Why monogamy is natural

Mary O’Malley A pair of lovebirds. Creationists and evolutionists don’t agree on much, but they both believe that monogamy is … Continued

Mary O’Malley

A pair of lovebirds.

Creationists and evolutionists don’t agree on much, but they both believe that monogamy is the most “natural” form of reproduction for the human species. This seems counterintuitive. Yes, the Bible recounts the story of creation, but it also describes the rampant polygamy of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon and other titans of the faith. Yes, nesting birds, voles, and a few other animals are monogamous, but most mammals reproduce with one dominant male controlling a large harem of females. Polygamy seems “natural,” monogamy “supernatural.”

Yet, for the past millennium, Christians and post-Christian liberals alike – Aquinas, Calvin, Locke, Hume, and Jefferson — all agreed that God created humans to reproduce by becoming “two in one flesh,” not three or four. And modern evolutionary scientists, from Claude Lèvi-Strauss to Bernard Chapais, have concluded the same: that pair-bonding is part of the “deep structure” of human reproduction that humans have evolved as their best strategy for survival and success.

Both traditional theorists and modern scientists point to four facts of human nature that commend monogamy. First, unlike most other animals, humans crave sex all the time, especially when they are young and most fertile. They don’t have a short rutting or mating season, followed by a long period of sexual quietude.

Second, unlike most other animals, human babies are born weak, fragile, and utterly dependent for many years. They are not ready to run, swim, or fly away upon birth or shortly thereafter. They need food, shelter, clothing, and education. Most human mothers have a hard time caring fully for their children on their own, especially if they already have several others. They need help, especially from the fathers.

Third, however, most fathers will bond and help with a child only if they are certain of their paternity. Put a baby cradle on a sidewalk, medieval and modern Western experimenters have shown, and most women will stop out of natural empathy. Most men will walk by, unless they are unusually charitable. Once assured of their paternity, however, most men will bond deeply with their children, help with their care and support, and defend them at great sacrifice. For they will see their children as a continuation and extension of themselves, of their name, property, and teachings, of their own bodies and beings, of their genes, we now say.

Fourth, unlike virtually all other animals, humans have the freedom and the capacity to engage in species-destructive behavior in pursuit of their own sexual gratification. Given the lower risks and costs to them, men have historically been more prone to extramarital sex than women, exploiting prostitutes, concubines, and servant girls in so doing and yielding a perennial underclass of “bastards” who have rarely fared well in any culture.

Given these four factors, nature has strongly inclined rational human persons to develop enduring and exclusive sexual relationships, called marriages, as the best form and forum of sexual bonding and reproductive success. Faithful and healthy monogamous marriages are designed to provide for the sexual needs and desires of a husband and wife. They ensure that both fathers and mothers are certain that a baby born to them is theirs. They ensure that husband and wife will together care for, nurture, and educate their children until they mature. And they deter both spouses from destructive sexual behavior outside the home.

Polygamy might ensure paternal certainty, but only at ample cost. Social science studies of polygamous families in Africa and Asia, and in isolated Fundamentalist Mormon communities in North America have documented these costs. While a polygamous man usually has his sexual needs met, his multiple wives often do not, producing rivalry and discord in the home. While a polygamous father may know who his children are, his children have to work hard to get his attention, affection, and resources which are dissipated over multiple wives and children. While polygamy might seem to contain extramarital sex better than monogamy, the opposite is often true. A polygamous man, not schooled by monogamous habits, will always be tempted to add another attractive woman to his harem. A co-wife, once pushed aside by another, will be sorely tempted to test her neighbor’s or servant’s bed, unless threatened with grave retribution. And single men, with fewer chances to marry, will resort more readily to prostitution, seduction, and other destructive sexual behavior.

The Western tradition reminds us that the biblical polygamists did not fare well. Think of the endless family discord of Abraham with Sarah and Hagar, or Jacob with Rachel and Leah. Think of King David who murdered Uriah the Hittite to add the shapely Bathsheba to his already ample harem. Or King Solomon with his thousand wives, whose children ended up raping, abducting, and killing each other. Anthropologists point to similar problems in modern polygamous households. They show further that young girls are often tricked or coerced into marrying older wealthy men and that women and children of modern polygamy are often poorly educated, impoverished, and chronically dependent on welfare.

