For a man, women are vehicles that can carry his genes into the next generation. For a woman, men are sources of a vital substance (sperm) that can turn their eggs into embryos. For each gender the other is a sought-after resource to be exploited: The question is, how? One way to exploit the other gender is to round up as many as possible of them and persuade them to mate with you, then desert them, as bull elephant seals do: The opposite extreme is to find one individual and share all the duties of parenthood equally, as albatrosses do: Every species falls somewhere on that spectrum, with its own characteristic " mating system. " Where does humanity fall?
There are five ways to find out. One is to study modern people directly and describe what they do as the human mating system: The answer is usually monogamous marriage. A second way is to look at human history and divine from our past what sexual arrangements are typical of our species: But history teaches a dismal lesson: A common arrangement from our past was that rich and powerful men enslaved concubines in large harems: A third way is to look at people living in simple societies with Stone Age technologies and conjecture that they live much as our ancestors lived ten millennia ago. They tend to fall between the extremes: less polygamous than early civilizations, less monogamous than modern society: The fourth technique is to look at our closest relatives, the apes, and compare our behavior and anatomy with theirs: The answer that emerges is that men ' s testicles are not large enough for a system of promiscuity like the chimpanzee s, men s bodies are not big enough for a system of harem polygamy like the gorilla s (there is an iron link between harem polygamy in a species and a large size differential between male and female), and men are not as antisocial and adjusted to fidelity as the monogamous gibbon. We are somewhere in between. The fifth method is to compare humans with other animals that share our highly social habits: with colonial birds, monkeys, and dolphins: As we shall see, the lesson they teach is that we are designed for a system of monogamy plagued by adultery:
It is at least possible to rule out some options. There are characteristically human things that we do, such as form lasting bonds between sexual partners, even when polygamous: We are not like sage grouse whose marriages last for minutes. Nor are we polyandrous, like the jacana or lily-trotter, a tropical water bird that has big fierce females that control harems of small domesticated males. There is only one truly polyandrous society on Earth; it is in
Tibet and consists of women who marry two or more brothers simultaneously in an attempt to put together a family unit that is economically viable in a harsh land where men herd yaks to support women. The junior brother s ambition is to leave and obtain his own wife, so polyandry is plainly a second-best outcome for him.' Nor are we like the robin or the gibbon, which are strictly territorial, each pair monopolizing and defending a home range sufficient to live their whole lives within. We build garden fences, but even our homes are often shared with lodgers or fellow apartment dwellers, and most of our lives are spent on some form of common ground, at work, shopping, traveling, entertaining ourselves: People live in groups.
None of this is much help, then: Most people live in monogamous societies, but this may only tell us what democracy usually prescribes, not what human nature seeks: Relax the antipolygamy laws and it flourishes. Utah has a tradition of theologically sanctioned polygamy and in recent years has been less forceful about prosecuting polygamists, so the habit has reemerged. Although the most populous societies are monogamous, about three-quarters of all tribal cultures are polygamous, and even the ostensibly monogamous ones are monogamous in name only. Throughout history powerful men have usually had more than one mate each, even if they have had only one legitimate wife: However, that is for the powerful: For the rest, even in openly polygamous societies, most men have only one wife and virtually all women have only one husband: That leaves us precisely nowhere. Mankind is a polygamist and a monogamist, depending on the circumstances. Indeed, perhaps it is foolish even to talk of humans having a mating system at all: They do what they want, adapting their behavior to the prevailing opportunity.'
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