This piece was first published in the US based ‘Third Report’.
As our politicians and sports stars fall from monogamous grace like ninepins, and as the US based adultery website ‘Ashley Madison’ prepares its worldwide launch, it’s time to examine the ideal of monogamy in the light of cold, hard 21st century relationship facts.
Monogamy, that ideal expected of anyone in a ‘stable’ relationship, has become an impossible and unnatural practice for many in modern times. David Barash and Judy Lipton, authors of the The Myth of Monogamy, recently told Australia’s ABC that 50-80 per cent of men and just under half of women cheat on their partners. So what is it about monogamy that makes it so damn difficult?
The most recent evolutionary theory is that infidelity may well be a necessary act to increase genetic diversity and guarantee species survival; that while being impossible for a high proportion of the male population, the institution of monogamous marriage may well have outlived its usefulness – even for women. If, as Darwin stated, our primary evolutionary imperative is to survive and reproduce, monogamous marriage, through partner restriction, may be limiting our survival as a species on this planet.
In ancient times, marriage was merely a contract between families to secure land and guarantee the existence of lawful offspring. Men could have concubines and visit prostitutes, while maintaining a relationship with their wives for procreation. As the Greek orator Demosthenes put it: “We have prostitutes for our pleasure, concubines for our health, and wives to bear us lawful offspring.” Publicly at least, women enjoyed no similar liberty.
The increasing power of the Christian Church in Europe meant marriage evolved into a spiritual state where men and women became ‘one flesh’ with all the assistant responsibilities that ‘one flesh’ involved. Monogamy was written into the contract and the marriage sacrament became a contract between the couple and God; a serious contract indeed!
With average life spans in 17th Century Europe of only 40 years, and with a high infant mortality rate, monogamous marriage helped ensure a ‘stable’ environment for children to survive. Poor couples married young and due to the general uncertainty of life, produced many children. Monogamous marriage therefore, could well have been an evolutionary necessity to maintain our genetic legacy.
It’s also true that in these centuries past, people lived in smaller villages and towns – usually with the church at its highest point. Anonymity was difficult, and individuals were less likely to ‘stray’ because infidelity didn’t remain secret for long – especially if it resulted in offspring. As God looked down on his fearful subjects from the town’s central rise, monogamy, however irritating, was easier than infidelity. Church enforced monogamy, fear of God and the monotonous work produced by the early industrial revolution, created a passive and socially controlled workforce unwilling to venture outside the norm.
But in today’s large towns and enormous cities, and with the decreasing influence of the Church in the lives of many, infidelity is not only simple but often without consequence.
Readily available birth control means offspring can be avoided. Flexible working hours means more workers control their own time – a scenario ripe for infidelity, while people are often anonymous in their own neighborhoods, let alone their cities. The moral influence of a close community is virtually non-existent.
Yet perhaps the major force making monogamy an evolutionary anachronism is the wealth and health created by modern life. When resources are scarce, caring for children resulting from multiple partnering is impossible. When resources are plentiful, this care is, if not simple, easily bought from an army of businesses and nannies all too willing to fill the childcare void.
We now live longer than our ancestors and can enter other relationships once our children grow up. 45 was virtually old age in 1765. Now, it’s scarcely middle age and men can reproduce again to further their genetic legacy. Many women of course will say the evolutionary imperative behind infidelity benefits men, with little or nothing positive for them. If spreading our DNA is our dominant evolutionary call, women are restricted by their reproductive clock.
Remember though, that it’s only been the last 300 years that humans have lived into their 80s. Evolutionists are now saying that as humans live longer, it’s probable that women’s reproductive lives will extend proportionally. Indeed, the evidence is telling us that this is already happening with a 60 year study of 2000 North American women by Yale University’s Stephen Stearns revealing women are definitely evolving to reach menopause later in life, According to Stearns, ‘Natural selection is still operating.’, while according to evolutionary theory, this longer childbearing window will allow for multiple partnering, greater genetic diversity and more choices for women.
Yet what of those who elect to ignore the evolutionary lure of infidelity and travel the monogamous road? Are their genes destined for the DNA scrapheap or is there still some positive evolutionary purpose behind ‘As long as we both shall live’?
Monogamy, at least during the initial glow of love, serves a definite evolutionary purpose in guaranteeing paternity (and therefore the selected DNA) of offspring. Indeed, this could well be the only evolutionary purpose behind monogamy in a healthy and wealthy society. If he is monogamous, then she knows that all his resources will go towards the care of her offspring. If she is monogamous, then the offspring will certainly be his and he can provide the resources for its survival without waste.
It’s also true that in a society rife with infections, the monogamous pair will not be exposed to the sexually transmitted kind and could well live longer as a result. With the increase in pharmaceutical quick-fixes for sexually transmitted infections, this theory is diminished. Indeed, The Pill and antibiotics could be regarded as monogamy’s greatest enemies.
As the coming northern hemisphere chill makes snuggling a very attractive pastime, and as Ashley Maddison makes infidelity cool, we could succumb to the moral confusion and self flagellate all in the name of monogamy. Preferably though, we could realise that as intelligent mammals in a free and open society, we need no longer be bound by the dictates of 17th Century Europe and enjoy the biological rush that comes from our ancient evolutionary urges. We could also realise that every biological drive has its consequences, and that those consequences are anything but simple.