Is Monogamy Biological?

bright picture of conflicting couple because of monogamy

I’m no scientist. I’m just interested in science. So any time there’s a study regarding dating, relationships, sexuality, or behavioral economics, I’m paying attention. Which is why I’m sharing with you a recent New York Times article that talks about the evolutionary benefits of monogamy.

“The human mating system is extremely flexible,” Bernard Chapais of the University of Montreal wrote in a recent review in Evolutionary Anthropology. Only 17 percent of human cultures are strictly monogamous. The vast majority of human societies embrace a mix of marriage types, with some people practicing monogamy and others polygamy. (Most people in these cultures are in monogamous marriages, though.)

People (usually men) who explain everything in terms of biology tend to get excited about this. Surely, man is designed to spread his seed. We literally can’t help ourselves when we’re cheating! Well, that’s part of the picture, but far from the whole picture. Continues the NYT:

Our lineage never evolved to be strictly monogamous. But even in polygamous relationships, individual men and women formed long-term bonds – a far cry from the arrangement in chimpanzees. While the two new studies published last week disagree about the force driving the evolution of monogamy, they do agree on something important. “Once monogamy has evolved, then male care is far more likely,” Dr. Opie said.

Once a monogamous primate father starts to stick around, he has the opportunity to raise the odds that his offspring will survive. He can carry them, groom their fur and protect them from attacks. In our own lineage, however, fathers went further. They had evolved the ability to hunt and scavenge meat, and they were supplying some of that food to their children. “They may have gone beyond what is normal for monogamous primates,” said Dr. Opie.”

In other words, while we can make the rightful claim that monogamy isn’t hard wired – and that’s why men, in particular, will continue to be attracted to other women – we must also acknowledge that monogamy has a biological component as well. If I want to raise my two kids in the best possible environment, it behooves me to work hard, make money, and stick around to be a good husband, father and role model. This is common sense, of course, but it’s also biology.

Thus, any guy who justifies his cheating with the word “biology” is assiduously avoiding the biology that compels him to be faithful to his wife and there for his children.

The full piece can be read here.

Your thoughts, as always, are appreciated below.

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  1. 1

    I once viewed monogamy as biological as well, but now I am leaning more towards it a choice.   If you make that choice, being responsible for it is admirable.  

  2. 2

    Interesting . That makes sense to me. I also read that since females were the gatherers and traveled afar that the male would need to follow her. So I heard the current thought is that monogamy started with males!!     

  3. 3

    I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by many monogamous men in my life and I expect as much. Monogamy is a choose but so is being non-monogamous. If you choose to cheat, its not because you can’t help yourself its because you are choosing to betray your commitment.

  4. 4
    Matthew Hoelscher

    The NYT article states only 9% of mammals are monogamous. And just like our species, there is no way to really verify if there is or is not any “cheating” going on. Many animals “cheat” in private with others to confuse paternity and protect off spring. Monogamy has always been a choice, but it is clearly socially “Man Made” with the invention of property and inheritance.

  5. 5
    Karmic Equation

    Well, what I got out of the article was that we humans have bigger brains probably due to monogamy. The “cheating” aspect of it was Evan’s interpretation, as the article seemed more geared towards comparing monogamy to polyamory amongst humans…and monogamy vs. banging like chimpanzees amongst primates 🙂

    I think in first-world countries with healthcare, DSS services, adoption, and laws, men sticking around to protect their young from infanticide from other males is not a pressing priority. Normal human beings just don’t kill children, even other folks children, unless culturally driven (e.g., only one child China – not normal IMO, and I’m Chinese).

    So the primary needs for monogamy as theorized in the article doesn’t apply to us [in first world countries]. Which means, imo, that males in first world countries have no biological incentive to be faithful. If they’re not around to raise their kids, someone else will be. Which, if you extend the thought, means that men in first world countries might be more prone to cheat as they’re not needed to be around to protect their children from other men.

    This begs the question then, does that mean that men in third-world countries are more monogamous? I’m thinking yes.

    So, to bring us back to this first-world country, since men don’t have to worry about being around to protect their children from infanticide, it’s just a little too easy to revert back to their need for variety and cheat, unless they CHOOSE to stay monogamous.

    I’m of the opinion that most people aren’t monogamous by nature, nor are they polygamous by nature. I think most people want TWO partners and would prefer two. We women want the beta for caretaking ourselves and our children (Mr. Mom types) and a studly lover for making the children (the guy whom we want to have monkey sex with). Married men who cheat tend to have a wife (mother of this children, the “madonna”) and the sexy vixen to satisfy his fantasies. In other words, men tend to have a wife and one mistress, not a wife and two or more mistresses. Most people are good with one steady and one to cheat with. Duo-amory.

    Maybe bigamy should be be legalized in first-world countries to cut down on cheating? LOL.

  6. 6

    Karmic you’re a hoot! Is the answer a foursome then?

  7. 7

    It’s better for children and it’s better for society.
    Let’s face it society gets pretty pissed off with deadbeat Dads who don’t want to stick around and act like responsible grown up men and help raise their own children. And ends up picking up their slack.
    And what women seriously wants to be with a man who doesn’t want to man up and behave like a responsible caring grown up man and help raise his own children and be a good role model? Who just cares about satisfying his own lust and instant gratifaction rather than Loving and caring and   looking after the Mother of his child and his children, forming healthy loving connections.
    What sort of man do you want to father your children?
    Who’s children do you want to have?
    What do you think is better for society as a whole?
    I know what I would want and prefer and think is best for me and   society.

  8. 8

    I don’t think third world countries are more monogamous (I’m particularly thinking of the rate of HIV transmission in sub saharan Africa).  Religion seems to be a bigger  influence.
    Monogamy is a good choice I think, insofar  as we human being are able to control ourselves.    It’s unfashionable to say it , but people get jealous.   I find  it natural as long as it doesn’t get too Fatal Attraction.  If I love someone I wouldn’t want to put them through that.  
    I saw a tv program where a man doubted he was the father of his fourth child so he had a paternity test done. Child wasn’t his.   He had the other children tested. None of them were his.   Poor guy.
    Have you see Raise the Red Lantern? (Gong Li is gorgeous in it).

  9. 9

    Yes, strong human tendency toward monogamy is innate and it is biological/evolutionary. It is not “Man Made.” However, the artificial and self-defeating means by which it is enforced today (US’s family courts) is most certainly artificial.

  10. 10

    my friend :-). In Islam, a man is allowed to have up to 4 wives, if he can support them.
    Historically, in the Ottoman empire, the Sultans used to have harems with hundreds of women.
    Bigamy sounds like a modest proposition.

  11. 11

    It may be worth remembering that far more men have been eunuchs than sultans or emperors.

  12. 12

    Harems were about religious hatred and revenge over non christians. And not good for society. Based on power and control not love.
    I wouldn’t be wanting to promote or advocate   Isamic practice of treating women as property and less than.. And harems where women were held against their wil and used as sex slaves.
    Don’t see that being good for society and the best way to ensure happy healthy family relationships and children.

    mean’t non muslims, not non christians. Or infidels as they were/are called.

  13. 13

    It saddens me when people are misled to read a science writer’s interpretation of off the cuff speculative comments by a single investigator as if it is something supported by actual research. Yes, the Times article does suggest that bigger brains are a result of monogamy, which of course explains why dolphins are monogamous (they aren’t) and why prairie voles are developing agriculture, writing and digital watches. Of course the two articles cited   by Clutton-Brock & Lukas and the other by Opie only debate whether female intolerance for one another   vs. male infanticide are the basis for primate monogamy. Somehow the Times article glossed over that, perhaps because neither of those two apply to our society…

    It is because we have big brains that any remnant “biological imperatives” that might be encoded in our hindbrains are completely at the mercy of the thought processes of our higher brains.   Even fundamental imperatives like breathing can be overcome.   Some people can hold their breath until they lose consciousness.   People choose to starve themselves to death (hungerstrikers) sometimes when food is available. Males can   choose to not to grab a woman they ‘scent’ to be in estrus and have sex with her.

    If these fundamental urges are subvertable by the conscious mind, then monogamy is a decision that   exists as a social construct that individuals either choose or choose not to honor. It is a cop-out to attribute human behavior around monogamy to a biological imperative. Evolution is why sex feels good and encourages us to do it, but it sure as heck doesn’t force us to have it or avoid it.

    The NYT author even warns that extending the studies   to humans is highly speculative:
    “Even with the scientific problem far from resolved, research like this inevitably turns us into narcissists. ..we want to know: What does this say about men and women?”

    If you want to read the source articles by Clutton-Brock and Opie and debate whether female intolerance for one another   or male infanticide are the basis for primate monogamy go ahead. It is an amusing launching point for conversation about human behaviors and maybe that is how I should think of the NY Times piece. Any extension of the research to people is completely speculative and believing that there is a basis for those speculations in science is patently wrong.
    (Ouch. The   speculative part of the Times article cites that old chestnut about finger length ratios as a predictor for adult monogamy. That one and the scent studies are also over interpreted and misused in human mating discussions but are a whole ‘nother rant.)

  14. 14

    I suddenly want a harem of men of all shapes, size and colour. I don’t know what gets into me.

  15. 16
    Karl S

    I think some people have a natural propensity towards either monogomy or non monogomy. Cheating is a whole different kettle of fish, because that’s about deception and a breach of relationship agreements. I know guys who cannot fathom wanting more than one woman at a time, whereas I’m really flexible and probably polyamorous.
    Regarding David T, I’m quite interested in the area of conscious vs unconscious decision making and from what I’ve been reading the latest research suggests that the conscious mind is mostly there to rationalize decisions we’ve already made based on our ingrained biases and belief systems. You can hold your breath or not eat by “choice”, but perhaps only if you’re the kind of person who already has the capacity to initiate those actions?

  16. 17

    Is it just me or does that picture used in the blog kinda looks like Evan if he decided to flat iron his hair??

  17. 18

    Thank you, DavidT at 13!!!! I am so sick of these stupid media interpretations of evo-psych/evo-biology studies, especially when the studies themselves are always speculative and dubious at best. They simply scream bias–and, as Evan points out, it’s always an apologist male bias. No one alive today can prove empirically how animals and humans behaved eons ago, much less be able to say why. That people would use this claptrap to explain human behavior today is, quite frankly, bizarre.

  18. 19

    Actually, the care and welfare of the young is not necessarily compromised by polygamy or polyandry. Particularly where there is a very strong family and social support structure for females and their young. This support structure can be headed by an alpha male like with Gorillas, or by an alpha female like with elephants. In “social” mammal groups, there is widespread polyamory within social “rules”.
    The only true monoganous species are birds, with the level of monogamy proportionally related to the harshness of their envionrment for survival. It is also interesting that birds are not normally “social” animals that herd in groups. I guess this means that when times are good and humans live in large social groups, there is more leeway for polyamory. When times are bad and human groups scatter, or live in small mobile groups. then monogamy plays more of a role.
    I think humans have the capacity for both monogamy and polygamy, with envrionment and circumstance dictating which dominates our natural instincts.

  19. 20
    Peter 51

    Various things from memory that I am not going to trace to internet links, if indeed they exist.   I read a lot of this stuff on paper years even decades ago.

    Size Man/woman suggests humans are a harem species (& said ratio goes back to Homo Erectus, although less than now and Cro Magnon, although more than now).
    Male gonad weight/body weight compared to other primates suggests a permanent mutually faithful harem of 1.6 females/male.
    Variability of Y chromosone compared to variability of mitochondrial DNA suggests that, in the last 100,000 years, 80% of all women born have reproduced but only 40% of men.
    While St Paul recommended chastity and told deacons to have just one wife, it is clear from the instruction, that many early Christians had more than one.
    Men with a relationship difficulty seek another women (illogical isn’t it?).   Women  with a relationship difficulty  replace the man.
    & other stuff.

    On the other hand.

    The European marriage pattern of the late medieval and early modern period showed that a society could work with late marriage, 25% of women never marrying and still have very low illegitimacy rates.
    English surname studies suggest a bastardy rate, with males outside the husband’s family, of 0.5% a generation.   England was thus not a hot bed of infidelity.

    So perhaps we are not doomed to Cro Magnon biology for ever. (Our brains have shrunk anyway).   Anyway, testosterone (male and female) fluctuates with status and farming probably reduced the opportunities for men to earn status so damping down any tendency to add a new wife.   Also, logically, as the world gets more predictable, we should move from R selection (lots of children with minimal investment with the men having more than one women to maximise child output and women pushing the children out to society early) to K selection (a few children with heavy investment).   K selection is an environment where monogamy or at least long term commitment to a few females is the best strategy for males, not only females.
    Having said that, the highest status males have always collected women, King David, Genghis Khan, any Chinese Emperor The Ottoman Sultan, various US Senators or UK Conservative MP’s, Tiger Woods.   Clearly in the case of David or the Sultan, the numbers involved suggest a very low rate of sexual encounter for the women involved.   The sex slavery may not have been exceptionally onerous.   Competition for the Sultan’s attention from the willing may have eliminated the requirement altogether?   While spreading your seed wide may be a benefit of being the top dog, this looks more like a display of power and wealth.   Just like a 1990’s Russian oligarch showed his wealth by his ability to retain & replace young mistresses; not usually more than two.   But he would also be in an R selective environment (could be shot any day soon) so lower investment per offspring and mate would be logical.
    I repeat this as my actual opinion.   

    Men with a relationship difficulty seek another women.   Women  with a relationship difficulty  replace the man but both would prefer no difficulty and one relationship.

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