Are humans monogamous or polygamous? The evolution of human mating strategies


What makes us different from all the other animals? Is it our swollen brains, our idle hands, or perhaps our limber thumbs? In 2011, a research team reviewed the quirks of human DNA and came across another oddly shaped appendage that makes us who we are: I mean, of course, man’s smooth and spineless member. The penises of lots of mammals are endowed with “horny papillae,” hardened bumps or spikes that sometimes look like rows of studs on a fancy condom. These papillae enhance sensation, or so it has been claimed, and shorten a mating male’s delay to climax. Since humans lost their phallic bumps several million years ago, it could be that we evolved to take it slow. And it could also be the case that longer-lasting sex produced more intimate relationships

So (one might argue that) the shedding of our penis spines gave rise to love and marriage, and (one could also say that) our tendency to mate in pairs pushed aside the need for macho competition, which in turn gave us the chance to live together in large and peaceful groups. Life in groups has surely had its perks, not least of which is that it led to bigger brains and a faculty for language, and perhaps a bunch of traits that served to civilize and tame us. And so we’ve gone from horny papillae to faithful partners—from polygamy to monogamous humanity.

I like this story well enough, but it may or may not be true. In fact, not all penis spines in nature serve to quicken sex—orangutans have fancy ones but waste a quarter of an hour in the act—so we don’t know what to make of our papillae or the lack thereof. That won’t stop anyone from wondering.

Since we like to think that how we mate defines us, the sex lives of ancient hominids have for many years been examined in computer simulations, by measuring the circumferences of ancient bones, and by applying the rules of evolution and economics. But to understand the contentious field of paleo-sexology, one must first address the question of how we mate today, and how we’ve mated in the recent past.

According to anthropologists, only 1 in 6 societies enforces monogamy as a rule. There’s evidence of one-man-one-woman institutions as far back as Hammurabi’s Code; it seems the practice was further codified in ancient Greece and Rome. But even then, the human commitment to fidelity had its limits: Formal concubines were frowned upon, but slaves of either sex were fair game for extramarital affairs. The historian Walter Scheidel describes this Greco-Roman practice as polygynous monogamy—a kind of halfsy moral stance on promiscuity. Today’s Judeo-Christian culture has not shed this propensity to cheat. (If there weren’t any hanky-panky, we wouldn’t need the seventh commandment.)

Written By: Daniel Engber
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  1. ” Are humans monogamous or polygamous? “

    Fallacy of the excluded middle?

    Monogamous polygamy, or polygamous monogamy? In practice, not encoded.  

  2. The use of slaves as fair game for extramarital sex is not really a useful comparison. In those sorts of relationships only one side might be choosing to have sex because they want to have sex and the other being effectively used? Slaves are probably doing it because their position dictates they have to, as a result of force or for financial gain to allow them to survive. 

    Surely only examples where both parties have chosen to have sex freely for the sake of enjoying sex are wholly valid for that sort of analysis? Otherwise its a study of coercion/economics for half the sample.

    I think we are monogamous generally. We are by choice for ourselves anyway- nobody likes to be two timed even if they two time themselves. So if we’ve also evolved empathy and understand jealousy and hurting someone else we basically choose monogamy.

    Monogamy seems to be the chosen model in advanced democratic societies where people get to choose and the sexes are more equal. I also seem to remember reading a study where they found a link between IQ and fidelity with more intelligent males being less likely to cheat. Which sort of backs up Alan4Discussions point that primitive less educated males in Islam aren’t monogamous.

    At the end of the day my girlfriend is really funny, incredibly clever and lovely. Would I risk all that for a quick snog knowing for sure she’d dump me if she found out? Would I really want to hurt her as much as I know I’d be hurt if she did the same to me?

  3. >> I also seem to remember reading a study where they found a link between IQ >>and fidelity with more intelligent males being less likely to cheat. 

    But of course! Many intelligent males tend to be nerdy, and we all know girls don’t like nerds, thus those males have harder time finding someone to cheat with 🙂

  4. Mark 123

    I don’t think we are monogamous generally.  We have a divorce rate of at least 50%  This puts us in a category of serial monogamy at least. Stats on “cheating” are variable but one must conclude that it is common enough.  Paternity tests reveal many surprises. 

