swing from trees with babies on their backs. They had to carry them. "Any woman in her right mind carrying around a 20-pound bowling ball would look for a mate to help her."

So these post-primate hunters and gatherers "pair-bonded." Men carried the tools and weapons for building and hunting. Women took care of their offspring, at least for the first few years of life.

Around age 4, baby joined ancient play groups or day-care centers, run by grandparents or older children. And mom resumed gathering full-time. While foraging, she stumbled upon other men. And guess what happened?

According to Dr. Fisher, prehistoric man was seeking a younger woman with fresher eggs. Often the female was looking for a male with more resources. Both patterns, says Dr. Fisher, can be observed to this day.

In her 10-year study of 62 cultures around the world, Dr. Fisher observed that the coupling-cheating-uncoupling thing occurred in four-year cycles.

"There was a clear pattern," she says. "I found a four-year itch." Modern divorce statistics support the theory of a four-year-itch, Dr. Fisher insists.

It's no accident that Woody Allen and Mia Farrow ran into trouble when Satchel, their only biological mutual child, was 4, says Dr. ,, Fisher. "Primitive drives that fueled the mating game long ago have since become predispositions that create chaos in our lives," she says.

And that seven-year-itch, it seems, was just a good Marilyn Monroe movie.

Dr. Fisher says women are just as likely to cheat as men, noting that adultery by women has increased since the rise of the feminist movement.

"In farming societies, where women are second-class citizens, there is less adultery among women," she says. But as they enter the work force, adultery among women increases, just as it did for their gatherer-sisters millions of years ago.

Surveys show that 50 percent of married men and women have at least one adulterous affair in their lifetime, Dr. Fisher says. "We want to think men are more adulterous. But who are these men having affairs with?"

Dr. Fisher says the fuel that drives evolution is variety. "Survival of the species is enhanced by having children with more than one person. That way one child might have good eyesight, another might be good at catching animals, another might be good at something else."

Some academics think Dr. Fisher's theories are fishy. Renowned anthropologist Ashley Montagu, formerly of Princeton University, calls Dr. Fisher's notion of a four-year-itch "perfect rubbish." But Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson credits Dr. Fisher with "a persuasive and consistently surprising new explanation of the roots of human marriage, sex and love."

Still, traditionalists can take heart in a few of Dr. Fisher's findings: Most people who divorce remarry. And divorce seems to be for the young. "The older people are when they marry, the more likely they are to remain wed."

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