On a recent visit to my local library, I ended up in an unfamiliar aisle on a shortcut to somewhere else. Surprisingly a book almost leaped off the shelf at me. The title all but screamed out, “Read me!” I looked at the books surrounding it and realized that I’d ended up in the human sexuality category. Definitely, not somewhere you’d normally 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 belief had always been that women were hardwired and generally monogamous by nature and that men… well, not so much. How little I knew.
The Book Came Home With Me
Needless to say, the book came home with me. 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 2 and I’m already reading, “[T]here 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.” OK, I’m hooked and want 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. Generally, males of the species like to ensure that their seed is spread around to guarantee that their lineage survives. For this reason, they partner with many females. Females, to ensure that they produce the strongest offspring possible, engage with multiple partners, too. Hmm. Social monogamy, yes. Sexual monogamy, no.
Sexual Monogamy… More an Ideal Than a Practice
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 between 10 and 40 percent 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 – 5 percent are known to form lifelong bonds with one mate. Among this small group are beavers, otters, wolves and foxes. Even the species that do pair and mate for life, occasionally have flings on the side. They’re also quick to find new mates if their old one dies or can’t perform sexually any longer. So much for forever.
Three Types of Monogamy
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 we human beings, social and sexual monogamy generally go together. But not always 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; human children do take a long time to mature.
Humans by Nature are Polygamous
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 that both males and females are the same size. Polygamous species are dimorphic: the male is larger than the female. Guess what comes next. 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 OK 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. Because it is not natural for humans, and because 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. You’ll find revelations of how some celebrity or high profile person has a love child. It becomes an emotionally charged issue to those who don’t bring the biological perspective to understanding it. And, may I add that there is a higher spiritual perspective to this discussion. Not merely one to look at on purely a physical plane if we add in our freedom of conscious choice.
Monogamy is Challenging
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.”
I’m happy I found this book. The insights shared might help empower people in their efforts to stay monogamous. I believe in monogamy, and one partner at a time is perfect for me. Based on my own personal experience, I’m not convinced that all of us are meant to have one mate in our lifetime. Although, I do have great admiration for people who do successfully mate for life. I’m curious to hear what side of the monogamy fence you live on.
It is interesting because when I was doing a project with some deafs and dumbs in Manila, I learned that they practice partner swapping. They do not know the values that most people practice so they are free.
I think religion brought about many restrictions that probably couldn’t have existed otherwise.
Thanks for sharing that example you saw in the Philippines, Lorii. How fascinating the human moral values didn’t necessarily translate to people who are deaf and dumb. I also agree with you that religion has imposed many, many belief systems that ultimately may not be natural. They’ve just become ingrained in the belief system.
Very insightful Beverley, and it certainly opens the door to various levels of discussion. The part I found most interesting is that they are males, who are not the mother’s social mate, that stick around to raise the brood. There seems to be some male investment in continuing the survival of the species.
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Thanks Joyce, happy you found it insightful. I find this topic very interesting as well. In the animal and bird kingdoms, the monogamy habits are quite intriguing. The example you mentioned might have parallels in the human world too, as at times men come into the picture as the mother’s partner and end up raising children that aren’t theirs. I find of all topics, this one elicits incredible feedback and discussion!
Just wanted to start by commenting on that I have never believed in the stereotype expressions that women are monogamous while men are generally polygamous. That to me is just another reason for women to keep seeing themselves as victims of situations. According to me if there are men who have affairs, there are women who are having affairs with them and those women are in no way all single. Having said that, I like this book very much. Even though of course we tend to want a monogamous relationship, but for each year I realize myself how difficult it is, and how many women and friends I see around me just settle with a guy they meet, in order to be able to say they are married or in a relationship. Then, of course, there are those very happily married, and I think that is a beautiful thing. Though this does not mran according to me that they go through life not being interested in others, because I think that is very unlikely, just that they do not act on that desire. 😉 Cool topic.
Thanks for your very thoughtful and lively comment on this topic, Katarina! And I agree with you. Both women and men are more polygamous than they are monogamous. It isn’t just men at all. I agree that the ideal may be monogamy and yet the reality might not be as easy to find and achieve. Like you, I see women and men looking for the perfect mate and yet it isn’t as easy as it sounds. And yes, women do settle just to have a man, but what is the long term outcome of that? Maybe it is why our society is filled with unhappy people who feel it is okay to leave and look for someone new. It is a fascinating topic and I find people’s thoughts are so interesting to me too.
So interesting to read Beverley. A long time ago I thought we were not hardwired to be monogamous only because in school I took a lot of biology and learned so many species are not – So why would our species be? – I figured this was why so many relationships have tough times with monogamy. On the other hand, honour, trust and growth are important to us living a happy life, you can’t have those very easily with multiple partners. We are the intelligent species, with a very strong emotion of jealousy. Good honest connections with our significant other ensure a happy life and yes it does require working together as a couple.
Thank you for adding so much depth to this topic, Gilly! It is interesting on a cultural level, to see how humans seems to have come to believe that monogamy is natural. Yet, when we look at the biology and other species, it seems clear we are not. I agree with your points that honour, trust and growth are specific to us humans and on a grander level than just the physical, monogamy becomes a very different topic. It becomes a moral choice, that requires a commitment to another. I appreciate your input, as it really added a lot to this conversation!
Fascinating information Beverley. Social Science has always been an interest of mine. It’s amazing when we look at our biology and then our social customs. We truly have been shaped by our Christian culture.
