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Dating Mating Sex and Reproduction, evolution

So We Aren’t Monogamous… What Are We?

These days, it’s pretty much only staunchly religious (and profoundly unscientific) pundits claiming that humans are inherently monogamous.  The evidence is too ubiquitous, and too overwhelming to ignore.  From the archaeological, anthropological, sociological, biological, and anatomical records, we get a clear picture of what humans do.  They have sex with multiple partners.

But this observation doesn’t help us very much in our day to day life.  Particularly in America, we don’t have much choice but to toe the party line and at least pretend towards some form of monogamy, even if it’s serial.  And scientists are far from united in their description of what we are “supposed to be.”  So while we may all know intuitively that we aren’t built for monogamy, we don’t really know what we are built for.

The current model, largely promoted by evolutionary psychology, asserts a male-dominated, hierarchical competition model in which the best males gain access to multiple females, and in which females are highly selective, “saving themselves” for only the best males.  While males fight it out for female resources (eggs), females attempt to monopolize as much of a male’s resources as possible, hunkering down for the extended pair bond in which she and the biological father raise their children together.

It’s not a very pretty picture.  But it is making its way through the blogosphere.  Susan Walsh’s popular (and somewhat controversial) blog Hooking Up Smart generally advises women to restrict access to sex, saving it primarily for men who will make good long-term companions.  Athol Kay strongly advocates sexual exclusivity and long term monogamy at Married Man Sex Life.  Multitudes of “Pick-Up Artist” sites buy into the model, advising men in the art of exploiting females’ natural choosiness to their advantage.  (I do not advocate any of those sites enough to link to them.)

It’s kind of a puzzling picture, even at first glance.  How exactly does it follow?

Humans are not naturally monogamous.  Therefore, you should behave as if we were monogamous.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and there are plenty of scientists who are equally puzzled, but answers are hard to come by.  Questions we have aplenty.

  • If females are after stored resources, and the males are trying to accumulate resources to buy females, why wasn’t there any way to accumulate resources for 99% of our evolutionary history?  (Pre-agriculture)
  • If we are naturally competitive and warlike, what were we fighting over when there were no resources to capture?
  • If we are designed to bond long-term with one partner (or perhaps two), why does our biology most closely resemble bonobos, who do not bond this way?
  • If we are designed for sexual exclusivity, why are human vaginas designed specifically for intense sperm competition?  (Sperm competition happens when sperm from multiple males is in the vagina at the same time.)
  • Why do so many existing hunter-gatherer societies practice multi-male/multi-female mating?
  • If we males are so concerned with passing along our genes, why don’t we have the ability to detect cuckolding, and why don’t we kill babies that are not ours?
  • Why do so many “primitive” cultures believe that it requires the sperm from many males to create a healthy baby?

The questions go on and on and on.  And the fact is, none of the “acceptable” answers make sense.  Clearly, our social insistence on strict monogamy is largely attributable to the imposition of modern monotheism on the Western world, and as I’ve detailed in THIS ARTICLE, the motivations were hardly altruistic.

But there are questions in the opposite direction as well:

  • If we are “supposed” to have sex with lots of people, why do we get so furiously jealous when our lover has sex with someone else?
  • Though we don’t often kill non-biological children we are raising, we do tend to treat them worse than our biological children.  If we are designed for “communal” child-rearing, why is this so?
  • If this is all a land-grab by the evil church, why is the two-parent system so widely spread through the industrialized world, even where the big-three monotheist religions are not major factors?
  • If females are so strongly designed for sperm competition, why is it considered “slutty” the world over for a girl to have two guys in the same day?
  • If we’re “naturally” non-monogamous, why do STDs present such a problem for promiscuous individuals?  Shouldn’t we have evolved mechanisms to lessen the impact?

It’s quite a puzzle, but there are strong clues both in human and primate culture, and even if we can’t pin down exact answers about our ancient ancestors, we can make better educated guesses today than we could fifty years ago.

For me, the two most glaring pieces of data involve “primitive” cultures and sperm competition.  And I believe when we combine them, we get a relatively clear picture.

Primitive Cultures

Unfortunately, a lot of our data about “primitive cultures” — those whose primary milieu is hunting and gathering — is skewed by researcher bias.  There isn’t room in this post to give specific examples, but the general trend is clear.  Observers assumed the modern Western paradigm to be the norm, and tended to over-emphasize any long-term bonding they saw, to the exclusion of much more prevalent and perfectly acceptable sexual behaviors which were not reminiscent of marriage.  They also tended to view these behaviors as “abberant,” even when they were clearly the norm.

But modern observations, combined with careful reading of older data supports the conclusion that among hunter-gatherers, non-exclusive sexual relationships are the norm.  In fact, it is quite common for such cultures to have rules against monopolizing sexual partners or preventing others from access to a desired partner.

