an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

love, monogamy, marriage and bonobos

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To claim that a union founded on convention has much chance of engendering love is hypocritical; to ask two spouses bound by practical, social and moral ties to satisfy each other sexually for their whole lives is pure absurdity.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p 478.


Canto: So we’re reading Beauvoir’s The second sex, inter alia, and though things have changed a bit in the WEIRD world over the past seventy-odd years, the section titled ‘The Married Woman’ does give something of a historical perspective, via the writings of such males as Montaigne, Balzac, Diderot and Kierkegaard, on the perceived differences between love and marriage and the problems that arise from these differences.

Jacinta: Yes, and marriage and monogamy are something of a mystery, historically, in spite of arguments such as those of Ferdinand Mount in The subversive family, that they are a more or less natural element of human life. We don’t know much about the state of affairs of early Homo sapiens or their ancestors and extinct cousins vis-a-vis monogamy. We do know that our closest living relatives, the bonobos and chimps, aren’t monogamous. And as to the claim, made by some, that humans are meant to be monogamous, that’s of the same type as, say, that humans are meant to be bipedal. No, it’s just something that we evolved to be, as some, but not all of us, socially evolved to be (more or less) monogamous.

Jacinta: The question is when? I suppose an obvious answer is when the concept of property became important, and the handing down of property to offspring. So that families started to become powerful rather than individuals. The beginnings of agriculture?

Canto: Some say division of labour may have played a part, though I’m not sure why…

Jacinta: Scientific American has an interesting online article from a few years ago reporting on studies that ‘aimed to find the best explanation for monogamy among three persistent hypotheses: female spacing, infanticide avoidance and male parental care’. So female spacing is just what it says: according to SciAm:

The female-spacing hypothesis posits that monogamy arises after females begin to establish larger territories to gain more access to limited food resources and, in the process, put more distance between one another. With females farther apart, males have a harder time finding and keeping multiple mates. Settling down with a single partner makes life easier, reducing a male’s risk of being injured while patrolling his territory and enabling him to ensure that his mate’s offspring are his own.

Canto: Females began to do that? In the bonobo world, female closeness was the key to their success – the females I mean, but perhaps also bonobos in general. It seems to me more likely that women would work in teams, helping each other to find and exploit resources, or am I being too hippy-happy-clappy?

Jacinta: Yeah maybe, but I note also the assumption here that males would have a hard time keeping multiple mates – the assumption being that early humans were already male-dominated.

Canto: Yes that quoted paragraph is all about the males… though to be fair most primate species are male-dominated. Still, one can’t assume…

Jacinta: Well, the proponents of this hypothesis did a statistical analysis of couple of thousand mammalian species, and found, apparently, that they started out solitary, but many, or some, switched to monogamy during their evolutionary history. How they proved that I’m not sure. They claimed that ‘monogamy most frequently occurred in carnivores and primates…’

Canto: Hang on. Isn’t it true that most primates are not monogamous?

Jacinta: Ahh, you’re probably thinking only of apes. There are hundreds of primate species, and they’re still being discovered. Three more were added in the last couple of years.

Canto: Shit! It’s all so hard to keep up with.

Jacinta: Lorises and lemurs, tarsiers and hatfuls of monkeys. Simians and prosimians, old world and new world, greater and lesser apes, etc. And actually, most primates are monogamous.

Canto: Well, I don’t think we should let it bother or constrain us. If we don’t feel monogamous, I mean individually speaking, we don’t have to be so.

Jacinta: But there are social constraints. They’ve loosened, no doubt, in the WEIRD world, but they’re there still. Besides, it’s convenient to settle down with one person, especially as you get older. It’s hard work trying to impress one partner after another into canoodling, what with rivalries and jealousies, and children who end up not knowing who’s what.

Canto: Well, yes – it does spice up life a bit, but too much spice can be overly acidic, or something. Still, I cling hopefully to the bonobo way…

Jacinta: Anyway, let’s get back to the second hypothesis – infanticide avoidance. I don’t think there’s much in this, re humans, but here’s the rationale:

Primates are uniquely at risk for infanticide: they have big brains that need time to develop, which leaves babies dependent and vulnerable for long periods after birth. And the killing of babies has been observed in more than 50 primate species; it typically involves a male from outside a group attacking an unweaned infant in a bid for dominance or access to females.

I suppose early hominids lived in smallish groups, like troupes of other primates, and I never considered that there’d be an alpha male among them, but I suppose it makes sense. But the bonobo part of me is in denial….

Canto: Well, warfare goes back a long way and capturing and raping women has always gone along with that, and it’s often been about capturing and expanding territory – e.g. Putin and Ukraine – and in those earlier times when resources were scarcer and harder-won, children, that’s to say the children of the defeated, would’ve been a burden. And the winners knew they could make more of their own with the captive women. It’s all quite plausible. I saw it in Empress Ki!

Jacinta: Hmmm. Having it off with captive women – essentially rape – doesn’t really fit with monogamy. In those Korean historicals you love there are wives and also concubines, and your alpha-maledom would be defined by the number of concubines you commanded, I’m guessing. So the male parental care hypothesis is most palatable to us moderns, I hope. Here’s what the SciAm site says:

When a baby becomes too costly in terms of calories and energy for a mother to raise on her own, the father who stays with the family and provides food or other forms of care increases his offspring’s chances of survival and encourages closer ties with the mother. A related idea… holds that the mere carrying of offspring by fathers fosters monogamy. Mothers have to meet the considerable nutritional demands of nursing infants. Yet for primates and human hunter-gatherers, hauling an infant, especially without the benefit of a sling or other restraint, required an expense of energy comparable to breast-feeding. Carrying by males could have freed females to fulfill their own energetic needs by foraging.

Canto: Yes, that’s a much more Dr Feelgood hypothesis, but interestingly this assumes an understanding of the relationship between sex and offspring. Males wouldn’t want to be caring for someone else’s kids, would they? And I’m sure I read somewhere that even some cultures living today, or at least not so long ago, aren’t clear about that relationship.

Jacinta: Well, and yet I’ve heard that bonobo females try to control who their adult sons mate with, as if they have an inkling… Bronislaw Malinowski (the first anthropologist I ever heard of) claimed that Trobriand Islanders thought that males played no role in producing children, but that’s been found to be a bit questionable. Seems plausible to me though. And something to aim for.

Canto: One thing anthropologists seem to say nothing about in these reflections on monogamy is love. This eternal bonding force that unites Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleo, Sonny and Cher…

Jacinta: Yeah, hormones they say. And when offspring come along, a certain force of duty, often reinforced by the community, or the State. So the male parent ends up staying, not really knowing whether it’s because he wants to or not. And one of the forces, a principle force, is societal, or cultural. He sees pairings-off all around him, physically reinforced by separate houses, fenced in. It’s the ‘norm’. With bonobos, no physical or, apparently, ethical barriers have been erected against polyandry/polygyny – to use human terms that would be meaningless to them. Does that mean no love? Of course not – on the contrary, our cousins can still teach us a thing or two about love…


Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1982

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2023 at 9:26 am

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