Til Death Do Us Part?
July 14, 2008 5:16 AM   Subscribe

Are we a monogamous species?

An estimated 90 percent of all bird species are monogamous. Many human cultures seem to have monogamy as a bonding goal. If you pick up a Sunday paper, you will always see announcements of 50th wedding anniversaries. Conversely, divorce rates have been going up, and many questions right here on AskMe talk about "playing the field." Is it human nature to want to find a single, life long partner? Or is that something religions would have you believe, and the science is more complex?
posted by netbros to Human Relations (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Animals are all different, too.

Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, 752 pp., $40.

"This book is in two parts: (1) A Polysexual, Polygendered World, and (2) A Wonderous Bestiary.

The first part of the book is an independent 262 page exposition of homosexual, bisexual and transgendered animal sexuality. If you want to know what the birds and the bees are doing when Jerry Falwell isn't looking, this is the place to find out. Don't expect to find traditional family values in these pages. What you will discover instead is that animals aren't doing it for Darwin, they are doing it for fun. There are amazingly detailed descriptions, pictures and illustrations here of animals having all kinds of sex (that will amaze you), and most of it isn't for procreation."
posted by Carol Anne at 5:26 AM on July 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

The science and the empirical evidence are definitive. We are not monogamous.

Westerners like to think we are, but coupling obviously contains a huge social component, and it would take all of 1 second to identify many current and ancient societies which are polygamous or polyandrous. Hence, the species is not, by definition, monogamous.

Do some more reading. Helen Fisher, Diane Ackerman, David Buss all have good lay books on the coupling strategies of humans.

Also, even among 'monogamous' birds, infidelity is common.
posted by FauxScot at 5:27 AM on July 14, 2008

Pair bonding birds typically show genetic evidence of covert infidelity, and are not, strictly speaking, 100% sexually monogamous in all pairs. By the same token humans demonstrably show a very broad range of attachment: lifetime pair bonding, polygamy, serial monogamy, asexual disinterest, same gender, both gender, non-gendered, primary and secondary couplings (ie husband/wife, wife’s lover on the side), perverted (marrying your fridge), and non-reproductive worship from afar are just a few of the many facets of human sexual and romantic behaviour.

Plenty of people are very content with one, life long partner, and in western society, statistically speaking, those capable of sustaining a marriage are happier. This does not, of course, mean that both partners only have sex with each other or love only each other, but it hardly precludes them doing so either.

Typically the issue on if humans are naturally monogamous is that it makes us anxious because a lot of us enjoy pair bonds, and presume that if we are capable of alternatives we will take them.
posted by Phalene at 5:44 AM on July 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

polygamous or polyandrous

Polygynous or polyandrous. Polygamy/polygamous includes both.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 5:45 AM on July 14, 2008

We only really value a relationship, when it survives our best attempts to destroy it. As every sado-masochist knows, nothing is more seductive than resilience. It is the only aphrodisiac that continues to work, the more you take it. So the only way we can test our infidelity is through monogamy. A lot of confusion is created by our belief that it is the other way round.

Monogamy by Adam Phillips
posted by Blacksun at 5:55 AM on July 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Study done a while ago where researchers manipulated the number of oxytocin receptors in some small rodent. The animals with high density receptors were extremely monogamous; those with less receptors less monogamous.

Point is monogamy depends on a lot of factors, both genetic and environmental. One reason divorce rates are climbing in the West is the West has become better off economically: individuals earn enough to support themselves and thus are not dependent on the marriage partnership to survive.

Also you might be interested in the naturalistic fallacy.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 6:08 AM on July 14, 2008

Generally people like to think the human race is monogamous but it really isn't. The idea of "one partner for life" is largely a (western) religious construct and is not supported by evidence. There are many cultures where polygamy is the norm.
posted by alby at 6:08 AM on July 14, 2008

There are many cultures where polygamy is the norm.

But how many of these cultures allow women to take multiple husbands versus men taking multiple wives?

Is polygamy practiced because it is a more normal state of being? Or, in the case of one man with multiple wives, is it convenient for the reasons of procreation, running a household, etc?
posted by jeanmari at 6:31 AM on July 14, 2008

Are we a monogamous species?

Yes. When we choose to be.
posted by three blind mice at 6:38 AM on July 14, 2008

Is it human nature to want to find a single, life long partner?

"Human nature" is a meaningless concept. There is no behavioral "nature" common to all humans.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:39 AM on July 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

There is no such thing as a "mongamous" or a "polygamous" species.The words are ways we describe behavior, not inherent characteristics. The concept of either is a way of generalizing the behavior of a group of animals in order to be able to think about them in an easier manner. In short, there is no inherent characteristic of "monogamy" or "poligamy" in any one or any thing.

The Zen Buddhists have a saying: "do not mistake your finger for the moon." It means that it is error to mistake the signifier for the signified- the finger that points out the moon for the moon.

