Is Monogamy Normal? -- A Scientific
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February 8, 2012
By Stephen Kintz, Contributing Columnist
Monogamy seems normal. Most cultures seem monogamous. Most
people would find it difficult to list several polygamous cultures. Yet
according to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, a survey of over 1,231
societies found only 186 monogamous societies and 1,045 polygamous
societies. With the overwhelming number of polygamous societies, it
becomes much harder to claim that monogamy is normal or natural.
Compounding the problem for monogamy are studies like the one
conducted by Mark Bellis and colleagues in 2006 at Liverpool John
Moores University that found that up to 30 percent of men were raising
children that were not their own . Also, an ABC poll conducted in 2004,
men had a median of 8 partners. Women had a median of 3 partners.
So are we monogamous, or is it perfectly natural for us to have multiple
partners? The question is not easy to answer, and scientists are still
debating the issue. However, we can begin by examining the biological
and societal evidence.
The easiest way to understand Homo sapiens is to examine their closest
evolutionary ancestors, the Chimpanzee and the Bonobo.
Unfortunately, for monogamous advocates, both these species are
polygamous. The Bonobo is particularly known for using sex in a
multitude of ways for a multitude of occasions. The Bonobo are quite
easily classified as sex addicts.
This biological evidence would suggest that Homo sapiens evolved from
polygamous ancestors and would retain some vestiges of this past. In
fact, we do. Homo sapiens are dimorphic, which means males and
females are different. This should be obvious, even for children. In the
animal world, dimorphic creatures are much more likely to be
polygamous than monogamous. Therefore, it should be easy to
conclude that Homo sapiens were meant to be polygamous. Yet males
and females do not differ by a great amount. Males and females are
much more similar than other polygamous creatures, but they retain
many different characteristics compared with monogamous creatures.
We are evolutionary in-between monogamy and polygamy.
Sperm competition is another sign of our potentially polygamous past.
"Sex at Dawn: the prehistoric past of modern sexuality" by Christopher
Ryan and Cacilda Jetha argues that Homo sapiens have large testes.
Large testes are usually a sign of sperm competition between males and
are indicative of polygamous species. Large testes are found in both
chimpanzees and bonobos, along with squirrels and rats.
For a counter example, gorillas have tiny testes because gorillas are
able to use their sheer size to stop other males from mating.
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha argue that the size of male testes is
a sign of our polygamous past. The authors argue that in early human
history sex was a social lubricant and shared amongst the entire group,
much like other resources were shared amongst the group. If this
theory is correct, polygamy was common among ancestral humans.
The main problem with the argument above is that genetic evidence
points to an ambiguous past – not a strictly polygamous one.
In 2010, Damian Labuda and colleagues conducted a study at the
Université de Montréal, Canada that examined the sex ratios from
population samples taken from Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The researchers found that the ratio of women and men contributing to
our genetic make-up were roughly between 1.4 to 1 and 1 to 1. In
monogamous societies, we would expect couples of one male and one
female. This would produce a ratio of 1 to 1.
In polygamous societies, men have access to multiple women. This
access means that many women would be contributing the bulk of our
genetic make-up. So if society was purely polygamous, we would
expect a ratio greater than 1 to 1. The research by Damian Labuda and
colleagues suggest that early man was mostly monogamous with some
So it appears we evolved from polygamous ancestor but do not
practice polygamy that often. The major reasons for this development
might be the limitation in resources and the amount of energy required
to nurture offspring. For a man to acquire multiple wives, it is
necessary for the man to have the resources to support the wives. For
most of human history, most men have not had the resources to
support a multi-wife household.
In fact, even today the number of men in polygamous societies that
practice polygamous is low . Therefore, our ability to be polygamous is
limited by the resources available to the common man. Polygamy is a
rich man’s game.
Offspring also limit polygamy. Human children are some of the most
energy and time intensive offspring on the planet. This fact can leave a
stressed parent wondering why must he or she suffer.
To demonstrate how the nurturing of offspring limits polygamy, F.
Marlowe conducted a cross-cultural study in 2000 at Harvard
University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. F. Marlowe found that in
societies where men have more participation in nurturing the offspring
also have a lower prevalence of polygamy. This simple fact is also seen
in the animal kingdom. There is a correlation between time spent
nurturing and supporting offspring and monogamy. The more time
spent nurturing offspring, the more monogamous an animal generally is.
All this is interesting, and we could continue to rack up facts for and
against monogamy. In fact, entire books have been written on the
subject. However, these appear to be the main points for and against
monogamy. Basically, humans evolved from polygamous ancestor and,
therefore, have many polygamous characteristics.
If you have been cheated on by an unfaithful spouse, you have
probably seen human polygamous nature at work. However, just
because we evolved from polygamous ancestors does not mean we are
entirely polygamous. We evolved from creatures who could not speak,
but we speak.
Instead, humans have evolved a middle ground approach to sexual
selection, and this middle ground approach is often driven to
monogamy because of cultural and societal limitations. This idea of
humans being in-between monogamy and polygamy actually explains
the data on the ABC poll conducted in 2004 that found only 16 percent
of people in committed relationships cheat, and the majority of non-
married people date exclusively than date around.
Of course, if you are a champion of monogamy, there is evidence that
monogamy benefits society as a whole – especially women. Joseph
Henrich and colleagues looked at the benefits of culturally imposed
monogamy and found that monogamy reduces violence, reduces crime,
increases child welfare, and more. In fact, the benefits to monogamy
appear to be so great, that rich men, who have every reason to reject
monogamy, often support it. So maybe the question should not be are
humans monogamous but should we support monogamy?
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