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The myth of monogamy
According to studies of the animal world, most of us are naturally inclined to "cheat"
Highlights of article By David Barash
This excerpt, with full credit, is being shared under the Fair Use provision of the U.S. Copyright laws and International treaties for educational purposes with no financial gain.
Jan. 23, 2001 | For most biologists, the fact that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had an illegitimate child by one of his staffers is neither surprising nor a revelation. We've known for a long time that males from many species tend to be interested in sexual variety, particularly in having more than one partner.
Consider, for instance, this story: A missionary visited a Maori village in 19th century New Zealand and there was a feast in his honor. After the feast, the Maori chief called out, "A woman for the bishop." Noting the scowl on the prelate's face, the obliging chief roared again, even louder: "Two women for the bishop!"
Given the choice, most men would rather have two women than one (although not necessarily at the same time). And they'd rather have three than two. As Margaret Mead once pointed out, monogamy is the most difficult of all marital arrangements. For some time, biologists have had a good idea why. Men are sperm makers. Sperm are cheap and easily replaced. Unlike eggs, they do not require that the guy doing the fertilizing become pregnant, give birth and then nurse his young.
For women -- and females of most other species as well -- the situation is quite different, and, not surprisingly, females tend to be comparison shoppers, and sexually reticent compared to their male counterparts. So the interesting thing about the Jackson affair isn't Jackson's behavior. After all, ever since "The Scarlet Letter" we've been told that even men of the cloth are still men, under the cloth. Rather, it's why Karin Stanford, his paramour, went along.
And here, biologists have finally begun to catch up with common sense. Women, too, have extramarital affairs, and these need not be limited to an unmarried woman having sex with a married man, as with Stanford and Jackson (though it has been reported that she had a boyfriend at the time of her affair with Jackson), or Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton, or Donna Rice and Gary Hart, or ... There are plenty of Madame Bovarys and Anna Kareninas. Adultery is a favorite human topic, in more ways than one.
Enter DNA fingerprinting, and not just for Monica's fabled blue dress. This laboratory technique isn't only useful for identifying unknown soldiers or freeing the falsely convicted. In recent years, it has surprised biologists with a whole new world of screwing around among animals, with likely implications for that troubled animal, Homo sapiens, the one that tries so hard to be monogamous and finds it so terribly difficult.
When we examine the genes of baby birds, even those species long thought to be absolute paragons of monogamous fidelity, we find that 10, 20, sometimes 30 percent of the offspring are not genetically connected to the socially identified father. Social monogamy (what biologists still call, somewhat quaintly, a pair bond) is not the same as sexual monogamy. Several decades ago experimenters vasectomized redwinged blackbirds in the hope of controlling their numbers. But many females, ostensibly mated to only those vasectomized males, laid eggs that hatched! Something funny was going on. But only now, with the accumulation of literally dozens of research studies using DNA data, do we know for sure: Females, even females in species long thought to be sexually faithful, often are not.
- Deleted long discussion of various animal studies showing non-mongomay the norm -
The evidence is now undeniable: Monogamy among animals is more myth than reality. What about human beings?
Here, too, there is no doubt. We are not naturally monogamous. Anthropologists report that the overwhelming majority of human societies either are polygynous or were polygynous prior to the cultural homogenization of recent decades. They also suggest that individuals are mildly polygynous, having evolved in a system in which one man maintains a harem.
Why, then, does monogamy occur at all? Maybe it's like Winston Churchill's observation that democracy is the worst possible form of government except for all the others that have been tried. At least monogamy is a great equalizer (in theory). It assures that in a species with equal numbers of males and females, no one need be left out. But at the same time, it cannot and does not prevent individuals of either sex from looking elsewhere.
Imagine a society of rigid social monogamy in which women nonetheless seek to be inseminated by the best possible males. Such males are rare, and likely to be already taken. So women might well adopt a kind of ratcheting-up tactic, in which they pair with the best man they can get, and thereby obtain his child-rearing assistance as well as whatever additional material resources he can provide, while also making themselves available for men further up in the hierarchy -- probably charismatic men like Jesse Jackson.
Such a motivation need not be conscious. In fact, a woman who has an affair with an attractive married man may intentionally avoid becoming pregnant. The point is that part of the underlying sexual motivation for the affair likely derives from these factors.
When right-wing Christian moralists worry that family values are under assault, they don't know how right they are! Monogamy, perhaps the poster child of family values, is under profound assault -- but not from any progressive, gay or feminist agenda. Rather, nature is the culprit.
Dave notes that mongomy was also not the norm in biblical culture. Adultery was only wrong for a married women, never a married man who could have as many wives and concubines as he wished, as long as they were single - not owned by another man.
About the writer
David P. Barash is professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. His most recent book, "The Myth of Monogamy," coauthored with his wife, Judith Eve Lipton, M.D., is to be published this spring.
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