Sex & Relationships

Is Monogamy Natural?

A lifetime of love versus a quick roll with a stranger. It's funny how we can have two seemingly opposite urges at the same time.
A hot naked chick hit on Joe Quirk at Burning Man. That's what he calls her: a hot naked chick. He's married. But his wife wasn't there.

"I was in the middle of a desert," he remembers. "Nobody would ever know."

It's funny how we can have two seemingly opposite urges at the same time. A lifetime of love. A quick roll with a total stranger.

He said no.

Because he loves his wife. Because he wouldn't want to ruin his life by losing her. But choices such as the one he made that day on the sand aren't totally matters of morality. They're not about cartoon angels and devils sparring on our shoulders.

They're science talking.

Vaunted in the mainstream media, two new reports from the Pew Research Center report and the National Survey of Families and Households indicate that couples become bored and unhappy sooner than was previously thought: more like three years into their togetherness than seven.

Well, sure, says Quirk, whose book Sperm Are From Men, Eggs Are From Women (Running Press, 2006) details what he calls "the science of relationships." A three-year itch makes plain biological sense, he says.

"This is when your genes are saying, in effect, 'No child has been produced. Move on.'" In relationship matters, Quirk says,"we tend to consult our feelings. Well, where do our feelings come from? Emotions are instincts. Lust is an instinct. Marriage is an instinct."

Sometimes those two collude. Sometimes they collide. But among heterosexuals at least, both indiscriminate lust and what biologists call the pair-bond are hyperpowered programs streamlined through millions of years of evolution to produce one paramount result: offspring, preferably those who will live long enough to reproduce.

"Desires that dominate in our psyches are those that are best at getting genes into the next generation," Quirk says. "Our desires are designed to get us to the next life stage. The initial joy of pair-bonding evolved because it got us to the baby-raising phase." In which case, honeymoon bliss is yet another consummately efficient biological function that meets a need, rather like pissing.

"Lots of animals," Quirk says, "have the 'marriage' instinct: penguins, parrots, swans, gibbons, seahorses, humans. ... What do all these animals have in common? Long childhoods. Who has the longest childhood in the animal kingdom? Humans." For species whose slow-growing offspring statistically stand better chances of survival with two parents providing double-sustenance, double-vigilance, double-protection and double-support, monogamy makes scientific sense. But because it's so difficult "to live in the same nest for 15 years," as Quirk puts it, "love is an instinct coded into our genes."

Fool yourself all you want about free will.

"We inherited the desire to fall in love," Quirk insists, because that soul-baring, die-for-you devotion helped our ancestors "raise babies on the dangerous Pleistocene savanna."

He'd get an argument from the intellectual anti-love crowd. Certainly from Guggenheim Foundation fellow Laura Kipnis, who in Against Love: A Polemic (Pantheon, 2003) argues fiercely but with a sardonic smile that love -- not even monogamy or domesticity, but love -- is not an evolutionary legacy but "a new form of mass conscription," a lockstep drill like organized religion, performed under "marching orders" from nefarious overlord forces that don't want us to notice our "flagging ardor," which is the lot of the committed. Kipnis rages against "domestic gulags," against "the straitjacketed roles that such familiarity predicates ... the boredom and the rigidities which aren't about to be transcended in this or any other lifetime." Invoking Karl Marx, she compares love to a factory, calling them both "social institutions ... [that] come to subsume and dominate" their victims "like a hostile alien force."

How to escape that evil grip?

"Adultery ... is at least a reliable way of proving to ourselves that we're not in the ground quite yet," Kipnis writes, "especially when feeling a little dead inside."

You see it everywhere these days except the Hallmark Channel, this charge that monogamy is bad for us -- as a species, as a society, as red-blooded primates whose DNA is almost identical to that of bonobos. You remember bonobos. Five years ago everyone was talking about these pygmy chimpanzees, an endangered species numbering several thousand and native to a between-rivers swatch of the Democratic Republic of Congo, distinctive for engaging in so much nonmonogamous sex: face-to-face sex and same-gender sex and oral sex. "Sex-crazed Bonobos May Be More Like Humans Than Thought" hooted the headline of an article in Science Today. It was hard not to worry: Am I less sexy than a bonobo?

At least three different pop songs are titled "No Such Thing as Love," one by Dwight Yoakam, one by the Roches, one by the late Ian Dury. Their lyrics are different, but the message is the same. Frank Zappa sang: "There ain't no such thing as love, no angels singing. ... Why should I be stuck with you? It's just not what I want to do."

