The Myth of Monogamy

By Ed Cara

It’s a peaceful day in the Brazilian sun. The sweat beads down the weathered hunter’s face but it is an experience familiar to him as he returns home to his settlement alongside his fellow tribesmen, the modern-day Kulina of the Amazon, with the meat of the day’s kill in hand. Though weary, the men cannot help but quietly smile to one another. For they know what’s waiting for them at the end of their walk home; the tender touch of a woman as reward for a successful hunt.

One woman in particular will croon and sing to our returning hunter in her hut to bring her his meat, and if our hunter can do so, then he’ll be allowed to bring her his meat. If he can’t, then he’ll sleep a tired and alone man. Which is exactly why the men arrange to meet up after their respective hunts to equally split the day’s profits and ensure each man comes home with a spoil. The women, for their part, teasingly play along and remain “oblivious” to the unfettered success of their hunters.

As our hunter returns and sees the warm smile of the woman eagerly waiting for his presence, he knows his day’s hard work will go happily acknowledged. But here the happy ending (just assume every single pun here is intended) takes a slight shift. Because the warm smile our hunter sees isn’t that of his devoted partner’s, it’s his fellow hunter’s wife. This night, no Kulina man will sleep with his established companion. And not a soul in the village will bat a jealous eye.

It’s a ritual called the dutse’e bani towi(‘the order to get meat’) and according to researchers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, it’s one of the many cultural and biological examples that contradict the long-established narrative that humankind was designed, nay destined, to be monogamous.

Though this might come as no surprise, humanity has the proud distinction of being the species most obsessed with the reproductive act. Thinking it, planning it and, of course, doing it; men and women alike are daily reminded of sex and its close friend, love. How to be better at it, avoid the losers, and ultimately find the perfect person to spend the rest of our lives with (while having great sex). As jaded as we appear to have become with the business of love, what with divorce rates in the Western world having stayed steady at around 40-50% of all married couples (at least in the US), celebrity scandals breaking out nightly and our media churning out one cheesy reality show about finding love after another, we are still hopeless romantics underneath it all. We will struggle, cry and fail time and time again in our search to find the soulmate. That’s the ideal we’ve been given as natural; one to love and make love to for all time. The fact that so few succeed at something so supposedly intuitive never strikes many of us as being odd. We simply didn’t try hard enough, or we were wrong about that particular soulmate.

But what if we were never hardwired for a soulmate in the first place, Ryan and Jethá ask. What if monogamy was something we created from whole cloth, and in the not-so-distant past laid the true nature of our sexuality?

In their 2010 book, Sex at Dawn, Ryan and Jethá piece together the various bits of evidence from evolutionary biology, psychology and primatology to form a different picture of the human sex drive, one not as contradictory and combative as we’ve made ours out to be; ultimately arriving at the conclusion that for a majority of human history, sex was promiscuous, plentiful and practiced without much of the jealousy and shame we ascribe to its modern-day counterpart.

Before you get too worked up at the idea of people engaging in a 200,000 year-long orgy (fun as that might be), Ryan and Jethá do not look to make our human ancestors to be noble, free-loving folk of the plains either, only point out that monogamy as we understand it had no basis in our evolutionary or cultural history until very recently, with the advent of agriculture ten thousand years ago.

They first take a look at our primate family in the animal kingdom, specifically the bonobo and chimpanzee, our closest genetic relatives.

Much as the common creationist might hate to admit, many of our human behaviors share a familiar analog among our ape cousins. The traits of social bonding are especially echoed in the bonobo and chimp; a fact readily acknowledged by any scientist in the field. We are very much like them, biologically and socially, as would make sense considering that on the evolutionary scale, we’re practically next door neighbors. To Ryan and Jethá, it’s striking then that while we acknowledge both species are incredibly promiscuous about sex (and so too, the common ancestor from which all three species descended from), we hesitate to make the logical leap that humankind was made to make love, not war just as enthusiastically.

For all the fanfare the rest of the ape family gets, bonobos are surprisingly little-noticed, even as the evidence mounts as to how alike our two species are. They are social, intelligent creatures who partially left the trees and developed small peaceful communities united under their females and with an emphasis on group trust and cohesion. And when it comes to sex, they might as well be our carbon copies.

Bonobos and humans are the only species to sleep around throughout their entire menstrual cycle (or during pregnancy, lactation and the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother). We both enjoy as many different sexual positions as we can twist ourselves into and as often times a day as we can. The female vulva is located in the front as opposed to the back, homosexuality is a common occurrence in both, our infants take much longer to develop than other apes, the size ratio of males to females is the same (men are 10-20 percent bigger) and our brains release oxytocin, a hormone known to foster trust and reduce stress in humans, during and after sex. We both even long to look into each other’s eyes and kiss deeply while making love, the only two species known to do so.

Our junk gets in on the act too: the testes and penis of the male chimp, bonobo and human dwarf that of the gorilla, orangutan and gibbon (while our tinmen are the champion of the ape world, the brass balls of the chimp and bonobos send us packing). Add to that the fact that all three of us have external genitalia so that we can produce more sperm and have it ready to go at any moment’s notice, and the only reasonable conclusion you can come to is that sex for us was at one point, and still is for chimps and bonobos, always up for grabs with multiple partners within and between groups.

Bonobos and chimps do not represent a man’s hedonistic paradise of one man to many women though(for that you’d need to look at gorillas, who rarely have sex, are much larger than their females and come up incredibly short what we humans like to count). Sex in their world is for everyone to reap and enjoy; to use as stress relief, social cohesion and a form of bonding. Evolutionarily, reproduction is the goal, but humans haven’t been the only ones to come away with a higher purpose for it all. Yet as similar as we are to the bonobo, people still insist that humans are monogamous primates by nature, that long term pair-bonding is written in our genes and has served as the model for human interaction for long as we’ve existed (which as noted was about 200,000 years in the case of Homo sapiens).

That’s in large part to our Victorian bias, say Ryan and Jethá. Even as Darwin in the 1800′s revolutionized science with evolutionary theory, he and other scientists would continue to relegate the role of sex in our lives to something unseemly and vulgar, unfitting of European sophistication. Religion and tradition demanded (and still does) that man and wife was the purest arrangement; that without the neat compartment of a nuclear family, blood and sin would flow in the streets. So eager has this cultural bias ingratiated into our heads that even some who should know better, such as evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists, look to paint humans as the sole light-keepers of monogamy and family instead of as the especially randy members of the primate family that we are.

Does this make monogamy wrong? Or our great, great, etc. grandparents any more righteous for living like the bonobos do? No. Ultimately Ryan and Jethá, who are indeed married (to each other), aren’t looking to throw off the shackles of Western culture and abolish monogamy, only to frame it in the correct context, to lay down the full, dirty story of how we came to be and why. Especially since so many of us struggle to reconcile culture with biology.

We are fed an idea of love that should transcend all challenges with little difficulty, but when the hammer drops, the passion leaves or we find ourselves inexplicably miserable about monogamy, we’re left with only cruel options: end up confused and lost as to why our relationships just don’t work out or remain miserable but culturally accepted. What sort of fate is that to leave ourselves to? Ryan and Jethá ask that we are willing to step outside our culture and acknowledge our past to better decide the future. Not to necessarily discard the idea of marriage or monogamy, but to better understand what we are: social and sexual apes, and let that shape what it means to love, and make love, not just accept tradition for tradition’s sake.

Our capacity to love, to feel for others is something men and women alike all intrinsically carry with us. And that’s not a fact that changes whether we’re two newlyweds in New York wearing a matching set of rings or a Kulina couple enjoying the spoils of a good hunt with someone new for a night. Love has been always love. Marriage? Who knows what that’ll be in a couple more hundred years?

Unless linked otherwise, any references can be located in Ryan and Jetha’s Sex at Dawn.

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0 Responses to The Myth of Monogamy

  1. It’s all very confusing. Gorillas have harems, strong sexual size dimorphism (the biggest male gets the harem), and small testicles (no sperm competition). Chimps and bonobos are a licentious lot, with no sexual dimorphism and large testicles for sperm competition. Humans show a small degree of sexual dimorphism, and have medium size testicles. Go reckon.

    The one thing that’s clear is that reserving sex for reproductive purposes only is completely unnatural.

    BTW, we split from chimps before chimps and bonobos split from each other, so we are exactly equally related to both of them, in the same sense that we are equally related to two different cousins. And we split from chimps after chimps split from gorillas, so if you want to use “ape” as the name of a clade, we’re apes.

  2. An interesting and thought-provoking post. I wouldn’t mind getting a few Bible-thumpers to read this.

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