WHY EVERY MAN SHOULD BE MONOGAMOUS
This was first published on GQ online here
A quick biology/economics lesson for you: your resources and time are finite. Your objective on this earth is to disseminate your genes into the gene pool. You can use any one of monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, promiscuity or polyamory as a strategy to achieve this goal. Monogamy is the standard. But Ashley Madison, a dating website for married people which was recently hacked, shows that we use the word “monogamy” as loosely as that company implements online security. The recent hacking of the company’s data also shows that we care about fidelity. But why?
Once upon a time, women needed a faithful man to protect her and her offspring, so fidelity was essential from both sides.
Now, who cares? Thanks to the invention of locks and childcare, single motherhood is do-able. So what’s going on? Why isn’t sex as easy as drinking a glass of water?
Where’s this free love Karl Marx promised us? What’s the big deal with being named as a member of Ashley Madison?
To answer that question, we have to do a bit of research, with the help of Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski.
Sexual expression in non-Western societies
When he wrote about the Trobriand Islanders, an isolated community in the coral atolls off the eastern coast of New Guinea, in Sex and Repression in Savage Society back in 1927, he noted that the Islanders made no connection between copulation and pregnancy. To this day the inhabitants believe that it is a ghost, called a “Baloma”, of a woman’s ancestor who impregnates her. The biological father has nothing to do with the child and so is cared for by the mother’s family. In turn, monogamous relationships last for about a year before either partner can decide they’ve had enough.
You can see why serial short-term monogamy works for them — they don’t recognise the obligation they have to their biological offspring. But as soon as the population was exposed to western education, formal marriages started to become more and more frequent. As soon as fathers work out that those offspring are theirs, paternalistic feelings kick in. Game over. Back to monogamy.
What about eschewing love completely? Fraternal polyandry (the practice of a woman marrying several brothers at the same time) is practiced in the Himalayas. The tough environment makes farming the land difficult, but a joint effort made by four or more is easier.
Many hands make light work. Also, one wife and several husbands mean fewer babies, which is exactly what you want in a harsh environment where food is scarce. It’s tradition, not love, that keeps these Himalayan marriages together.
However, recent changes in transport and technology in the region have made divorce rates rise as the younger husbands break out to seek their own monogamous relationships with the prospect of love. Another one bites the dust.
The Thrill of the Chase
These examples don’t feature any treacherous elements of lying that the Ashley Madison case so neatly highlights. Are there examples of clandestine mating strategies in nature? To find that, we have to look at birds (the feathered kind).
Greenfinch birds are the Ashley Madison subscribers of the animal kingdom. Females trick their bonded partner into looking after clutches of eggs that are as often as not another fella’s.
The female will solicit other males’ partners while her “beloved” is away from the nest. As a result, the female can ensure her genetic material is bonded with the best on offer and can choose the most reliable partner to look after her and her brood. Finally!
A win for promiscuity! Free love for all!
Currently, the most successful mating strategy available to us is monogamy. But that’s pretty boring unless we are in love with our partner all the time. Our endocrine systems have evolved to give us those gooey squishy feelings for a reason. But mother nature isn’t stupid — our environment is changing. Technology and contraception makes cheating easier and easier and mindlessly trying new strategies is in our very nature. There are plenty of good reasons why Ashley Madison is hated by the general media but also, by the same measure, why the organisation exists.
The next stage of evolution? Not quite.
Technology is outstripping our ability to evolve. We haven’t developed a psychology yet that allows us to reliably empathise with partners who are unfaithful, or love multiple partners without raising eyebrows among our neighbours. The very fact that Ashley Madison users are being shamed by parent-basement-dwelling hackers shows that fidelity has a strong moral basis even for anarchists — possibly because as offspring, it is in their interest for their parents to stay together. Divorced parents might not be able to afford a cosy basement for their little ‘un.
Secretive extra-martial affairs are, when you think about it, f****** stupid. They show that the perpetrator is selfish and untrustworthy. Divorce, for Christ’s sake! Or go into therapy! Why bother risking hurting your family by lying? Greenfinches exhibit risky promiscuous behaviour because it is in the genetic interests of enough individuals to do so. But then again, even they would change their ways if someone started (ahem) tweeting what their partners were up to.