Friday, December 17, 2010

Back Once Again To Monogamy

TPI (for the purposes of disclosure, TPI has the quiet distinction of being married to my favorite sister) points to an interview with Mick Jagger, in which Jagger clearly has all the answers:
[Jagger] goes on to talk, in a rather rambling way, about the animal kingdom and how human mores regarding marriage and fidelity correspond to what we know of primate behavior. “If you have studied or have even a passing knowledge of animal behavior, it’s hard to see how our rules and regulation fit in,” he says at one point.

There are swans, he is reminded.

“Oh, yeah, I love it when women say that,” he replies. “I always have a joke with L’Wren about that. Women tend to say these things more than men do, don’t they?” He affects a sentimental whisper: “ ‘They mate for life, you know.’ ” He chortles heartily at this piece of feminine nonsense. “Yeah,” he muses, when his laughter dies away, “it’s swans and there’s one other. What is it? Albatross, or something.”

TAE delights in his knowledge of animal behavior (a B.S. in biological engineer and and a M.S, in biomechanical engineering may have included a passing knowledge of animal behavior) and relishes the beautiful moments when people who don't have "biology" in their academic major attempt to explain biology. You certainly don't see any blog posts from TAE on music composition. But I want to leave the hard work to TPI on this one:
You know, Jagger is right that primates aren't so interested in monogamy. But you know what else they're not interested in? Living intercontinentally, playing guitars and pianos, reading (much less writing) books, designing camera angles, spending hundreds of hours in a studio making a record, plotting break-even points, concerning themselves with decades-long creative partnerships, and exercising. And anyone who has studied, or even has a passing knowledge of animal behavior, knows that the chimp is no damned good at sitting still through lectures on "wave and sand formations." Just think about the massive cultural effort that goes into creating even one of these enjoyments. Consider the endless, orgasm-less hours that went into creating the simple electric guitar and the social milieu in which it can be played and heard. Your wearier voices of modernity spent their lives trying to answer the question of just how the blundering meatsacks that we humans are have managed to channel our effort into such apparently useless things as grand pianos and scientific lectures. And as unsatisfying as the work of a Freud or a Marx might ultimately be, they at least felt the need to account for the vast difference between humanity as we know it and the primitive state in which they imagined our true selves to have been forged.

Not so with the practitioners of evolutionary astrology. Why do we like to screw around? Bonobos. Why do we like to mate? Swans. Our true self, the key to our correct and rational conduct, is buried in our genetic history and that's all there is to it. Whereas once we danced on strings held by the stars, now we are the dysfunctional captives of some primitive human prototype. The terrifying thought that we might truly be conscious and truly free is banished either way.
In its core this is a wonderful counterargument. Because Jagger asks us to look at other animals behavior, we must look at our own species behavior as a guide to judging monogamy. However, what TPI is proposing is that modern humanity's freedom to behave as we wish also gives us the freedom to be monogamous, to marry, and to love one person our whole life.
But here's the question I have: if monogamy is a social construct of free will, why did it come about? We've always had Mick Jagger-esque people in society. We've always had Casanovas, Lolitas, various other polygamous subcultures. How did monogamy win the day for our society of free will? To hear some talk, not only is monogamy "unnatural" but it even can cause unneeded social conflict. Seems to me that if polygamy were a feasible option (in pre-monogamy-culture) we'd all have done it and never abandoned it. Sex is awesome, right! And not at all a distraction!
I go back, again and again and again, to the belief I have that the human species, despite our racy bonobo cousins, was a monogamous one. The argument for us being sex-crazed polygamists goes like this: bonobos have tons of sex for fun, for social connectedness, and for procreation. We are genetically closest to bonobos and chimpanzees (another promiscuous species), so we must also be genetically prone to promiscuity and polygamy as well. But the geniuses of animal behavior like Jagger want you to stop there. Please, please don't ask them the following question: why do Bonobos live in a matriarchal society but their next closest cousin, the gorilla, lives in a strict patriarchy? How can this be? Didn't the Bonobos get the memo that patriarchal society is what their cousins do, so they should naturally do it to?
Or could it be that ecological, physical, mental, and social changes (the very changes that brought about speciation of Pan from Gorilla also were the ones that caused Bonobos to have different sexual characteristics than their nearby cousins?
You cannot ask that question of these wizards of animal behavior because they know you will then extend that question to Pan vs. Homo. Could the massive physical, mental, and ecological changes that split us from our shared Hominini ancestor have also pushed our current species to become monogamous? Or at least provided the necessary environmental and social challenges to make monogamy advantageous over polygamy? TAE thinks, ardently, that this is so.
Almost unique to the entire animal kingdom, the females of our species have 12 menstrual cycles a year. Also strange: their menstrual cycles do not happen at the same time. Gather a random sample of 200 women and you'll have about a quarter of them "in heat" at any given time. Imagine, then, a primordial human male, faced with a tribe of constantly fertile females! Monogamy makes sense for females in this world, because it becomes the only social structure available for them where they don't face constant threat of rape.
Now imagine you are a male, in a tribe full of other males, faced with these constantly fertile females. Is there any hope for your tribe not destroying itself from within other than if each male is "assigned" a female to which he has sole mating rights? Surely we've all seen imagery of bucks, clashing with each other over mating rights during the rut. Imagine that 24/7/365.

TPI is right. Humans (and perhaps humans alone) have a choice to be polygamous or monogamous, just like we have a choice to play electric guitar or acoustic. But the argument seems to be coming down to "we can choose to ignore our sex-crazy nature and be monogamous or not" when I cannot accept that our species was successful in evolving as a polygamous one. Rather, I have to believe that the choice we free humans have is "should we choose to act like monogamous humans or act like polygamous bonobos?"


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