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Polygamy vindicated: science reveals it’s monogamy that is unnatural The long-accepted idea that humans are naturally monogamous is dead at last. We grill the author of Sex at Dawn about prehistoric sex and other shenanigans.

I have a really good male friend who lives with a woman. He also can’t keep it in his pants. He’s not a jerk, but when he’s on the road, which is a lot, he makes with the local fare. It doesn’t affect his home life; they aren’t that tight of a couple in the first place. But he still insists on referring to himself as a “slimebag” and a “sociopath” because that’s just how he rolls. This makes me sad.

Honestly, while it’s not ideal that he’s not super-up-front about his habits, this doesn’t make him a sociopath. It makes him not monogamous. Which is not a crime, a moral failing, or a sign of immaturity, according to two new authors.

“Sex at Dawn challenges conventional wisdom about sex in a big way. By examining the prehistoric origins of human sexual behavior the authors are able to expose the fallacies and weaknesses of standard theories proposed by most experts.” — Andrew Weil, M.D.

Christopher Ryan, co-author of Sex at Dawn, wants my friend — and anyone else calling him — or herself nasty names because they don’t fit the marriage-plus-two-kids-forever mold — to know that the long-accepted idea that humans are naturally monogamous ain’t necessarily so. Give him a chance. At first, he sounds like he might be Mr. Leisure Suit with the cocked eyebrow and the vasectomy pin … and then? Then you start realizing he makes a lot of sense.

And it’s ideas like his that might do more to save marriage than anything else in today’s social-theory landscape. Seriously.

Start with his central argument: “The generally accepted myth of the origins and nature of human sexuality is not merely factually flawed, but destructive, sustaining a false sense of what it means to be a human being … It amounts to false advertising for a garment that fits almost no one. But we’re all supposed to buy and wear it anyway.” Wow!

So what is this destructive myth about how human sexuality works?

Christopher Ryan: Well, the standard narrative has many different parts, but the crux of it is that paternity certainty has always been of central concern to human males. So, there’s allegedly been this exchange between men and women that goes back to the origin of species, in which women trade sexual fidelity for material support and protection from a particular man.

Which seems to make perfect sense. That’s what we’ve always been told.

Christopher Ryan: It does! It makes so much sense to people who look around and say, “That’s the central exchange in the relationships in my life.” So they project it into prehistory, something I call Flintstonization, and assume that’s how it’s always been. It’s comforting for people who want to keep the status quo.

The trouble with it is that we’ve found that in prehistoric times — before our society became agrarian — there was no reason women had to trade sexual autonomy. Everything was shared, from sexual partners to childcare. This central conclusion concerning monogamy is just not backed up.

What’s destructive about this myth?

Christopher Ryan: It’s wrong. Adultery has been documented in every human culture studied, including those in which fornicators are routinely stoned to death. In light of all this bloody retribution, it’s hard to see how monogamy comes “naturally” to our species. If monogamy were an ancient, evolved trait characteristic of our species, like the myth says, adultery wouldn’t be an issue. No creature needs to be threatened with death to act in accord with its own nature.

One of the things that really propelled us to write this book was the feeling we got that the standard narrative is like the pre-Copernican version of the solar system. It’s so complicated, and it’s layer upon layer of explanation that doesn’t fit together.

The mainstream authorities have tried to plug it all together, but there are so many holes in their argument, it’s just sort of absurd.

How do bonobo apes factor into all this?

Christopher Ryan: Bonobo apes and chimps are our closest relatives on this planet. We share more DNA with them than we do with, say, gorillas. We’re more closely related than the African elephant is to the Indian elephant. So while people like to compare humans to, say, lions or walruses, and extrapolate the reasons for our behavior from the animal world, they really should be looking at the bonobos.

So? How do the bonobos work?

Christopher Ryan: They have a lot in common with us. They have sex even when the female is not ovulating, which is quite unusual. They spend most of their lives on the ground and are highly intelligent and intensely social. Their vaginas are more front-facing, making it easier to have missionary-position sex. They stare into each other’s eyes and kiss when they have sex, something that sets them apart from every other primate except for humans.

And they’re quite promiscuous. They don’t pair off for life. Rather, they live in close-knit groups where nobody’s quite sure who fathered any of the children of the group, which means everybody has a special interest in all of the children of the group.

Monogamy isn’t natural to any primate except — if we believe this narrative — us.

Are there are human societies where this is the case?