Thus you see there are two different types of answers here. One defines monogamy as "never having sex with more than one partner according to commonly-accepted social mores," and asserts that humans are inherently not monogamous. The other defines it as "properly pair-bonding with a single partner as our inherent nature provides," and asserts that having sex with more than one partner on a regular basis is going against our inherent nature.

The truth is that there are no inherent characterisics to our behavior. The words we use are ways of helping us think about things, not an inherent human nature.

In other words, chatfilter.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:58 AM on July 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

We only really value a relationship, when it survives our best attempts to destroy it.

What a silly quotation! Was he talking about high-school relationships? Because as an adult, I don't attempt to destroy my marriage, and yet I can't think of anything I value more. I guess I'm boring, but I value stuff like companionship, laughing at the same jokes, cuddling...

Getting back to the question, I think the answers to these "are humans X or Y?" questions about are almost always "all of the above." In fact, the seeds of the answer were in the original post:

If you pick up a Sunday paper, you will always see announcements of 50th wedding anniversaries. Conversely, divorce rates have been going up, and many questions right here on AskMe talk about "playing the field."

I don't know about for-life monogamy, but every culture I've heard of involves a strong trend towards long-term pair-bonding. Or, at the very least, long-term bonding (e.g. marriage-like polygamy.) At the same time, in all cultures, people cheat, play the field, etc. We want to bond; we want to stray. Human nature is complex.

To me, this question seems similar to "Are humans happy or unhappy?"
posted by grumblebee at 6:59 AM on July 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Check out the work of Tom Insel (MD, psychiatry + PhD in neuroscience). Here's an account of a talk he gave, which is much more accessible and less boring than his science and nature publications: Basically, the answer is yes and no.

But his "yes and no" is well supported by a ton of scientific research... He worked on species of prairie voles (think mice) and, in sub-species that mate for life, he swapped a single gene and caused them to be polyandrous. He also did the reverse; taking a polyandrous sub-species and made their offspring monogamous (well at least statistically "pair bonded" i.e., single main partner for life). The question is, is there an analogous gene in humans? We still don't know, but we know what it would look like.
posted by zpousman at 7:03 AM on July 14, 2008

Westerners like to think we are

Although it seems like this statement (repeated a couple of times in the thread) is supposed to demonstrate the superior knowledge of the writer, it's not actually true. Marriage is traditional in Chinese culture, which, as far as I know, isn't "Western."
posted by OmieWise at 7:17 AM on July 14, 2008

An estimated 90 percent of all bird species are monogamous.

This is disputed.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:23 AM on July 14, 2008

The science and the empirical evidence are definitive. We are not monogamous.

This is an exaggeration at best, a fallacy at worst. There is mixed evidence, and it's hard to apply the kind of thinking we use in animal behavior studies to humans because our ecologically-induced behaviors are so diverse and rich that we exhibit a wide range of behaviors in different cultures. One study to throw into a pile, from Barrett et. al.'s Human Evolutionary Psychology: there is a correlation in primates between mating systems and testis size (basically, to be frank, the bigger a species' testicles in relation to body size, the more long term sexual partners males tend to have). Humans, according to this relationship should be predicted to be nearly monogamous, where males have on average 1.1 to 1.2 sexual partners.

Studies in human sexuality that use the tools of behavioral ecology or evolutionary biology are blunt at best. There is still a lot of work to be done in our understanding of how human behavior should be modeled since there are important fundamental ways in which we differ from other species. That doesn't mean that we can't study human behavior as best we can, using a pluralistic, multifaceted set of methodological tools, but i does mean that, at this point, answers like "the evidence is definitive, X is the case," are necessarily misleading.
posted by farishta at 7:30 AM on July 14, 2008

Technically, there are three types of monogamy:

"Social monogamy refers to two people who live together, have sex with one another, and cooperate in acquiring basic resources such as food, clothes, and money. Sexual monogamy refers to two people who remain sexually exclusive with one another and have no outside sex partners. Genetic monogamy refers to the fact that two partners only have offspring with one another."

Humans tend toward social monogamy. Sexual and genetic monogamy, not so much. Birds are socially monogamous, but not sexually or genetically monogamous. Goggle "extra-pair copulation or extra pair paternity." You also might want to check out The Myth of Monogamy.
posted by nooneyouknow at 9:32 AM on July 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

By nature? Probably not.

By culture construct that allow us to form civilizations larger than a tribe(?) of chimpanzees? Yes.

As an animal, we're just too possessive and aggressive to form orderly civilizations without it.
posted by Annon E Moose at 10:09 AM on July 14, 2008

By culture construct that allow us to form civilizations larger than a tribe(?) of chimpanzees? Yes.
posted by Annon E Moose at 1:09 PM on July 14 [+] [!]

So there are chimpanzee tribes that number into the millions?

