If Tiger Woods has taught me anything, it’s that monogamy can be a bit of a farce (clearly, I don’t play golf). Both men and women seem to be prone to straying from loving and sexually exclusive relationships. So is monogamy even natural, or did we invent it?
The male monopoly
It’s generally accepted that humans were once a very promiscuous species. Early on in our evolutionary history, humans were having rampant sex in a bid to make lots and lots of babies. But something changed and now, marriage rules.
Recently, evolutionary biologist Sergey Gavrilet published some research on the origin of monogamy. He devised a set of theoretical algorithms that simulate how we may have evolved to become less promiscuous and more monogamous. Gavrilet started off suggesting that we once lived in a male dominated society, where the alpha male had a monopoly on the mating game.
Men would compete and fight for dominance and only the strongest would be able to have sex and father children. But therein lies the problem for the women. If they had a mate that was only interested in picking fights, she would have no help with raising the child.
Gavrilet thought that women may have decided to mate with subordinate males instead. A lower class male would be less interested in fighting and may be more inclined to care for his young one. Evolution would therefore have selected for not only strength, but also fidelity, and monogamy could be born as a result.
A harem of women is better than one
However, not everyone agrees with Gavrilet’s model, especially as it assumes that women need help raising their young in the first place. Perhaps they were all strong, confident women who didn’t need no man (who run the world?!).
Other researchers have suggested that fidelity evolved when males would mate faithfully with a select harem of women. This may have eventually led to pair-bonding. This idea could help explain why it’s socially acceptable to be a man-whore but not a man-eater.
Perhaps it’s all just cultural
Not everyone though is satisfied with either of these explanations, nor even the idea of natural monogamy. There are some thinkers (not necessarily scientists though) who suggest that monogamy is purely a cultural institution.
These thinkers, such as author and journalist Dan Savage, suggest that humans were never supposed to be monogamous and that we are all just suppressing natural promiscuous behaviour.
Savage suggests that monogamy only came about 10,000 years ago during the rise of agriculture. At that time, the idea of property was conceptualised and from there, sexual partners may have been viewed as objects.
The theoretical basis of Gavrilet’s predictions are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. The contentious nature of sexual behaviour will no doubt spew more and more explanations for our apparent high fidelity.
Perhaps though it’s not so simple to label humans as either ‘promiscuous’ or ‘monogamous’. Human sexual behaviour is highly variable and there are likely to be many evolutionary strategies set in place that influence our current form.
It’s also easy to think this is only about male promiscuity. Compared with other animals, humans don’t actually have a high reproductive sex rate, so it may be just as important for women to be promiscuous.
Whatever the real explanation, we can all at least sit back and reflect on the fact that all of our ancient ancestors were just a bunch of whoring monkeys. Or apes, whichever one you choose to imagine.