Brought to you by the students of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
By Tony Jiang
Raised in a country with the population comprising 85% Christians (Ash 160-161), our views on fidelity and sexual relationships can be said to be confined to match religious ideologies that do not necessarily coincide with our more natural biological tendencies. The ideology in question is the notion of marriage, the emphasis that we should stay loyal to one mate. Classically, from a sociobiological and evolutionary viewpoint, the ultimate goal in life must be to maximally transmit our genes into the next generation (Dowling 1). Therefore, being confined to one mate in our lives, as in the Christian dogma, would seem to hinder the total number of progeny, which in turn limits the overall reproductive success. That is not to say that the Christian marriage concept is utterly misguided; indeed its moral virtues are quite well recognized (Ash 160-161). My present aim is to demonstrate that certain modified polygamous sexual strategies may be more conducive for reaching the biologically desired goal of maximizing gene transmission. How are such seemingly contradictory concepts (moral vs. biological) best reconciled? I propose a challenging possibility combining the two disparate approaches whereby both male and female counterparts are free to pursue semi-polygamous relationships while maintaining close intimacies with the original partners. For the purposes of the following discussion, I call this resolution of the present conundrum as the Natural Sexual Strategy.
The foundation of the argument rests on two reasonable ideas. First, that we possess some highly developed, innate information-processing mechanisms that are a product of evolution by natural selection (Rommel 441). This implies that our actions, intelligence, interests, and emotions are mostly the result of the evolutionary success of our pre-historic hunter-gatherer ancestors (Dowling 2). Furthermore, let us measure reproductive success by our “fitness”, defined as “the number of offspring produced by an individual, in proportion to the number of offspring produced by an average member of the population” (Rommel 441). If the intended target were to maximize the number of genes being passed on, then this is analogous to saying that the ultimate goal is to maximize the population’s fitness. Therefore, any genetic information-processing mechanisms that did not make human ancestors more fit would have been eventually removed from the gene pool because such coding for these useless mechanisms would no longer be transmittable from generation to generation.
The second premise is that genes directly control the driving force behind human attitudes and behavior, and that natural selection acts on these gene pools. Granted the genes do not dictate our every action and that there are other cultural influences equally determinant, but our genes do provide the “basic appetites and desires within us” (Dowling 4) that cause us to act in certain ways. These ideas considered in conjunction with the fact that, unlike other primates, the sexual responsiveness of the human female is not seasonally dependent but is rather willful has given rise to many sexual strategies. The conceptual approach of Christian marriage is just one of many tried over the 200,000 years of modern human existence (“Homo Sapiens” 1).
One prominent theory proposed by Richard Dawkins is the idea that women utilize two instinctive strategies in pursuing men. The first strategy would have the goal of yielding the fittest offspring. To accomplish this, women will seek to mate with robust, clever men in order to procreate robust, clever offspring. Therefore, they will be drawn towards good-looking, intelligent males who will enhance her offspring’s chance to reach maturity and achieve reproductive success. The other strategy females implement is to seek faithful mates who will help care for the offspring until they reach maturity. Finding a faithful mate is especially important because human females are only fertile for limited periods of time and the gestation period is overly long (nine months). Thus, bearing a child is a nontrivial and arduous investment (Dowling 6). Once the infant is born, the mother needs the male’s partnership for food, shelter, and emotional intimacy. If these necessities are not provided for, then the infants’ chances to reach maturity are highly compromised, the mother’s important chance to maintain a healthy offspring is lost, and the entire investment will have been for naught.
The most problematic situation for the female is that she may not be able to find a partner who has all the desired qualities (i.e., intelligent & robust, faithful & contributing). However, an alternative situation for the female would be to find multiple partners, one that she mates with being the muscular, intelligent man, and another who fulfills the financial and emotional needs. She mates sexually to get pregnant, namely during the peak of ovulation (Dowling 7). Then, she partners with the wealthy and faithful man. For her this could be the best of both worlds.
The male too is seeking similar goals: to spread his genes into the future generations. Thus, he must seek fertile women to mate with. But the fertility of the woman is hard to determine without knowing her age, so he must judge based on other appearances. Female reproductive abilities peak naturally around age 15 and diminish rapidly after age 20. Youthful characteristics and behavior are good indicators of the fertility of women. Therefore, smooth skin, good muscle tone, full lips, high levels of energy (Rommel 449), unblemished skin, clear eyes, upright breasts, narrow waist, slender legs are all desired characteristics. To make himself more attractive, the male will accumulate financial wealth, social status and a muscular body. Sometimes one spectacularly strong attribute can compensate for another weak one. For example, if he is truly wealthy but not especially good looking, he can do things to improve his image such as wearing designer clothes or driving sports cars (Dowling 8).
The ideal situation then for the productive male would be to impregnate as many fertile females as possible to enhance the chances of transmitting his genes. However, he must be willing to provide the financial support for his offspring despite the lack of continued intimacy with the mother or the child. A major drawback is that he runs the risk of raising children that are not his own as the female is free to mate with others (Dowling 8-9). To mitigate this problem males often adopt other strategies. They assume a possessive attitude toward their mates, evidenced by emotions such as sexual jealousy (Rommel 450). Or they stay near their original mate while pursuing other clandestine sexual relationships. Often, they engage in polygamous marital relationships, in which his sexual affairs are publicly sanctioned. In this case, of course, he would not have to worry too much about raising another man’s child but would rather be causing others to care for his progeny.
It should be evident that a case can be made that Christian marriage has numerous evolutionary drawbacks. First, each mate’s potential for transferring his or her genes is greatly diminished and hence each person’s representation in the future gene-pool is compromised. Second, if the female cannot become pregnant, then the male is in the most unfortunate predicament. Adoption is an option if the couple wants children, but they will only be propagating foreign genes. Third, the male’s drive for an aesthetic physique, wealth, and social status will diminish as he realizes that his goal of procreating is accomplished. This in turn will cause the female to desire her husband less and tension will result, thereby creating an unfavorable environment to raise the offspring. However, the sexual strategy known polygyny, i.e. having multiple wives is more conducive for fitness and is still practiced in many regions of the world, most notably in Africa as well as in certain parts of America.
There are many practical advantages to polygyny such as being able to share work and childcare, allowing older wives to exercise authority over younger co-wives, developing a camaraderie, and utilizing a levirate system to prevent leaving widows destitute (Falen 64). Furthermore, women who coexist in polygyny have reported that they “favor the opportunity to work with co-wives” (Falen 64) and “crave rivalry as a way to spice up their lives” (Falen 64). Polygyny provides economical advantages as well by providing the man with labor in the form of a large family and numerous children. It also gives men a means to control their wives by preventing dependence on a single wife. For if the wife knows that her husband depends on her alone, she may become demanding and unyielding. Thus, from a sociobiological standpoint, both parties are satisfied. The male can mate with multiple women to maximize his chances of transmitting his genes to the next generation. The females are provided support in the form of shelter, food, and clothing as well as companionship.
Monogamy as advocated in Christian marriage involves finding a partner and staying with that person for the rest of one’s life. This type of practice is not overly prevalent among other primates or even within the majority of humans, perhaps because other sexual strategies exist that feel more natural by allowing species to reach the ultimate goal of passing on genetic information while providing decent emotional intimacies. Ethnographic Atlas surveyed 862 culture groups and found only 16% to be exclusively monogamous. Similarly, approximately only 3% of primate species and mammals are monogamous as well (Fuentes 897). Now there are good reasons for this. In addition to the fact that a social system that limits the number of mates a male can support at a given moment dramatically reduces his ability to widely spread his genes, consider also the critical finding that many chemicals/hormones are released during the inception of love only to return to baseline within a few years of the inception of a monogamous relationship. Marazziti and Canale discovered that there was a change in the concentrations of cortisol, testosterone and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) in men and women who recently fell in love. However, quite surprisingly these changes returned to normal 12-28 months later (Marazziti 934).
