Is Monogamy Natural for Humans?

On a recent visit to my local library, I ended up in an unfamiliar aisle on a shortcut to somewhere else and a book almost leapt off the shelf at me.  The title all but screamed out “read me”.  I looked at the books surrounding it and realized I’d ended up in the human sexuality category, not somewhere you’d generally find me.  Because I believe in serendipity, I listened as the book kept asking me to take it home.  The book, The Myth of Monogamy, seemed an unlikely subject to ever attract my attention.  My believe, up until this moment, was that women were hardwired and generally monogamous by nature and men, well, not so much.  How little I know.

Needless to say, the book came home with me and I was in for what became an informative and interesting read.  The authors, psychologist and zoologist David P. Barash and psychiatrist Judith Eve Lipton get straight to the point.  Page two and I’m already reading, “..there is simply no question whether sexual desires for multiple partners is “natural”.  It is.  Similarly, there is no question of monogamy being “natural”.  It isn’t.”  Okay, I’m hooked and curious to find out more.

First up they explain social monogamy, the ability to share a one on one relationship  based on social norms; living together, nesting together, foraging together and having sex together.  However, when it comes to sexual monogamy, the findings offer an entirely different perspective.  Research using DNA fingerprinting technology, (used in courtrooms to test DNA in humans), is now used to test parenthood in animals as well.

The results are surprising.  Both male and female animals in nature practice sexual sharing with multiple partners, even in species previously believed to be monogamous.  Like talk, sperm is cheap, so generally males of the species like to ensure their seed is spread around to guarantee that their lineage survives so they partner with many females. Females, to ensure they produce the strongest offspring possible, engage with multiple partners too.  Hmmm.  Social monogamy, yes.  Sexual monogamy, no.

The research shows that sexual monogamy is much more an ideal than a practice.  Across the species range, from birds, (who have always been considered mates for life), to chimps that closely resemble humans, sexual monogamy is not the norm.

Researchers have found that 10%-40% of all bird chicks were fathered by males who were not the mother’s social mate.  Research also shows that females are equally likely to engage in extra pair mating.  The reason is the same:  evolution.  Wanting to produce the best possible offspring, they each adapt their own ways to achieve this.

Scientists have studied 5,000 species of mammals and found that only 3 to 5 percent are known to form lifelong bonds with one mate.  Among this small group are beavers, otters, wolves and foxes.  And, even the species that do pair and mate for life, occasionally have flings on the side and are quick to find new mates if their old one dies or can’t perform sexually any longer.  So much for “forever.”

There are three types of monogamy scientists now refer to based on their animal studies.

Sexual monogamy –  the practice of having sex with only one mate at a time.

Social monogamy –  when animals form pairs to mate and raise their offspring but still have flings on the side. (extra pair copulation in science talk)

Genetic Monogamy –  when DNA testing confirms that a female’s offspring all come from one father.

For us human beings, social and sexual monogamy generally go together.  This is not always so in other species.  Studies now estimate that 90 percent of all birds are socially monogamous, living and raising young together, but frequently having sex with other partners.

As scientists continue to uncover clues about why certain animals stay loyal to a partner, the underlying reason for monogamy remains an open question.  The most commonly accepted explanation is that monogamy evolved in situations where young are more likely to survive if both parents are involved in raising them.  This might help explain why humans tend to be monogamous.  No question that human children do take a long time to mature.

By nature it seems that humans are naturally polygamous.  Although polyandry, a marriage of one woman to many men is rare, polygyny, the marriage of one man to many women is widely practiced in human societies. Humans, in fact, possess certain characteristics typical of non-monogamous species.  Monogamous species are also monomorphic – meaning both males and females are the same size.  Polygamous species are dimorphic- the male is larger than the female. Guess what comes next. Because human males are typically 10 percent taller and 20 percent heavier than females, it seems that humans have been mildly polygamous throughout history.

So, why did the authors write the book?  Not, as some may think, to say that because it isn’t natural for humans to be monogamous, it is okay to have affairs and have multiple partners.  The real reason, which they state over and over again, is to shed light on the fact that monogamy is difficult.

Since it is not natural for humans and our instinctual desires have a tendency to lead us astray, we have a responsibility to put in a conscious effort to practice what we have committed to.  Monogamy requires work.  If we continue to pretend it’s natural, it’s easier to be led down the path that often leads to infidelity.

Adultery is undisputedly a hot topic, just check the media on any given day.  In the last few years, there have been very public new cases permeating the news.  From Arnold Schwarzenegger for his love child revelation, to Ashton Kutcher and Tiger Woods for their infidelities, the media attention continues to confirm that monogamy is an emotionally charged issue.  Rarely is the biological perspective included as a way of understanding it.

