Similar and Different: Why Marriages Fail?

This is indeed a remarkable coincidence.

Inspired by a great first sentence from A Tale of Two Cities and its contribution to our conceptual understanding of similarities and differences, I had remarked in the last post on the value of literature and of a good teacher. I had ended by noting that I was reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond on the recommendation of Vinod, a participant in our discussion.

Lo and behold! All I had to do was go back to the book to encounter an equally great and relevant opening sentence and a great teacher leading the reader through an exquisite process of reasoning.

Here is how Chapter 9 (Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle) begins:

Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.

If you think you’ve already read something like that before, you’re right. Just make a few changes, and you have the famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

And then the great teacher (Jared Diamond is Professor of Geography at UCLA) goes on to communicate what that great first sentence is telling us:

By that sentence, Tolstoy means that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.

How quickly we come back to attributes again; here we look at them through the lens of compatibility. People are compatible in some attributes and incompatible in others; they are never totally compatible or totally incompatible – formulating relationships (in this case marriage) in an either/or framework would lead us down an incorrect path. (And, of course, people can work on minimizing their incompatibilities – that is what adjustment and compromise is all about.)

Professor Diamond then generalizes this insight:

This principle can be extended to understanding much else about life besides marriage. We tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success. For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding many separate causes of failure.

And then he uses the Anna Karenina principle to explain a very important phenomenon pertinent to the theme of his book (The Fates of Human Societies). The question Professor Jared wants to answer is the following:  Of the 148 large mammals (weighing over 100 pounds) that were found in the wild why could only 14 be domesticated (bred in captivity) by human beings? The approach he uses is to look at the attributes the wild mammals shared and the ones in which they differed.

Let us go over only two of his examples to get a sense of the analytical method. Horses were domesticated but despite innumerable attempts the Zebra could not. It turns out that the Zebra has a particularly nasty disposition – more zoo-keepers are injured in America every year by Zebras than by tigers.

Attempts to domesticate cheetahs failed despite repeated attempts over thousands of years. It turns out that the cheetah, unlike many other animals, shares the human attribute of not wanting to mate in front of others:

In the wild, several cheetah brothers chase a female for several days, and that rough courtship over large distances seems to be required to get the female to ovulate or to become sexually receptive. Cheetahs usually refuse to carry out that elaborate courtship ritual inside a cage.

There are many more fascinating examples but you can get the point of how the Anna Karenina principle can be applied to all sorts of things in life once we start thinking of things in terms of their unbundled attributes.

Now we can think of Indians and Pakistanis as large mammals and reflect on their individual compatibilities and incompatibilities. (It might even be an interesting exercise to think of the respective attributes of large mammals on the one hand and Indians and Pakistanis on the other!)

Or, alternatively, we can think of the Indo-Pak relationship in terms of a failed marriage because of some particular incompatibilities they were unable to reconcile (what might these have been?). The marriage ended in a bitter divorce. What are the ex-partners going to do now? Not rest till they destroy each other, or learn to co-exist as civilized individuals for the sake of the children (who might be the children?). Can they go about allowing each other to build their new lives? Perhaps get to the point where they can pay each other a cordial visit once in a while? An evening of daal chawal, gulaab jaman, paan masaala, a few old Lata tear-jerkers, a Bollywood DVD, perchance a peek at the old family album now covered with dust?

We will pick up on this theme in a later post.

PS: For the links between humans and mammals, see here.

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  • Vikram
    Posted at 23:50h, 29 March Reply

    One factor you must not lose sight of, is the changing balance of power in India, away from Northern states to the Southern (and to a lesser extent, North Eastern states). And even in the Northern states, political power is increasingly in the hands of lower caste ‘elites’. These groups dont have much in common with Pakistan. Their solution to crisis in South Asia might be to just build a Great Wall of India.

    Dal chawal, pan and Bollywood mean little in Chennai and Guwahati.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 13:46h, 06 June Reply

    You may also want to pick up his other books – all great reads –

    The Third Chimpanzee
    The Collapse

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