Sunday, July 29, 2007

Is Monogamy Natural?

By Anneli Rufus, AlterNet. Posted July 25, 2007.

A lifetime of love versus a quick roll with a stranger. It's funny how we can have two seemingly opposite urges at the same time.

A hot naked chick hit on Joe Quirk at Burning Man. That's what he calls her: a hot naked chick. He's married. But his wife wasn't there.

"I was in the middle of a desert," he remembers. "Nobody would ever know."

It's funny how we can have two seemingly opposite urges at the same time. A lifetime of love. A quick roll with a total stranger.

He said no.

Because he loves his wife. Because he wouldn't want to ruin his life by losing her. But choices such as the one he made that day on the sand aren't totally matters of morality. They're not about cartoon angels and devils sparring on our shoulders.

They're science talking.

Vaunted in the mainstream media, two new reports from the Pew Research Center report and the National Survey of Families and Households indicate that couples become bored and unhappy sooner than was previously thought: more like three years into their togetherness than seven.

Well, sure, says Quirk, whose book Sperm Are From Men, Eggs Are From Women (Running Press, 2006) details what he calls "the science of relationships." A three-year itch makes plain biological sense, he says.

"This is when your genes are saying, in effect, 'No child has been produced. Move on.'" In relationship matters, Quirk says,"we tend to consult our feelings. Well, where do our feelings come from? Emotions are instincts. Lust is an instinct. Marriage is an instinct."

Sometimes those two collude. Sometimes they collide. But among heterosexuals at least, both indiscriminate lust and what biologists call the pair-bond are hyperpowered programs streamlined through millions of years of evolution to produce one paramount result: offspring, preferably those who will live long enough to reproduce.

"Desires that dominate in our psyches are those that are best at getting genes into the next generation," Quirk says. "Our desires are designed to get us to the next life stage. The initial joy of pair-bonding evolved because it got us to the baby-raising phase." In which case, honeymoon bliss is yet another consummately efficient biological function that meets a need, rather like pissing.

"Lots of animals," Quirk says, "have the 'marriage' instinct: penguins, parrots, swans, gibbons, seahorses, humans. ... What do all these animals have in common? Long childhoods. Who has the longest childhood in the animal kingdom? Humans." For species whose slow-growing offspring statistically stand better chances of survival with two parents providing double-sustenance, double-vigilance, double-protection and double-support, monogamy makes scientific sense. But because it's so difficult "to live in the same nest for 15 years," as Quirk puts it, "love is an instinct coded into our genes."

Fool yourself all you want about free will.

"We inherited the desire to fall in love," Quirk insists, because that soul-baring, die-for-you devotion helped our ancestors "raise babies on the dangerous Pleistocene savanna."

He'd get an argument from the intellectual anti-love crowd. Certainly from Guggenheim Foundation fellow Laura Kipnis, who in Against Love: A Polemic (Pantheon, 2003) argues fiercely but with a sardonic smile that love -- not even monogamy or domesticity, but love -- is not an evolutionary legacy but "a new form of mass conscription," a lockstep drill like organized religion, performed under "marching orders" from nefarious overlord forces that don't want us to notice our "flagging ardor," which is the lot of the committed. Kipnis rages against "domestic gulags," against "the straitjacketed roles that such familiarity predicates ... the boredom and the rigidities which aren't about to be transcended in this or any other lifetime." Invoking Karl Marx, she compares love to a factory, calling them both "social institutions ... [that] come to subsume and dominate" their victims "like a hostile alien force."

How to escape that evil grip?

"Adultery ... is at least a reliable way of proving to ourselves that we're not in the ground quite yet," Kipnis writes, "especially when feeling a little dead inside."

You see it everywhere these days except the Hallmark Channel, this charge that monogamy is bad for us -- as a species, as a society, as red-blooded primates whose DNA is almost identical to that of bonobos. You remember bonobos. Five years ago everyone was talking about these pygmy chimpanzees, an endangered species numbering several thousand and native to a between-rivers swatch of the Democratic Republic of Congo, distinctive for engaging in so much nonmonogamous sex: face-to-face sex and same-gender sex and oral sex. "Sex-crazed Bonobos May Be More Like Humans Than Thought" hooted the headline of an article in Science Today. It was hard not to worry: Am I less sexy than a bonobo?

At least three different pop songs are titled "No Such Thing as Love," one by Dwight Yoakam, one by the Roches, one by the late Ian Dury. Their lyrics are different, but the message is the same. Frank Zappa sang: "There ain't no such thing as love, no angels singing. ... Why should I be stuck with you? It's just not what I want to do."

So wait -- are we building our dreams together, or chained to the machinery of someone else's brave new world? Are we throwbacks: Mr., Mrs. and Ms. Myth, our vows and pledges vestiges of a sexist, classist, fearful, funless antiquity?

Awash in a popular-culture chaos that on one hand thrusts images of happy-coupledom down our throats while simultaneously whispering that marriage might be a neocon plot, we question our commitments. Are they really that -- or cowardice? We question the meanings of stability, of loyalty. "Can we be protected without there being a protection racket?" asks celebrity psychologist Adam Phillips -- whom Kipnis admires -- in his book Monogamy (Pantheon, 1996). Phillips' barbed aphorisms read like fortune-cookie fortunes dispensed in restaurants next-door to divorce courts:


See more stories tagged with: divorce, relationships, cheating, monogamy, love, marriage

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto.

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