Many traditionalists believe that monogamous marriage and the nuclear family are best for human beings, and even necessary for the survival of modern civilization as we know it. Hence, alternatives to monogamy – such as polyamory (multiple wives/multiple husbands) – must not be tolerated. In contrast, some other people believe that polyamory may be more conducive to human satisfaction and may ultimately produce children who are better adapted to survive and enjoy life.
In 2010 Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethà published “Sex at Dawn,” which presented some evidence for our multi-mating past, with the implication that monogamy isn’t inevitable for modern humans so we may consider alternatives like polyamory (1). The book was a best-seller, in part thanks to the glowing praise of syndicated columnist Dan Savage. But that thesis provoked some strong criticism in a later book “Sex at Dusk” by the apparently pseudonymous author Lynn Saxon, which claimed Ryan’s evidence was distorted, and presented counterevidence that suggests our ancestors were monogamous or polygynous (one male with multiple wives), and also claiming that monogamy offers more advantages than multi-mating – especially for women (2).
One problem neither book confronts adequately is that regardless of our past, modern human females are living in a unique environment. Saxon does say: “Most of the situations modern females find themselves in today are ones that our ancestors never knew.” True, but she says that in the context of disputing evidence of women’s apparent sexual fluidity, rather than acknowledging that women today have more and better opportunities for sexual enjoyment.
Saxon says she is not advocating evolutionary psychology, but claims natural selection results in the passing on of certain “traits.” That slippery term is not specifically defined but seems to refer not only to such things as eye color, but also sexual behavior patterns which in simpler species seem to be inherited instincts rather than the result of learning. However, there is some evidence that young monkeys deprived of social interaction in early development become sexually dysfunctional, so there may be a need or benefit of early sexual learning even in non-human primates. There is no evidence that human sexual behavior is strictly determined by genes, and calling “traits” tendencies or inclinations rather than instincts or compulsions merely changes the terms of the problem, but does not avoid the pesky lack of clear evidence.
After Saxon argues that the rosy view of multiple mating in the past presented in “Sex at Dawn” is misrepresented and unrealistic from a deterministic biological standpoint, she then seems to contradict herself by saying: “Whatever people choose to do in the modern world is up to them.” Despite Saxon’s apparently feminist agenda, she seems to arrive at the odd conclusion that young women today should not choose to be sexually uninhibited; girls should save their precious virginity until they find romantic love in a traditional monogamous marriage to Prince Charming.
Another problem neither book confronts adequately is that the important influence of hormones on human behavior is widely acknowledged, but few realize this is the first time in the history of our species that women go through hundreds of useless menstrual cycles without getting pregnant. This is also the first time that most women don’t spend most of their reproductive lives breastfeeding (excluding occasional periods of famine in the past). The hormonal state during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding (or their absence) may profoundly impact not only the individual woman but the whole family, group or community. We have no idea what impact this radically different modern environment may have on men and women’s sexual desires, feelings, and behavior compared to the past.
The new availability of effective contraception and safe abortion (safe for the mother, at least) means whatever was natural or best in the past is not necessarily relevant today. Unlike other species or our own ancestors, people today can separate sex from reproduction. In simpler species, sex or mating means reproduction, but that is not the case for modern humans. It seems incredible that anyone today can simply ignore that fact and believe women and men will (must?) go on behaving the same way our ancestors did.
Regardless of the historical debate, evolutionary theory offers arguments for monogamy as the best way to ensure the survival of certain (selfish) genes through natural selection. That theory purports to explain why most men and women tend to be jealous and attempt to be sexually exclusive. However, evolutionary theory is based on observations of many species – including insects, worms, fish, and birds, in which mechanistic explanations for behavior are more appropriate than in complex human beings. In simpler species living in environments with extremely limited food resources and even limited space, the mere number of individuals reproduced translates into successful survival; but in complex human society the quality of offspring is just as important or more important than quantity in survival.
