The Myth of Monogamy

August 26, 2010

Philosophy

Is monogamy a human trait?  With the string of recent infidelities constantly bombarding us in the media in addition to the experiences in our personal lives, I believe this is a question worth asking.  While on a plane, I had the pleasure of reading a book called Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha that blows many of our long held assumptions out of the water.  In their groundbreaking book they suggest, through an enormous amount of anthropological data, studies of our closest evolutionary relatives (chimps and bonobos), as well as through studies of existing and past hunter-gatherer societies, that we are not, in fact, a naturally monogamous species.

How was life back then?

Monogamy is not found in any social, group-living primate except-if the standard narrative is to believed-us.

In early foraging and hunter-gatherer societies, people lived in smaller groups of no more than 100-150 individuals.  Sharing, not an “every man for himself” mentality that we grew up with, was the norm.  In order for early humans to be successful, it was necessary to share food, resources, and yes, also sexual partners.  Human females are unique in that they do not give any outward indication of ovulation as  most animals do.  It is believed that this occurs in order to hide paternity.  With no social restrictions on female sexuality as we have today, women mating with multiple males in the group was the norm.  This was obviously beneficial for men since the ability to mate with any woman in the group lowered aggression and competition.  The belief that the fetus is “made up of accumulated semen,” which therefore leads women to “seek out sex with an assortment of men” has been found independently in cultures around the world.  This was also beneficial to females because there was now a chance that any one of the males could be the father.  Raising children, far from being the job of only one family, was the job of the whole group since paternity could have been with any one of the men.  Any hint of jealousy or possessiveness that might have developed would have quickly been eliminated by the group.  It is widely known that sperm compete with each other fiercely within a woman’s body.  Since this natural selection war takes place within, there is really no reason for competition amongst males for females outside.

What changed everything?

Recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.
-Jared Diamond

One word.  Agriculture.  In addition to sabotaging our diet, agriculture singlehandedly changed our views on sex as well.  Agriculture allowed populations to explode as more food could be harvested.  As land and food became a commodity, wars were fought in order to control resources and consolidate power.  Female sexuality, in turn, also became a commodity to be exploited and controlled.

Haven’t we evolved past this?

This is probably the number one question people ask when confronted with such information.  “We are more intelligent/civilized/evolved than primates and hunter-gatherers,” people say.  Although we have evolved in a certain sense, to overlook or deny where we came from is to be short-sighted, to say the least.  Any argument that doesn’t consider the fact that we are, at the basic level, still primal creatures or that ignores evidence of our origins cannot be comprehensive.

So what does this all mean?

We know that many female readers aren’t going to be happy reading this, and some will be enraged by it, but for most men, sexual monogamy leads inexorably to monotomy.  It’s important to understand this process has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the man’s long-term partner or the depth and sincerity of his love for her.

We all know that men seek out an enjoy a variety of sexual partners.  What this also tells us is given a different place and time, without the constraints of modern society, females would function in much the same way. Does this information give men and women a license to be dishonest in their current relationships?  Absolutely not.  What this research does provide, however, is a framework for understanding why we are the way we are as well as the constant conflict between who we are and who society often wants us to be.  If anything, this should open up a dialogue amongst members of both sexes and partners and to realize that monogamy, far from an ideal to strive for, is simply a societal construct.

There is no way I can do this book justice in a simple blog post, but I encourage all of you to read it.  It is wonderfully written and had me hooked so much that I was able to finish this 314 page book in just one day.

3 Comments on “The Myth of Monogamy”

  1. Christopher Ryan Says:

    Hi. Google Alerts led me to your very thoughtful review of our book. Thank you for taking the time to spread the word.

    CPR

    Reply

    • raymondtung Says:

      Christopher,

      The pleasure has been all mine. I thoroughly enjoyed your book and thank you for taking the time to write!

      Raymond

      Reply

  2. The Beautiful Kind Says:

    Hello! I just discovered your blog thanks to C Ryan tweeting about it. I’m curious to know how the ideas introduced to you in this book will change your outlook on life.

    I look forward to exploring your blog – I’ve been looking for a financial advisor to partner with for a radio show idea I have. Hmm…I wonder how much you know about money, and how much you know about sex.

    Reply

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