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exploring the history and future of human monogamy

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the world’s dictatorships, according to someone – but remember, not all dictatorships are thugocracies and not all thugocracies are dictatorships

So, humans are predominantly monogamous, but our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, are sexually promiscuous within large male-female communities. When and why did we turn monogamous?

Offhand, I’ve heard of and can think of a few answers. For example, I’ve read that it began with the notion of private property, which itself began with or was reinforced by the advent of agriculture and permanent settlement. Many anthropologists try to date this, but the spread of Homo sapiens and her ancestors both within and outside of Africa produced a diversity of cultures, no doubt tightly related to environmental conditionals. For example the Australian Aborigines lived here for as much as sixty thousands years without developing permanent settlements and agriculture, and they were right not to do so, as the soil and conditions didn’t favour that lifestyle. So monogamy would have become the norm at different times for different cultures, and sometimes not at all.

Bearing all this in mind, I take with some salt the claim by Kit Opie, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College, London, that ‘the modern monogamous culture has only been around for just 1,000 years’. Okay I got this in a report from CNN Health – did they lose a zero somewhere? Opie’s argument is a familiar one, about property and inheritance, but surely this goes back more than a thousand years in Europe.

Of course, inheritance only matters when you have something to inherit, and in feudal society that wasn’t much for the vast majority. In early agricultural society, perhaps it was even less of a consideration.

Another causal factor I hadn’t considered, but which may have been effective in reinforcing monogamy rather than causing it, was the rise of STDs in earlier times. These diseases had ravaging effects, and would certainly have inhibited promiscuous behaviour among the infected and their associates. Infections of this type tend to make us more insular. The sad death of Nell Gwyn (and her lover Charles II) is a prime example. It’s likely that both syphilis and gonorrhoea jumped to humans from cattle and sheep, but that appears to be centuries rather than millennia ago.

Another theory has to do with the enlargement of the human brain, together with the changes to the female pelvic structure due to bipedalism. This of course takes us back much further in time. With females being more incapacitated during this period, and requiring assistance during childbirth, would this have resulted in closer male-female bonds? Then again, this might have strengthened female-female bonding, for obvious reasons. In any case, these problems of childbirth are likely to have increased social cohesion. And at some stage in the enlargement and greater complexity of the human brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, humans or their ancestors would have twigged to the connection between sex and pregnancy, and so male parentage, or what has been termed ‘reproductive consciousness’. An attempt to answer this ‘when’ question was posted in Slate back in 2013 (all links below), but understandably, it comes up with nothing firm, and even the claim that this understanding probably occurred in Homo sapiens between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago strikes me as questionable. Did H neanderthelensis have reproductive consciousness? Could H erectus have had some such understanding?

I would expect there to be a link between reproductive consciousness and monogamy, so answering this question is important. Of course, knowing, or having a strong sense, that a female’s new-born is also a product of a male (a very sophisticated and hard-won notion, as Matthew Cobb’s book The egg and sperm race makes clear) would change male-female dynamics in a dramatic way. It might be expected to turn the male and female into a team. It might also be expected, in a generally promiscuous culture, to turn males into jealous rivals, each asserting parenthood or ownership of the offspring over others. With no other form of proof, the ‘father’ would be the contest winner. Another way of assuring paternity, of course, is to reduce or eliminate the promiscuity, to ensure that you could be the only father.

So now I’m looking at the why of monogamy rather than the when. Anthropologists have found that different cultures have different understandings of the relation between sex and pregnancy, and there are likely different understandings within those cultures too. But even if one man’s paternity is accepted in all or most cases, we can’t be sure that this will lead to monogamy. It would depend on the group’s dynamics. For example, imagine a bonobo-like human culture, in which the mother-child bond is very strong, and adult female bonds are also very strong, so that the mother would get help from other females when she needs it (and males too will help out, but they are further along in the chain of connections). Why should males knowing that they’re the father change this dynamic? There’s already a perfectly adequate, female-centred method for bringing up baby. The males had previously been shut out, and knowledge of paternity wouldn’t necessarily change that situation, even if the females acknowledged the paternity of particular males.

Again, it seems to me that monogamy is most likely to be linked strongly to private property, which isn’t a concern for bonobos, but is more so for chimps, who fight over territory and pecking order, between and within groups. And fighting over territory has been a virtual raison d’être for humans as far back as we can trace.

So it seems that bonobos are really the outliers – less monogamous than us, less possessive and less aggressive. So is it possible to learn from those relatively dumb beasts?

Well maybe we already are, without quite being aware of it. I always live in hope. The push is on – and it is relatively recent – to recognise intellectual powers and physical skills. Women have been allowed to study at universities only recently – less than a century ago. Women’s sport has only started to come into its own in the last couple of decades. Beauty pageants – putting women in their ornamental place – are on the decline. And we note with both horror and satisfaction that the world’s thugocracies – Afghanistan, Algeria, Russia, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, Chechnia, Belarus, Burma, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Angola, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Burundi, the two Congos, Cambodia, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Cuba, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Mauritania, Libya, Oman, Kazakhstan, Laos, Vietnam, Gabon, Qatar, Rwanda, Eswatini, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Uganda, Western Sahara – and yes, there are a lot, and I’m sure there are more – these thugocracies are, without exception, controlled by men. And if you look at countries run – at least for the time being – by women, such as Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Slovakia, they make for great holiday destinations, especially in the time of covid. Though they might not let you in.

