"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Nov 30, 2007

Polyamory and the Evolution of a Jealous God

Dawkins critiques the myth of monogamy as morality

God the voyeur wants to know what happens in your bedroom.

Image: Adam & Eve by Enrico Baj

In my earlier post, The Origins of Forbidden Love, I highlighted the absurdity of our culture (and dogmatic religions in general) in regards to sexual infidelity. Today, Richard Dawkins has an article in Newsweek that challenges this nearly ubiquitous social “crime” of infidelity. As the good doctor states:

“I want to raise another question that interests me. Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place?. . . The underlying presumption -- that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being's body -- is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious. But with what justification?”

“Even sticking to the higher plane of love, is it so very obvious that you can't love more than one person? We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don't at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Chateau Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don't feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends . . . why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it? Why can a woman not love two men at the same time, in their different ways? And why should the two – or their wives -- begrudge her this?”

From the perspective of humans as primates, this view is perfectly obvious. Chimpanzees and bonobos (who share around 99% of our DNA) have what’s referred to as a multimale-multifemale mating system. Females have sex with multiple individuals in their troop and make positive choices about which males they’re most interested in. The evolution of sexual jealousy is seen in nascent form in our evolutionary cousins as a sexual partner that is observed mating with another male frequently results in the former male interrupting their l’amour. Males also compete with each other in what biologists refer to as “sperm competition.” Large amounts of ejaculate will be produced in order to “wash out” a previous males' contribution. Chimpanzee and bonobo males are extraordinarily well endowed in the testicle department as a result. A large testicle-to-body size ratio is therefore a strong predictor of a multimale-multifemale mating system.

In contrast to this, gorillas live in a single male-multifemale mating system and the large bodied males have testicles so small that anatomists have reported difficulty in even finding them. This is because there was no selection pressure from the gorilla mating system to produce a large amount of ejaculate (but this doesn’t mean that gorilla females always mate exclusively with their “harem leader,” with predictably jealous tantrums if the alpha male discovers the tryst). Gibbons are monogamous “lesser” apes and likewise have relatively small testes for their body size. In all of these cases the mating system of the primate species in question can be predicted based on male testicle size.

So this leads to the obvious question: are humans more like chimpanzees and bonobos or more like gibbons and gorillas. Unequivocally, (and as you would expect from the genetic evidence) human testicles are more like chimps and bonobos. In fact, in their analysis of the seminal protein genes SEMG1 and SEMG2 (genes that code for semen coagulation or “mating plugs” found exclusively in multimale-multifemale systems) Sarah Kingan and Steve Dorus found a direct correlation between the average number of sexual partners that females of a species will have and the selection for this gene in males. Humans lie closest to chimpanzees and bonobos at both of these loci and this strongly suggests that humans evolved with a multimale-multifemale mating system.

While sexual jealousy is a natural part of such systems, our human predilection is quite extreme and is largely enforced in a completely one-sided, patriarchal form. As I explored in my earlier post, the likely explanation is that religious dogma sought to control female sexuality as if it was the “property” of the male.

“With the power of the state to punish any violation of the law, women were relegated to the status of chattel and their sexual choices were constrained by the threat of capital punishment. It has only been with the rise of secular democracies, and the reduction of religious authority, that women have begun to reclaim their sexual freedom. The last thirty years has seen the largest rise in women’s economic and social power in human history (mostly confined to the West). It’s not coincidental that women have also seen the greatest freedom from sexual coercion and control during this same period.”

While sexual jealousy is unlikely to ever go away, we can take some comfort in the fact that our large brains allow us to recognize the absurdity of our natural reactions and to behave differently if we choose. Far from this being a call to engage in random and frivolous sex, what I (and Dawkins) are suggesting is that monogamy is not the unparalleled moral good that certain well-funded institutions have made it out to be. A committed relationship to a devoted partner is a wonderful experience and, I for one, much prefer it to a life of wanton bachelorhood. By all means be honest and true to your partner (male or female). But also be honest and true to yourself. As a society and as individuals we should understand the diversity of people’s sexual interests and talk about it openly, without clothing our language with a veneer of false piety.


Kingan, S.B., Tatar, M., Rand, D.M. (2003). Reduced polymorphism in the
chimpanzee semen coagulating protein Semenogelin I. Journal of Molecular Evolution 57:159-169. doi: 10.1007/s00239-002-2463-0

Dorus, S., Evans, P.E., Wyckoff, G.J., Choi, S.S., and Lahn, B.T. (2004). Rate of molecular evolution of the seminal protein gene SEMG2 correlates with levels of female promiscuity. Nature Genetics 36: 1326-1329. doi:10.1038/ng1471

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Anonymous said...

Great post Eric! I'm sending both of my regular readers over to see it. (Cue huge traffic spike in 1,2...)

I was actually just about to post on a very similar topic. LiveScience has a new report out suggesting at least one group of early humans may have more closely followed the gorilla model.

lousirr said...

An ass he may be
but still, he can see!

Marijannayiti said...

Thank you so much for this post. I have felt jealousy for various reasons over the past 39 years. As a child it was usually because someone was getting more "positive" attention than I was. And as a teenager it was usually the same until I began to have romantic feelings . And then I wanted to be just like the person who threatened me so much. In other words, if I felt that a young woman might be prettier or more intelligent or physically more attractive in some way, I would be jealous of her attributes and fear that she would "get" the young man for whom I was having romantic feelings.
At this point in my life, I have had the worse experiences with women in my age group who are supposedly in "monogamous" relationships and who are always "guarding" their man! I cannot understand this behavior since in my view if they have a relationship than they should live and let live. If you're concerned that someone can compel him to engage in a relationship with her/him than you need to either accept that he's not a serial monogamist and stay in the relationship or move on.
I called the home of the man that I have strong feelings for a few years ago. And his wife was so cold and guarded. As if she knew instantly that I was having these feelings for him and she wanted to give me the "proper" treatment. Let me know that she was on her guard and was about to "sound the alarm" sort to speak. It was the worse experience ever. I felt belittled and put down. I chose to be brief out of respect but I really needed to talk to them both about stuff.
At this time I think that they're both stuck on the monagomy campaign as if it's real. In my view it is so as long as their lifestyle is supported by it financially and socially. If for instance I was an Alpha wage earner than they would be inclined to go along. That's really sad.
I can't leave them alone though. Please help me.