Monogamy may be as old as Adam, but polygamy and celibacy have become accepted as forms of marital status, not to forget “homogamy”, the old-time abhorred practice of homosexuality, which is now fighting for recognition and acceptance.
What, however, is in question here is how and when monogamy began to be imposed as the only right form of marriage acceptable to God and man.
Even though the various forms of marriages have been practiced through generations, monogamy has emerged to become law in some countries, such that the legal registration of more than one wife is criminalised.
The first instances of such widespread enforcement were in Western Europe and it eventually gained worldwide acceptance in the modern world, especially in the Western Hemisphere. How did it happen? More so, how did it become known as the only acceptable standard to the God of the Bible when so many of the Bible’s founding patriarchs were openly polygamous?
Monogamy, as many would aver, is not “natural.” That is, hardly any species practice it, except for a few bird species (and, reportedly, cockroaches!). Social monogamy, an arrangement in which two creatures mate and work together to meet their basic needs, is especially uncommon among the non-avian warm bloods.
Since mating with only one female at a time tends to lower a male’s chances of producing as many offspring as possible, what good, evolutionarily speaking, can come of being monogamous? Why would mammals end up that way?
One reason, according to a report in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggests that males stayed with one female to ensure their young were not killed by another male.
Based on breeding and parenting behaviours collected from 230 different primate species over several generations, the researchers determined that males began balancing the need to spread their gene pool against the need to protect their young from being killed by other none related males.
The attacking males needed to kill the young so that they could breed with its mother, who would delay conception of another offspring if they were nursing. So the father hung around to ensure the safety of his genetic line and to help raise the young so that the mother could reproduce again sooner.
Another study, published in the journal, Science, used a similar type of analysis, but across a much wider sample - about 2,500 mammals, or more than half the known species. Those authors found no correlation at all between infanticide and monogamy. Their results suggest that monogamy works like real estate: it’s all about location and supply.
They observe that monogamy develops where females live at low density. Males cannot fend off rival suitors from more than one female at a time because they’re too spread out. Therefore, they cannot ensure their young are the ones the female is carrying, so they stick with one female. It is a consequence of resource defense.
So how important were kids in man’s move toward monogamy? Monogamy, in humans, seems to be both an acquired taste and a learned skill. The question remains whether it’s worth the cost of learning it.
Yet, another school of thought argues that a sexual revolution, led by low-ranking males and faithful females, laid down the roots of the modern monogamous family. The jist of the argument is that monogamous, romantic love - or, more prosaically, pair-bonding - may have evolved in a sexual revolution.
Researchers have long wondered why - unlike our sexually promiscuous chimpanzee-like ancestors - humans developed strong pair bonds with individual partners.
It’s thought that at one time, human ancestors did engage in chimp-like habits of sex and child-rearing, in which strong alpha males mated freely with the females of their choice, and then left the child-raising duties to them. So, the question is, how did we go from there to the modern-day monogamous, two-parent family?
The study suggests that a sexual revolution occurred led by low-ranked males and faithful females. Low-ranked males, who had no hope of physically overcoming the dominant members of their groups, instead began providing extra food to certain females, to carry sexual favour.
These females responded by remaining faithful to their breadwinning males. That change in behavior favoured the reproductive success of these monogamous couples. Thus, pair-bonding offered a greater likelihood that their children, who took a lot of effort to raise, would survive - ultimately moving humanity away from a promiscuous mating system dominated by alpha and beta males.
Ideally, males in promiscuous hierarchical species face a dilemma because the alpha and beta males tend to get all the mating action. Lower-ranking guys have two choices: either compete their way to the top and win reproductive opportunities, or look for ways to beat the system.
One way a male could do this is simply by guarding a particular female and making sure no other males can mate with her. Or he could exchange food for sex with a variety of females, in something like an early version of prostitution.
Alternatively, a male could provide extra food to a specific female exclusively, thereby getting more chances to mate with her and also helping her and her offspring survive with the increased nutrition. Males get a double benefit. There’s the immediate benefit of more mating. Having more food also increases female fertility and decreases the inter-birth interval so you can have more kids more often.
Another male strategy could be to help out with kids directly - whether they’re his offspring or not. By helping all of the group’s mothers raise their children, the males help increase the offspring’s chances of survival, presumably including those that he fathered.
In other words, when females come to prefer males who provide a bit more for them even if they aren’t the biggest or strongest, those males start preferring females who are faithful, and this process ultimately creates pair bonds between them.
Both male and female choice drove evolution. Female faithfulness increases as a result of males selecting more faithful females and male provisioning grows as females select for better providers and they co-evolve in a mutually beneficial way.
Whatever started it, not many people realise that the most important sexual revolution for our species probably happened several million years ago. This revolution was accomplished by the masses of lower-ranked males, along with females, directly against the elite of alphas.
In this age of sponsors, broke men need to ignite a new sexual revolution to, literally, get them back on top, if you know what I mean!
- Edwin Wanjawa, teaches sociology at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Pwani University