Monogamy Is a Mismatch Disease

It represents a fundamental disconnect between nature and culture

Credit: Aitor Diago/Moment/Getty

Are we built for lifelong monogamy?

Such is, after all, the bedrock of marriage, possibly humanity’s oldest institution — except, perhaps, for patriarchy. Hold the phone for a second while I unpack that. Marriage and patriarchy go together like pyramids and pharaohs. Both go way back, and one depends upon the other. Once we had a pharaoh, he felt he needed a pyramid because, well, one can only assume he was a little insecure. Humongous masonry structures — temples, citadels, walls, etc. — tend to fool people into believing in your divinity.

A quick note on terms before we get in to this. Marriage, I agree, is not synonymous with monogamy, or visa versa. What I am really discussing here is not the legal arrangement which is perhaps the core of marriage, but the cultural underpinning of that arrangement which is sexually-exclusive monogamy. For efficiency’s sake I will usually refer here to “marriage,” to refer to life-long monogamy.

Perhaps the first disconnect to highlight is the fact that while many of us today would argue that marriage is a core human characteristic, only chauvinistic ideologues would claim that patriarchy is baked into our genome.

The enlightened — by which I mean qualified academics who study this stuff professionallywill tell you that patriarchy is in fact an historical invention. It is not, in other words, inevitable as part of the human package. Patriarchy just happens to be what most of us have endured (some of us more comfortably than others) for the last 10,000 years — which is about five percent of our life as a species so far.

As for marriage, the till-death-do-us-part mantra is a well-established societal norm in most societies. It has been sanctioned not only by all the world’s major religions over the last several millennia, but also by much scientific writing from the last several centuries, including in the fields of biology, psychology, history, anthropology, sociology, and even evolutionary biology. Researchers have overwhelmingly portrayed marriage as a species-wide attribute.

Increasingly, this may no longer be a tenable position.

I’ll start by explaining why I suggest that monogamy should be considered a sort of disease. Then I’ll get to what kind of disease it is.

A disease is a condition in which the body or mind goes awry, causing dis-ease. It is a disorder of the mind or body producing specific negative symptoms. Negative, in this context, is anything which threatens the functioning and survival of the biological entity. If we are to disparage the institution that most of us adults live within, all we have to do is show that marriage causes dis-ease.

(Hold onto your outrage for a moment. At the end of this essay I aim to pull a healthy marriage-rabbit out of this marriage-killing hat, so be cool. I don’t want to get divorced either. Whether or not I succeed is of course a matter of opinion).

Let’s assess the evidence. Not for nothing, the Spanish word esposas refers to both spouses and handcuffs. In English, “ball and chain” refers to wife, as does “trouble and strife” in Cockney rhyming slang. Before we get riled by sexist stereotypes, I’m sure the feeling is mutual, that perceptions of imprisonment are not gender-specific, it’s just that, living in a patriarchy, language tends to skew towards the phallus.

Marriage represents a mismatch of our nature with our culture.

Freud’s concept of repression is relevant here: In Civilization and its Discontents, he discusses the idea that culture acts as a straightjacket, restraining our nature and creating pathologies in the process. Why, if we evolved for lifetime pair-bonding, should monogamy prove such a struggle? Why do we need an army of experts, therapists, lawyers, priests, and coaches to get through it? Why is there such a high rate of failure within marriage, if marriage is part of our evolutionary heritage? And why should it be that evolution fashioned men to be assholes and women to be sluts? These, after all, are how we refer to all those who fail the fidelity test.

The answer to all these questions is that marriage represents a mismatch between our nature and our culture, it is, therefore, a mismatch disease. Human design is somewhat specific. Clever as our current form may appear, it is the ingenious result of millions of years of natural selection, rewarding traits which are useful and allow for survival up to reproductive age.

In other words, we evolved to eat the wild foods we gathered, scavenged, and hunted. We also evolved to walk long distances, run frequently, sleep on the hard ground, hang out in groups of up to 50 people and — this is the kicker as far as this essay is concerned — mate promiscuously, most likely reproducing without paying any attention to individual paternity.

That’s right, paternity was not much of an issue. It only became important later, way beyond the point when evolution had honed most of our traits. To be specific, paternity became an issue only after the first Agricultural Revolution about 10,000 years ago.

Why should the Agricultural Revolution have anything to do with mating and paternity?

Patriarchy happened because men were domestically marginal individuals; being of little use at home they went and created public roles for themselves in this new sphere which ultimately became “The State.”

Settling down and farming very likely required more work than hunting-gathering. More work demanded more people, and more people dutifully showed up: Once we started growing staples, mothers were able to feed babies cereals like wheat, rice, and corn. They were able to wean their kids earlier and then have more.

But once you clear land, plant, cultivate, and harvest, you want to hang on to that territory. It becomes yours. Hence, to make a long story short, the birth of private property. And here is where we, again, return to paternity. As humans settled down and developed towns, a main theme emerged in the human drama: patriarchy.

Just to keep things freewheeling here, we’ll define patriarchy as men taking control of material wealth — of property — as well as of the narrative. In reality, patriarchy happened because men were domestically marginal individuals. Shocking, I know, but more than one anthropologist has pointed the finger at men’s domestic redundancy as a cause of patriarchy. Being of little use at home, they created public roles for themselves in a new sphere that ultimately became The State. Here’s anthropologist Marvin Harris summing up the consequences:

For the first time there appeared on earth kings, dictators, high priests, emperors, prime ministers, presidents, governors, mayors, generals, admirals, police chiefs, judges, lawyers, and jailers, along with dungeons, jails, penitentiaries, and concentration camps. Under the tutelage of the state, human beings learned for the first time how to bow, grovel, kneel, and kowtow. In many ways the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery.