This observation squares with the logical question:  If pre-humans didn’t have possessions, why would they fight over mates, and how would they keep them to themselves even if they won?

Sperm Competition

To Darwin, competition for a mate happened externally.  That is, once a male had copulated, he had won the sexual competition.  But we know now that this is only half of the story.  Many animals (including bonobos, and at least biologically — humans) have complicated internal mechanisms for mate competition.  Rather than have males fight it out and risk injury or death, the female accepts sperm from multiple males, and the sperm fight it out in the reproductive tract.  (If you want to learn more about the human female’s sperm olympics, read it HERE.)

Men also contribute to sperm wars.  Individual sperm serve different functions, from blocking the way for competitors to actively killing them.  We have exceptionally large testicles, and produce far more sperm than any sexually exclusive mammals.

Putting it Together

Admittedly, these are only two parts of a very complicated and multi-faceted system, and I don’t claim to be able to answer all the “big questions” from two bits of data.  But these two bits do hint very strongly at a picture of pre-agricultural humans.  Our biology clearly shows us that females routinely accepted sperm from multiple males in short periods of time.  Most “primitive” cultures have orgy festivals, partner swapping, and other sexual rituals.  Equally interesting is that so few of them have any concept of long-term monogamy.  They don’t even have words to describe it, so foreign is the idea.  Historically, Christian missionaries routinely decried the sexual lasciviousness of conquered converts, so it’s likely that this is not a new state of affairs.

So we now have a way to chip away at the current narrative.  Why are humans so devoted to sexual possession and monogamy today?  Probably because we are so devoted to accumulating resources.  Without such accumulation, there would literally be nothing to fight over.  Both males and females are perfectly capable of having sex many times in a day.  Even in rigidly monogamous societies, extra-pair coupling is common.  Our insane jealousy at the thought of our mates having sex with someone else stems largely from the sense of impending loss.  If such a loss is not a threat, we have to wonder why we would be jealous in the first place.

What does it mean?

So am I suggesting that we should all ditch the idea of possessions, move to a commune in Utah, and start randomly having sex with anyone and everyone we want?  No.  But I am suggesting that we each have the ability — but not the obligation — to think about precisely why we are following the narrative.  There is a growing infatuation in America with non-monogamy, and there have always been small communities of swingers, polygamists, polyamorists, and non-exclusive daters.  And while nobody is going to promise an easy time of things for non-monogamists in America, it’s still worth knowing that exclusive monogamy is not the only available path.

Especially with regard to Susan Walsh’s target group — transient college-aged women — it might be worth thinking about our obsession with monogamy as a consistent goal.  With so many people delaying marriage and children until their 30s or beyond, perhaps we are causing ourselves more problems than we’re solving by insisting that the only acceptable relationship is one with long-term potential for monogamy.  To be fair, the question of how to buck the system without being buried by it is real, but this entry is long enough already.  I suppose we’ll have to cross that bridge at another time.

In any case, even if we decide that monogamy is still our goal, it’s helpful to understand that we are not especially built for it, and it’s as much about ownership as anything else.  Knowing that non-ownership is an option is liberating in and of itself, and perhaps it will open new doors for people who feel like they just “aren’t ready for commitment” at this time.  Maybe it could even help redefine what it means to have a “friend with benefits.”  We’ll see.



7 thoughts on “So We Aren’t Monogamous… What Are We?

  1. I’d like to offer up a little story whose relevance to this essay of yours skirts the hinterland between questionable and tangential. I believe it to be mostly true, and I was told it by a participant approximately 25 years after the events occurred.

    In the early 1970’s, my dad and his dumbass friends got into a few minor skirmishes with boys of the same age (juniors and seniors in high school) from a mill village named Conestee. Conestee folk were seen as poor, under-educated and inbred by folks from Greenville City, and as you might expect, that’s saying something. Remember the bit about the inbreeding.

    Anyway, the fights would have been seen as fairly felonious behavior in modern times, especially for teenagers from the suburbs. Knives and pistols were flashed on a few occasions and cars were run off the road, punctuating the more common fistfights, screaming matches and late night road peeling.

    The source of the tension? One of dad’s idiot buddies started dating Conestee’s preacher’s daughter, who was born far, far away from Conestee, and not remotely related to anyone there. It’s my father’s opinion that she represented a chance at fathering children who weren’t born with a scaly coating and prominent vestigial gill slits (the locals referred to these as “tooters”). Accordingly, she was dearly prized by boy and man alike, and an uppity outsider like Dad’s friend was to be harangued until he thought better of his designs. Were he to be courting a native Conesteegan woman, so it is thought, he would have not invited the hatred of the men folk, and my father would have one less story about almost being shot in a gas station parking lot.

