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The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People

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Myth of Monogamy

The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People

To some, monogamous relationships — particularly in the context of marriage — are the natural state of human beings and the foundation of civilization. Others, however, find the idea of a single mate to be boring and oppressive, prefering instead to seek multiple partners and varied experiences. Which perspective is most accurate — are people naturally monogamous or polygamous?


Title: The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People
Author: David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton
Publisher: W.H. Freeman and Co.
ISBN: 0716740044

•  Examines biology and behavior of both people and animals
•  Reasonably restrained in drawing conclusions from evidence

•  None

•  Explores human and animal behavior
•  Explores human and animal physiology
•  Argues that monogamy is not necessarily "natural" for humans


Book Review

Both have a lot of validity, but it is an interesting fact of life that many who ostensibly hold to the first view in theory actually practice the latter. The fact that monogamy is honored more in words than in deeds is a starting point for a recent book by David Barash, a University of Washington zoologist and professor of psychology, and Judith Lipton, a Seattle psychiatrist. These two researchers explore the nature of human mating strategies, particularly in the context of how other species seek and hold on to mates. According to the two authors, behavioral and biological evidence demonstrates very clearly that the inclination towards multiple mates is natural whereas monogamy is not.

They make it clear in the very beginning, however, that this is an entirely separate issue from whether or not monogamy is not possible or even desirable — a fact lost on some who have read the book. Rather, the book explores the nature of that behavioral and biological evidence and then what that means for us.

As far as evidence from animal behavior goes, the DNA fingerprinting technology used in courtrooms is now being used by biologists to trace parenthood in animals — resulting in some startling discoveries. Even among species previously believed to be monogamous, cheating on mates is the rule for both sexes. For example, in birds which were assumed to be monogamous, researchers have found that between 10% and 40% of all chicks were fathered by males who were not the mother’s social mate.

Further research has shown that, contrary to popular assumptions, females are just as likely as males to engage in extra-pair mating. The methods used by the two sexes differ, but the basic reason is the same: evolution. Both males and females want to be sure that they produce the best possible offspring. But because of their different roles, they must adopt different strategies.

For the males, their role is providing sperm — and sperm is cheap. A male can produce lots and lots with very little cost, so it makes sense to spread it around as much as possible. Males, then, essentially play the lottery: they try to mate as often as possible with as many females as possible in the hopes of producing as many offspring as possible. With luck, a few of them will do really well and continue the genetic line.

Females, on the other hand, can’t play the lottery. Their role is in providing eggs, and eggs aren’t cheap. Females have to be more picky in choosing whom they will mate with and sometimes, they find a “better” male than the one with whom they are socially attached, thus leading to an extra-pair coupling. Sometimes, they also engage in such hanky-panky for the sake of extra food or protection.

With regards to biological evidence, it has long been widely known that humans possess certain characteritics typical of non-monogamous species. For example, monogamous species are also monomorphic, which means that both males and females are the same size. Polygamous species, however are dimorphic — the male is larger than the female. This, obviously, is how humans are.

Myth of Monogamy

The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People

Assuming that the implications for humans are as strong as the authors contend, what’s the point? Why did they go through all of this effort? It was not to validate adultery as some seem to think. Quite the opposite, actually — they argue that their purpose was to better empower people in their efforts to remain monogamous.

The problem with monogamy is, as they explain over and over, that it is difficult. If it is not natural, and if our instinctual desires have a strong tendency to lead us astray, then we must devote more conscious effort to ensuring that we stick to what we have promised. Monogamy isn’t like breathing, and the realization that we need to work at it may help keep us focused. On the other hand, if we pretend that it is “natural,” then it may be easier for us to go off on the wrong path before we realize it.

If you are interested in learning more about how monogamy and polygamy appear among both humans and animals, this is a pretty decent introduction. You will learn about biology, sociology, humand and animal behavior, and quite a lot more. It is designed with a general reading audience in mind, thus it doesn’t get bogged down in technical or academic jargon.

User Reviews

Reviews for this section have been closed.

 4 out of 5
reality realtime, Member doctorfamousYahoo

succinctly this book is THE answer before or after a partnership gets 'established' ... it also fantastically deals with .... not getting into a pitty party or a blamegame .. and preparing for the NEXT step in healing .. kudos to the authors

4 out of 4 people found this helpful.

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