Although such inherited “traits” are claimed to be principles that “potentially apply” (Saxon’s careful wording) to humans, there are some unusual species in which the females are sexually aggressive and/or the males take care of the offspring. Even when certain kinds of behavior are widespread across species including mammals, there is no real way to verify if they are inevitable for human beings. Giving high doses of sex hormones to rats doesn’t have the same effects as humans taking high doses of sex hormones. Assumptions about what occurs in other species are often based on sparse observations or even a single study. Other forms of possible bias should weaken our faith in reported findings, such as ideological (e.g. feminist) prejudice and academia’s “publish or perish” rule, both of which give researchers an incentive to selectively report, exaggerate, or even lie about their findings (3).
While discussing Angus Bateman’s early genetic research on fruit flies, Saxon declares: “The sex – male or female – which has the greatest variance in numbers of offspring is the sex most eager to mate.” When females invest more in parenting they are more selective about mates. In sex role-reversed species where males do the parenting, females are more eager to mate. What does that have to do with humans? In human pair contacts the individual more eager to “mate” is the one who values the other individual more, based on real or imaginary qualities or momentary whim, regardless of who (either parent or some third party) might do the parenting, what gender category that individual belongs to, and what the reproductive variance might be. I’m not doubting the “principles” of evolutionary theory, but human beings don’t behave like fruit flies.
Although human mothers traditionally devote more time to babysitting (it would be an exaggeration to call what some mothers do parenting), men often provide the essential material resources. In modern humans throughout child development girls are the gender more eager to “mate.” Traditionally, little boys are notoriously unenthusiastic about girls. Only around puberty when there is massive neural pruning and most girls discover they have been mentally castrated and are sexually dysfunctional, do boys become the gender more eager to “mate.” It’s my frequent observation that when most people talk about feminine desires, feelings, and behavior, they conveniently point to mature women after cultural indoctrination, rather than the more natural or less indoctrinated behavior of girls in early childhood. As one mother and colleague of mine intimated, the behavior of little girls doesn’t count because they are “sluts.”
The males of many species are observed to be less adverse to “indiscriminate” mating than females, but in humans the supposedly selective females are often careless about mate choice or extremely poor judges of a potential mate’s qualities as a provider or co-parent. That is apparently due to poor education rather than any genetic “traits.” I think most people would agree that we should not rely on our sexual or reproductive “traits.” Better parent education for both men and women is the best way to prevent poor mate choice or indiscriminate mating – a luxury that is not available to most other species and was not available to us throughout most human history or prehistory.
Saxon admits that true sexual monogamy is rare; many species are socially monogamous but the partners try to cheat if they think they can get away with it. The law of the jungle is: cheat but discourage your mate from cheating. Is that strategy inevitable for humans? Is jealousy inherited? Jealousy is sometimes an expression of insecurity. A major advantage of monogamy that Saxon missed is that if you turn out to be incompetent as a spouse or parent (or both), you need not worry about possible competition since – by definition – monogamy officially disallows other possible spouses or parents. Another attraction of monogamy is that it’s a relatively simple formula with simple rules (compared to the alternatives), which doesn’t require juggling multiple relationships. Hence, monogamy appeals to individuals with simple minds who would rather not complicate their lives with “too many” variables.
Saxon argues that a male often tries to appear interested in parenting in order to persuade females to have sex with him (his only real interest). But that “principle” is disproven in humans by high-status adoptive fathers (e.g. a doctor I know personally) who devote themselves to their infertile wives and unrelated adopted children, instead of looking for other mating opportunities (abundant if you’re a doctor or other high-status male). After continuing to disparage males as single-minded sex fiends, Saxon claims that females are only interested in trading sex for resources, i.e. females are ascetic saints forced by their genes into prostitution. Incredibly, she suggests if women had free access to resources, they would have no incentive to engage in sex! Or females are receptive to sex when not ovulating primarily to avoid male aggression. Such claims are precisely what we would expect if the speaker is sexually dysfunctional and can’t imagine any women enjoying sex for its own sake.
Saxon also suggests that men are only eager to have sex with highly desirable females (young and healthy), so in shared polyamory men would need “plenty of Viagra” to perform with the least attractive women. This again suggests an assumption of sexual dysfunction. As I described in a previous post on mental castration I didn’t need any Viagra recently when an older woman who was obese and mildly handicapped took a liking to me. Spending too much time studying other species seems to distort Saxon’s perception of our own species. Do female fruit flies experience clitoral erections? Do insects even have a clitoris?
