A recent book presents some evidence that monogamy is actually new to human beings, and one reason why exclusive sexual relationships are so problematic is because our brains and bodies weren’t designed for long-term sexual fidelity (1).
There’s hope for humanity. Just when it seemed that people are inevitably condemned to pursue an impossible dream of one man/one woman marital bliss, the courageous authors describe some good reasons to reject the silly romantic ideals of what they call the marital-industrial complex. This is a long story worth reading and re-reading.
According to the “standard narrative” promoted by ancient religions, early philosophers, and even pioneering scientists like Charles Darwin, monogamy is natural to human beings, part of our biological nature. But in reality the ancients (including Darwin) didn’t have access to a lot of information about human prehistory as we do today.
The best evidence available now indicates that throughout most of human existence men and women practiced multi-male and multi-female mating, and they were probably quite happy doing so, thank you very much. For at least the last 200,000 years and probably long before that the environment favored the evolution of brains and bodies that share sexual partners for the good of everyone concerned – especially the children.
The data, of course, come primarily from recent anthropological observations of pre-industrial/pre-agricultural groups that still exist on every continent, as well as observations of our closest nonhuman primate cousins: chimpanzees and bonobos. None of these groups are monogamous. NONE. Monogamy evidently arose only with the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, along with our unhealthy grain-based diet, greed for acquisition and possession of material objects, widespread addiction to stimulants, bloodshed of war, and irresponsible disregard for our biosphere. The past 10,000 years of jealous couples tending their private plots have brought our planet to the brink of destruction.
These critics are not trying to promote some naïve communist utopia, but merely suggest that where we are today is not necessarily the best of all possible worlds. Not even close, and not exactly a radical suggestion. One economist has described the disgraceful behavior of modern corporations, and their contribution to the cynical psychopathy that passes for business as usual in large nation-states (2). In a previous post I described how the infant bottle formula industry attempts to sabotage healthy breastfeeding . The modern world is a disaster crying for solutions, or at least some explanation, and “Sex at Dawn” offers a realistic explanation for how we got into this mess.
The received wisdom among evolutionary psychologists is that a male invests much less than a female in a pregnancy, so the two genders have different (and conflicting) mating strategies. Men would prefer to mate with as many women as possible, while women try to hook a man into exclusive, long-term care and protection. That seems obvious in modern agricultural nation-states, but our bodies tell a different story.
Human females are not only capable of multiple copulations, the whole group benefits from encouraging “sperm competition” from different males. When males are unaware of which offspring resulted from which males, all males have an incentive to protect all offspring. As I suggested in a previous post, ideally mothers should also be unaware of which offspring came from which mother. I think people would be much happier if they spent more time mating instead of worrying about who a child “belongs” to.
Another advantage of multiple mating is that the immune systems of children in a multi-mating group are more varied and change faster across generations, thus protecting children better from deadly micro-organisms. A surprising form of evidence for sperm competition is the strange anatomy of the human penis compared to other primates. The human penis is evidently designed to suck other males’ sperm out of the woman so that his sperm will reach the ovum instead. A rather refined form of sexual competition compared to males threatening to beat each other’s brains out.
Monogamy boasts staggering rates of teen suicide and currently a marriage failure rate of about 50% (many more failed attempts at eternal coupling that “never gets boring” don’t even enter the statistics). Many confused adults today believe that having children is a burden rather than one of the greatest pleasures in life. Who wants to buy food and other necessities for a living, breathing, little human being when you could be spending your money on the latest adult toys and gadgets mass-marketed to eager consumers?
This book offers one shock after another. Some of the most highly respected authors and Harvard scholars in science are exposed as blind dogmatists for the sacred doctrine of monogamy. The critical reviews of this book on Amazon and other places sound like desperate calls for help by hysterical dreamers whose lifelong obsession with the “pair-bond” has now been seriously questioned. If this book doesn’t wake couples up, they deserve the bogus treatments (Viagra, Prozac, infant bottle formula, etc.) peddled by the pharmaceutical industry.