Even so, our human natural inclinations toward monogamy have always been wobbly. The reality today is that a good number of folks, buoyed in part by the sexual revolution, have sex and children without marriage, let alone monogamous marriage, whether straight or gay. In the modern West, some 40 percent of all children, and some 60 percent of all poor children are born outside of marriage and without the ongoing support of fathers or marriage-based kinship structures. The modern social welfare state has helped to buffer and spread out the costs of this “species-destructive” sexual and reproductive behavior. With Western governments on the fiscal ropes, however, it’s not clear how long that support will continue. Of course, we should cherish sexual liberty and autonomy. But we should also develop laws, policies, and curricula to teach the basics about the nature of human sex and marriage, and to encourage and facilitate citizens to live their sexual lives in accordance with the natural norms and limits that govern us all.

John Witte Jr., is director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, and author of a forthcoming title, “Why Two in One Flesh: The Western Case for Monogamy over Polygamy.”

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  • nkri401

    “Why monogamy is natural”

    They why are they so may polygamous society and why the couples cheat?

    Natural indeed? Sayz who??

  • It wasn’t me

    Not for Mittens and rest of Mormons

  • amelia45

    Yes, monogamy is the most normal form these days for humans and for some animal species. But because it is normal does not mean that other forms are unnatural. Normal just means the most frequent, most common form in a range of forms.

    Those people, and animals, that procreate with many of their species are also behaving as God made them to behave.

    Why is it necessary to have everyone behave the same? God didn’t do that in nature.

  • itsthedax


    Monogamy is a marital practice from Western Europe. There’s nothing inherently natural about it.

  • edbyronadams

    The fact is that most species that was thought to be monogamous has been demonstrated to be monogamous with occasional cheating, just like humans. While the long juvenile period of humans argues for the utility of monogamy in a Darwinian sense, there are other Darwinian factors as well. Men who sew their seed widely are likely to generate a greater gene frequency in subsequent generations and women who can get away with putting their genetic eggs in more than one basket have a greater likelihood of getting hold of “good” genes to carry on their genetic legacy.

    Let’s call the wide human social arrangement monogamy unless you can get away with cheating. That’s natural.

  • itsthedax

    Read that in Answers in Genesis, did you?

  • itsthedax

    So, you are opposed to religions in which men dominate women…

    “Eph 5:22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”

  • aby

    My many years of watching Egyptian dramas have taught me that the root cause of almost all the tragedies depicted there have two causes. First and foremost is “polygamy” and second is the ease with which a man can divorce his wife or wives. All the financial and custody “penalties” are placed squarely on the wife.

  • malusk03

    Until very recently, “adultery” was generally treated as a crime only a wife — or a man who had sex with another man’s wife — could commit. As the husband’s infidelities cast no doubt on the legitimacy of his wife’s (or wives”) children, they didn’t matter, socially or legally. The Bible takes the same stance. Judah (Genesis 38) incurs no shame for having sex with a prostitute. He even uses his servants as go-betweens in his attempts to make good his pledge to pay her. And there’s also the curious incident of woman taken in adultery in John 8:3-11 . . .

  • edbyronadams

    My argument was with the author’s specious claim that evolutionists (strange term, since evolution is a scientific theory, definitionally subject to change) see monogamy as natural. That simply isn’t so.

    My argument with secularists is much about what is “natural” since I don’t think acting naturally is a virtue and will lead to our species extinction at a quicker pace than hearkening to a greater reality than WYSIWIG.

    I will agree with something implied by the author. Educators do a great disservice to society when they engage in sex education without a psychological component.

  • edbyronadams

    Another quibble with the author regarding “yielding a perennial underclass of “bastards” who have rarely fared well in any culture.” Without the illegitimate son of Pepin, Charles Martel, Islam might have put out the light on Christianity.

  • itsthedax

    Oh, it’s in the bible!

    That’s funny, I have read the bible, and seem to remember that Abraham, David, Jacob, Solomon and Moses were polygamists, along with about 30 or 40 others.

    And I don’t recall any gospels claiming that Jesus ever said anything against polygamy. There are supposed quotations of his being opposed to divorce – which most christians tend to overlook – but I don’t recall reading about him saying anything about polygamy. Do you know of any?

  • itsthedax

    Genesis 3:16
    To the woman He said,
    “I will greatly multiply
    Your pain in childbirth,
    In pain you will bring forth children;
    Yet your desire will be for your husband,
    And he will rule over you.”

    Ephesians 5:22 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.

    So, in your twisted little mind, men aren’t dominating women, its the women who want to be dominated. What’s a man to do when his wife insists on submitting to him in all things?

    It’s amazing how you’ll cling to literal belief in the verses that agree with your homophobia and prejudices, but will rationalize away any bible elements that are inconvenient.

  • itsthedax

    “The genes one is likely to get from adultery will be greatly inferior to those obtained from a faithful spouse of character.”

    Do you even belief the bilge that you spew out of your keyboard?