Additionally, Emanuele et. al. found that the intensity of romantic love and nerve growth factors (NGF) were associated: there is an elevated amount of NGF during the inception of love, lasting an average of 12-24 months (Emanuele 293). These empirical findings reveal two implications. First, bonding for life may not necessarily be the most natural phenomenon and is certainly not supported by the retention of bodily chemicals/hormones. Second, emotional stability is not necessarily an exclusive benefit of monogamous relationships because our physiological processes force us to lose our original passionate feelings. Although there might be lingering social stability because the partners will remain loyal to each other, each will eventually become unhappy within a few years. Thus, it may be argued that in the case of polygyny, by engaging regularly in courtship with new partners, the actors can continuously induce chemical/hormonal changes to maintain feelings of romantic love. This in turn will allow them to remain tied with multiple spouses and to provide essential resources for the offspring.
In our present Christian society, we hold that monogamy is the “natural” and that polygamy is the “unnatural”. This is also culturally the most morally acceptable view. But these traditions may hinder the evolutionary goal of maximizing the transmission of genes into the next generation. Moreover, in a strictly monogamous setting, both males and females can be seen to lose the advantages conferred by prudently modified polygamous relationships. During the inception of love, the biological hormones in both genders surge to intensify our emotions only to return to base level within a few years. Accordingly, adherence strictly to monogamous relationships may be actually “unnatural” and certainly not conducive to fitness, in comparison to polygyny and specialized pair bonding.
Granted, multiple pair-bondings may hold some moral objections, but the question we as a society must address is whether going against our biological evolutionary tendencies can result in serious long-term consequences. And eventually, the question could be raised whether straying from our biological motivators could ultimately lead to dangerous social instabilities and losses in genetic fitness (Dowling 11). Forced changes in behaviors (towards strict monogamous couplings) from a somewhat more laissez-faire approach that may have taken hundreds of thousands of years to evolve, will only result in severe damages and tension. One mitigating factor in all this may be that human evolutionary development is now more guided by cultural factors than by biological adaptations alone, which would keep the Christian ideology in excellent standing. It may be prudent however to continue experimenting with a complex system permitting multiple partnerships while maintaining the requisite critical intimacies inherent in monogamy.
Ash, Russell. The Top 10 of Everything, DK Publishing, Inc.: New York(1997), pg. 160-161; December Advance Newsletter, 1996, Kainos Press; Adherents.com.
Dowling, Dolina S “Is Monogamy Natural?.” South African Journal of Philosophy 15.3 (1 Aug. 1996): 91-100. Philosopher’s Index. EBSCO. Lilly Library, Durham, NC. 28 Mar. 2009< http://search.ebcohost.com>.
Emanuele et. al. “Raised Plasma Nerve Growth Factor Levels Associated with Early-stage Romantic Love.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 31 (2006): 288-294.
Falen, Douglas J. “Polygyny and Christian Marriage in Africa: The Case of Benin.” African Studies Review 51.2 (2008): 51-75.
Fuentes, Agustin. “Re-Evaluating Primate Monogamy.”American Anthropologist 100.4 (1998): 890-907.
“Homo Sapiens.” 28 April 2009. <http://anthropology.si.edu/humanorigins/ha/sap.htm>.
Marazziti, Donatella, and Domenico Canale. “Hormonal Changes when Falling in Love.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 29 (2004): 931-936.
Rommel, Ward. “Sexual Selection and Human Behavior.” Social Science Information 41.3 (2002): 439-465.
Russo, Sara. “The Many Benefits of Traditional Marriage.” 24 April 2009. <http://www.academia.org/campus_reports/2000/december_2000_4.html>.
Copyright © 2012 Mentis
About the Author:
Tony Jiang is a first-year medical student