Are Humans Meant for Monogamy?

14 February 2013

Question

With divorce rates being over 50%; is monogamy for humans societal concern (nurture) or natural need (nature)?

Answer

Larry - Hi. This is Larry Young, Professor of Psychiatry at Emery University in Atlanta. Most people have defined monogamy as a long lasting sexually exclusive partnership between mates, but in reality, this sexual monogamy is very rare in animals. When biologists speak of monogamy, they generally are referring to social monogamy or a pair form a long lasting relationship, but there's occasional cheating. Prarie voles, beavers, marmosets, and 90% of bird species are socially monogamous. Rats, mice, cats and deer are examples of species that mate promiscuously. I believe that humans have the capacity for monogamy which is not true for 95% of mammals. Our brains evolved the ability to form enduring bonds that results in socially monogamous relationships that last well beyond the initial sex. The neuromechanisms that give us the capacity to form bonds do so by creating the emotion that we call love.

Monogamy evolves in situations where it takes two to raise offspring or where the likelihood of finding a partner is low. Humans have a long dependency on parental resources and it's likely that pair bonding evolved to ensure that the offspring are provided with the resources needed to succeed. However, I do not believe that humans are biologically sexually monogamous. In most species that biologists consider monogamous, there is also cheating. Cheating can increase fitness by increasing the number of offspring for males, or by diversifying the genetics of the offspring for females.

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