This article was originally published by AskMen UK.
Sleeping around when you’re in a relationship generally gets a bad rap in our society. The inability to stick with one partner is generally seen as the preserve of soap opera villains, bored footballers and mid-life crisis family men. But a new book, Out of Eden by a psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle has been gaining attention for apparently suggesting that our natural state may be something more like “it’s complicated”. We spoke to the author, Professor David P. Barash to ask him about his work, what it means for those of us with a wandering eye, and how your great-great-grandmother was different from a chimp.
The headline reports on your book, essentially say “cheating is natural for humans.” Is this a reasonable summary?
It is inaccurate and an oversimplification. My point is that human beings are polygamous, which is to say, both polygynous (one man inclined to have a harem of multiple women) and polyandrous (one woman, many men). Our biology reflects both patterns.
Polygyny is evident biologically because men are larger than women, and more violence-prone, both traits found in classic harem or group-forming species. Men also become sexually and socially mature later than women, something readily apparent among, say 13-18 year olds. This, too, is characteristic of polygynous species, in which males are better off delaying entry into the sexually competitive fray until they’re larger and stronger.
Even though women bear a greater physiological burden when it comes to reproducing – its a lot less demanding to create several ccs of semen than to get pregnant and lactate – women need not undergo the social and sexual competition that’s true of men, and which, subsequently, is generated by harem-formation, since polygyny implies that male-male competition is intense just because a few males reach monopolize the females.
And was this more prevalent in the past?
Prior to the homogenization of marriage cultures made by Western colonialism, a lot more than 80% of human societies were polygynous. A Martian zoologist, visiting Earth, could have no doubt that folks aren’t “naturally” monogamous.
The problem for women – polyandry – is more subtle and less immediately obvious, but evidence includes the point that we hide our ovulation, unlike chimps, for instance, which create a conspicuous pink cauliflower on the butts. Why the secrecy? Probably because concealed ovulation permitted our great, great grandmothers to possess sex with men apart from their designated partner if they were most fertile; should they advertised their fertility throughout a limited time every month, they’d be guarded throughout that time, as happens generally in most other mammals.
What first drew one to looking at this section of human behavior?
I spent a long time studying animals, and was the main revolution from the 1990s, whenever we started doing DNA fingerprinting on animals and discovered that the social partner of females – even yet in supposedly monogamous species such as for example many birds – wasn’t the genetic father. So, social monogamy didn’t necessarily equal sexual monogamy. My favorite example of guaranteed monogamy in animals is a species of parasitic flatworm in which male and female meet as adolescents, after which their bodies literally fuse together and they remain sexually faithful, until death do they not part. Most other species are more sexually adventurous… so I couldn’t help wondering about people!
If we take emotion and sentimentality out of it, is there a necessary role for monogamy in modern society? And was there ever?
In brief, monogamy isn’t “natural” for our species. But it nonetheless has much to recommend it, including providing men with confidence as to their paternity, which is useful since men couldn’t otherwise know that they were in fact the fathers. And this, in turn, is useful for our species since babies are so helpless at birth and benefit from biparental care.
Also, monogamy is a good democratizing institution. Although some men think they’d have done well in a polygynous world, the truth is otherwise: If a small number of men have harems and if – as it true of our species – there are equal numbers of women and men, then polygyny means that there are several excluded, sexually frustrated bachelors.
A very real possibility is that monogamy developed as a kind of trade-off in which powerful men gave up at least a few of their sexual perks in substitution for a qualification of social peace, essentially buying off men by increasing the likelihood that they, too, would get a wife.
Do you think there’s much fundamental difference between the way that men and women view relationships? And are the findings the same for homosexuals as heterosexuals?
There are several differences: men are more susceptible to visual stimuli, less sexually discriminating, more inclined to short-term relationships ; women are more interested in a potential partner’s personality and behavioral inclinations rather than simply his physical traits. But these differences aren’t all that rigid or predictable. Clearly, social expectations are important, too, but the basic male-female differences (especially with men being more interested in multiple sexual partners ) is a cross-cultural universal. To some extent, these differences are true of homosexuals as well: gay men are more prone to having many partners, and lesbian women, to a smaller number of deeper relationships. That’s, gay individuals differ from straights within their gender selection of partners, however they still exhibit the traits of individuals, respectively… which derives from the difference between being truly a sperm-maker and an egg-maker.
People spend an enormous section of their lives fretting about relationships, dealing with betrayal etc. Do you consider we’d be generally happier as a society if everyone just followed their urges?
What is natural isn’t just good: consider tsunamis, Ebola, cholera, etc. And what’s unnatural isn’t just bad: think about understanding how to play the violin, or acquiring another language. You can do what’s “natural,” but an incident can be made that people are most human whenever we act unlike our “instincts.”
I’m definitely not recommending that folks oppose their sexual instincts, or they succumb in their mind, but that they at the very least understand what’s motivating them, often unconsciously. Whether one chooses to be monogamous, it is important to understand the polygynous and polyandrous urges which are normal to humans, so as never to be blind-sided by one’s own inclinations and/or that of your respective partner.
Buy Out of Eden here
and find out about Professor David P. Barash on his website
This article was originally published by AskMen UK.