Yes, great, why not?

As usual, someone gets a twee idea and doesn’t think it through:

According to Wednesday Martin, if you want to know how early humans organised their sex lives, before prudery, habit and agrarian production got in the way, you should take a look at bonobos. Once known as pygmy chimps, these primates are the closest thing we have to a living ancestor. Certainly, they resemble us more than the common chimp. They are fine-boned, with pink lips, proportionately long legs on which they can walk upright and hair that falls into a neat centre parting.

However that prissy hair-do is misleading. Bonobos are, as is well known, shameless sexual gluttons, especially the females. They wander around in a girl gang and, when they fancy a bloke, go up and put their arm around him. If he moves away the female follows him for a bit. Pretty soon, though, she gets exasperated by his coyness and turns to one of her girlfriends instead. Together they have a lovely time, rubbing their enlarged clitorises together, with murmurs of pleasurable excitement. If a boy wanders up at this point, he’s likely to be seen off with an exasperated nip for being far too late to the party.

Martin argues that we should all be a bit more bonobo (minus the nipping, obviously). Our cousins can teach us a lot about how human sexuality operated before it was corralled into an essentialist narrative about men being “naturally” polygamous while women “instinctively” seek out their one and only. Of course, this call to revision is not uniquely Martin’s. Although she has a PhD in anthropology from Yale, she remains a journalist, reporting and synthesising the work of such pioneering fieldworkers as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Meredith Chivers, Alicia Walker, Cacilda Jethá and many more.

Chesterton’s Fence. Why don’t we do that? Why don’t we have herds, with the one male covering multiple females, the majority of men never passing on genes (actually, the majority of all men never have done). Why not like lions where the stud taking over the pride kills the cubs of his predecessor? Why this specific arrangement we have?

Some of Martin’s authorities, such as Brooke Scelza of UCLA, work with human subjects. Scelza’s research on the semi-nomadic Himba tribe of Namibia provides a window into alternative ways of dealing with what anthropologists call “extra-dyadic sexuality” (AKA consensual cheating). With the Himba men periodically away at remote cattle stations, their wives keep busy by “going to the far place to collect water” – another way of saying they bunk off to meet their lover. If a baby is the result, no one sees any reason to fuss: the child will simply have two dads (AKA partible paternity). Indeed, Scelza reveals that those Himba women who are particularly keen on going to collect water end up with more and healthier children than those few who to decide to stay “true” to their husbands. Might we actually be looking at a state of affairs, Martin asks, where, from an evolutionary point of view, a woman’s insistence on monogamy starts to seem just the tiniest bit selfish?

Yep, it is selfish. The reason for that being that a bloke who thinks he’s raising his own children brings along with him the resources he can generate to support his own children. Which increases the chances of survival of those children – a selfish act by that mother. Both in her own children gaining those resources and those of some other woman not.

Give up the claim to those resources and why not shag as you wish? Many men will be happy to oblige.

The why is important, d’ye see?

17 thoughts on “Yes, great, why not?”

  1. I think it’s pretty well established that polyandry is normal/at least tolerated, in societies that barely cling to the edge of existence, like the Himba. Because of that resources thing.

  2. “I think it’s pretty well established that polyandry is normal/at least tolerated, in societies that barely cling to the edge of existence, like the Himba. Because of that resources thing.”
    The case studies I read involved 2 brothers sharing a wife. At least if you aren’t using your resources on your own child you are spending them on a fairly near relative.
    Other arrangements where the women sleep around are that men support their sisters’ children, this being the only certainty that they have.

  3. My personal theory is the Romans had to come up with monogamy because their military technology and tactics were so much better than anything that came before it.

    If the Ooga-Booga tribe regularly gets its menfolk culled en masse in battle, polygamy is the only way to survive. If the average Roman soldier has a 90% chance of making it back home, he’s gonna be a bit pissed off if the village chieftan has married all the available women.

  4. “Scelza’s research on the semi-nomadic Himba tribe of Namibia provides a window into alternative ways of dealing with what anthropologists call “extra-dyadic sexuality”

    And if Scelza researched the semi-nomadic tribes of Tottenham he’d find very much the same thing. Although “Going to buy a lottery ticked” is the more often used excuse. And the menfolk, of course aren’t away “working on cattle stations” They’re signing on & shacked up in the council flat of another woman, round the corner.

  5. Does the Himba language contain the words and phrases

    Bro, feds, ya get me, innit, etc

    As they seem to be used increasingly here, just wondering about their origin

  6. Remember, for the Guardian, women should be able to shag as many blokes as they wish, at any time, but male infidelity is really bad for the kids, mkay and so he must lose his house and support his ex until the day he dies and beyond.

  7. BraveFart,

    Maybe we got the wrong sort of black people?

    If you don’t hear from me again, it’s because I’ve turned myself in for wrongthink.

  8. “With the Himba men periodically away at remote cattle stations, their wives keep busy by “going to the far place to collect water” – another way of saying they bunk off to meet their lover.”

    Which is why the Himba tribe are so advanced that they put a man on the moon and we monogamist societies still live in mud huts.

  9. Mal,

    Yeah, European/White/Western, whateveryoucallit is somewhere between 15 and 1500 years ahead of everyone else. In the context of four billion years that’s more likely to be blind luck’s rounding error than inherent racial superiority.

  10. We did it back when and we still do it today. Vide the discussion from a few days ago of what a crook I was to do some genetic disease testing in families with sick kids and not spell it out monosyllabically to those of “Normal for [redacted northern town] IQ” what it (probably) meant, on the rare occasion when junior had an allele neither ma or da did.

    Evolutionary and cultural timescales are different things. Western superiority is likely (mostly) a cultural thing (yes, forward Europe, backward Africa), but Europe has itself been held back on many occasions, by intellectual reactionary forces, since the Greeks invented the steam engine.

  11. “Who said it was racial superiority? Monogamy versus polygamy.”

    Afro-caribbeans and sub-saharans have notoriously low average IQs and they rapidly sink to the bottom of any society they migrate to. If we charitably assume genetic inferiority is not the (main?) reason, the most likely explanation is the dysfunctional afro-caribbean and sub-saharan family in which the father doesn’t stick around for long and families consist of a mother and half-siblings. In Africa at least, monogamous Christian couples raise far more successful offspring than the non-Christians, including Islamics.

  12. Wasn’t unheard of for single males lodging with a family to end up fathering a child by the lady of the house while her husband worked nights in the collieries

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