The authors leave us with the following. “This is not to say that monogamy – even happy, fulfilled monogamy – is impossible, because in fact it is altogether within the realm of human possibility.  But since it is not natural, it is not easy.  Similarly this is not to say that monogamy isn’t desirable, because there is very little connection, if any, between what is natural or easy and what is good.”  (1)

I’m happy I found this book, as the insights shared might help empower people in their efforts to stay monogamous.  I personally believe in monogamy, and one partner at a time is perfect for me.  I’m not convinced, based on my own personal experience, that all of us are meant to find one mate to last our entire lifetime, although I have great admiration for people who do successfully mate for life.

What side of the monogamy fence do you live on?

Visit me at:  beverleygolden.com  or follow me on Twitter: @goldenbeverley

References

(1) Barash, David P., and Judith Eve. Lipton. The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People. New York: H. Holt, 2002. Print. pg. 191

Originally published in 2011

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About Beverley Golden

Beverley Golden is a writer, raconteur and song creator who has written everything from song lyrics to magazine articles. She enjoys researching, designing and building stories and loves stimulating ideas and inspiring conversations. Beverley is the author of Confessions of a Middle-Aged Hippie, her first full length book; a memoir combining her anecdotal stories taken from her years in the entertainment industry, coupled with her stories of survival, from a lifetime lived with health issues. She has lived her life as a “self-professed guinea pig” willing to find and test unconventional ways to shift paradigms in the playing fields of health care, storytelling and world peace. She continues to take what she is told is impossible and transform it into possible.   You can currently find her writing at the Huffington Post among others.   Reach her at:   info@beverleygolden.com www.beverleygolden.com. Or follow her on Twitter: @goldenbeverley  

Comments

  1. Thank you for this post Beverly.

    I uncovered these truths about animals and ourselves several years ago when I created a little farm and started raising animals.

    Unfortunitly, I was sixty years old when the "light Bulb" finally came on.

    I was brought up to believe that monogamy was the "right and natural way" for human beings to live. Observation and life experience said otherwise, but I believed it anyway.

    Millions of people have experienced unbelievable heartbreak and great suffering over the infidelity of a spouse or partner.

    We can hope for and work toward loving and being faithful to each other. But when we fail, this information can give us a better understanding our "nature" and may well ease pain and suffering in our world.

  2. Thanks Gale. It is interesting that a little bit of knowledge can bring understanding and hopefully wisdom. It was and still is an interesting topic for me, and many people seem to be finding it more challenging, to be in committed relationships and spiritual partnerships. Stay tuned, as I have a new piece on relationships coming up soon. Thanks for joining in this conversation. My sense is it is definitely an ongoing one.

  3. Monogamy is not natural! Look at all the marital break-ups, relationships falling apart after the novelty wears off!

    Look at the wild kingdom, look at our cousins the apes. Look at their promiscuity! Their females don't seem to get uptight when the alpha males indulges with other females. We humans misguidedly believe in a Mr. Right and a Miss Right, in our folly. Sorry, it ain't so, Jack, Jenny!

    Like a majestic bird in the sky, we are free creatures roaming the earth who like to go about our business untethered!

    Diablo.

  4. I think this argument ignores many other factors. First, it assumes that the purpose of sex is only for reproduction. While humans are of course biologically motivated to ensure survival of our species, there are other biological things happening during intercourse. Chemicals are released that promote bonding and intimacy. We experience emotional pain if our mate "bonds" with another. Why are wired to have this response? Additionally, every woman I know past their reproductive years is still VERY interested in having intercourse. Why is that if sex is only about reproducing?

    I also have a friend with a 12 year old daughter who reached puberty last year. So biologically she is ready to reproduce even though she's not in high school yet. Should we start altering our society so that 12 year olds are able to successfully provide for their offspring because "biologically" they are able to become parents?

  5. i'm always wary when i read efforts that try to comprehensively and conclusively define human behaviour by extrapolating from the animal kingdom and then attributing what is "normal" for humans based on what is observed in the behaviour of animals. my own experience teaches me that this isn't in any way a valid application of scientific inquiry to the human experience; but, rather, a disingenuous application of scientific inquiry to condition a significant number of humans to accept a, quite simply stated, viciously misanthropic agenda designed to erode the human capacity to maintain the balanced and harmonious relationships and processes necessary for our continued spiritual evolution beyond the level of the animals some of us seem determined to remain among instead of evolve beyond. it's the application of the narrow, limited, myopic and deliberately selective scientific materialist understanding to human being which nothing in my experience has demonstrated to me to be applicable to what we truly are and what is truly "natural" for us.