One reviewer on Amazon claims sociologists are not in any dispute about the value of the nuclear family for children, as if that consensus refutes anything “Sex and Dawn” says. In reality infanticide is unknown among our closest cousins, the multi-mating bonobo, but human mothers living in a monogamous culture are known to sometimes kill their own healthy offspring (3). Some reviewers refer to Claude Levi-Strauss’ theory of “reciprocal exogamy,” in which there is a political/military advantage in trading daughters to establish alliances between families. But that theory applies neatly only to agricultural societies, not to the hunter-gatherers who represent the vast majority of human history. Such superficial attacks confirm an important fact: the popular belief in the supposed naturalness of monogamy is a dogma in every sense of the word.
“Sex at Dawn” questions the traditional claim that monogamy is somehow strongly ingrained in human nature, and the popular belief that furious jealousy is inevitable, but the book doesn’t make the opposite mistake in claiming that multi-male and multi-female mating ARE strongly ingrained. The authors merely suggest that variability is natural; we are not naturally condemned to monogamy, and by extension polyamory may be a realistic, viable alternative in some cases.
Criticizing monogamy doesn’t necessarily entail advocating promiscuity. Quite the contrary, I may feel a very strong preference for a certain individual, but without being obsessed with that individual. I merely recognize that someone’s preferences need not be exclusive, and your preferences may change over time. We may fairly say that fear of change (in relationships, in this case) is an infantile fear.
The authors’ story isn’t perfect or complete (a follow-up volume is planned). One important source of data that was overlooked is child behavior. When very young children engage in spontaneous sex play it is usually in groups, and often fluid groups with newcomers welcome. The so-called “pair-bond” is non-existent in early childhood until older models imprint children with the idea.
“Sex at Dawn” was published by a mainstream conglomerate, so the authors steer clear of the radioactive topic of childhood sexual behavior. Despite the authors’ extensive discussions of primate sexuality, nowhere is it mentioned that juvenile chimps have been clocked at 3,000 copulations before they reach reproductive maturity. Other primates begin copulating at half their adult age. Some observers report that in some species of primates the young females are especially enthusiastic (“persistent”) in attempting to copulate with adult males (4).
Nor is the politically incorrect topic of female sexual dysfunction discussed in terms of developmental causes. It’s hard to imagine that the authors (one of whom is a woman and a medical doctor) are completely unaware of the physiological principle of “Use it or lose it.” They present a lot of evidence that females are as interested as men in sex, if not more so, and specifically state that girls are the victims of shame-training (“inhibition”) more than boys, but they never touch on Clitoral Erectile Dysfunction.
The book describes an interesting experiment in which very young sheep and goats were raised with the other species instead of their own. When the subjects matured they were reunited with their own species, and surprisingly the females freely mated with either species while the males only mated with the species they were raised with. That experiment is cited as evidence of the female’s greater sexual fluidity compared to the male, possibly in other species of mammals as well. Another possible interpretation is that males are more subject to influence by early variations in experience.
A possible application of that research is in the issue of child sexual abuse (CSA). Most public reports of CSA involve girls as victims, and it is possible that girls or their parents are more likely to report CSA because it is believed that girls are more damaged by it. But if females are indeed more sexually fluid than males then they may be less vulnerable to the negative effects of insensitive and exploitative abuse, so other explanations for the different rates of reported CSA should be sought (e.g. boy victims feel less need to seek help from adults, or boys may be abused at an earlier age when their memory doesn’t survive).
Throughout the broad spectrum of medical pathology there is widespread recognition of benign normal variations that require no intervention. Only in hysterical matters such as child sexual abuse is there a fanatical conviction that any and all sexual experience in childhood demands surveillance, investigation, and unproven “counseling” that may actually worsen the victim’s suffering by exaggerating the supposed dangers of abuse.
“Sex at Dawn” is the most courageous and inspiring book I’ve read in a long time. It makes readers question almost everything you thought you knew about human sexuality. I can’t praise it too highly. Read it at least twice.
- Ryan, Christopher and Jethà, Cacilda. Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships. Harper, 2010.
- Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Economics of Innocent Fraud. Penguin, 2005.
- Hrdy, Susan Blaffer. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. Random House, 1999.
- Dixson, Alan F. Primate Sexuality: Comparative Studies of the Prosimians, Monkeys, Apes, and Human Beings. Oxford University Press, 1998.