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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.

Discuss…

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…

References

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1982

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-monogamy-has-deep-roots/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primate

https://slate.com/technology/2013/01/when-did-humans-realize-sex-makes-babies-evolution-of-reproductive-consciousness-of-the-cause-of-pregnancy.html

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2023 at 9:26 am

do bonobos love each other?

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Fly with me, lift me up to my feet, set me free from this skin I’ve been too long in

Leddra Chapman, ‘Picking Oranges’

I got to know that your heart beats fast, and I got to know I’m the only one for you. What have I become? I’m a fucking monster, when all I wanted was something beautiful. My love, too much. Your love, not enough

Meg Myers, ‘Monster’

It wasn’t that I didn’t wanna hold your hand, I just knew if we held tight once, we would never let go. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to call you mine – but, you’re not mine

Liza Anne, ‘Watering Can’

right… but why only two?

Canto: So bonobos have been called the ‘make love not war ‘ apes, a joke moniker in a way, but I’ve been thinking about that in an attempt to be more serious about love, fellow-feeling and all that stuff, in bonobos, humans, and other species.

Jacinta: Yes, the idea of ‘true love’, which involves some kind of eternal monogamy, and is seen as peculiarly human, and sells ye olde penny romances, is still with us, and whole governments are raised around it – the couple, the nuclear family and such. Of course, in the WEIRD world, there are increasingly diverse ‘household arrangements’, but they still generally involve separate, enclosed households. Ye olde hippy free love encampments, if they were anything other than an imaginary figment, seem as distant now as our connection with bonobos. A while back we read Ferdinand Mount’s 1982 book The Subversive Family: An Alternative History of Love and Marriage, a fairly well-reasoned defence of marriage and monogamy, and its glorious survival in spite of the free love mini-revolution, but of course he didn’t mention bonobos or speculate about the domestic arrangements of australopithecines.

Canto: Mount was – still is – a lifelong conservative, so his history was always going to be tendentious, and as you say, limited to more recent times, so it didn’t really address how we came to be monogamous, if that’s what we are. And just to set the scene with our loving cousins:

Bonobos do not form permanent monogamous sexual relationships with individual partners. They also do not seem to discriminate in their sexual behavior by sex or age, with the possible exception of abstaining from sexual activity between mothers and their adult sons.

Wikipedia entry: bonobo sociosexual behaviour

 

Jacinta: Conservatives wouldn’t be too happy about that sort of indiscriminate behaviour among humans, but they’d be hard pressed to argue that bonobos are ‘immoral’ or selfish, or dysfunctional and a behavioural threat to the well-being of their own society.

Canto: No, they’d probably just argue that they’re not humans and we have nothing much to learn from them. We’re 8 billion, after all, and they’re just a few thousand. We win! But I don’t think our success has much to do with our domestic arrangements. It presumably has more to do with the enlargement of our prefrontal cortex, and the causes of that, which were presumably numerous and incremental, may have also brought about an increasing division of labour along patriarchal lines.

Jacinta: Certainly our history, at least since it has been recorded, has been overwhelmingly patriarchal. Hunting as a largely male activity, as I believe it also is in chimps, could be kind of brutalising, as it’s a kill-or-be-killed activity at its worst.

Canto: Meanwhile bonobos have been evolving in their own way over the past few million years. Or not. I mean, they’ve been content to stay in the forest, in a pretty lush part of the Congo, consuming a very largely vegetarian diet, not exactly requiring a lot in the way of muscles and physical prowess. And get this, again from Wikipedia:

Bonobo clitorises are larger and more externalized than in most mammals; while the weight of a young adolescent female bonobo “is maybe half” that of a human teenager, she has a clitoris that is “three times bigger than the human equivalent, and visible enough to waggle unmistakably as she walks”

As they say ‘exercise makes the clit grow longer’. Dunnit?

Jacinta: Well, it’s true, bonobo females engage in genito-genital rubbing more than males do, and this seems to form the basis of female group dynamics, which has led to female dominance. Unfortunately in humans, clothing creates a major barrier to this activity, at least in public.

Canto: Ahh, the terrible price of civilisation. But what I’m interested in is the effect of female dominance. Yes, it’s mediated to a large degree by sexual play, and a general closeness, which we don’t seem to have the maturity to adopt, so obsessed have we been with sexual possessiveness and jealousy, to the point of stoning people – sorry, women – for adultery. Death by drowning was the punishment back in Hammurabi’s day, almost 4000 years ago. Under Ancient Greek and Roman law, women could be executed for adultery, while the men would rarely get more than a smacked bottom.

Jacinta: Actually, stoning is still a punishment, for both genders, in countries that apply strict Shari’ah law. But in the WEIRD world, where no-fault divorce is increasingly accepted, adultery has faded as an issue. And generally we’ve become more relaxed about sexuality in all its varieties, and more sceptical about ‘love’, of the everlasting and exclusive type.

Canto: Yes, and yet… love, whether it’s a human invention or not, or whether it’s just hormones – it really hurts. You develop this ridiculous passion for someone, her movements, her smile, her vitality – though she has as much interest in you as in a rotten egg. Or she takes a general interest but backs off when she senses your need. And that’s just ‘unrequited love’. Even when it’s a mutual passion it can sooner or later turn to shit. The quotes above are just three of thousands that could be mined from songs, stories, legends and our own lives. Great expectations, dashed, sublimated, given up on, nursed in solitude. A tension between the cult of individuality and its freedoms and the love that loves to speak its name, where those individuals go together like a horse and carriage, like fire and ice, Batman and Robin, Venus and Mars…

Jacinta: Well, humans do tend to overthink these matters, or over-feel them perhaps, what with our heightened sensibilities. And our civilisations have tended to push us towards exclusive ‘love relations’, and the concept of ownership:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Exodus 20:17)

So it’s not just that we’ve fallen for the myth of true love and the ideal partner – our society has created a monogamous reproductive norm, and for a good few millennia (not really so long in human history, but we know hardly anything about our sociosexual behaviour beyond the last 10,000 years or so) we’ve fallen in with it – leaving aside sultans, random monarchs and the odd billionaire entrepreneur. Our homes have, over time, become designed to largely rule out even extended family togetherness. Bonobos don’t have homes and they’re not particularly territorial….

Canto: Well, to change the subject, I’m interested in that description of bonobo clitorises. It sounds wild -so to speak. And of course it sounds very much like a penis. It all makes me think of the whole penis envy malarky of Freudian psychotherapy. Not a problem for bonobos, clearly. If we get our social evolution right, our female descendants in the non-foreseeable future (if that makes any sense) will be waggling those clits about most merrily.

Jacinta: Hah, makes a change from current-day ‘clitoridectomy’ aka FGM.

Canto: Well, they could give em a trim, like modern-day circumcision. Or have em shaped and coloured, like orchids….

Jacinta: Lovely. Interestingly, Simone de Beauvoir touches on this in The Second Sex, probably influenced by the penis envy ideas of the time. Writing of woman:

her anatomy condemns her to remain awkward and impotent, like a eunuch: the desire for possession is thwarted for lack of an organ to incarnate it. And man refuses the passive role.

No organ permits the virgin to satisfy her active eroticism; and she does not have the lived experience of he who condemns her to passivity.

the second sex, trans. C Borde & S Malovany-Chevallier, vintage books 2011

 

But in the WEIRD world, things have changed, or are changing, and hopefully girls are much more expert at playing the organ. Though, unlike bonobos, it’s largely done in solitude.

Canto: But do bonobos love each other, or just each others’ organs? It’s probably as uninteresting a question as What’s this thing called, love? 

Jacinta: Well, that’s it, bonobos just get it together, not just for sex, but for safety in numbers, for huddling and cuddling, for play, for warmth, food-sharing and back-scratching. I doubt if they wonder if it’s really love, or how selfish or selfless they’re being. It’s their life – one of community rather than pairing off – as long as they can be left to get on with it.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo

https://www.britannica.com/topic/adultery

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage, 1982

Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Written by stewart henderson

January 2, 2023 at 12:20 pm

on love and hormones

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The subversive family, a book written by Ferdinand Mount some 40 years ago, argues that the basic family unit, with two or, more rarely, three generations housed together, is indeed more basic than a great many critics allow, and that marriage based on mutual attraction has been more common throughout human history than many historians claim. However that may be, he makes no mention of prehistory, by which I mean the long period of human, and early hominid, existence, before the invention of writing.

What interests me is the nature of sexual relationships during that period, and that nature is hardly likely to have been static. Clearly, marrying is a ceremonial act, which requires a certain level of sophistication. It is apparently intended to ‘tie the knot’, to formalise two persons’ commitment to each other, a commitment expected to be lifelong. Ideally, this commitment is based on love.