So wait -- are we building our dreams together, or chained to the machinery of someone else's brave new world? Are we throwbacks: Mr., Mrs. and Ms. Myth, our vows and pledges vestiges of a sexist, classist, fearful, funless antiquity?

Awash in a popular-culture chaos that on one hand thrusts images of happy-coupledom down our throats while simultaneously whispering that marriage might be a neocon plot, we question our commitments. Are they really that -- or cowardice? We question the meanings of stability, of loyalty. "Can we be protected without there being a protection racket?" asks celebrity psychologist Adam Phillips -- whom Kipnis admires -- in his book Monogamy (Pantheon, 1996). Phillips' barbed aphorisms read like fortune-cookie fortunes dispensed in restaurants next-door to divorce courts:

  • A couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime. Sex is often the closest they can get.
  • We are never unfaithful, we are just sometimes faithful in ways we don't like.
  • Fidelity shouldn't always be taken personally.
  • In private life the word we is a pretension.

Everywhere we look (even on the Hallmark Channel), we are reminded again and again that the U.S. divorce rate is a staggering 50 percent. So, see? Why bother? Kipnis seizes on that statistic too. Actually, it's closer to .38 percent per capita per year, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics figures. This means about four out of every 1,000 Americans -- or 1 in 250 -- will get divorced every year. And that's the lowest it's been since 1970, marking a steady decline -- down from .48 percent in 1992. While .38 percent might seem minuscule, year by year, a married person's odds of getting divorced will add up, so that eventually half of all American marriages fail. But divorce statistics are notoriously open to interpretation, and competing ideological camps post varying claims about what the raw numbers mean. According to a report released by Rutgers University's National Marriage Project, 43 percent of first marriages end in divorce, not 50 percent -- an improvement over percentages in past decades.

One reason that fewer marriages fail these days is that fewer of us rush into them. Or even tie the knot at all. Since 1970, the U.S. marriage rate has plummeted by around 30 percent, according to the Rutgers report. Changing social mores have removed the stigma from what used to be called "living in sin." The number of unmarried cohabitating American couples has mushroomed since 1970 by over 1,000 percent, according to the Rutgers report. But statisticians don't keep track of failed cohabitations and boyfriend-girlfriend breakups.

Which in turn doesn't mean that we aren't mostly monogamous.

"I'm reluctant to say that something like monogamy could be genetically determined," says Gordy Slack, author of The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA (Jossey-Bass, 2007). "But humans are incredibly adaptable; our adaptability is one of the reasons for our success as a species. We evolve cultures that are specific to different times and places, different environments. In some of these situations, monogamy is appropriate and has great adaptive value. In others, it would be cultural suicide." Spinning a scenario that evokes the 1970s sex-fantasy sci-fi flicks Zardoz and A Boy and His Dog, he describes a theoretical population that has for one reason or another been reduced to several women and just one man. Monogamy, Slack points out, "would be the end of that little society."

But beyond such catastrophes, cultural values influence our sexual tendencies.

"In a society that really values monogamy," such as the mainstream West, "promiscuity will be defined as a problem," Slack says. Yet both of those opposite-direction urges keep species healthy.

"Organisms need to try to maximize their evolutionary success," Slack says, noting recent studies revealing that many species long believed to be exclusively pair-bonded aren't. Aided by advances in DNA technology allowing biologists to track parentage conclusively, these new studies show that "a lot of sneaking has been going on" among the birds and the bees, Slack says,. Literally. Barn swallows and chickadees cheat.

Thus that hot little dilemma Joe Quirk faced at Burning Man.

"Because children take so long to raise, men inherited two needs," Quirk says. "They need to impregnate a fertile body. And they need a good mother to raise the result. These are separable needs." Male wiring reasons: "Just because I invest my love and labor in one woman to make sure our offspring survive doesn't mean I don't have spare sperm. Can't hurt to toss a couple extra out there and see if they take. Some of my ancestors succeeded at the fathering strategy. Some succeeded at the fornicating strategy. They've passed on their desires to me."

It's the same for women, more or less. "Because children take so long to raise, women inherited two needs," Quirk says. "They need a good nest to raise the healthy baby. They need good genes to raise the healthy baby. The best nest might come from your husband. The best genes might come from somebody else's husband. It's hard to get both in the same guy."

If we inherited a falling-in-love gene, Quirk adds, "we also inherited the desire to sneak hot genes on the side. We come into this world tormented."
Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto.