Science of Poly

Review: The Myth of Monogamy

Doing the research for my book was one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I read many books, journal articles, and online nonsense. One of my favorites was The Myth of Monogamy by David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton.

The Myth of Monogamy is a concise critique on the idea of humans as monogamous creatures. The authors provide a review a reproductive theory then demonstrate how breakthroughs in genetic technology have posed certain contradictions. They introduce the concept of mixed mating strategies and provide numerous examples of animal species, including humans, who fit better under this mating strategy than previous labels.

The authors begin by introducing a few concepts. Social monogamy is a type of monogamy where an animal has a primary nesting partner but copulates with other animals.  These outings are called extra pair copulations (EPC) so the animals have an appearance of a bond but are copulating with animals outside said bond. Researchers thought males primarily participated in EPCs for some time because the male has unlimited sperm, does not have to gestate, and is often less involved if involved at all in raising offspring. This was proven incorrect when genetic research showed that even species like birds often hailed as harbingers of morality within the animal species were not as monogamous as was previously thought. Males who were supposed to be pair-bonded were often raising another male’s offspring.

What follows is an examination of how animals sort through the risks and benefits of EPCs. The ultimate goal here is genetic success. Raising another’s male’s offspring is not success. When a male discovers he is even potentially raising another male’s offspring often he’ll kill the offspring and maybe the female, too, so also not a win. At the very least the female may lose any economic resources the cuckolded male was providing. Why risk it? The reasoning is simple. For the male, he is increasing his chance of reproductive success with every copulation, particularly if another male is providing the resources to raise the offspring. The female has her resources and for some time researchers assumed it couldn’t be worth the risk for her to try for better genetic material. However, they were wrong. Females will find EPCs, particularly with already coupled males, because they are considered more desirable and maybe they can steal some of the resources of the other female.

They conclude by delving into why humans continue to try monogamy despite obvious failures. Monogamy is a relatively new relationship structure. Throughout much of human history, rich men had access to more women so the harem has been the most commonly practiced mating strategy. It was not until the Industrial Revolution that monogamy became more prevalent, and the reason being is because more men had access to the resources needed to raise a family. The authors suggest this was also in part due to concessions on the part of the wealthy to share some of their women so the general populace of men would be more willing to participate in the society they had established. The version of monogamy humans practice now is fraught with EPCs even when the stakes are high. In further support of the non-monogamous nature of humans, they explain how jealousy, which is often used as support for humans being naturally monogamous, actually shows monogamy is not stable. Jealousy is a powerful human emotion. However, if humans were truly pair-bonded, there would be no need to suspect your mate was out copulating outside the pair. Regardless of ideal biological mating strategy, humans have social constructs in which they commit to monogamous relationships, and the consequences of breaching these commitments are severe.

The Myth of Monogamy provides a necessary re-framework for long-held theories concerning reproduction. Genetic evidence has clearly demonstrated EPCs among animal species identified as pair-bonded. Said animal species were shining examples for priests and researchers alike when proclaiming humans were naturally monogamous. In the overarching debate of what mating strategy is natural for humans as a biological species, the authors indicate historically polygyny was the winner, but there is a caveat. Because of human reliance on culture, they possess a certain amount flexibility. While the authors do briefly mention the significance of culture on mating strategies, the book is primarily from a biological perspective. To fully understand the complexities of human relationships, further reading is encouraged.

Feel free to leave any comments!



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