    I can’t help but wonder what human relationships would be like if we didn’t have religion forcing us into lifelong commitments and production of offspring that we weren’t allowed to prevent.

    Could it be that men have railroaded us into monogamy whether we like it or not, just to avoid the risk of dangerous violence involved in polygamy? What we have now is a situation of you keep your hands off my women and I’ll keep my hands off yours. An uneasy truce between men.  Violators are punished harshly.  I doubt if it’s empathy keeping you away from that hot neighbor chic.  More likely you don’t think it’s worth the beat down you’d sustain. Still, you keep thinking about it, don’t you….

    A link between IQ and fidelity?  Interesting, but I doubt if the dumbbells are the cheaters.  Got an actual link on this?  I’ll bet it’s the opposite of that.  I’ll bet its the smart guys, or let’s say the smart people who are the most talented liars and deceivers who get away most successfully with sexual infidelity.  I’ll bet they lied to the survey taker really well too.  Dammit.  I can’t get this image of Bill Clinton out of my mind. Smart…powerful…oh and some of the things that Monica said about him…

    primitive less educated males in Islam aren’t monogamous.

    Strikes me odd that you pulled those guys out of a hat for an accusation of adultery.  In those societies the guys have very limited opportunity for this type of behavior.  Not saying it doesn’t exist, but when women and girls are guarded as ferociously as they are in those societies and the penalties are severe for both men and women when discovered, I have to think it’s a much less frequent behavior than it is in societies where unrelated men and women have frequent, close contact on a daily basis and freedom of movement with minimal guarding by concerned family members.

    Primitive, uneducated males.  Are they only “in Islam”?  Are there primitive, uneducated, non-monogamous males in Christianity?  In Judaism? Are there any amongst the Atheist guys? How would you define “primitive” in this sense? 

  5. JoxerTheMighty,

    Right 🙂 Seriously, how did Bill Gates ever find a woman to put up with his extreme nerdyness? How!

  6. Could it be that the more intelligent males are only less likely to be caught cheating and admit cheating?

  7. No Laurie B its actually choice that is keeping me monogamous. I would lose my girlfriend, she would dump me instantly. So I’d sacrifice lots of sex and humour and intelligent conversation with someone I want to be with a lot for one lot of sex with someone I might not even like.

    Why risk it however temporarily tempting?

    If the situations were reversed (probably more likely) I’d be devastated and would dump her. So if I can imagine how I would feel why would I do than do that to someone I care about?

    I don’t recall saying  anyone is forced to be monogamous though, if people choose not to be that is fine. It just doesn’t seem to be a popular choice for most people as far as I can see.

    If we hadn’t evolved to be largely monogamous why would we have evolved the particular emotions of love and jealousy? Why would there be so many dating websites? Why would people make huge efforts to find one partner? Why would gay couples be fighting for the right to get marrried? Why would people be so upset by break ups? Or feel so guilty when instigating break ups? Those must be evolved responses.

    Primitive uneducated men and women are not exclusive to Islam, I didn’t say they were. The comment on Islam was relevant purely because  Alan4Discussion pointed out that Islam specifically sanctions polygamy by allowing more than one wife plus concubines. There are primitive mindsets in all religions and atheism, but they don’t all explicitly approve of polygamy and concubines so weren’t relevant in context. 

    As for religion forcing us to be monogamous – I wasn’t aware that it did. Mormons, Muslims and others I’m sure are more than free not to be monogamous. Many people from the Old Testament were far from monogamous. Many atheists on the other hand are monogamous. Religion seems to be more about freeing men have exclusive rights to lots of women whilst denying the womens feelings about it rather than partners choosing each other in many cases.

    As for the intelligent man thing, unfortunately I haven’t a link and read it ages ago, but if you’re doubting that dumbells are cheaters try watching Jeremy Kyle?

    As for the divorce rate, it would be zero if people didn’t choose to get married in the first place. So even the divorce rate supports the notion of people choosing exclusive monogamous relationships.

  8. Well, I wish all nerds and particularly computer programmers were billionaires, but no – personally I’m just an average-payed code monkey 🙂

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