Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

The Omnigamist's Dilemma

Is there any wiggle room in monogamy?

I was a vegetarian for a few years during the Reagan administration. Or was I? 

It all comes down to whether you’re willing to overlook an occasional pepperoni pizza and a few slices of bacon every now and then. From my perspective, the pressure released by the occasional lapse into cured meats empowered my admittedly imperfect vegetarianism. When you’re going up against ravenous natural appetites that evolved over millions of years, compromise may be the only alternative to complete failure. 

That’s why all the heated debate over monogamy reminds me of my vegetarian days: sexual monogamy is a lot like vegetarianism. Nobody’s denying that an all-veggie diet (like monogamy) can be an excellent approach to life for many reasons, ranging from ethical to environmental. But all the evidence (our teeth, jaw strength, digestive system, the diets of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers, comparisons to closely-related primates, and so on) quite clearly indicates that our ancestors evolved as omnivores. That doesn’t mean living as an omnivore in today’s world is inherently any better than choosing to avoid meat. But keep this firmly in mind: Even fanatical vegetarianism will never make you an herbivore; it will only make you an omnivore who’s hell-bent on not eating meat.

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That’s a different animal entirely—one likely to face constant cravings and frustrations. It would be foolish to commit to a lifetime of vegetarianism thinking it’s going to be easy, no matter how much you love animals. It won’t.

Similarly, it’s cruel and deceitful to teach people that our ancestors evolved as happy vegetarians, so any rumblings in your stomach as you walk by the barbecue are due to “original sin,” your weak character, poor cognitive development, emotional immaturity, or some other shame-generating nonsense. No, your stomach responds that way because it is the stomach of an animal that evolved eating meat whenever possible.

Simple as that.

Love for your spouse, no matter how profound and sincere, will probably not eliminate your innate yearning for erotic novelty. Just as our teeth and intestines indicate that our ancestors ate plenty of meat, the evolved design of our reproductive organs, our orgasmic capacities, and our species-wide penchant for frequent non-reproductive sex tell us that our ancestors were sexual omnivores with voracious appetites.

The German philosopher, Schopenhauer wrote, “People can do what they want but they cannot want what they want.” [“Der Mensch kanntun was er will; erkannabernichtwollen was er will.”] Given the realities of human sexual evolution, you can choose whether or not to live monogamously, but you cannot choose whether or not it will come naturally and easily. It probably won’t.

Vegetarians who understand why sizzling bacon makes their mouths water will be better at sticking to their chosen dietary regime than those who beat themselves up over what is just a natural response.

Maybe I was never really a vegetarian—just vegetarian-ish. I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that without the flexibility to get a pepperoni pizza every once in a while, I’d have abandoned the tofu and sprouts long before I did.

 Maybe that’s just me, but I really don’t think so.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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