Monogamous Myths Abound

and it is time to bury them once and for all

Posted Mar 06, 2016

Romeo and Juliet, Tarzan and Jane, Ozzie and Harriet, and of course, Adam and Eve - adorable, admirable, appealing … and one thing more: mythic. In one form or another, the iconic image of the happy, naturally monogamous, heterosexual twosome has been with us for a long time, but it has always been a fiction. There is something downright inspiring about that First Couple sharing biblical bliss – albeit, nonsexual - in the Garden of Eden, and then, when banished, striding out hand in hand, ready to confront the world as a committed couple. But evolutionary biologists and anthropologists know that reality is otherwise. Not only are we the products of evolution rather than special creation (corrective reality #1), but human beings evolved in a regime in which mating was often polygamous and, moreover, we carry stigmata of this circumstances with us today (corrective reality #2).

Just as the Biblical account of Adam and Eve has been superseded by the evolutionary account of how we actually came to be, the Edenic myth of mutually embraced monogamy is, right now, being replaced by yet more biological understanding: how our sexual selves actually evolved and how as a result men and women are inclined – when possible - to mate with more than one member of the opposite sex. We never actually lived in any Garden of Eden, but many of our ancestors – not that long ago - were polygamous. This fact, and the often-hidden consequences of our inherited polygamous inclinations have had a number of unexpected and largely troublesome consequences, not least a tendency to misunderstand those consequences, and – in pursuit of “scientific” justification for a particular lifestyle - to ignore the equally real human tendency for sexual jealousy, along with its adaptive aspects. (More about this in subsequent posts.)

For now, I want to note that only recently have anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and psychologists understood what has been going on and why, not just in our sex lives but in other seemingly disconnected ways that human beings go about being, well, human. The biological reality is that we weren’t “made for monogamy,” despite the preferences of straight-laced (and often hypocritical) preachers, and not for free-spirited sexual adventurism either, despite the fervent desire of those seeking to justify a chosen “swinging” life-style.  In discussing the evolution of our mating strategies, I will not be prescriptive (telling you what to do); nor proscriptive (what not to do). I won’t advocate any particular lifestyle, whether strict marital fidelity or libidinous polyamory. I am committed to telling it like it is, and refraining from telling anyone, in turn, what he or she ought to do. 

It isn’t just old habits that die hard; old preconceptions can be at least as stubborn. Just think of how much easier it is to change your clothes than to change your mind. This is especially true when it comes to the nature of human nature, an arena in which scientific findings often confront a reluctance to entertain ideas that differ from what we have been taught, involving matters both of self-image and wishful thinking, not to mention – as in our case – some of the most basic prior teachings of ethics, morality and religious doctrine. But the truth has a habit of emerging.

More than two millennia ago, the ancient Greek aphorism “Know Thyself” – attributed to Socrates, among others - was inscribed at the entrance to the Delphic Temple of Apollo. My most recent book is a contribution toward precisely this self-knowledge. It is likely to be controversial, in no small part because it takes issue with the postmodernist contention that “human nature” (along with much of what’s left of objective reality) is merely a social construct. It is particularly likely to arouse the ire of those who argue that essentially all male-female differences – except for the basic plumbing – are socially rather than biologically founded, and/or that they result from competing “narratives” reflecting the clash of divergent power structures, and are therefore nothing but verbal constructs that say much about the interests and illusions of those employing them, but nothing about what is actually true.

The top of The Palace of Science and Culture, in Warsaw, Poland, offers the best view in that city. Why is this so? Because this building – an example of Stalinesque architecture at its ugliest - is pretty much the only place in Warsaw from which you cannot see the Palace of Science and Culture! Moral: it is difficult to see something when you are very close to it. Although this is useful information for anyone stuck in Warsaw who might be allergic to bad architecture, it is a genuine problem for those interested in understanding not buildings but people. It is notoriously difficult to get a good, close, objective look at our own species, our selves. Nonetheless, evolutionary biology offers an especially clarifying perspective.

It is one thing to know ourselves - more accurately, to pursue such knowledge, since the process is less like finding a Holy Grail than like pursuing the horizon, because even as we cover a lot of ground, ultimate success remains elusive. It is quite another when this pursuit mandates that en route, we give up some of our most cherished notions. In blogs to come, I will not be arguing that “biology is destiny,” but quite the opposite, that we are most free from biological constraints in proportion as we understand those inclinations and predispositions with which evolution has endowed us.

And prominent among those inclinations and predispositions is a widespread human interest in sexual variety. Stay tuned: subsequent posts will not offer you sexual variety, but I’d like to think that you’ll get a variety of insights into not just sex, but also violence, parenting, childhood, love, jealousy, and maybe even homosexuality, monotheism and the question of why there are so many more Old Masters than Old Mistresses.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and profesor of psychology at the University of Washington; his most recent book is Out of Eden: surprising consequences of polygamy (2016, Oxford University Press).