Were our ancestors polyamorous? That is, did they have multiple spouses? Influential biologists going back to Darwin think we descended from small bands of people whose sexuality was not confined to a single partner.
That’s one of the points made in a new book, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, excerpted on the website Delancey Place.
Here’s a sample:
In deference to Morgan’s scholarship, Darwin continued, ‘Those who have most closely studied the subject, and whose judgment is worth much more than mine, believe that communal marriage was the original and universal form throughout the world. . . . The indirect evidence in favour of this belief is extremely strong… .’
The question this excerpt doesn’t address is what this means for modern human beings. You could argue that we aren’t biologically suited to monogamy, any more than we are to a diet high in sugar and low in fiber — that our bodies didn’t evolve for this.
Or you could argue that we humans are constantly improving the way we live, that our lives are richer because of new inventions like writing and musical instruments and perhaps monogamy as well.
I think it’s a bit of both. As the excerpt suggests, we don’t travel in bands of 150 anymore. So the social structure we had in 100,000 B.C.E. wouldn’t work in the world we have now. First comes the problem of sexually transmitted diseases, which gets bigger with a larger population. And then comes the question of who will raise the kids. Everyone chipped in in ancient times. But in modern American society, we already can’t seem to decide whether the community should take responsibility, or only individual parents. That question would get even more complicated if everyone practiced polyamory.
On the other hand, hardly anyone is entirely satisfied with a single partner. As much as we pretend otherwise, we are always looking with longing outside our marriages. Do we just suck it up, ignoring those urges? Or do we follow them into potential disaster?