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Is Monogamy Natural?

Every time there’s a debate about whether or not monogamy is natural, some genius brings up the fact that only a handful of animals are truly monogamous.

If only 3-5% of mammals are monogamous, and even those aren’t usually monogamous for life, surely traditional marriage is an unnatural way of doing things?

In no other situation do people turn to animals for answers about what we should be doing. Why is this suddenly overlooked when it comes to sex and relationships?

Is greeting someone in your territory natural? Well, 95% of species bite people to death. Maybe give that a shot? Or wait, I know! Instead of saying hello, let’s copy bonobos and greet people by having sex for a few seconds instead.

If you define natural as existing in nature, then yes, monogamy is natural. But I think most people want to know whether or not monogamy is natural *for humans*. Without the influence of media, society, and so on, what form of marriage is the default for human societies?

So… let’s take a look at some research on non-industrialized indigenous societies. In the most isolated cultures of the world, what form of marriage most commonly occurs?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to do this research myself. A total boss of a scientist named George Murdock assembled a list of over 1,000 societies and organized data based on a variety of factors, including the type of marriage structure most common in that society. He did so much work that it took more than a decade to publish all of his findings.

I’ll spare you the work of sifting through all of his research, and summarize things here.

Form of Marriage:

Monogamy: 24.55%
Polyandry (multiple men per marriage): 0.007% (lol sorry ladies)
Limited Polygyny (some members of the society practice it): 33.55%
General Polygyny (almost all members of the society practice it): 42%

Polygyny certainly seems to be the default way of going about it. You could argue that this means polygyny is the natural form of marriage for humans, but I’d take it a bit further.

Polygyny is the “natural” form of marriage for humans in a “natural” tribal society. If you’re reading this, you live in a society that is far from natural. We don’t live in small huts and small groups, we live in giant sprawling urban centres with millions of people. We don’t use spears and hunt for our food, we use agriculture and go to the supermarket.

I’d call this evolution natural. I’d also call the change in our social customs natural as well – there are inherent problems with polygyny that prevent societies adhering to it from progressing. We use monogamy out of utility.

Are there problems with monogamy? Absolutely! Are there problems with primates living in huge cities, living sedentary lifestyles, eating foods high in calories, sugar, and fat? Yes – but it’s the best thing we’ve come up with, and (most) people aren’t running for the hills, are they?

Why None of This Actually Matters

Look, if you’re just curious about this and enjoy educating yourself, cool. If you’re trying to decide whether or not to lead a monogamous lifestyle, I think you’re going about it the wrong way.

Who cares about what’s natural, or if there even is something that’s natural. The kind of marital lifestyle you want to lead is up to one person – you. If you want to give your all to one person, awesome. If you want a harem of a dozen women (or men), go for it.

As long as you’re not hurting anyone, do whatever it is that makes you happy.

By November 18, 2014 February 18th, 2022 Blog, Psychology & Relationships

Author Ryan

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