Pots and lids must seek good matches

My grandmother was the queen of sayings. One day, after she served vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream, for “variety is the spice of life,” she misinterpreted my postprandial sluggishness as a sign of concern over my prospects of finding the right woman. “Don’t worry,” she said in her usual, comforting tone,”every pot has its lid.”

But if women and men are the pots and lids of dating, the world is a kitchen from hell. I saw pots and lids everywhere! Big pots, small pots, tall and short, heavy and light.

Some pots were cast-iron and built to last while others had non-stick personalities. Some pots were perfectly composed, yet others were crooked, dented at the rim, or missing a love handle. My kitchen was a chaotic disarray of lonely pots and lids, unlikely to find a proper fit, let alone cook happily ever after.

Attempts to properly pair the lonely hearts are almost as old as history itself. At first, arranged marriage seemed to be an elegant solution. After all, who in his right mind would put the delicate task of matching in the hands of inexperienced youngsters?

It worked quite well, almost everywhere in the world, until the 18th century where ideas such as individualism and social mobility started to develop. Young people suddenly had strong feelings and original opinions, and the seemingly logical solution of arranged marriage began to crumble.

Matching then evolved in the name of freedom, equality, the pursuit of happiness, and preference for randomness. People fell for each other everywhere and at all times. They met in high school, in college, around the water cooler at work, and serendipitously on the streets and in bars. They matched spontaneously and abruptly, without prior examination, proper planning, or expert advise.

The latest attempt at matching takes no such random chances and has no geographical limits. Spread over more than 150 countries, the members of eHarmony.com, for example, are matched based on their responses to a long questionnaire and a long list of other variables. A complex matching algorithm is then used to optimize the chance for long-term relationships.

No matter what matching system is used, the results are not uniformly satisfactory and too often, tears are shed, hearts are broken, and the and-they-lived-happily-ever-after’ fairy tales painfully collapse.

Why then, do we continue? Because reproduction is nature’s command, a pre-requisite for survival as a species. Women and men do not just wish to match. As all other living organisms – from unicellular organisms like bacteria to mammals – humans are programmed to reproduce.

And we come prepared for the task of reproduction. A woman, a man, matching reproductive systems, and an intense drive fueled by a relentless endocrine system, working together toward a biologically desirable rendezvous between a sperm cell (spermatozoon) and an egg (ovum) – a moment of fertilization, the creation of a new life.

The story of fertilization is even more precarious than the story of matching – it is an epic of survival in the face of unfavorable odds. During sexual intercourse, about 300 million sperm cells enter the vagina but only one spermatozoon will reach its final destination and fertilize the egg.

The rest will perish in one of many ways: some will succumb upon impact with the acidic environment of the vagina; others will be identified as foreign invaders, engulfed and enzymatically destroyed by cells of the female immune system; half of the remaining spermatozoa will find themselves in a dead-end, for only one of the two fallopian tubes contain the desirable egg.

A few dozen cells will eventually reach the egg. The first spermatozoon to enter the egg, the sole survivor, will fertilize the egg in a swift, winner-takes-all victory.

This whole process of sexual reproduction is cumbersome, heart breaking, wasteful. Every pot may have its lid, but boy! is it difficult to find a match. Why does the story of fertilization need to be so complex, so heroic? Couldn’t we just reproduce asexually as bacteria do – by splitting into two. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we could just do as bakers’ yeast cells do – peacefully bud from each other?

From a biological standpoint, sexual reproduction, although more complex, offers a significant advantage over asexual reproduction, for it combines genetic materials of two different organisms.

Instead of large colonies of identical individuals, in sexual reproduction the offspring are genetically different from their parents, presenting different traits, different characters, allowing them to better adapt to a changing environment and to different circumstances, increasing their chances to survive as a species.

Sexual reproduction is also more fun (and not just the process itself), for the result is a society filled with different pots and lids, and crowded with interesting characters. After all, my grandmother was right, for variety is the spice of life!

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Bell Hospital in Ishpeming. Read and comment on prior columns by Dr. Madjar at DrMadjar.com.