    this is a very tired and unproductive old argument. let me simply answer the question posed in the title thusly: if "social" and "sexual" monogamy are "unnatural" to human being, then why don't we, like so many in the animal kingdom do, kick our children out the front door as soon as they're old enough to walk, and then go ahead and f–k the rest of our lives away with everybody we meet?

    why? because we, unlike animals, are gifted with the sense that we exist and are responsible for more than just simple physical survival and perpetuation and the satisfaction of our own sensual desires and pleasures. when human conscious evolution was at the level of the animals amongst which we found ourselves, we didn't yet have the cognitive capacity to develop the tools and skills necessary to survive in a predatory environment, so we were forced to propagate "like animals" in order to survive long enough among them until such a time as our common conscious evolution gave those skills and tools we needed to move beyond the "survival" stage of the evolutionary game and into the growth and expansion levels. but after we reached that level, the behaviours that were necessary for survival when our consciousness was still at the survival level of its evolution, became no longer valid. we were no longer packs of animals doing whatever we needed to survive, but conscious individuals whose evolution had transcended the mere physical and had expanded into the conscious and the spiritual. as such, the processes and relationships with which we continued to participate in this process changed as well. as conscious individuals, the processes we, as children, were being taught and guided through had evolved beyond "eat, sleep, p–s, s–t, f–k and run-like-hell-here-comes-the-lion!" and because of THAT, we therefore developed the need for conscious, individual guidance and care. this was the birth of The Family. mother and father stayed together for as long a time as it took to give their offspring both the physical tools and skills for survival AS WELL AS the conscious and spiritual skills necessary to participate in and contribute to our common conscious and spiritual evolution. mother and father dedicated themselves to something beyond the satisfaction of pure animal desires, something beyond their own satisfaction or survival demands. and in the process contributed to the conscious and spiritual evolution of us by developing the bonds and relationships that reflected this evolution. and in the process, still finding plenty of time to get a lot of nooky when the kids were asleep. and in the process discovering the truth about the joy and wonder of human bonding, beyond mere physical satisfaction, that allowed them to happily stay together for entire lives.

    it's my firm belief that this process has "proved to be a failure" not because it is inherently flawed, because it isn't, but it has artificially been induced to appear to be flawed by the last 150 years of the application of the scientific materialist agenda to human being, which has resulted in the deliberate disruption of our conscious and spiritual evolution by an element of humanity that is simply afraid of letting go of the pleasures and benefits of "eat, sleep, p–s, s–t, f–k and is-that-an-ant-let-me-show-it-who's-boss-and-squash-it" that so many have enjoyed while sitting at the "top" of the "animal kingdom" for so long. in fact, the last 5000 or so years have been exactly defined by this struggle between the element of humanity that is progressive and willing to submit to conscious and spiritual evolution, and the element that is afraid to let go of being "king of the crap pile." the element who's pride that developed over countless centuries of this "privileged" position prevents them from accepting that the end of our physical evolution put us at the top of the animal kingdom, and now the next step of our evolution will place us at the bottom of the consciousness and spiritual ladder.

    in the end, each one of us is free to choose to believe what they wish about the nature of our being and to act accordingly. i put neither faith nor stock in anybody or anything that tells me what we all are and how we all have to behave. and most certainly not anybody who tells me this just because they spent a little time watching how animals f–k.

    choose what you will. personally, i choose to evolve beyond "i wanna f–k you like an animal." and i know i will.

  6. Your argument is astonishingly simplistic and shallow; you do not understand nature and the evolutionary process. The evidence beckons all around us.

    Peel your eyes back and perk those ears up!

  7. Thanks for your input Diablo. I hope the information helps empower people and with some understanding perhaps will come new depth to a complicated issue. Appreciate you joining in the conversation.

  8. Hi Nola. For me the piece was written to address sexual monogamy and whether it is or isn't natural for humans. The point is it isn't, nor is it apparently in the animal kingdom, even among the species that were long considered sexually monogamous.

    My hope was to offer up some information so that some understanding and hopefully when necessary, forgiveness and commitment could take on a new meaning. The argument is purely relating to one aspect of monogamy and of course without looking at the whole picture it seems to be ignoring other factors like intimacy and the spiritual aspect of relationships. I agree that women past their reproductive years are still very interested in sex, as it should be.

    Thanks for joining in the conversation here.

  9. Thanks Eugene. The piece was written to look at sexual monogamy and address the possibly erroneous belief that it is natural for humans. It isn't. Social monogamy is not the topic but is one type of monogamy that we as humans, similar to animals, choose and is more of a natural choice for us.