  • Catken1

    Well, yes, and Guillaume le Batard of Normandy (also known as William the Conquerer) did pretty well in England, too. But the few exceptions don’t necessarily mean that the majority of illegitimate children were recognized, or successful, or had the advantages every child deserves.

    What is “natural” for human sexual practices appears to be flexibility and adaptability, so that each culture can shape its rules to its needs.

  • cmagist

    There are several views in this article I either disagree with or that are not present at all. The first is that this article is blatantly heteronormative. By ignoring a complete subset of the human race and presuming to speak only to the heterosexual condition (as if every human being is 100% heterosexual) this idea is hardly applicable across humanity to be acceptable as “natural.”

    Second, the ideas presented here do not represent the entire spectrum of male and female sexuality. Female sexuality seems to be a merely a secondary focus, while the primary focus rests on heterosexual male activity. While, yes, I can agree that sex can be emotionally, financially, and socially taxing on a female given the ability and the responsibility of childbirth rests on females, there exist females (believe it or not) that *want* to have sex and not have a baby. Furthermore, the article ignores the fact that men throughout the ages, throughout human culture, have had not only female concubines and partners but also male partners along side their long-term wives or partners. In our homonegative, heteronormative society, the practice exists today in the form of the “downlow” phenomenon in the west, for example, and the bacha bereesh (or bacha bazi, in some middle eastern cultures) in Afghanistan. (Sidenote: these examples are not representative of the gay community but merely examples of our hyperheterosexualized, homonegative society and of male sexuality in its more complete representation, one not presented in this article.)

    In closing, I don’t believe monogamy, in a human sense, is “natural.” The term “natural,” when applied to human behavior, is just another feel-good way to propagandize what is considered “proper,” and, in some cases, “moral” behavior and what is not. The word and its opposite “unnatural” do not belong in the social sciences. Monogamy, while a worthwhile, potentially beautiful endeavor, is a choice and, for many, takes work. It’s a choice for stability; not

  • reformthesystem

    In 1066 CE it seems Willie, as Gen. Patton renamed his dog, must have had to do some conquering so he could become known as 征服王ウィリアム, oh excuse me, le Conquérant, in place of le Bâtard, but more to the point, such species in “Nature” as Rocky Mountain elk, horses, baboons and lions are plainly not subject to monogamy, assuming they could ever be under homo sapiens’ marriage laws, unless they were to stick to just four as under Muslim-country laws even though the Koran says the Prophet had thirteen, or, unless like penguins they limited themselves to one in a lifetime, which is even less than what Ronald Reagan was “married” to except that many believe old Ronnie was a Prophet too.

  • persiflage

    ‘We call relationships other than heterosexual monogamous marriage perversion and aberrant.’

    When you say ‘we’, are you referring to Martin Luther, John Calvin, and yourself?

    Was that based on the doctrine of sole fide or sole scriptura??

  • DavidJ9

    The Bible does not treat women as equals. The laws found there do not support Scott’s wishful thinking about what Christianity did. The RCC still treats women as second-class people.

  • DavidJ9

    Scott needs to learn something about history and what the Bible actually says.

  • reformthesystem

    Since people learned only fairly recently that there are black holes in the universe, as Stephen Hawking commented, nothing has been really “natural”. In English language, “naturally” is only a synonym for: of course, customarily; not absolutely. In “Nature”, while most of the penguin species are “monogamous” for life (even gay penguins), cuckoos naturally trick other bird species into raising their offspring; however, male lions & Great Rocky Mountain Elk naturally have multiple female partners, like millions of humans that call themselves Muslims that abide by “marriage” laws different from what Mr. Witte argues for.

    A modern human example that was contrary to what Mr. Witte has written was King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud (c.1876 – 1953) of Arabia who was married 22 times, never more than four at a time, resulting in 44 legitimate male offspring. The King had, in addition, four full time concubines and, when travelling throughout Arabia, access to countless other concubines, from which offspring were not counted as his official children, but would have been conferred with honour and perhaps with royal subsidies on the host family or tribe furnishing the concubine. As the King consolidated control over Arabia, he relied on older sons born by various wives for governmental administration. (Simon Henderson, Washington Institute, 2009). “Royal” family offspring later grew to reportedly have more than 1,000 members. There was nothing “species destructing” about that.

  • edbyronadams

    Natural is Darwin in the biological sense and the game is played by gene frequency in subsequent generations.

  • itsthedax

    Actually, Scott tends to mine quotes from the Answers In Genesis website and post them here as if they were facts. He really doesn’t know much about religion.

  • persiflage

    ‘Thus, monogamy is not natural, but supernatural in its origin.’

    Welcome to Scott’s invisible world of divine causation. And he’s the got the support of an entire political party behind him…….

