How the Assumption of Monogamy Distorts Reality

This article from Jezebel, ostensibly about modern men “needing to change” in order for 20-something women to take them seriously, is a prime example of how the assumption that monogamous relationships are the only serious ones distorts our view of human nature.

If the authors of Sex at Dawn are right (and I believe they are) that most hunter-gatherer bands where modern humans did most of their relevant evolution were not even *close* to monogamous, it completely makes sense that anyone of *either* sex who bases the foundation of their relationship on an assumption of lifelong monogamy is setting themselves up for failure. The problem isn’t the people, male or female, it’s the underlying assumption. An assumption, we’ll note, that’s so ingrained in our culture the article doesn’t even *mention* the word “monogamy.” Why?  Because the prevailing believe in our culture is that life-long monogamy is the only “serious” style of sexual relationship, and “traditional” nuclear families are the only responsible way to raise children.  If you believe that model, then a man unwilling to commit to sex with a single women for life and shoulder 50% of the emotional and financial responsibility of raising one or more children
might seem like he’s being selfish, acting irresponsibly, “only in it for the sex.” etc.

If, however,  we evolved in bands where most people had multiple sexual partners, the picture changes drastically.  First of all, it seriously muddle the waters in terms of male parental investment.  No would know exactly which male was the father, so all of a woman’s sexual partners would have good reason to help raise the child.  Such bands were very egalitarian, and everybody shared everything, especially food.  All the parents helped take care of all of the children, so there was never a time when a single man and a single woman had to take care of children 24/7 the way it works in nuclear families today.  Any given couple could get a break from children to enjoy alone-time while others helped with their kids.  In fact, anyone in a “nuclear” family in Paleolithic times would have been worried sick that they didn’t have the resources to survive with just two parents.  I firmly believe that the reason that both men and women have huge anxieties about finding “the right mate” in modern Western society is because they evolved to have a whole community supporting their child-rearing efforts, and to regularly had sex with multiple partners.  We have an instinctive understanding that children should be raised in groups, and that any two parents are going to need help and community support to pull off what is life’s most difficult challenge — raising healthy, well-adjusted children.  And that instinct remains, gnawing away at the foundation of many of our most sacred beliefs.

In short, if we want to feel more secure to have children, instead of expecting men (or women, who statistically aren’t very far behind men in frequency of, for instance, cheating) to change to fit an artificial, socially constructed model, we need to change the dominant paradigm to fit the way we evolved in the first place.  Of course, going back to living in small hunter-gather bands clearly isn’t an option.  I, for instance, like to have a much greater degree of privacy and personal space than Paleolithic humans had.  But every time I look at large social problem, the first thing I do is ask myself “how did humans evolve, and how does modern society differ from those conditions.”  More often than not, the answer is suddenly made clear.  Modern polyamory seems like not only a much more appealing model for raising kids, but one that’s much closer to the tens of thousands of years of human evolution that happened before the advent of agriculture and the roots of modern marriage.

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