Or the city of Mecca isn't a part of civilization?
posted by IAmBroom at 10:27 AM on July 14, 2008


Marriage is traditional in Chinese culture, which, as far as I know, isn't "Western."

Question was about monogamy, not marriage.

@spaceman_spiff: Thanks. You are correct.
posted by FauxScot at 10:56 AM on July 14, 2008

Marriage is traditional in Chinese culture, which, as far as I know, isn't "Western."

In older Chinese culture, at least according to the i-ching, the norm was that the families of the couple would arrange the marriage and then the husband was allowed to find another woman (or several others) more fitting to his own inclinations and sensibility. These other wives would, in social standing, be lower than the 'official' wife but allow the husband to exercise his inclinations. About the wife's inclinations, though, nothing was said.
posted by MrMisterio at 11:13 AM on July 14, 2008

Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond discusses this at great length in the book Why Is Sex Fun?

If I recall correctly, the answer is that humans are mostly monogamous. Compared to other species, human infants are unusually helpless; having two parents to raise the child greatly improves the child's chance of survival.
posted by russilwvong at 11:42 AM on July 14, 2008

You seem to be framing this as an issue of "they want you to believe that humans are meant to be monogamous! but truly, biology shows we are not!"

I guess you could say "but strictly, looking at biology, are we meant to be with one person?" Maybe not, but that doesn't mean monogamy is propaganda. It exists for a reason. Don't underestimate the messy factor of human culture. In many areas, even where it's allowed, polygamy isn't possible for everyone. Not enough women (because it's almost always women) and money to go around. The wikipedia page on Incidence of Monogamy has some interesting statistics on that.

You could also ask, are humans meant to live in houses/wear clothing/pay for their kids' educations/etc.? All of those things might not be "meant" in a biological sense, but they're cultural adaptations that sprung up for one reason or another. A more interesting question might be, "Why purpose does monogamy serve, and why have did some societies and not others develop it?"
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:35 PM on July 14, 2008

I don't have any references to hand, but recall from my reading on the subject that humans are designed to adapt to our environment and our behavior is especially flexible compared to other species so you can expect it to change in different conditions. It doesn't spring up in a vacuum.
posted by Coaticass at 6:44 PM on July 14, 2008

Rereading my response, I come across as rather judgmental. I find the question fascinating and did not intend a disapproving tone.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:02 PM on July 14, 2008

farishta and russilvwong share my understanding of the answer. The answer is "mostly, yes, but not when we can get away with it".

Sociobiology is only part of the answer, but it's an illuminating part and shouldn't be discounted. Babies are a massive investment on the part of mother and father, they take strong social bonds to bring up well enough so they can be parents too. we invest more in our offspring than any other species, so small kin groups or monogamy are favoured strategies. But a bit of cheating (or raping, for men) keeps the system going as well.

Saying monogamy is a western religious construct is pure bullshit.
posted by wilful at 7:18 PM on July 14, 2008

I can't recommend enough the book The Ethical Slut, which explores consensual non-monogamy as a worthy way of life. Many aspects are addressed, it's an excellent resource full of examples, humane, and anchored in lived experience as opposed to scientific theory (nothing wrong with the latter—it's just that sometimes one can relate more easily to the former!).

And whatever you do, frankly, go on and have fun. That doesn't mean "go on and explore the field, even if it's forbidden by your partner"—that's cheating, and heartily reprehensible, even by non-monogamists. It just means hey, only one life, don't take yourself too seriously. :-)
posted by meso at 3:08 AM on July 15, 2008

Just to clarify, Grumbleweed, I think by destroy (which is very Psychoanalytic language), Phillips means to test the limits of or to see what is permitted within the boundaries - I'd hazard a guess that this is pretty common in most relationships. You point out the teenage ones, and these (with respect to our parents) are probably the first where we practise infidelity - we gain our sex (lives) and step outside the confines of the sex(less) lives with them. Just my spin, FWIW.
posted by Blacksun at 10:11 AM on July 15, 2008

Apologies, Grumblebee. !
posted by Blacksun at 10:16 AM on July 15, 2008

Conversely, divorce rates have been going up...

This is besides the point of the question, but no they haven't. The divorce rate has been similar in the US, at least, for about 30 years.

Moving on. Very, very few species are monogamous in the sense of one continuous sexual partner for life. But some mating arrangements approximate it more on the spectrum. Because human brains are so big, humans develop very slowly - we are essentially fetuses at birth - and are helpless and dependent on parental care for longer than most animals. Because of this human beings were relatively monogamous compared to our hominid ancestors and our closer primate relatives. Clues from genetics, testis size and sexual dimorphism point to a relatively monogamous human evolutionary history.

But 'relatively' is the key word. Speaking of a "human behavior" is misleading since there is so much variation between individuals and between cultures.
posted by dgaicun at 2:29 AM on July 16, 2008

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