  • persiflage

    ‘Submission is a voluntary act, and in no way suggests inferiority, any more than a Captain is inferior to an Admiral as a person.’

    I guess you know what happens to a captain when he/she says ‘no’ to an admiral? It’s not pretty……….

    Mix metaphors much?

  • joeshuren

    What about traditional Tibetan polyandry?

  • Joel1

    Let me preface my remarks by noting that like the majority in our society today, I have practiced serial monogamy all my life. Note, I practice serial monogamy, not monogamy. This is an accurate description of the general practice in our society today. It needs to be noted, that just as with the majority in our society, John Witte, articulates a discourse about marriage which is not an accurate depiction of our real social values. Social values are in fact what we do, not what we say. Further, the reality is that while you may construct an intellectual defense of some sort of monogamous or semi-monogamous behavior, calling it “natural” is simply a fantasy. You cannot look to the mating behavior of other species, as they are not our species. Nature tries out every kind of behavior, and finds most of them to work in one situation or another. As for human behavior, monogamy, polygamy – both polygyny, and polyandry have been practiced in human societies and continue to be. All of these approaches to human families have been successful social adaptations. They all work. None of them are perfect. Trying to saddle a form of marriage with the raising of children is a modern, western form of self flagellation. Most human societies have relied, and much more successfully, upon the extended family to do this.

    However, it is common for individuals, especially in our society to feel the need to defend as correct or at least better, the practices which the blind lottery of social evolution has forced upon us. The idea being that if we do it, it must be right. Relax, John, Monogamy isn’t right nor even the best way, it is simply ours.

  • Joel1

    Further, while I have happily been engaged in the social experiment of monogamy for the past fifteen years, the sanctity of my marriage and family is not affected by other people’s matrimonial preferences. I am not threatened by polygynous Mormon unions, nor by polyandrous Nepalese marriages, nor even gay marriages. Just please, John, when discussing human relations, kindly leave the gay penguins out of the discussion, along with your fantasies about what “most people” find satisfying.

  • Secular1

    SinVA, have you lost all the marbles. Did yoy graduate from the Todd Akin school of biology? You said “The genes one is likely to get from adultery will be greatly inferior to those obtained from a faithful spouse of character. Character is inherited, too; a poor character must be corrected at great effort and expense, and is easily corrupted again.” How did you come to the conclusion the gene contribution during adultery is teh inferior kind. How did you determine that when a man is committing that the sperm he puts out will be made of muck rather than the good stuff when he has an intercourse with his wife. On teh other hand in case of a woman, does not ovulate right during the copulation, so are you suggesting that her egg’s make will auto-magically change its composition into muck when she is committing adultery. That also begs the question, what if she does not get pregnant during adultery, and then has an intercourse with her husband. does teh composition of her egg change back? What about that merciful despot in teh sky daddy, how does he justify letting teh child pay the pebalty for his parents’ mis behaviour? Do you call that loving DOG. You are indeed a sorry excuse for a human being. You are pond scum like each of those decrypt prophets of your filthy book bible.

  • Secular1

    ANother of SinVA’s jewel of wisdom scraped right off the botom of the pond – pond scum. He says “The Bible does not condone either of those actions. Judah was operating under a cultural tradition that wasn’t dealt with until Moses received the Ten Commandments; and the woman was told by Jesus to “go and sin no more.” So how does this pond scum absolve Judah’s atrocities, yet is ok when his monster sky daddy, just about wipes of the entire world in genesis with a flood, what about destroying Soddom & Gommarah, while saving that incestuous Lot, and what about all teh people of babel. All these vindictive actions were taken by that monster sky daddy of your before Moses. How do you justify that.

  • Secular1

    Well put

  • Secular1

    This term “Natural” has been abused and really does not mean a damn thing. Other than word “nature” i think all teh derivatives of that word should be shunned in any intellectual discussion. Even teh agricultural products produced and consumed say even 3000 years ago were not natural. As soon as agriculture was invented the world Natural ceased to mean teh same. Now for this man to claim that monogamy is the natural way or not is a silly notion.

    Off the nearly million years of human history, we but have any form oral or written history for say about 5000 years, perhaps 10,000 years at most. In that brief 1% of our history may be about 1000 years some form of serial monogamy has been practiced in some parts of the world, definitely not practiced universally. I do not know on what basis that this author proposes his conjecture that monogamy is the natural thing. He does not present even teh meager-est of evidence to support. Does he have any stats showing that monogamous societies had higher fecundity? If those societies had higher survival and higher population growths in teh past 1000 years, we may have something to start with.

    Bear in mind that teh social adavnces we have made I would not care for any other meme than the monogamy meme.