Something is not quite right. I’ve always felt this way; like society was wearing pants two sizes too small and nobody felt comfortable enough to tell it so. As a kid, I looked out over my neighborhood from the end of my cul-de-sac at the top of a hill and saw rows of houses lined up, facing each other. In each of those houses lived a man and a woman, and often they had their children living with them as well. There they were, like eggs in a carton, each containing their own yellow yolk and clear white filling, just like we were all taught they did.
You break open all of those eggs and weird things start popping out with frightening regularity. Double yolks and half-formed chicks. Cheating spouses, homosexuals and fragile, broken families. The symphony of nature that we are taught we are all a part of starts to sound a little off key. The discord builds in your ear and grows, but everyone smiles and hums along as if the tune is pitch-perfect.
Why do we find it so hard to fit into a system that we supposedly evolved into? That is what they tell us, you know? Even Charles Darwin, the man smart and disciplined enough to develop the theory of evolution through natural selection, had us pegged as an exclusively monogamous species that came down from the treetops in small family units. The field of evolutionary psychology has interpreted our behavior through that same mindset as if we are acting in harmony with nature, but we somehow cannot help but deviate.
If I were interested in learning what a human’s true nature is, where would I start? Would I look at the customers walking through the doors of a Walmart? Would I scan the crowd of a sporting event? Would I sit in the back of a church and take notes on the worshippers? I think I might actually start a little more basic than all of that. I would look to the animal kingdom, from which we evolved, for clues. After all, we’re talking about nature.
We share roughly 98.4% of the same genetic material as two other species of apes; chimpanzees and bonobos. If you want to talk about our nature, as in the lifestyle that the last 3 billion years of biological evolution has borne within us, I can think of no better models for study. We are separated from chimps and bonobos by 5 million years, which is hardly a blink in evolutionary terms. So, why do we find ourselves so far removed from the lifestyles of our closest cousins?
Let’s understand first what we’re really comparing here. The standard narrative of human sexuality describes us as monogamous; naturally inclined to arrange ourselves in nuclear families. We can even take that a bit further to note that our agendas, as males and females, supposedly play against each other; each desiring different things. The male looks for a suitable mother for his child and ensured paternity while the female seeks security and resources. And included in this exchange is, hypothetically, guaranteed sexual access. In short, Darwin says we’re all whores.
So what do we see when we look to our evolutionary cousins? The closest monogamous ancestor we have isn’t even an ape, it’s a monkey: the gibbon. Gibbons, in addition to being monogamous, are characterized as being unintelligent, unsocial, isolated and very infrequent maters. Other monogamous species down the evolutionary line reflect the same characteristics. Does that sound like humans to you?
Chimps and bonobos, however, seem to reflect a lot more human behavior. They’re highly intelligent, highly social, and if you haven’t by now heard of the bonobo’s infamous libido, consider yourself sheltered. The one thing separating these two species would have to be their overall demeanor; bonobos are a peaceful and hypersexual bunch who live in matriarchal communities, while chimps are quite vicious, living in male-dominated clans. Both species, however, are bound by multi-female, multi-male sexual relationships.
Which one are we most like? Most biologists would have you believe that we are most like the chimps. We, too, live in male-dominated societies, as if through nature, and it’s hard to argue against the notion that we are anything but warlike. But those differences that I noted between chimps and bonobos are much more stark when we compare the biology of each species’ females.
Chimps only have sex when they’re ovulating. This small window of time is announced by the swelling of the female’s genitals and the limited “fire sale” of sex ends up creating a market and competition, resulting in male aggression, and hoarding of sexual opportunity. Bonobos don’t announce their ovulation and are pretty much down for having sex with anyone at any time. In fact, bonobo females are almost as attracted to each other as they are to the males.
When bonobos couple, they embrace each other, share a long gaze, and intercourse takes place in a number of positions, including face-to-face. They can do this because the female’s genitals are oriented toward their front, like a human’s. Chimps mate quickly, from behind, and without showing much affection. There’s no need to exhaust you with more examples. By now it should be clear that the bonobo is the most relevant model we have for discovering the nature that underlies all of our societal programming.