Christopher Ryan: Yeah. I go into it in depth in the book, but there are few examples. Paul Le Jeune was a 17th-century Jesuit missionary who lectured a Montagnais Indian man about their society’s promiscuity, and was told, “Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children. But we all love all the children of our tribe.”

And there’s the case of the Mosuo of Lugu Lake, in China. The have almost complete sexual freedom and autonomy for both men and women, which was first observed by the West via Marco Polo in the 1200s. They don’t marry, they call each other “friend” rather than “husband” or “wife,” and children are the paternal responsibility of a woman’s brother, not her husband. The Chinese have been trying to squelch this tendency since they gained control in 1956, but to no avail. The system continues to work in a peaceful way.

Let’s talk about female orgasms and how they factor into your argument.

Christopher Ryan: Well, it’s not the orgasms themselves. It’s the female copulatory vocalization. I’ve asked audiences everywhere: Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard your neighbors having sex. Now drop your hand if the man was making more noise than the woman. It’s universal: in every culture, the woman makes more noise.

It’s a direct contradiction to the standard narrative. If sex is universally shameful, and women are less libidinous, then why are they so likely to loudly announce their sexual pleasure?

It doesn’t fit into what we “know,” according to this central myth. But it does fit into our new paradigm, because the primate species where the females make the most noise are the one where the females are the most promiscuous, because this attracts other males.

Fine, I’m convinced that monogamy isn’t necessarily natural to our species, even though I’m personally happy to be monogamous. But weren’t the open-marriage experiments of the ’60s and ’70s sort of an epic fail?

Christopher Ryan: I question that the ’60s and ’70s were an epic fail. Everyone wants to say, “Well, we tried open marriage, and it was a disaster.” Well, we tried energy conservation in the ’70s, and it didn’t solve all our problems. Does that mean we never try again? You could say, “We tried racial integration, and it was a failure.” Was it? We don’t have a perfectly equal society, but we have a black president. Look at our social situation now — we’re debating gay marriage, and it has already passed in several states. Here in Spain, where I live, it’s completely accepted. In fact, it’s illegal to discriminate against LGBT people. The ’60s and ’70s laid the groundwork for what we have now.

When it comes to any sort of unconventional relationship that threatens the powers that be, success and discretion go hand in hand. Who knows how many people found their own non-standard ways of living and were completely successful? We hear about the failures. We don’t hear about private people who don’t want to attract attention to their arrangement, so they don’t run around proselytizing.

Now, that being said, it’s difficult to take a prehistoric sexual situation and insert it into a modern, capitalistic society. Like anything from prehistory — from diet to exercise patterns — we may know these things are healthy for us, but who has the time to walk 15 kilometers every day? Who wants to eat rabbits and insects? We are up against 10,000 years of agrarian culture. You don’t necessarily want this fluid situation for your kids when everyone else has fathers and central families at their school.

We don’t have the answer. We don’t know what to make of it either. But this pervasive myth has got to go. Our principal ambition for the book was that it would encourage and empower people to clarify their sexual nature before signing on to long-term commitments. All we’re advocating is to take a harm-reduction approach to infidelity rather than a “just say no” approach.

So, to those who say, “Just get divorced if there’s infidelity” …

Christopher Ryan: Marriages are not disposable TV dinners. It’s very American, this script that you just end the relationship. We’re calling for sex without lying. If that’s what you want, figure out a way to deal with these things without the deception, self-destruction and pain to both parties. You have to have the courage to come out of the closet about what you want or need, and you will eventually find people who understand that and can do that. You do it in every other aspect of your relationship. Be open about what you both need, and if you can’t figure that out ahead of time.

If you aren’t sexually compatible, that’s not a sign of immaturity. You can’t “just grow up” and change your nature. It’s a sign of being incompatible. Nothing more and nothing less.

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11 thoughts on “<span class="entry-title-primary">Polygamy vindicated: science reveals it’s monogamy that is unnatural</span> <span class="entry-subtitle">The long-accepted idea that humans are naturally monogamous is dead at last. We grill the author of Sex at Dawn about prehistoric sex and other shenanigans.</span>”

  1. Low tier men aren’t meant to breed, and historically have never bred.
    All that cope about ‘stable monogamous societies’ is a load of crap.
    The genetic record is very clear.
    Most men worked like slaves and got buried and forgotten.
    Chad impregnated the females and carried the destiny of humanity on his shoulders.
    This is how civilizations were born.
    The reason everything is falling apart now is because we have strayed from this truth.


