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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

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race, 2006

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

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2021 at 7:28 pm