The Man, you might say, had arrived.

His arrival had profound consequences for sex and eroticism — although, to be fair, it did offer new opportunities for sexual scandal and sexual deviance of all sorts, for where there are laws, there are law-breakers. In particular, patriarchy radically altered the power-relations implicit in the sexual act.

Marriage is conspicuously absent in Harris’s list of civilization’s institutions, but it made its debut with the early farmers. If men needed to preserve their farms, they also needed to hand it down to their biological kids. The assignation of paternity was a challenge when one’s sexual relationships were, shall we say, casual, and there is plenty of evidence from modern hunter-gatherers that sexual relations were more casual in pre-farming communities.

Along with all the other laws — sanctioned in most places by scriptures — came laws about who you could sleep with. The difference between a child born in holy matrimony and a bastard conceived in a weak moment of lapsed judgment was the difference between who held the keys to the kingdom and who was left out of the will.

Much historical and anthropological writing, however, takes the line that pair-bonding is an unusual trait among mammals, almost uniquely human, which evolved over millennia because it best served our survival needs. The female of the species, so the argument goes, needed the male to provide for her while she stayed home nursing the infants. Thus the so-called “nuclear family” became the building block of human society.

But many researchers are fleshing out a counter-narrative, in which paternity and marriage are considered very differently. Many modern people would think it ridiculous to be “partly” pregnant. But tribal societies — and by extension, pre-farming societies — often considered it necessary for a woman to have sperm from multiple men in order to become pregnant. The idea was that a child would need strength from one guy, brains from another, and good looks from a third.

The problem with marriage is that our sexual behavior was honed over millennia of tribal life.

What were the results of this type of shared paternity? In tribal society — either Palaeolithic tribes or more recent societies studied by anthropologists — in which such systems pertained, it seems that instead of a cluster of jealous males fighting for control of “their” women, the group took a more communal approach. Offspring with multiple fathers could look forward to better futures. If the job of a father was to protect, the more the merrier. And sharing a child with your friend or fellow tribesman was considered normal and it strengthened bonds between men instead of pitting them against each other.

How did shared paternity affect sex? In contrast to monotheistic societies — with their rigid defence of marriage and punitive measures for sexual misconduct — Eros was arguably alive and well in the pre-farming era. Sex was not restricted either to one partner for life, nor to the confines of a marriage. In other words, sex could benefit from novelty, freedom, and a certain equality of the sexes. And, furthermore, sex was detached, not only from marriage, but from love. It was free to be enjoyed without the weight of morality and law bearing down upon it. Now, in case such descriptions sound too much like a free love fantasy, these assertions are not intended to be across-the-board, black-and-white certainties, but they do describe a broad-brush contrast to the characterization of sex and love in monotheistic, patriarchal and farming societies.

So, back to mismatch. The problem with marriage is that our sexual behavior was honed over millennia of tribal life. In the pre-farming period, societies shared everything. They practiced an often radical egalitarianism — of food, of resources, and of sexual partners — because this strategy was effective for survival.

Marriage within sedentary farming civilizations, on the other hand, imposed a rigid structure on sexuality, which the Church, the State, and the Village have struggled mightily throughout history to control, largely because such societies were predicated on private property generated by the surplus-generating nature of storable grains, which ultimately linked sex and property in an unholy relationship.

Forgetting or burying these elements of our past does not end well. According to Freud, civilization requires us to squash our instincts. According to E.O. Wilson, culture exerts a cost in “human happiness that must be spent to circumvent our natural predispositions.”

The standard narrative of human sexuality from the farming period onward is what anthropologist Helen Fisher has called the Sex Contract: man provides food, shelter, protection to a woman who needs them all to conceive and raise a child — his child. In return, she delivers sex and the comforting knowledge that his genes are being passed on. As Christopher Ryan writes in his book Sex at Dawn this, in essence, makes every woman a prostitute — which ties in with Fisher’s notion of contractual obligations. Could it be, though, that the sex contract is an aberration — like so many cultural elements worldwide — which has cost us dearly in the monumental struggle on behalf of the patriarchal order, to maintain?

The needs of the patriarchal order in the Agrarian Age gave way to the needs of the Post-Industrial Age (i.e. right now), a time in which patriarchy is being undone. Today, in many parts of the world, marriage is seen as a love match, contracted between two freely-consenting adults seeking lifelong love and companionship. This is certainly an improvement over being sold or set up by your parents, both of which still happen.

I happen to believe in marriage because we still need the companionship and security provided by spouses and the children we raise.

But don’t despair. I believe in marriage. Not for religious or moral reasons, but because ultimately, those of us not living in tribal societies still need the companionship and security provided by spouses and the children we raise. But that’s just me. But there are many types of marriage, and many ways to fill needs for companionship, security and sex.

Others may find it more fulfilling to try following the Old Way, and deal with the possibility of being socially marginalized. An analogy might be useful here: It may be unrealistic for all of us to suddenly adopt the diet of our Palaeolithic ancestors because the world has moved on; there’s not enough wild, organic meat trotting around. By the same token, adopting Palaeolithic sexual behavior is challenging because most of us do not live in tribes. We are no longer accustomed to raising other people’s children, to sharing our spouses, and to giving little thought to which father should be paying for little Sally’s new shoes.

However, it’s just as well to recognize the not-so-inconsiderable challenges of a life of holy matrimony; instead of blaming problems on His lack of commitment or Her inability to be faithful (or vice-versa), we should recognize how human sexuality actually works. We must acknowledge the pressures exerted on marriage as a cultural and, in many ways, aberrant invention, and know that we are Digital Age people stuck in an Agrarian Age institution — but still running a Stone Age operating system.

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750,” and the ebook Look Smart!

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