    For me doing the research, it was a surprising thing to find how by looking at the animal kingdom we can learn new information and with information I believe we are led to deepened understanding and compassion for each other. The information is NOT an excuse for choosing behaviour that hurts another.

    We humans, through awareness, have the opportunity to make conscious choices. As a species we can choose to continue spiritually uplifting ourselves and others. As always thanks for joining in the conversation.

  10. I think it’s time to re-examine our societal need for hierarchy and order. We are shaped by peer pressure into monogamous relationships (even if it’s just for appearance’s sake) to conform to the hierarchy. People who are non-monogamous (or GLBT) challenge this structure, so are afforded less status in our culture. Gender roles play a huge part as well.

    1. “we,” i don’t believe, are pressured. “many of us,” i believe, choose to allow themselves to be. i choose monogamy not because anybody or anything pressures me into it, but because i believe in it for both physical and spiritual reasons. i would also challenge your assertion that GLBT is the definition of non-monogamous. i would bet there is a significant proportion of GLBT’s who are monogamous. i’d also challenge your assertion that our culture forces monogamous “structure” on us. have you read the cover of a suprmarket tabloid lately? ever watched an episode of E!? monogamy is the last thing being promoted by the purveyors of our “culture,” in fact, it’s mocked while unleashed fornication is glamorized and made to appear virtuous. with all the drama that sells lotsa magazines and advertising slots.

    2. Hi Diane. Appreciate you reading and commenting here.

      My sense is more people are choosing what works for them, and if I could predict the future, I’d say that many of the long standing societal norms are being replaced.

      For me, it was most interesting to find the research that shows us monogamy must be a conscious choice, as it is not really in our DNA. Thanks for joining in the conversation on this one.

  11. we have evolved as a species, i believe to be true, that no longer requires us to copulate like beasts in order to propagate for survival. we have evolved as a species (at least many of us have) where we are awakening to our transcendent capabilities of the spiritual over the physical. part of that evolution includes the evolution of the sexual act from a physical survival necessity to a spiritual process in which we learn to transcend the physical necessity and pleasure principle of sex and experience the spiritual process that transcends the physical act. that spiritual process, i believe to be true, is the reflection of the union of two in one spiritually, or as Gnostic scriptures refer to it, “The Restoration,” the reunion of Manifestation with Source. two as one for life. not “for the duration of your time on earth.” but “For Life.” you’ll have to think about that one. i’m not gonna spill all the beans. i don’t believe a strong enough energy vibration to generate the kind of frequency necessary to achive a sympathetic vibration with the Eternal and The Infinite at the time of p[assing from this world can be achieved with fragmented, fleeting, multiple partner sex, because this is a manifestation of Separation. and in The Infinite and Eternal there is no sparation. Only Oneness. i do believe that two partners devoted to one another in Love for the duration of their lives, can achieve that vibration. regardless of sexual orientation. that’s not the issue. union in Love is. let’s say it’s the difference between finishing a driving school course and learning how to drive for the rest of your life safely, or taking one lesson, declaring that you know it all, then going out and crashing your car and dying on your first trip.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this one Eugene. It is definitely a topic that starts interesting conversations…on both sides of the issue.

      I appreciate what you have shared and hope people do understand that monogamy can definitely work, but it is a conscious choice on all levels of our human being-ness.

      Appreciate you taking the time to join in the conversation.

  12. Hi Beverly, thanks for the post. You mention that you have great admiration for people who do successfully mate for life…. why? does that make them “better” than people who don’t mate for life.. and the ones who don’t mate for life are not successful? I have great admiration for people who are honest with themselves and others and have the courage to follow their desires at the risk of a partner being hurt who believe they own them… believing that we own someone because we are in a relationship with them is a recipe for pain and manipulation… and the ones who mate for life because they want to and it works for them, great… my point is that one type of human (the one who mates for life) is not better than the other…
    Niamh

    1. Thanks Annonymous/Niamh. My comment about having admiration for people who have been able to mate for life is more about the choice and commitment to it, rather than them being “better” because of it. It is totally based on my experience and how I see the challenge it is to choose to be in a long term relationship and to commit to being monogamous within that relationship.

      Thanks for pointing this out and hope I have clarified the distinction here for myself at least.

  13. p.s. for Eugene – I don’t agree with your comment “that two partners devoted to one another in Love for the duration of their lives, can achieve that vibration.” In brief, personalities want something… personalities are identities we cling on to. Without those identities, without the beliefs holding up those identities, we are all love and oneness.. the same love that you speak of can be experienced between you and that cheating neighbor across the fence ;-)