So the evidence is mounting that a human world turned upside-down would be a great improvement. My hope is that women continue to band together with other women to make it happen. Sadly it won’t happen in my lifetime, but I look forward to seeing a little more progress before my span is complete. Whether this world would continue to be as monogamous as it is now is an interesting question. As has been pointed out, by Melvin Konner amongst others, men are largely surplus to requirements, once their sperm has been gathered, so they may be treated like drones, of the ant variety, and left to die. Or maybe they’ll be kept on as pets and playthings, as well as useful drudges. Whatever the future holds, monogamy is certainly not a necessary part of it.

References and links

https://edition.cnn.com/2016/05/17/health/sti-infanticide-human-monogamy/index.html

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race, 2006

https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/dictatorship-countries

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2021-03-08/why-countries-with-female-leaders-have-responded-well-to-the-pandemic

Melvin Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, 2015

https://antday.com/?lang=en&pageid=castes

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2021 at 7:28 pm

a bonobo world etc 27: male violence and the Myanmar coup

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Myanmar protests, from the safety of Thailand

So the military has staged another coup in Myanmar. Bearing in mind the overwhelming maleness of most militaries, let’s take a closer look. 

A very interesting article was published in the US Army journal Military Review in late 2019 about women in the Myanmar armed forces, which also gave an overview of the role of women in the society as a whole. The article emphasises women’s positive role in trying to establish peace in the country, and at the same time describes in mixed terms the role of women in the military (they make up about 0.2% of the armed forces). Not surprisingly, they want to see more women joining the military, while praising recent increases. Which raises, of course, the idea of a military as a force for peace. Here’s an interesting example of the article’s thinking:

The speed and spread of Myanmar’s peace, prosperity, and progress depends on the elimination of violent conflicts in its border areas. However, bringing peace to these regions has been extremely slow (almost to a stalemate with some of the ethnic armed groups). As the peace process creeps forward at a snail’s pace, the increased participation of Myanmar women should be seriously considered to quicken the stride. According to data from the Center for Foreign Relations, women and civil-society’s participation in the peace negotiations increases the chance of success by 36 percent, and obtained peace is more enduring. In order for Myanmar women to participate effectively in the peace process, they must be given opportunities to upgrade their capability and capacity. Opportunity to serve in the armed forces is one of the ways to elevate their capability, capacity, and experience to participate in the security sector.

This I think speaks to a modern rethinking of the military as essentially a peace-keeping force, which is essentially a good thing, though in the very next sentence the author writes that the purpose of the military is ‘to win the nation’s wars and to prevail against enemies’. Note the lack of any ethical content in the remark. The reason that I would never for a moment consider joining any military is because I’m profoundly anti-authoritarian. I can’t bear to be told by someone else how to stack boxes, let alone who to kill and maim for the apparent benefit of my country. Australia has been involved in two wars since I’ve lived here, in Vietnam and Iraq. Neither of them had anything to do with ‘keeping Australia (or any of its allies) safe’. They had more to do with advantaging the invading countries at the expense of the invaded. Warfare is getting rarer, and more technological, which I suppose means that brute force, and physical strength, is less important, but to me the best effect women would have is in negotiations and mediation to prevent wars, and of course they’re already doing a great job of that worldwide.

Myanmar’s overwhelmingly Buddhist society is very male-dominated – I don’t know if that’s due to Buddhist precepts or because the Buddhism is interpreted through a traditionally patriarchal society – and this will impede any possible transformation of its military. The article has another comment, which can surely be generalised beyond the military:

Research has shown that a critical mass of 30 percent is needed in order to see the full benefits of female integration and gender perspective within the organization and at leadership levels. However, the drop-offs and second-generation bias can impede the attainment of 30 percent.

Yes, aiming for 30% female control of the military, political systems, the business sector, and all wealth and power, just for starters – and by 2050, since the international community loves to set targets – would be a most worthy thing. But watch out for the backlash. 

But returning to Myanmar today, and the coup. But first, I recommend an excellent background piece on the problems in faction-ridden Myanmar, and the role of women in fighting for minority recognition, written last November for The New Humanitarian. The author wasn’t able to put their name to the piece due to security concerns. The piece was written immediately after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) scored a landslide victory in a national election, winning over 80% of the vote and increasing its 2015 majority. But, in a familiar refrain, the military-based opposition party, the USDP, claimed fraud and vote-rigging, claims that are apparently as baseless as those of the Trumpets. The apparent villain in all this is military chief Min Aung Hlaing, a corrupt thug who was sanctioned by the US and the UK for his role in the 2017 Rohingya massacres. He is claiming justification due to the ‘failure to act on widespread election corruption’ (I can’t help reflecting that Trump’s clear contempt for the military and everyone involved in it is a clear factor in his never getting to be the dictator he wants to be). However, the massive failure of the USDP in the recent elections may make it difficult for the coup’s long-term success this time around – but the immediate concern now is about violence, suffering and death in an impoverished, heavily factionalised nation. 

The international community will need to play a role in universally condemning the coup – though the Chinese government, well-known for its macho thuggery, is already soft-pedalling its response. China is Myanmar’s principal economic partner.

And I strongly suspect that, with Min Aung Hlaing in charge, that 30% critical mass of female participation in any field of economic, political or military activity will be the last thing his ‘government’ will be thinking about.    

References

https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/November-December-2019/Byrd-Myanmar-Gender-Armed-Forces/

https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2020/11/18/myanmar-women-army-arakan-rakhine-female-soldiers-peace

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/1/who-is-min-aung-hlain

Written by stewart henderson

February 3, 2021 at 5:02 pm