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Are Humans Hardwired for Monogamy?

The Gene Pool

Statistically, men are more likely to be unfaithful to their spouses than women are, though married women’s track record is far from squeaky-clean overall. Some evolutionary psychologists claim people simply can’t help cheating, citing the notion that both males and females are biologically programmed to want to spread their genes to as many partners as possible. A 2008 study authored by University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer concluded that not monogamy but polygyny—a practice in which certain males take control of reproduction by impregnating numerous women—was the dominant form of mating for much of human civilization’s history. This method served both men’s and women’s deep-seated biological needs: it allowed men to fulfill their innate desire to spread their genes through sperm dissemination, and, because polygyny meant fewer men were fathering children with more women, it enabled the mothers to propagate more of their genes to their offspring.

Though monogamy may be the norm nowadays, Hammer’s study cast it as anathema to humans’ biological history—and inspired psychologist David Barash, of the University of Washington, to describe it as “a recently inspired cultural add-on.”

For Better or for Worse?

Meanwhile, back in the land of marriage, the case for social monogamy isn’t looking too strong there, either—at least, not as far as men are concerned. In 2003, researchers from the University of London examined a British Household Panel Survey of more than four thousand people to compare men’s and women’s mental health in different types of romantic relationships. The bad news for all you ladies hoping to get hitched? Men are happiest when they never get married; instead, they prefer to be shorter-term serial monogamists, involved in a succession of relationships but always stopping short of popping the question. In stark contrast, women who had had several partners and split from them were the least happy of all the female subjects in the study, while the ones who married their first love were the most emotionally fulfilled.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of men do get married at some point in their lives, but even the most initially contented ones sometimes go on to deviate from long-term social monogamy in response to traumatic incidents that lead them to seek out casual sexual dalliances as an escape from their everyday cares. As Frank Pittman pointed out in a Psychology Today article entitled “Beyond Betrayal,” people are “most likely to get into these romantic affairs at the turning points of life: when their parents die or their children grow up; when they suffer health crises or are under pressure to give up an addiction; when they achieve an unexpected level of job success or job failure; or when their first child is born—any situation in which they must face a lot of reality and grow up.”

So Why Commit?

Some scientists believe that children’s well-being is primarily what spurs men’s and women’s continued efforts to sustain their partnerships, despite the signs that they’re not meant to pursue long-term monogamous relationships. Jane Lancaster, a University of New Mexico anthropologist, explained to LiveScience.com that “the human species has evolved to make commitments between males and females in regards to raising their offspring,” though she qualified that remark by saying, “However, that bond can fit into all kinds of marriage patterns—polygyny, single parenthood, monogamy.” The dominant paradigm of modern society remains “married with children” for the moment, but at some point in the future, humans just might allow what appear to be their deep-rooted biological and psychological tendencies toward multiple partners to dictate new social conventions. As the mighty Tina Turner once sang, “What’s love got to do with it?”

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240 comments

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2:20PM PST on Dec 17, 2012

I think the only difference between the 3 - 5% of mammals that are exclusively monogamous is that unlike many humans they know what love is and how to behave when in love with regards to their partners feelings.

I would like to see studies that show the changes in people when they are truly in love. I feel polygamy makes sense when people can't find someone that they truly love but monogamy is for people who have found someone that they sincerely love and who sincerely loves them in return.

7:18AM PST on Dec 13, 2012

If we look back to how humans lived in the 99% of human history before we gave the world away to what we sometimes call the 1% - and became slaves and living zombies (LOL) engaged in a war on the natural world which is staggering in it's impact ... we will find mostly models that were not monogamous ... or where monogamy was the surface model, but the underlying truth - culturally accepted - was that monogamy is a flop. Many / most Europeans I know, who have been married for more than 10 years, have or sometimes have extra lovers. They are very worldly in how they manage the emotional side of it - and worldly doesn't necessarily mean cynical.

We north americans especially need to grow up.

Did you know that in many original / aboriginal cultures older men were EXPECTED to initiate young women into their adult sexuality just as older women were EXPECTED. to initiate they younger men. This was a duty, a responsibility which COULD NOT be trusted to the young and inexperienced ... obviously it was a responsibility with benefits for all.

Final note: Look around at how many marriages involving relatively advanced / mature adults involve an affair or even more than one, often by both parties but where the parties always (or almost always) return to the original partner. This may be a hint about the real natural way we want to live.

12:31PM PST on Dec 9, 2012

Any comments on what I wrote? I received two emails that someone had a comment on my comment but could not see either comment...just here on this site. A personal message to me? Try again.

Thanks

12:12PM PST on Dec 9, 2012

@vicenzo c.wish a lot of guys like you,happy holidays

11:11AM PST on Dec 9, 2012

Don't know about the rest, but I'm very very monogamous. Thanks everyone for their comments.

6:03AM PST on Dec 3, 2012

"Men are happiest when they never get married; instead, they prefer to be shorter-term serial monogamists, involved in a succession of relationships but always stopping short of popping the question. In stark contrast, women who had had several partners and split from them were the least happy of all the female subjects in the study, while the ones who married their first love were the most emotionally fulfilled." THIS IS BOGUS

My married female friends are very unhappy and divorcees in my life are MUCH happier. Also: I have several 'never married' women friends who are exceedingly happy that they NEVER married.

Back in the 1970s, a book was written by Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D. called "Women and Madness". A study showed conclusive evidence of the following:

Happiest Member of Society: Married Male
(2nd) Happiest Member: Single Female
(3rd) Happiest Member: Single Male
LEAST HAPPIEST: Married Female

Once again a survey on the Internet falls far short of reality.

2:42PM PST on Dec 1, 2012

Thanks - great article - we humans are just here to procreate - Populate or Perish everything else is Society based and as the article stated - it's a BIG business

12:59PM PST on Dec 1, 2012

Thanks

10:47PM PST on Nov 30, 2012

Thank-you for the interesting article.

10:46PM PST on Nov 30, 2012

Thank-you for the interesting article.

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