Thanks for your thoughts on this topic, Candess! I agree we have been shaped by the Euro-Christian culture. Biologically humans are not monogamous, however, on a social, emotional and spiritual level, monogamy becomes a very different picture.
I think monogamy is natural for humans, it’s just that we’re such emotional creatures, that we confuse that sometimes. Most women have sex based on emotions, but men don’t if they have a one night stand.
This is a deep topic (for another time) but i do believe emotions play a huge part.
Thanks for adding your thoughts on monogamy, Sonya! From my research, monogamy is not physically natural for humans, yet, on a moral, emotional and spiritual level, it is a rightful choice for humans. Because of this, you are correct in saying that men often have sex for purely physical reasons and yet, women being more emotional, generally don’t. I agree it is a deep topic and seems to bring up a lot of emotions in each of us individually.
Wow, this is a lot of information to digest! You are right, adultery is undisputedly a hot topic, and it made me laugh when you mentioned that “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.” Which is true. If you put your mind into being monogamous, I think you will make it.
Thank Apolline! I agree with you too. It does require we make a conscious commitment to the other person and keep that commitment to yourself and the other person. Glad that point caught your attentions it is the crux of the issue. It isn’t natural and it requires work.
Hmmm, interesting… I think when you have lived life a bit and then found the right person… the two can be 100% faithful
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Great observation from your own personal experience, Kristen! And I agree with you. It requires maturity and commitment to staying faithful.
This is such an interesting post, Beverley. I was truly shocked about the birds. The little ones in your featured image, the rainbow lorikeets, always come to our yard in pairs and we always assumed social monogamy meant sexual monogamy as well. While on the subject of backyard visitors, we occasionally get a group of marsupial mice, Antechinus, that have so much sex during the mating season that the males literally disintegrate – crazy huh? The males pretty much kill themselves by having too much sex with every female they can.
As for me me, monogamy has worked in a marriage of 32 years.
Happy you learned some new things about birds, Tami! I found doing the research fascinating. It seems most of us have assumptions about birds and animals and yet, we also have assumptions about humans as well when it comes to monogamy. How fascinating to learn about the marsupial Antechinus mice. Nature is amazing and maybe human males could learn a lesson from the mice. 😉 Yes, monogamy is also my choice, even though now I do not have a partner to be monogamous with. Thanks for sharing such interesting info to add to the conversation!
Apparently men who cheat have unique reasons and circumstances and what I call “excuses” about why they do it and there are some general trends. Some men cheat because they haven’t fully developed their sexual maturity. They tend to objectify or compartmentalize women and sex because they have not fully integrated their sexual desires in a mature way with partnership and monogamy. Just my two cents 😉
I agree with your thoughts, Rachel. The men who do cheat, and maybe the women too, possibly haven’t developed their sexual and spiritual maturity, as ultimately relationships are a sacred commitment to another. Society certainly has fostered the objectifying and compartmentalizing of women for men, so maybe the key is to teach the younger generation of boys a new way of being in relation to girls and women. I would like to believe that is happening and also we see younger generations less fixated on gender or sexual orientation. Thanks for sharing! It is such an interesting topic and I love all the perspectives people are adding to the conversation.
interesting read. I’m not surprised, but on the other hand, can’t image not being monogamous, Even when I was young and “dating” I was never one to date more than one guy at a time. It’s just not me. And even though I’m reading here that it’s “natural” I don’t know how forgiving I could be if my husband had an affair. Of course that’s not what they are talking about, but if monogamy is supposed to be difficult, should we then be understanding when a mate has a hard time being loyal?
Like you, I can’t imagine not being monogamous either, Lisa! I think this is a topic that transcends the physical realm alone and shows that on a purely physical level, monogamy is not natural. On a higher spiritual level, it is something we are being asked on ‘work on’ in our relationships. If a partner cheats, maybe that is the ultimate test of understanding and loyalty. It is such an interesting topic and I think each of us has a different way to exploring how it impacts our life.
Love this topic, Beverley. And yep, I’ve read the animal/fowl stories as well. Interesting, no? I’ve long thought monogamy wasn’t natural. Not an easy concept to discuss in our culture! But I’ve practiced serial monogamy all my life. Does that count? 🙂
Monogamy is a fascinating topic, indeed, Susan! I think when people understand monogamy isn’t natural for us humans, it really shifts the focus to how we want to show up in our relationships on both a physical and spiritual level. Like you, I’ve also practiced serial monogamy in any of my relationships. And yes, that does count. 😉
Wow. This was a fascinating read, Beverley. I have a different perspective now on the topic. I absolutely believe in monogamy. This article emphasizes the importance of maintaining strong relationships on all fronts to minimize ‘cheating’.
So happy you found this a fascinating read, Tandy! Isn’t monogamy itself an interesting topic! I think on a spiritual level, monogamy is a huge commitment to another and it does require a conscious effort when it comes to building relationships that serve each person.
I agree. Monogamy IS an interesting topic. I agree that it is a huge commitment to another person and definitely requires a conscious effort to strengthen and maintain positive and loving relationships.
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Whenever I have shared anything about Monogamy, I find the responses are fascinating, Tandy. It is a very subjective topic, even though it has a broader and more social context for us all. It is a commitment and I believe it is not only a physical commitment, but a spiritual one too. Relationships take work and need communication and collaboration from both parties involved…or all parties involved, depending on the relationship configuration. 😉
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Thanks Trish! I appreciate you taking the time to comment.
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