Is monogamy like vegetarianism?

Just as we're omnivores who can swear off meat, we're a promiscuous species capable of change, an expert argues

follow us in feedly
Tracy Clark-Flory
July 31, 2011 3:01AM (UTC)

Psychologist Christopher Ryan is out to defeat an archetypal figure in the mythology of monogamy. No, not prince charming; he's after the widespread belief in a prehistoric hunter who would slay an antelope on the plains and heroically haul it back to his nuclear family.

You might wonder what this has to do with monogamy. Well, Ryan argues that in actuality the meat would have been shared with the entire tribe, because pre-agricultural societies shared everything -- including sex. This is a key point he and co-author/wife Cacilda Jethá make in "Sex at Dawn," which was released last year in hardcover and this month in paperback. Our hunting and gathering ancestors were nonmonogamous, they argue -- the implication being that, biologically speaking, sexual exclusivity is unnatural.


The book challenges much of the previously accepted wisdom about the sex lives of our ancestors, although the authors admit they haven't exactly proved their case. Regardless, they have gained praise and admiration from sexual radicals like sex columnist Dan Savage. That makes Ryan an ideal final interview in Salon's monogamy series, which was originally sparked by Savage's thoughts in a New York Times Magazine piece about "monogam-ish" marriage.

Salon spoke to Ryan by phone at his home in Barcelona, just as he prepared for a road trip with Jethá. They planned to set out without a destination in mind, enjoy the drive and figure it out as they went -- which is awfully similar to their attitude toward monogamy in their marriage.

Why is it wrong, as you argue, to assume that women are the choosy sex and men just want to spread their seed indiscriminately?

Well, there's a grain of truth there on a biological level. There's no denying that women make a greater biological investment in pregnancy and gestation than men do. There's no denying the fact that men produce millions of sperm cells in the amount of time that a woman releases one egg. But when you look at highly intelligent, highly social species -- particularly primates but also dolphins -- what you find is that that's not the way things happen. The assumption that women are choosing mates based on their access to resources is simply not the way it works in primates that are intelligent and social. In fact, there are no social, group-living primates that are monogamous.

What you find in highly social species is that resources tend to be shared, particularly in bonobos and to some extent in chimps. When you look at pre-agricultural human societies, there really is no private property. Even the best hunters gain their status by sharing what they catch. The worst thing you can do in those societies is hoard food. We're not saying these are "noble savages," we're not slipping into that "oh, they're so much better than us" mindset -- in fact, they're just like us. They're just in a very different situation in which the best way to spread risk is too share. Today I might kill an antelope, but I'm probably not going to again for a week or two. You don't just go out and shoot an antelope like you go to the grocery store. The way to make sure that everyone eats, especially in a situation where there is no refrigeration, is to share what we find.

They share their shelter, defense, childcare, food, access to the spirit world -- why should we believe that sex is the one thing that they don't share? What we argue is that's an economic issue, it's something that happens with the advent of agriculture when suddenly men became obsessed with paternity because they had this accumulated property that they wanted to pass to their children.

You mentioned love briefly -- how does it figure into all of this?

Cacilda and I don't dispute that love is a very important human emotion and is deeply embedded in our nature. In fact, one of the things that we do best is love other people. But what we do dispute is that it's necessarily linked to sexual exclusivity. I think that's something that's very much culturally encouraged in our possessive, imperialistic society. Whereas in many of the societies we discuss in the book, there's not a lot of accumulated property like in agricultural societies, and there are rituals that are expressly designed to discourage that possessiveness and jealousy. That might suggest that there is a natural inclination toward jealousy and that these societies are working intentionally to minimize that response, whereas we live in a society that works to maximize it.


How natural is sexual jealousy, then?

I think it's as natural as any other sort of insecurity or possessiveness. In these societies there are also rituals to expressly minimize and discourage selfishness about food, because in that sort of system, selfishness results in disaster for everyone. Any sort of antisocial behavior, including sexual jealousy, is discouraged in hunter gatherer societies, all based on whether or not it's ultimately positive for the society.

In our society, it seems to have had some pro-social function, namely knowing whose kids were whose and keeping inheritance lines. But I think we're at a tipping point now with birth control, adoption, gay couples -- all these biological concerns are dissipating, so maybe we're at a point where we're starting to look at a gradual shift to a more hunter gatherer approach to these issues.

So in the future people will look back at the advent of birth control and say it changed the course of sexual evolution?


Yeah, and I think a lot of those changes are a return to earlier ways of thinking. People talk about the sexual revolution in the '60s, which was largely brought on by the pill. For the first time ever, women could have sex with different partners without worrying about it -- at least before AIDS. But in prehistory, I think women were largely having sex without worrying about it, at least in the sense that you didn't need to worry about who was the father of your child, because you lived in a society where resources were shared.

Even if we accept that our ancestral roots are nonmonogamous, we're still living in a dramatically different time now. Does it really make sense to navigate open relationships in this day and age?

[Laughs] Good question. This week I'm substituting for Dan Savage on his "Letter of the Day" column, and I just wrote a response to a letter asking a similar question. What I try to articulate very clearly is that we're not advocating nonmonogamy. What we're advocating is a realistic, informed understanding of what sort of animal we are so that when you enter into whatever sort of arrangement you choose, you do it with your eyes open, you do it with an understanding of the difficulties and the risks. You take a compassionate approach to the problems that you're gonna run into.

We're very careful not to tell anyone what to do; in fact we say very explicitly that we don't know what to do. Casilda and I have been together 12 years, and we always talk about this stuff. It's a live issue for us and it has been since the beginning. There's a lot of guilt-tripping out there, people saying, "This should be easy for you because you're in love, and if it's not easy for you it means you're not in love." I think that's really destructive and corrosive to the human spirit, and to love itself.

What I say in this column is that monogamy is like vegetarianism. All the evidence points to the fact that we've evolved as omnivores, but that doesn't mean that living as an omnivore in today's world is inherently superior than choosing to be a vegetarian. Being a vegetarian can make perfect sense, it can be ethical, healthy and smart -- but it's not going to come naturally, right? Just because you've decided to become vegetarian doesn't make you an herbivore. You're an omnivore who's chosen to live as a vegetarian, but bacon is still gonna smell good and you shouldn't feel guilty about that. I think it's offensive when social institutions like religions and governments and even some scientists say, "Hey, this should come naturally to you. This is human nature. If you get hungry when you smell bacon, there's something wrong with you."


It's interesting, the idea of it being a "live issue," something that's revisited and talked about in the relationship.

Relationships are living things, they're constantly changing. When we were working on the book and anticipating what sort of questions we'd get, that was of course at the top of our list: They're gonna ask us about our marriage. One of the first interviews was with Dan Savage and he asked that question and I said, "Our prepared answer is: Our relationship is informed by our research." He cracked up; he said, "That's gonna be my answer from now on, too."

Tracy Clark-Flory

MORE FROM Tracy Clark-FloryFOLLOW TracyClarkFloryLIKE Tracy Clark-Flory


Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address


Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •