Is Monogamy Natural?

Each month I meet with a group of close male friends. We discuss life, ethics, our work and sometimes treat ourselves to a little mansplaining of popular culture over a plate of Nandos. Half of us with chicken, the other half with some bean variant.

A number of months ago I commented about a site called Ashley Madison. For the uninitiated this is a dating site where married people are encouraged to sign up and have discreet affairs. (No link) This lead to a long discussion about the history of cheating and extramarital affairs from the annals of time to now. I then asked the question, is monogamy natural? The resounding answer from all of us was, no probably not.

Now context is everything and of course the word natural, like normal, is very subjective. I use the word natural here because when discussing sexuality like this one finds the obvious lexicon around such a topic delineates to whether something is natural or unnatural. My friends and I, over our Nandos dinner, suggested that monogamy was more of a social construct and that it was probable that polygamous relationships were more natural in humans, as evidenced in many societies and groups, as it is across the animal kingdom. Obviously this was anecdotal and had no grounding in science.

However coming away from that conversation I wondered what science did have to say about monogamy and whether as humans we are predisposed to something other than single partner relationships. Up till now I tried my best to research this without making my wife worry about this course of reading.

The Myth of Monogamy was one of the first texts I stumbled upon. Using the context of evolutionary biology the authors, husband and wife team Dr David P Barash and psychiatrist Dr Judith Eve Lipton, took a “tour of human mating strategies, from monogamy to sexual treachery, from exclusivity to polygamy.” The summaries I read (yes I didn’t read the whole book) exposed a heck of a lot of polygamy in the animal kingdom, especially by those animals usually held in high esteem as monogamists. Wolves, foxes, swans and other species of bird, for those asking. The authors suggested that such patterns were not just limited to the animals in study but also considered the impact and the data around human behaviour in this area.

The book concludes that sexual monogamy, the practice of sex with only one mate at a time, and social monogamy, when animals form pairs to mate and raise their offspring but still have flings on the side, is common not just within animal groups including humans. The bit that got me though is that whilst sexual monogamy within humans probably evolved from a desire to reduce infancticide, maintaining such sexual monogamy is incredibly difficult.

I read other reports, papers and eye opening books such as Sex at Dawn and The Ethical Slut, took data from research across various disciplines including anthropology, archeology and primatology, and suggest that if anything monogamy is not natural. That while moral norms tend to dominate the dialogue on this, biology also has a lot to say.

If we take a step back it is clearly obvious that the traditional concept of marriage and family, dominated by the narrative of a man who would look after a wife or wives, and provide for them and keep them as property has changed for many. Even in those traditional cultures around the world polygamy played a strong role. Concepts such as polyamory or relationship anarchy suggest, especially in more non traditional societies, that people are more open to more than one partner, and in some way is a push back against the traditional patriarchal role reinforced by cultural and faith groups.

If, like myself, your primary socialization was shaped in a faith group, the concept of monogamy is set in stone. Of the major faiths, holy Books will suggest that it is wrong, historically worthy of being stoned to death if Christian or Jewish, and still applicable if you are Muslim to step outside of the confines of marriage. Yet of the major faiths there are many stories of the heroes who even with option of polygamy still stepped outside the norms and engaged in extramarital flings. Jesus when referring to adultery in his ministry even suggested that it starts in the mind long before it becomes physical. So any monogamists taking the moral high ground while watching porn. Sorry.

So what is my conclusion?

Sites like Ashley Madison, a reduction in traditional marriages, and an increase in divorces, are anecdotal evidence to the concept that monogamy is not natural. Open relationships and changing societal constructs around relationships will also suggest that this is so. Evolutionary biology suggests monogamy is not natural.

For me the issue is not so much about whether monogamy is natural, (that word again), but in allowing couples to explore what they define as boundaries to make their relationships functional. Whether or not monogamy is natural will not heal a broken heart or repair a distraught family torn apart because of infidelity. However honest debates on topics like this allow us to manage expectations on relationships.

Monogamy is not for every one.
Monogamy is hard work.
Monogamy is probably a lot less natural than polygamy.
I guess it’s about recognising what works for you and honouring those who differ from your path.

Humanity is messy huh? Coffee?

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