Since sexually functional women are relatively rare in modern Western culture, we don’t expect a woman to experience clitoral erections when stimulated, let alone spontaneous clitoral erections. Some women have no memory of ever feeling or seeing a clitoral erection even though there is good reason to believe that all little girls experience spontaneous clitoral erections in early childhood, although many individuals appear to lose that function around puberty, probably due to sexual neglect during development and consequent neural pruning. We may hypothesize the existence of some form of mental block that women who are sexually dysfunctional suffer when considering the topic of clitoral erection and female orgasm.
In a later chapter Saxon includes a section titled “The female orgasm,” but the section is mostly about immune-compatibility and sperm competition and only includes a few sentences that barely mention female orgasm. She does say: “Human females do tend to be more sexually proceptive, more spontaneously aroused, and can more easily achieve orgasm when ovulating.” Nonetheless, women are only interested in exchanging sex for resources or avoiding male aggression? Saxon doesn’t seem to think that glaring contradiction merits any extensive discussion, possibly because healthy women’s capacity for sexual pleasure contradicts much of what Saxon says about female sexuality throughout the book.
Some other species exhibit some incredibly bizarre mating behavior, so it is unreasonable to say polyamory in humans is unlikely to be successful because it seems bizarre compared to other species. An important difference between humans and many other species (including our closest relatives: chimps and bonobos) is that in many other species fertility lasts until death, while in humans fertility declines significantly in old age in the male, and disappears completely in the female after menopause. Knowledge and education may take precedence over supposed genetic predispositions in human behavior especially in advanced age, even if such precedence is not observed in most other species that lack culture. Even some young humans (e.g. who are permanently infertile) are often eager to become step-parents or adopt and become dedicated, loving caregivers for unrelated children. What do we care if that never happens in worms or even bonobos? In many areas the demand for children available for adoption far exceeds the supply.
Sexual preference, mate choice, and preoccupation with paternity in humans are strongly influenced by values learned through early education and reinforced by culture. Choices and preferences may even vary between different families in the same culture, and even between different generations of the same family. Evolutionary “traits” are not overwhelming to humans as in other, simpler species. Although genes may predispose us to suffer certain diseases, in many cases those effects may be avoided by learning about and avoiding environmental triggers. No individual is forced to behave in such a way as to promote the passing on of his or her genes. We may decide to seek the survival of somebody else’s genes, because we like another person’s genes better than our own.
Such behavior may not result in the individuals passing on their genes to the next generation, but that doesn’t matter if the choice is cultural rather than genetic. If a culture promotes love of beautiful and healthy children, such a culture may thrive and flourish (produce many high-quality children) regardless of which individual genes are being passed on – assuming that the individuals who are born are then culturally educated to promote the successful survival of children. Someday when we are able to design beautiful, healthy children, we must ask: Who (other than a chimpanzee) would be so self-centered as to want his “own” ugly or disease-prone genes reproduced anyway? If children could have chosen who their parents would be, would they have chosen you?
Both “Sex at Dawn” and “Sex at Dusk” are worth reading. They are informative and thought-provoking books, even if the authors disagree with each other. Science progresses through debate, and neither Ryan/ Jethà nor Saxon has written the final word on monogamy vs. polyamory. The scientific spirit is to be humble and experiment, and evolutionary biology is hardly an exact science. I think we should be suspicious of anyone who claims that observations of fruit flies, shorebirds, and other species have revealed certain reproductive “traits,” and evolutionary “principles” that suggest polyamory would be great for primitive male sex fiends but not for pure-minded women. In my next post I will argue that although monogamy may be best for a selfish adult and his or her selfish genes, polyamory as multiple parenting may be better for the health and safety of children.
- Ryan, Christopher and Jethà, Cacilda. Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships. Harper, 2010. See my review at: https://sexhysteria.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/sex-at-dawn-challenging-prudish-dogma/
- Saxon, Lynn. Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn. (No publisher, 2012)
- Ioannidis JP (2005) Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med 2: e124.