Once you realize where we should be looking for clues to our nature, you start to realize that you don’t even have to look only at wild animals. There are humans who still live in societies structured very much like those of bonobos. They are hunter/gatherer tribes who still to this day have shirked off the burden of modernity. These tribes live in egalitarian communities where resources and relationships are all shared with everyone. Even the concepts of paternity and maternity are split up amongst almost the entire tribe, creating interpersonal dynamics that are a challenge for even the most open-minded first-world inhabitant to empathize with.
In some cultures, it is believed that a child’s growth in the womb is helped by the addition of seed from many males throughout the pregnancy. Then, when the child is born, milk from all the women helps it develop until it is self-sufficient. This sharing of responsibility for the creation and growth of a child creates personal bonds amongst everyone involved. The child, when it is grown, then recognizes everyone involved as its parents. Now, while modern knowledge of exactly how a baby develops in the womb might wash away much of the romantic gesture behind adding more seed to the batch, we can learn from the sentiment.
When evolutionary psychologists have admonished the human’s supposed penchant for monogamy, they praise it for the stability and protection that it gives to children in the family unit, ensuring that a child with two parents will more likely survive to mating age than a similar child of a single mother. This is almost like praising a three-legged stool over a two-legged one. But let’s not forget that adding more legs to the stool can only make it better. Indeed, we see the fragility of the monogamy stool every day when we hear about the children of divorced parents who grow up without proper role models.
When every family is its own little self-sufficient pod, when things go wrong, our children grow up fostering feelings of exclusion and separation. Therapists are called in to handle the burden that would ordinarily be split amongst a whole village. When a child belongs not only to the mother who birthed it, but also to the whole tribe, the support network is built-in and, truly, no child gets left behind.
Under this lens, all of the blurry edges of our society come into focus. It’s a bit easier to see how things get out of hand when you realize that we’re just as estranged from our nature as the animals we cage at the zoo.
How did we land so far from our nature? The short answer is agriculture. In the hunter/gatherer model, the division of labor meant that everyone contributed to the society and everyone shared. People were nomadic and sparse; therefore there was no need to protect land that provided more than enough for everyone. There was an equilibrium that allowed tribes to live comfortably, but never grow larger than their environment could sustain. Agriculture changed all of that.
It’s tough to sum up everything that growing our own food did to change how we structured our society, but there were three big things that need to be mentioned. First, food production begat centralized food distribution, creating a bottleneck through which nutrition could be obtained. The need for government and protection of the resources naturally followed. Second, the ability to squeeze more food out of the land allowed populations to swell, changing the quality of life profoundly. Third, and most importantly, the concept of individual property developed as roles diversified. Society now had distinct classes and property was handed down through families. Now, for the first time, people had land and status that they needed to pass along to their progeny. To ensure this system worked, the human libido was redefined.
Ten thousand years later, we’re taught that this is human nature. Our religions and culture perpetuate a false understanding of what is “natural” to us. It’s quite ironic that the “natural” behavior of mating only for reproduction is really a trait of most animal species while the desire to have sex all the time with everyone, referred to in popular culture as “animalistic,” is precisely what makes us human. Unfortunately, even if we did away with the flawed standard narrative of restrained sexuality, we would still find it quite difficult to adjust. As a society, we simply live in too-dense, too-classified configurations to really embrace our egalitarian roots.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t adopt the spirit of our earliest societies by embracing our hyperactive sexuality as a natural, healthy and positive trait. When we think about what’s natural, let’s realize that many of society’s darker aspects are likely the result of us curiously suppressing and misappropriating our peaceful, loving and sharing instincts. Compared with the rest of human history, the era of agriculture is more experiment than evolution, and while it may be hard to imagine the world any other way, we shouldn’t let it speak for who we are and who we want to be.
I have no practical suggestions for change. I’m not telling everyone to go out and be polyamorous. I’m not saying we should go back to being hunter/gatherers. I’m not even advocating for Marxism (it can't work on our population size). I just know this: denying human nature has only brought us perpetual discomfort as a society. While single-partner devotion is said to be our natural inclination, we still, in some cultures, find it necessary to threaten death upon those who would violate it. And, despite the punishment, people still cross that boundary every day. What is that, if not nature?
(Note: If you enjoyed this post, I highly recommend reading the books that inspired it: Sex At Dawn and Guns, Germs and Steel.)