Alex Blaze

Humans Hate Helping Children?

Filed By Alex Blaze | July 18, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, monogamy

Longtime readers of this site will know that I'm not a particular fan of monogamy, or, more accurately, that I don't think it's natural for human beings to have only one sex partner for their entire lives and I don't think there's much benefit to pretending that's what we want. This assertion is apparent in little facts think_of_the_children_186.jpglike the one about how almost no one in the US - even during puritanism's latest hey day of the 50's - is able to stay monogamous and how much people suffer when they actually do control their natural inclination to enjoy sex with multiple partners.

Anyway, this weekend I read this interview with an evolutionary biologist who works for Match.com (as if that pseudo-science needed any less credibility, let's see how it looks when its adherents work for a private industry that seeks to cash in on a certain irrational cultural desire!) on Salon and one of the more annoying scientifesque arguments about why we're genetically programmed for monogamy came up:

Why do we so prize sexual monogamy?

I think that gets back to biology. With any pair-bonding species, if the male isn't sexually monogamous then the female worries that the male's resources are going to go elsewhere. If the female isn't sexually monogamous, then the male worries that the female is going to have offspring that are sired by another male, so he's going to end up raising kids that aren't his. There's a real biological prerogative that if you're a species that requires dual parental care, you really want to know that you're the parent or that you're getting all the resources -- because it's your biological immortality that's at stake.

Let's move past the most basic and most common error committed in the field of evolutionary biology, which is to look around, see how some people in the context of your time and culture behave, and assume that all humans everywhere at all times behaved the same way. There's a lot of evidence that the two-parents-with-children family model is a practice unique to post-agrarian human culture, something that hunter/gatherer societies don't do because land ownership isn't a big deal to them so there's no need to worry about who the land will be passed on to. But we don't even need to look that far to see the emptiness in that argument.

What I think about when I hear that argument is how much human activity takes place within the context of contemporary American society that benefits other people's children. That teachers often spend their personal money to buy supplies for their students (that is, other people's genetic offspring) comes to mind, as do advocates who try to improve public health and education for all children, even if they often don't have (young) children themselves.

There's a whole bureaucracy of overworked and underpaid youth and family advocates that aren't there for the gold and glory, and "Think of the children!" (not necessarily your own children) is still a battle cry that can stroke the most primitive parts of the human brain. There's a reason children are highlighted by charities that collect money for starving people half a world away, and that's a tactic that shouldn't work if we really were genetically programmed to think Fuck other people's children, only mine are important!

People adopt children who weren't "sired" or carried by them or anyone they know, and they love their adopted children as much as parents love their biological offspring. People also take part in raising and spend money on kids who their partners had with previous partners, if we needed more direct evidence that people are sometimes perfectly willing to use their resources to raise children who prove their partner's non-monogamy.

That's all with a considerable amount of cultural pressure to spend one's money on oneself, to not care about others, and to do what we can to establish a wealthy family at the expense of everyone else out there. We call that the American Dream, not helping other people's children. Sharing is looked down on, but that doesn't stop people from doing it. It's almost as if sharing with people who aren't one's own biological offspring was the natural default position....

Even where I grew up - Carmel, Indiana, about as conservative, Leave It to Beaver, white bread puritan as you can get in Indiana - I remember the neighborhood moms making lunch for all the kids sometimes or the dads firing up the barbecue for everyone. Parents would drive other people's children around, and reciprocation wasn't required. Some parents would volunteer to help at the school, to help with other people's children as well as their own, while others wouldn't. The churches sent people on trips to do volunteer work in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean while nonprofits looking for money to spend on other people's genetic offspring collected as much as they could from our wealthy town.

Carmel isn't a hippie commune and the cultural message that tells people to do what's best for themselves to the detriment of everyone else was stronger there than anywhere else I've lived since. If we humans really are biologically opposed to sharing our limited resources with people who aren't our genetic offspring, then Carmel, without a countervailing cultural message to push people to altruism, should be free from all generosity. Ayn Rand was required reading when I was in 11th grade, for crying out loud.

While the people's generosity might seem to some people to be "not much" and is definitely "not enough" in the larger context, I prefer to see it as little plants that push themselves through the cracks in the sidewalk. Fundamentalist capitalism was supposed to have paved over that generosity, but there it was, weak but hopeful. There had to be something pushing it... could it have been a genetic predisposition towards sharing?

My argument might seem overly optimistic, but optimism is in the eye of the beholder. Match.com's evolutionary biologist/sexpert seems to think that the way we try to organize ourselves now - along the lines of relationships that are expected to be monogamous even if they aren't - is the most practical way of doing it and the completely natural way that we're programmed to enjoy the most. Aren't we genius; we're already doing the best we possibly can.

My view, in that context, is nothing but pessimism. We, through our own folly and ignorance and because of powerful forces that benefit the few at the expense of the many, are living very unnatural lives that we're willing to risk everything (and often do) to break free from.

Either way, it's weird that people can get away with saying that we humans hate helping other people's children without everyone in earshot erupting in laughter. Adoption exists, charity exists, and Whitney Houston exists.

Then again, we're the culture with a 40% divorce rate, the vast majority of its population having sex before marriage, and most people having at least two sex partners in their lifetime that tells itself that lifelong, monogamous pair-bonding with one person of the opposite sex is as natural as breathing. Sometimes we really, really want to believe we already have it all figured out.


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Interesting perspective ... and I may comment more later.

But right now, I want to genuflect on the companion cliché to "Think of the children" which is the even-more-overused "Children are our future!" ...

... but when you think about it, children aren't my future! I'll be dead as a doornail, and all the children in the world won't change that!

So ... Mother Nature has indeed programmed me and everyone else to do things that aren't entirely selfish ... or entirely rational.

I don't think people will disagree with you on the fact that a lot of our instincts are irrational....

I don't think people will disagree with you on the fact that a lot of our instincts are irrational....

Great writing, Alex. As always, I enjoy your posts!

Brad Bailey | July 19, 2011 8:34 AM

The Match.com biologist made some interesting points. First, he made a clear distinction between social monogamy and sexual monogamy, stating that few species in the animal world practice both. Apparently, sexual monogamy is only a big deal within the context of a given society and within a given relationship.

The concept of the nuclear family, i.e. a man and woman who are both socially and sexually monogamous for the rest of their natural lives and who raise 2.3 kids in the process, is touted by every religious conservative as the universal bedrock of any society. This is a great big lie, foisted upon every redneck neanderthal from Indiana to Texas.

If biology has taught us anything, it is that sexual monogamy is anything but natural.

There are species that are sexually monogamous. There's no evidence that human beings are among them. If anyone wants to go back to biology, how about this little factoid: human males at their sexual peak can copulate on the average of once every 20-30 minutes. That doesn't seem to imply monogamy so much as an organism that is biologically programmed to spread his genetic inheritance as widely as possible.

If one looks at the social structures of our closest relatives -- gorillas and chimpanzees -- as well as our own direct historical ancestors, the harem seems to be the most favored arrangement. I don't think agriculture impacted sexual behavior as much as it did social structures -- "families" are extended families, and the basic social unit is the village. And even then, harems haven't disappeared.

Bottom line: Mr. Evolutionary Biologist is really reaching.