    The question that comes to my mind is this: in the hierarchical competition model, do women fit into higher and lower hierarchies as well? It seems that a woman who is born into a band of hunter gatherers might be subject to being treated as common property by the band, making sperm competition a very viable factor in human reproduction up to this day. But what about a captured or a traded woman? Isn’t it possible that she could be seen as having a higher status, merely because of her novelty, just like the preacher’s daughter? That higher status could definitely translate into the real benefit of healthier children, through the elimination of harmful homozygous recessive traits in offspring and an expanded immunological horizon.

    Would such a foreign woman be treated as common property, just like all the rest? It seems at least probable that she would be the exclusive province of a single high status male, if only for a while. I need to get back to writing an actual scientific paper, but I think I’ve outlined a scenario in which a vigorously defended expectation of monogamy by a male might co-exist with the more commonplace Sperm Olympics.

    Posted by Clint | February 1, 2011, 11:57 pm
  2. WORD. Have you read Sex at Dawn? It basically says all this, only it takes much longer to do so.

    When talking about human behavior and evolution, I think we often forget that a huge amount of what humans are “genetically hard-wired” to do is create and adapt to cultures. The prevalence of jealousy and slut-shaming is, by my guess, a cultural artifact that’s become deeply lodged in our possessive, patriarchal, post-agricultural minds. And the two-parent family is a natural outcome of patriarchal polygyny + increasing cultural emphasis on equality, both gender and class. That’s my best guess on the answer to those questions, anyway.

    As you say, the most important question for most of us is “So what do we do with this?” I wish everybody devoted time to figuring out what kind of relationship patterns would be ideal for them, un-lumping things that don’t have to go together even though our culture implies they do (i.e. commitment and exclusivity), and making choices based on what they really want or need for themselves.

    Posted by Ginny | February 2, 2011, 11:37 am
  3. I believe we are built for a primary relationship and opportunistic EPCs. There is a dynamic tension there at times to be sure.

    Monogamy is best seen as a conservative sexual strategy rather than natural.

    Once a culture figures out that just one man gets a woman pregnant, I’m pretty sure the whole multi-partner thing vanishes within a very short time.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | February 2, 2011, 4:48 pm
  4. I believe we are built for a primary relationship and opportunistic EPCs. There is a dynamic tension there at times to be sure.

    That’s definitely the most common belief, even among fairly liberal scientists. The problem with it is that most of the data leading to the conclusion is either strongly biased, outright false, or riddled with holes. I believe it was E.O. Wilson who once said something like “We might have a totally different understanding of human sexuality if we’d discovered the bonobo first.” Biologically, we’re just as far from chimps as bonobos, plus or minus a statistically insignificant amount. Societally, we are more like bonobos than chimps, except that we don’t have open orgies in public much these days. (We did it quite a bit in our “primitive” past.)

    With the caveat that I’m a learning computer, and my mind has changed on this subject several times in the past… I believe that agriculture introduced concepts into human mating which were not present for most of our history — namely “cheating” and betrayal of trust. Again, we have to wonder, if our hunter/gatherer ancestors got their own food off the trees and ground, and shared kills communally, what motivation would two people have for sexual exclusivity? Especially if children were raised communally. So while I think that what you’re saying is environmentally true to a certain extent, I don’t think it represents mating hard-wiring. Instead, I think it is an adaptation to the need for storing resources. We don’t mate with one primary partner because that’s our sexual design. We do it because we know there will be kids, and a house, and retirement packages, and so forth, and we don’t want to lose any of those resources.

    Monogamy is best seen as a conservative sexual strategy rather than natural.

    Yes, it’s clearly a conservative strategy. And as an aside, I’ve been tossing around a political line of thought for a few weeks. It’s not necessarily that it’s impossible to shape a really happy, healthy, egalitarian society with extreme conservatism. It’s that it’s probably the most difficult way to do so, and you have to be a bit of a masochist to want to do something the hardest way possible when there are easier ways. But that’s just me being snarky…

    In seriousness, yes, I think it’s obvious that lifelong monogamy can work, and that it is a viable strategy for sexual fulfillment, pair bonding, and raising children. And it’s hard to call it anything but conservative. The only more conservative sexual strategy is celibacy.

    But the thing is, monogamy mostly doesn’t work. If the goals are monogamy, sexual fulfillment, self-actualization, happiness, and successful dual child-rearing, than it’s probably safe to say that only a fraction of marriages achieve their goals. Consider that while two people may “tough it out” for the kids, they are not happy, self-actualized, or sexually fulfilled, so they’re only batting about .250.

