Blind Dates and Naked Mole Rats

(Image by John Brighenti via Flickr)

Reading about the courtship patterns of naked mole rats started me thinking about our own species. There are such similarities.

Granted, naked mole rats are, by our standards, a little old-fashioned: They work hard, digging tunnels with buck teeth we would find adorable on a cheerleader, and they live at home well into adulthood, helping their mothers. Then, when the time comes to leave the safety of their underground home and venture into the world to mate, naked mole rats turn nocturnal, gain weight, and become less active, preparing for the risky journey above ground.

We turn a bit nocturnal, too (though we are more inclined to drop a few pounds and add activities), and our journey is every bit as risky. Metaphorically, we, too, are venturing above ground. We must post a public dating profile, showing and telling the world who we are. Then we must arrange to meet a succession of perfect strangers so we can assess—instantly and abruptly—their candidacy for the most intimate of all relationships. We risk rude surprises, rejection, disease, the biochemical instability of extreme highs and lows, a sharpened loneliness, and the hollow despair of failure.

For naked mole rats, it might be even scarier, because they are almost blind.

Of course, so is love. Which is why a blind date might make a workable pathway. I met my husband on a double blind date, each of us grudgingly agreeing because the real point was to fix up the other couple. Both couples were married inside a year. The whole thing was a huge relief, following as it did my mercifully brief engagement to a sociopath I met by chance and fell for because my biological clock’s alarm drowned out my spidey sense. This time, I knew people who had known my date for years, watched him grow and change and weather crises, met his family, et cetera. This, I realized, was how it used to work: Families, churches, neighborhoods, schools were the meeting grounds, all guaranteeing at least a baseline of background knowledge. Computers and chance meetings … not so much. They make it all a game, a spin of the roulette wheel that can either hit the jackpot or wreck you. In self-defense, you toughen up, play the odds, learn to work the system.

Were I in charge of the world, I might even suggest we go beyond blind dates and return to arranged marriages. Not the binding sort, driven by blood, money, title, and prospects, but a new sort, incorporating all we have learned about values, traits, temperament, and lifestyle. Trusted and wise elders could then arrange matches as deftly as a sommelier pairs wine and cheese. And those who felt ready could relax, trusting their own species rather than waiting for stars to align or a computer to crunch out a mate.

But back to naked mole rats. What prompts their journey? Washington University biologist Stan Braude wondered if moonlight was the romantic trigger. Perhaps they scrabbled up to the earth’s surface when the moon reached a certain phase? The safest time would be the darkest. So Braude flew to Kenya’s Meru National Park, where his team set up drift fences, barriers that would guide those wrinkly, pink, on-the-make rats into, well, a bucket. The team tracked the timing of these excursions.

Moonlight, it turns out, is irrelevant. There were no more suitors abroad on moonless nights than during a full moon.

Now Braude is wondering if the naked mole rats are responding to social cues instead. “Perhaps the dispersal has more to do with the social environment that they are leaving than the physical environment that they are entering,” he suggests. You know, the way it begins to exasperate you beyond endurance when your aunties and uncles grill you relentlessly about “settling down” and your friends start saying you are “too picky”?

Mole rats are the only mammals that are eusocial—the highest level of social organization. We are very weakly eusocial, if at all; we march to a cacophony of drumbeats, organize in often chaotic ways, challenge our roles regularly. Eusocial critters take cooperative care of the little ones (the way early feminists dreamed we would), live multigenerationally (the way we used to), and divide their labor according to reproductive roles (as Margaret Atwood feared we might). Their labor is as cooperative as their childcare, with nary a rebel or a slacker. Ants, bees, termites, and shrimp are also eusocial, their societies far more complex than most of us dream.

When biologist E.O. Wilson called humans “eusocial apes,” others disagreed, saying there was far more flexibility and individuality in our script. But we do have traits and patterns of behavior that promote the reproduction of the entire species. Many evolutionary biologists believe that women survive for several healthy decades after menopause—unlike other animals—in order to help care for grandchildren. Others theorize that males who are gay or transgender help the species advance by becoming nurturing uncles—at least in places such as Samoa, where a third gender is calmly accepted.

And what does all this have to do with naked mole rats’ courtship rituals? In ways we have yet to fathom, the biology and future of an entire species underlays each unpredictable journey to the surface. And to a slightly lesser extent, the same is true for us. Even when we think we are striking out on our own to find our predestined soul mate, the signals that propel us can be instinctive, social, and entirely out of our control—and we forget that at our peril.

Now that our species has no urgent need to reproduce—in fact, quite the opposite—will we be less vulnerable to unconscious babymaking criteria (a woman’s wide hips, a man’s ability to provide, a ticking clock)? The increasing acceptance of fluid gender identity and shifting sexual orientation may be part of a sign. New models of marriage are now far more feasible (at least technically): polyamory, successive monogamy, throuples… New ways to initiate courtship are bound to emerge.

But the journey will always be risky.