The myth of monogamy

According to studies of the animal world, most of us are naturally inclined to "cheat" or at least have more than one mate in a lifetime.

Topics: Sex, Noble Beasts, Science, Love and Sex,

The myth of monogamy

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.

In the movie “Heartburn,” based on Nora Ephron’s barely fictional account of her marriage to the philandering Carl Bernstein, the heroine complains about his infidelity to her father, who responds: You want monogamy? Marry a swan.

Now we are discovering that even swans aren’t monogamous!

Why not?

Again, there is no great mystery about why males often make themselves available for extra-pair copulations, or EPCs. The evolutionary payoff in fathering additional children can easily make up for the costs, assuming that some EPCs result in EPFs (extra-pair fertilizations), and the cuckolded male doesn’t find out and take violent revenge. Of course, an EPCing male runs other risks as well, such as possible desertion by his own mate, or the chance that while he is trying to seduce someone else’s female, that same someone else — or another — is making time with his own! But the bigger question, yet to be resolved, is why a female, especially one already mated, should seek EPCs. The costs of discovery can be great (notably violence from her mate or abandonment), whereas the benefits are obscure. Yet seek them they clearly do.

We now know that in numerous species, females go prospecting on the territories of adjacent males, especially when their own mate is off at work, foraging or patrolling the neighborhood perhaps looking for his own EPCs. Sometimes, to be sure, females are coerced into mating, but it is clear that even mated females are often sexual adventurers in their own right, actively soliciting EPCs from males who are not theirs.

It appears that there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for female infidelity among animals. Here are a few; each is valid for at least one species. Some might also shed light on the Madame Bovarys (or Karin Stanfords) among us: For an unmated female, reproducing is generally better than not, even if — when monogamy is the public norm — such a reproducing female has to be a single mother. An EPC can provide a female, whether socially mated or not, with fertility insurance, just in case her current partner doesn’t produce enough sperm. She might also increase the genetic variety of her offspring by bearing the children of more than one male. An especially important consideration seems to be the genetic quality of her additional lover(s). It is very rare, for example, for already mated females to copulate on the sly with males who are socially subordinate to their current mates. Among those animals in which males sport secondary sexual traits that indicate unusual health and that females find sexually stimulating (bright plumage, enlarged feathers, especially attractive body features of other sorts), females will often mate with those fortunate males who are unusually good specimens, particularly if their own mates are less than prepossessing in this regard.

Barn swallows, for example, have deeply forked tails. The deeper the fork, the greater the appeal to females. Female barn swallows paired with males whose tails are only so-so tend to sneak copulations with neighboring males whose tail forkings have been artificially enhanced by researchers. Among the European birds known as yellowhammers, older males are brighter yellow; their enhanced brightness indicates that they have good longevity genes and also makes them more attractive to female yellowhammers, especially those mated to males whose yellow is less prepossessing.

A female can also gain immediate personal payoffs from successful EPCs. In some cases, she may be permitted to forage on territory maintained by a male, provided that she first copulates with him. When several adults cooperate in provisioning the young, males often adjust their parental efforts depending on their sexual access to the female: more fucking, more feeding. By inducing more than one male to have an interest — or think he has an interest — in the outcome of a bout of sex, cagey females reduce their own parenting duties. There are some species, including lions and a number of primates, in which adult males are likely to kill young they have not fathered. It has been suggested that in such cases females may have evolved to be sexually receptive to more than one male as a way of reducing the risk eventually faced by their offspring.

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. This, incidentally, helps explain the persistent sex appeal of successful, dominant men, whether they be high-ranking politicians, movie or rock stars, glamorous athletes or wealthy entrepreneurs. Power, as Henry Kissinger once noted, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. At the same time, women can and do seek additional sex partners, even when already mated. Thus, monogamy — when it occurs — is shot through with EPCs, not just among birds. Otherwise, why would men have such a powerfully developed tendency for sexual jealousy?

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.

We are imbued by Western culture with monogamous ideals. Yet, like other living things, we’re often compelled by our biology to depart from monogamy. Neither men nor women are the primordial purveyors of extra-pair copulations, yet EPCs have dogged and delighted human beings throughout recorded history, and doubtless before. It takes two to do the EPC tango. And human beings love to dance.

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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>