    So… what I’m getting at is this: I’m not advocating mass polygamy, nor am I suggesting that primary long term pair bonding should be dropped from our cultural vocabulary. I think they are workable (if extremely difficult) solutions to the “problem” of acquiring resources. But I do think that as individuals, we can think about the meaning of sex, and the real separation between pair bonding and exclusivity which we know exists. (Consider the number of porn stars with husbands. Do they have a perfect life? No. But they have primary pair bonds without exclusivity.)

    And more importantly… for those of us who aren’t in the market for making more humans, I think we need to look at the extreme difficulty of maintaining both a primary pair bond and exclusivity over a lifetime and ask ourselves why we even want to try in the first place. If we can come up with a good answer, fine. But if not…

    Once a culture figures out that just one man gets a woman pregnant, I’m pretty sure the whole multi-partner thing vanishes within a very short time.

    Perhaps, and perhaps not. We are told that the impetus for paternal certainty is the distribution of resources to the child, right? The father doesn’t want to give his hard earned dollars to some other guy’s sperm donation. But if we’re talking about an egalitarian society in which children are raised communally anyway, and nobody cares whose child is whose, since everybody gathers their own food anyway… what does it matter?

    I find it very puzzling that we don’t have any way to detect parentage (beyond obvious differences like race). So many animals with clear parental investment do. They can smell it. Or whatever. And they usually kill babies that are not theirs, even when they have come out of their “primary’s” body. And for that matter, if gene continuity is so blasted important for men, why aren’t we more thrilled when we learn that our brother has slept with our wife? I mean, that’s half our gene. We ought to be happy. But we’re not.

    In any case, I’m not done writing on this topic, so stay tuned…

    And for the record, I think that your advice is generally spot on for people who insist on doing things your way 🙂 So I’m still on your side.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 2, 2011, 5:39 pm
  5. Clint, you are the man. Seriously. You are the man. I’m not going to answer your question because:
    1) I laughed so hard reading the lead-up to the question, I think I blew a gasket in my brain.
    2) I’m still hung up on gill slits and can’t wrap my brain around a coherent answer.
    3) I think this conversation should properly occur while both of us are at least half-sauced.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 2, 2011, 5:52 pm
  6. Oh I know you’re on my side in that sense Hamby.

    I’m just trying to be clear that I’m aware of the “natural” difficulties to monogamy. People are always misunderstanding me that I’m doing this from a moral perspective and I’ve even been repeatedly thanked for writing “as a Christian.”

    I’m just deeply pragmatic. For many people, monogamy is a workable solution to many problems. So I explain the strategy.

    People want too much from marriages these days anyway.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | February 2, 2011, 8:54 pm
  7. It is not an either/or situation. To use an analogy; Take omnivors, and the argument that humans don’t have to be meat eaters, and that there fore it is unethical to eat meat when we can survive on protein obtained elsewhere. There are two kinds of omnivors, the one who CAN eat EITHER animal or vegetable, and the kind that NEEDS BOTH animal and vegetable. Our systems are designed to survive on either, so vegetarians argue that since we are CAPABLE of surviving on only plants, we have a moral obligation not to kill and eat animals. Suppose it’s not that we have to be monogamous or that we have to be polygamous or bigamous, but that we CAN be either. Some people demonstrate extreme comfort and in fact prefer a polygamous/bigamous lifestyle, even a swingers lifestyle. While others are not only extremely uncomfortable with it, it sparks them to acts of extreme violence at the suggestion of stepping out on their mate or their mate stepping out on them. We can’t really argue that nature says we should all be sleeping together or there wouldn’t be so many STD’s. Clearly an idea of “let’s all swap our DNA freely” doesn’t work out biologically, it’s developed highly destructive diseases. And if it were really so natural for all mankind to have multiple partners, then history wouldn’t be littered so extensively with acts of violent aggression based on jealousy and territoriality. I would argue that some humans are monogamous and some are not, based on the society they were raised in. That humans can and do have a natural ability to live in either fashion but that when they are children, they psychologically become wired to the one or the other. And that becomes a behavior seared into the bone, something fixed early in life and unlikely to ever change. Now since we are capable of being monogamous, are we obligated to be? Is there a moral imparative here? That is the real debate. Weather or not we should ethically be monogamous as a species, I don’t know, but I do know this. Those who are most comfortable being polygamous/bigamous should not expect acceptence from a monogamist as a mate, it would be unfair, nor would it be fair for a monogamist to expect acceptence of a polygamist/bigamist. If you are a multiple partner kind of guy/girl, you should date a multiple partner kind of guy/girl and vice versa with monogamists. Oh and wear condoms.

    Posted by anji8791 | April 24, 2013, 9:52 am

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