Is Monogamy Really a Myth?

In the aftermath of the Eliot Spitzer scandal, the New York Times ran an article about how rare true monogamy appears in nature. Fair enough; most of us wouldn’t argue with that. What was appalling was the way the article seemed to justify sleeping around and paying for sex, based on the premise that “everybody else is doing it.”

I think the theory has several holes in it, both scientific and moral.

One of the article’s arguments was centered on the findings of paternity tests given to animals: Evidently, even animals that supposedly mate for life have been found to be unfaithful. How do scientists know this? Because paternity tests show the children in the nest don’t always belong to the male.

The biggest flaw I see in this argument is that it says nothing about having followed the animals around for several months prior to the paternity test. If you are going to accuse a female of sleeping around, you have to have some proof other than a failed paternity test, right? I mean, if promiscuity can exist in nature, then what’s to say rape isn’t a possibility as well?

The article also argues that certain species have mating rituals equivalent to paying for sex. It then goes on to cite a type of male bird that gives females (other than his mate) treats, apparently in the hopes of getting laid: The bigger his offering, the more likely he’ll get some. Another example was macaque (a type of primate) culture: Although all macaques groom one another, it was once again assumed that the males are looking for sex, whereas the females are doing it for social and maternal reasons.

Good grief. Does the macaque theory sound to anyone else like exactly the type of attitude that feminists tried to do away with in the 70s? I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time we had some younger, female scientists running this show!

All feminist rants aside, this argument also seems to me like a stretch of the imagination (or simply another bastardization by the media — they are awfully good at reporting studies inaccurately and making generalizations that the research doesn’t support). As intriguing as these cases may be, they don’t sound like prostitution. The first case — with the birds and the food offerings — sounds more like the notion that if your date buys you dinner, you are expected to put out.

The second case — the male monkeys grooming the females — reminds me of how backrubs seem to usually lead to sex. Maybe macaques have similar jokes in their culture as we do in ours:

First macaque: Do you know what 90 percent of grooming sessions lead to?

Second macaque: Sex!

First macaque: No…cleaner fur.

I could go on. But the biggest reason that this entire theory pisses me off is because most of the time, people are trying to justify why we’re not like animals! The arguments are many:

  • We use tools. (Not true — many primates and other species also fashion tools from their surroundings.)
  • We are capable of language. (So are other animals. A Colorado college professor has identified more than 100 different sounds that prairie dogs use in various combinations to mean different things.)
  • We create civilizations. (We’re hardly the only ones. Prairie dogs, wolves, primates, and tons of other animals build very complex societies.)
  • We are capable of love. (I don’t think that emotions and love are exclusive to humans, but how exactly do you prove this one, either way?)
  • We are capable of thinking about our surroundings. (Anyone who has ever worked with or owned a rescued animal knows this isn’t necessarily unique to us, either.)
  • It says so in the Bible. (This argument might work if you’re Christian, but I’m not and this is my blog post, so I say it doesn’t.)

I find it amazing that as soon as being just like animals suits us (“Nature made me do it, honey”), suddenly the media forgets all about the supposed “proof” that we’re better than animals. However, I can’t help but wonder why people don’t see this as a perfect opportunity to highlight a possible difference between us and animals: the ability to perceive the difference between right and wrong.

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