It’s interesting that many bird species are monogamous. They stay together, with only the occasional bit on the side, build nests together, share the feeding and teaching of the kids and so on. We talk of love-birds, we love the willow pattern tale, but do we really think these birds love each other? Probably not, because we like to reserve this state of being for humans.

This human specialness thing is eroding though. Dogs mourn their human owners. Elephants grieve over their companions and their children. The more we look at complex social species, the more we find evidence of deep feeling which we may or may not call love, though to call it something other than love would seem insensitive.

But marriage, freely entered into, is about romantic love, and that, some say, is singularly human. Others, of course, say romantic love is a myth, a mixture of hormones and psychology that doesn’t last, though the commitment might continue after the passion is spent, especially where children are involved.

This monogamous arrangement has proved effective for the raising of offspring, in humans as well as in swans, cranes and eagles, and in prairie voles, Azara’s night monkeys and a few other mammalian species. However other complex social animals, such as elephants, dolphins and chimps, are not monogamous, and in fact only about 3% of mammals practice monogamy, and they still manage to raise their young just fine. I have a special interest in bonobos, our closest living relatives, on a par with chimps. They are highly sexualised, yet manage to avoid getting pregnant more than is needful. Females dominate in spite of sexual dimorphism which favours males. Are bonobos, Pan paniscus, a more loving species than Homo sapiens? I leave aside our species’ predilection for aggression and warfare, I’m considering the comparison in times of relatively peace for both species. It is probably impossible to make such a comparison, social contexts are perhaps too different, and bonobos are an endangered species, and quite difficult to study in the wild. As to human apes, it seems that in our human history, which dates back to the development of writing as an effective information and communication tool, we have been almost universally patriarchal and monogamous. But this takes us back only a few thousand years. Our species is at most about 300,000 years old – there’s a lot of debate about this – and tracing our ancestry back to its connection with the bonobo-chimp line has been problematic. There’s also the question of the connection between monogamy and romantic, exclusivist love. For example, it has been found that monogamous prairie voles mate exclusively for life, with the first ready member of the opposite sex they encounter. Clearly this isn’t about romance or conscious decision-making. It will be argued that it is preposterous to compare humans with prairie voles, but from a biological perspective, perhaps not so much. We often talk of ‘love at first sight’ and ‘I don’t know what hit me’ (sometimes with regret). There is no doubt that this sort of immediate sexual attraction can largely be explained by biochemistry. Monogamy in general appears to involve an interplay of hormonal and cultural effects.

Dr Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and Rutgers University, separates romantic love into three parts – lust, attraction and attachment. To summarise, doubtless too briefly, the hormonal effects here, the sex hormones testosterone and, to a lesser extent, oestrogen play a predominant role in increasing libido, or lustful sensations. The hypothalamus stimulates production of these hormones by the ovaries and testes. Testosterone, it should be emphasised, is not a ‘male’ hormone. It produces a variety of effects in both sexes. Attraction is a more complex, more conscious elaboration of lust. It may involve some weighing up of the costs and benefits of particular lustful feelings, though generally under the ‘sway’ of lust. The brain areas involved include the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and anterior cingulate cortex. The activation of these regions tend to increase trust in the object of lust and to inhibit defensive behaviour and anxiety. The hormones dopamine and norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline), which create a sense of euphoria, the sense of ‘being in love’, with its sleeplessness and obsessiveness, will have obviously differential effects depending on the object of attraction’s response to the person attracted. Feelings of attraction also appear to reduce serotonin levels, which help regulate appetite and mood.

Attachment, not surprisingly, is the most complex, conscious and culturally influenced of these three stages. It’s quite a bit cooler (temperature-wise) than the other two, and extends often to other connections, such as friends and family. The hormones most involved in this stage, or state, are vasopressin and oxytocin. Interestingly, those prairie voles mentioned earlier differ greatly from their promiscuous cousins, montane voles, in that they express far more of these two hormones. When these hormones are blocked by researchers, prairie voles turn promiscuous. It would of course be depressingly reductionist to describe attachment, and the other states, as well as their more negative features, such as jealousy, possessiveness and emotional dependence, in purely hormonal terms, but we need to understand, and so to positively change a world of human aggression and thuggery, so prominently displayed on the world stage today, to one a little more bonoboesque, while still preserving the best of our humanity – our inventiveness and our curiosity. Understanding how our hormones affect us is a good start.

References

https://www.ckn.org.au/content/cupid’s-chemical-addiction-–-science-love

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0265407511431055

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2021 at 8:17 pm