Some time ago, I wrote a post about Skeptical Monogamy. My goal there was to go over a bunch of the reasons why I think monogamy is justified. There are other reasons, though, that are unjustified and lazy. One of the most common is this:
“Monogamy is natural.”
This is an argument used almost exclusively by people who also believe that “natural” relationships only involve one man and one woman. Sometimes, it’s phrased in terms of the animal kingdom. This is one of the easiest arguments to knock down. It’s easy because almost no animals are actually monogamous. Plenty form pair-bonds, some even form them for life, but they almost all play around on the side.
In fact, no species of mammals have been shown to truly be monogamous.. Swans, often held up as a model of monogamy, are, no such thing. Gibbons, who my local zoo claims are monogamous, turned out to be total swingers. Scientist used to estimate that 90% of birds were monogamous. Now the numbers are flipped, and most acknowledge that, at most, 10% of birds are monogamous. The animal kingdom offers no help to those advocating monogamy.
Then you get the other kind of naturalist argument. John Witte Jr., writing in the Washington Post, says:
Both traditional theorists and modern scientists point to four facts of human nature that commend monogamy. First, unlike most other animals, humans crave sex all the time, especially when they are young and most fertile. They don’t have a short rutting or mating season, followed by a long period of sexual quietude.
Second, unlike most other animals, human babies are born weak, fragile, and utterly dependent for many years. They are not ready to run, swim, or fly away upon birth or shortly thereafter. They need food, shelter, clothing, and education. Most human mothers have a hard time caring fully for their children on their own, especially if they already have several others. They need help, especially from the fathers.
Third, however, most fathers will bond and help with a child only if they are certain of their paternity. Put a baby cradle on a sidewalk, medieval and modern Western experimenters have shown, and most women will stop out of natural empathy. Most men will walk by, unless they are unusually charitable. Once assured of their paternity, however, most men will bond deeply with their children, help with their care and support, and defend them at great sacrifice. For they will see their children as a continuation and extension of themselves, of their name, property, and teachings, of their own bodies and beings, of their genes, we now say.
Fourth, unlike virtually all other animals, humans have the freedom and the capacity to engage in species-destructive behavior in pursuit of their own sexual gratification. Given the lower risks and costs to them, men have historically been more prone to extramarital sex than women, exploiting prostitutes, concubines, and servant girls in so doing and yielding a perennial underclass of “bastards” who have rarely fared well in any culture.
Given these four factors, nature has strongly inclined rational human persons to develop enduring and exclusive sexual relationships, called marriages, as the best form and forum of sexual bonding and reproductive success. Faithful and healthy monogamous marriages are designed to provide for the sexual needs and desires of a husband and wife. They ensure that both fathers and mothers are certain that a baby born to them is theirs. They ensure that husband and wife will together care for, nurture, and educate their children until they mature. And they deter both spouses from destructive sexual behavior outside the home.
So, Witte identifies four factors that justify monogamy in humans:
1) humans crave sex all the time;
2) human babies have a long period of dependence;
3) fathers require paternity certainty to bond with a child;
4) humans are unique in engaging in “species-destructive behavior” such as extramarital sex, prostitution, etc.
As we’ve already seen, #4 is crap. Almost all animals engage in such behavior. #3 is also begging for a citation. Paternity certainty is often brought up by evolutionary psychologists as a way to justify the way our society mistreats women. However, it’s far from proven, and there is substantial evidence that the need for paternity certainty is far from “natural.” Christopher Ryan, in Sex at Dawn, lays out a pretty conclusive case that early humans societies didn’t care at all about paternity certainty. He also identifies several modern-day cultures for whom paternity certainty is not an issue. Witte’s glib statement that fathers require paternity certainty in order to bond with their children is not supported by the evidence. And I’d imagine the idea is extremely offensive to anyone with an adoptive father or child.
So after taking out the propositions that are unsupported, we’re left with:
1) humans crave sex all the time; and
2) human babies go through a long period of dependence.
Sounds like an argument for polyamory to me! I’d wager that my five-person household is just as well equipped to meet everyone’s sexual needs and care for children than a monogamous couple.
Furthermore, so what if something is natural? “Natural” is not synonymous with “desirable.” In many species, murder, rape, theft, and various other antisocial behaviors are natural. That’s not an argument in favor of humans engaging in these behaviors. Much of our progress as a species has been in overcoming our natural behaviors and learning to act in more beneficial ways.
Even if polyamory isn’t natural, I think it stands on its own merits. Nature isn’t everything.
If “natural” sex is better, then Catholics are far from practicing it. Natural sex does not include any hocus pocus of religion. Your dog has natural sex as do Bonnobos. The Mangainians of the South Pacific have natural sex and have had for centuries. It included many partners and a high focus on female orgasm. The Na culture in China have natural sex, it includes multiple men for a woman and no concept of marriage. I could site many other cultures that practice sex without the guilt and shame of religion AND they did not use birth control or condoms until recently.