  2. I have been married almost 24 yrs, come the 15th of this month. I have NEVER thought of sleeping with another man. I have never fantasized about another man. Have I looked at another man and thought he looked good? YES I am human. But that is as far as my thoughts go. Being monogamous is not that damn hard if you TRULY are IN love with the person you are married too. Marriage is more then about sex. Yes sex is a part of it, but if it is your center point, then you will have problems when you get older. My husband is my BEST friend. We do many things together outside of the bedroom. But we do however have a GREAT sex life though lol.

  3. your friend is indeed a sociopath and/or a sleazoid if he is doing what he’s doing knowing it’s wrong and yet still keeping someone in a relationship with him.

    so what if their relationship wasn’t “that tight to begin with” thats a really immature response to that. It sounds like perhaps you’re one of the local fare. As a “friend” I’d be encouraging him to at least be man enough to end the relationship, if not tell her.

    But I’m fairly sure, as I have known people like this personally (ex best friend) who stay with the “old lady” so they have the stability at home while they go off and indulge wantonly in their selfish wants.

    You know, I’m pretty sure some cultures even today, and in the past in man’s history, have existed in a actual “free love” type of society and culture. Thing is, we’re hobbled in that regard. We can’t do that. we’re sure as heck not talking about that. We’re talking about people wanting to get lots of tail.

    I have an illustration I thought of while I heard an ice-cream truck outside earlier today. Has anyone noted how elevator music and the ice cream truck music may mimic or even resemble an iconic song, like say “chicken in a straw”, or “captain of the heart” but it’s missing very much, the accents and some notes and measures intrinsic of the original piece? Often they just repeat the same phrase over and over never going into any other phrases in the song. The techniques to make them aren’t nearly the same–switching a song played with strings, backed by acoustic drums, with tin-y ivory, or music-box tinkering. Almost the most important part–the vocals and lyrics are absent.

    They’re cheap imitations for the sake of aesthetic, distraction, getting your attention, or lulling you into a mindset.

    Think about it. Use the smarts I’m sure you all have and you’ll get exactly what I mean.

  4. Very nice article. I agree with the author. Some women don’t enjoy sex with their husband anymore. Why not let him go outside? YOU don’t want to service him! But you want to stay in the marriage. So let someone else take care of him THAT way and you reap all the other benefits of the marriage. Then, everybody’s happy. He’s happy because he’s satisfied and he’s happy with you because you let him be satisfied. You’re happy because you don’t have to do it with him if you don’t want to and you don’t have to feel guilty!

    I am personally opposed to laws against polygamy, because if grown adults (not young girls) want to participate in a marriage like that (which God approves concubines in the old testament – God even approves incest and gang rape according to a couple of those stories) then grown adults have a right to live how they please.

  5. this is just a rationalization from abunch of hedonistic fools that are sexual burnouts. The human body is designed to build up resistance to friction, which is why we build callouses, which are NOT formed to make our body parts more pleasured by the thing causing friction. So the human mind has to step in to “create” pleasure, which cannot last long, so the mind continues to intensify. But sooner or later the fraility of the human person limits the actual pleasure one can imagine, so then S&M; enters the picture with a whole bunch of different kinks and perversions to try to compensate. We live in a culture that is driven by sexual burnouts who cannot help anyone achieve true happiness any more than a person with a drinking problem can be helped by a drunk to stop drinking. Wake up people, this culture is very adept at making you a CONSUMER of this trash (or maybe you think that the multi-billion dollar ponography industry aimed at pure selfishness while there are 40,000 children dying each day with no food in their bellies is proof we are an “enlightened people”) but miserable failures at human relationships

  6. Give me a break. Your friend is a jerk. Feeling guilty is a step in the right direction, but I suspect he talks to you about it because you let him off the hook. Stop helping him make excuses. If he can keep himself from pulling down a cute girl’s pants when she walks by, he can control himself.

    And think about it – why isn’t this guy telling his girlfriend what he’s doing? Because he likes monogamy – for her. He wants her there to love him and take care of him when he gets home. He doesn’t want her to leave him and he doesn’t want to share her with other guys. He knows he’ll lose her if he’s honest, but he’s too selfish to go without sex for a few days.

  7. I haven’t read the book yet, but this argument sounds far from scientific. Anyone can claim anything they want about prehistoric societies because we don’t know what they were like. (They’re prehistoric, after all.)

    There are many, many things we humans have trouble doing, but that doesn’t make them unnatural. Pretty much every human has lied at some point in his or her life, but we don’t say that honesty is unnatural. Nor do we say that lying is part of our nature and we shouldn’t feel bad about it.

