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The Dowry and Charles Darwin

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When I was growing up, we had a man work for our neighborhood to carry our trash. After some time his wife joined him for work. Sometimes two girls showed up with them. The girls were around my age. They were always very polite and seemed educated and well informed.

Fast forward a few years. My life had gotten busy and I had almost forgotten about that family. But my mom kept in touch with them. Once days I found my mom talking with the wife. She was weeping silently.

I asked my mom afterwards what happened. “Her daughter died. The typical cooking stove accident, you know. Not enough dowry.”

One of the daughter of the couple had become victim of the dowry devil. And they had decided not to pursue the charges because they had another daughter to marry. If you are not familiar with complex politics of those societies, you may ask what’s the relation? But your community has a lot of say in what you do and what you don’t and lawsuits on people within community, going outside the community for help is severely frowned upon.

Anyway. It always made me wonder. Why? Well, you can explain the dowry thing based popular inheritance explanation. The women in the past did not get their fair share of father’s estate and dowry was a way to make that transaction happen.

But that still does not explain the criminal aspect of dowry deaths. Especially the fact that most of the times the mother in law plays a big role in orchestrating the torture or death of daughter in law. How can a woman exploit vulnerabilities of another woman? Isn’t there a feeling of empathy toward fellow woman? Doesn’t the mother in law remember her days of being a new daughter in law and struggle to fit in the new world? Why would she still take part in crime so heinous?

Most people will ascribe this to antisocial tendencies. But many times serious antisocial behaviors are extreme expressions of instincts that drive perfectly acceptable social behaviors.

“Are you getting anywhere with the Darwin connection or not?”, you may protest at this point wondering what dowry custom has to do with Darwin.

Darwin laid out the foundations of theory of evolution as we all know, which was further studied from psychological point of view as well. There is a branch dedicated to this. Evolutionary psychology. It states that the primary evolution objective of males is spreading out their genes, maximizing the number of their offsprings. Primary evolutionary objective of females is “maximizing resources for their offspring”

So ladies, if your man is eyeing the hot receptionist at doctors office, it’s just the male brain wiring of millions of years. For a man, an easy way to maximize the number of offsprings is to mate with many women. But this is no justification for extramarital affairs in today’s world. We live in a civilized society and we are expected to control our instincts and impulses.

And gentlemen, if you see your wife cutting coupons for groceries, then it’s because of she is “maximizing resources for offsprings”. Her great great grandmothers figured out how to pickle food precisely driven by the same instinct.

Taking care of your kids and maximizing resources for them, saving for them, are perfectly acceptable expressions of this instinct. But what happens when this instinct goes wild? We have example from the epic Ramayana. The queen Kaikayi wanted to kick prince Rama out and crown her son Bharat as king purely because of the same instinct, even though it was not a right thing to do.

This instinct, which is part of a big cluster called the instincts of motherhood, is an extremely powerful emotional force. It’s not just true for humans. The famous hunter Jim Corbett once said when he was in the jungle, he was far more afraid of a female protecting her cubs than a male protecting his territory. Because the male would back off if the battle seemed too difficult. But the female would stop at nothing until her cubs were safe. She could engage animals much bigger than her and show far more tenacity and ruthlessness.

We all acknowledge that this instinct of mothers, to maximize resources for us and to look for our safety, have been a crucial part of keeping us alive as babies.

The dowry crimes is precisely this instinct gone wild. The mother is so in tune with her instinct of making her son rich that she sees the young daughter in law as purely an object to achieve these means. She is completely blind to hell she is unleashing on that young woman.

Combine this with the insecurity of being replaced from a loved one’s life. The sensation that things have changed and you are not needed any more, at least not as badly. The role change. The void. If all your life your family has been the only world you have known, then this can be very scary.

The fear and insecurity is still secondary. But the maternal instinct gone wrong is the primary culprit. And this is how a woman kills other woman (or anyone else), to make her baby rich. This is how, in spite of being 50% by demographics, female gender is always at disadvantage.

If you are a mother reading this, you have to reflect on your motherhood instinct. It’s easy to expect a check on the instinct when it is socially frowned upon, like philandering. But it’s much harder to reflect on and keep a check on an instinct when that instinct is revered in society, like motherhood.

If we have to stop the dowry deaths, then crusades, the witch hunts to find bad people and hang them, are not going to be the final solution. It’s the myriad mundane choices made by common people every day that must be brought under microscope. The “enablers” and the “blinders” must be examined. The culture that we are proud of must undergo scrutiny. The final solution can only come from understanding the economics and psychology of the parties involved, from dispassionate analysis and understanding why people behave the way they behave, what incentives motivate whom?

And Darwin also tells us, we have evolved. Not animals anymore. We have much bigger brain that is capable showing and feeling compassion and performing ethical thinking. So we have to be human and respect humanity of others. We owe it to those ladies who paid the ultimate price.

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