    It’s true that our closest primate relatives are promiscuous. On the other hand, their behavior is like no human society on earth. Furthermore, the differences in our DNA produce intelligent creatures without hair. We are profoundly different from them and there is no reason to think that their sexuality is like ours now that we have evolved.

    As for open marriage, the comparison to energy conservation doesn’t make sense. We tried to get people to conserve energy and they didn’t do it. People who tried open marriage made themselves unhappy. Repeating your parent’s mistakes isn”t a good idea.

  8. So what? I doesn’t matter what humans did originally, this is the year 2010. If you don’t want to be monogamous, fine, but don’t say it’s because “you’re not programmed to.” It’s because you’re weak and can’t control yourself. If it was really important to you you could be. But obviously, unless you find another person who isn’t monogamous, you really don’t have the capability of really feeling for another person. You’re just selfish. I don’t believe in whoring around, but if you want to fine. But don’t say it’s natural human instinct. All species have certain instincts, but humans are capable of rising about their animal instincts. At least they’re supposed to.

    • Christopher Ryan isn’t saying that we should all just cheat on our partners and blame human nature when our partners complain. He’s saying that we should keep in mind that monogamy does not come as naturally to humans as we’ve been told. It’s hard work. Some people say it’s worth it, and those people should be together. He’s saying that people who aren’t willing to work at monogamy are not bad, broken people, they just have a hard time fitting into our cultural expectations of monogamy. That’s not to say that they should just cheat on all their partners. They should find people who feel the same way about monogamy as they do (and hopefully, because of this book, more people will reconsider their take on monogamy as the only natural option for human relationships). I say this as someone who actually read the book. He is not advocating that everybody throw up their hands and say “screw monogamy, it’s too hard, let’s just forget about it”.

      I agree with you that people are capable of monogamy if they value it. But for some people it’s really hard, and it tears them up inside when their bodies tell them to do things everybody has been telling them are wrong. Have you ever been in a great relationship but felt a strong attraction to someone else? Lots of people experience this, and it makes us feel like terrible people, whether we give in to temptation or not. But our bodies wouldn’t be compelling us to go have sex with other people if monogamy were how we are programmed by nature. If one person for life were enough for everyone, so many people wouldn’t be watching porn.

  9. This is a load of rubbish. It eqivalates man to nothing more than an animal who needs to have sexual relationships with multiple women, and vice versa, for hapiness.

    Even the ancient Greek philosophers were able to define four types of love – Philia, Agape, Eros, and Storge.

    Philia is the love of friendship, Storge the love of family, Eros, sexual love, and Agape, holy, self-sacrificing love.

    Humans are the only creatures capable of Agape, and all humans should be focusing towards this end. Eros is not needed for human hapiness; it is a bonus, an extra, to the act of Procreation.

    This article makes out Eros to be the source of human hapiness; it is not, and do not be fooled by this folly.

    Man is most certainly Monogamous, and all that sex with multiple partners shows is a lack of temperance, agape towards our marriage partner, and fidelity.

    Do not even attempt to contravine this truth; the only persons who would do so are those who need moral justification so they can commit these sinful acts without a guilt conscience.

    • As a person with multiple degrees in the ancient Greek language, I’d like to call bullshit on your argument. It’s nice to pull out Greek terms and philosophers to make you sound intelligent, but the fact is that your Greek terms for love are not based in science. Sure, we could identify dozens of different kinds of love and assign them names, but we wouldn’t be any closer to learning how the human mind and body work. Just because a couple of Greeks had an interesting idea about the types of love humans experience doesn’t mean that Greek society as a whole was far from monogamous.

      Humans are animals. We are creatures who evolved on this planet like all the rest of them. If you believe that monogamy is the only “moral” option for human relationships, then nobody is asking you to do anything else. But please, keep your morality out of a scientific debate. This book makes the scientific argument for humans not being naturally monogamous. It is not making an assault on your morality, or telling people how to act.

      You are free to make moral judgments about people who are not purely monogamous, those rare few people who meet the person of their dreams and never look at a bit of porn or glance at another human thinking that it might be nice to touch them too. But there are far more of us than you think, many of whom are keeping quiet to avoid being called immoral by closed-minded people like you. Perhaps you yourself have considered having sex with more than one person in your life. Most people do! Keep your moral judgments out of our science, please. You can call it wrong, but this is how we are wired. If you don’t like it, go be monogamous and leave the happy open-minded people alone.


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