Did Human Evolution Favor Monogamy or Polygamy?

What makes humans human.
Oct. 9 2012 11:08 AM

Are Humans Monogamous or Polygamous?

Archaeologists, anthropologists, and biologists agree: It’s complicated.

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We do have data on human mating trends, but the record tends to be a little spotty. In 2010, a team in Montreal completed its analysis of breeding ratios for Homo sapiens based on a careful study of DNA. By measuring diversity in the human chromosomes, the researchers tried to figure out what proportion of the breeding pool has been composed of females. They found a ratio of slightly more than one-to-one, meaning that there were at least 11 ladies for every minyan of procreating men. But the math they used turned out to be a little wonky, and after making some corrections, they revised the numbers up a bit toward a ratio of 2. These estimates, they wrote, are still within the range you'd find for societies described as "monogamous or serially monogamous, although they also overlap with those characterizing polygyny." Once again—we're monogamish.

At what point in hominid evolution did this in-between behavior appear? Paleontologist Owen Lovejoy published fossil specimens in 2009 from Ardipithecus ramidus, which lived 4.4 million years ago. He used the newly described species as evidence for the hominids' great transition to (mostly) one-on-one relationships. Ardi walked on two legs, which freed its hands for carrying food, and males that carried food, he says, were thus enabled to take that food to females. They'd evolved a way to pitch woo and bring home the bacon. By this stage in evolution, sexual dimorphism had been diminished, too, and so had other signs of male-on-male competition. Taken together, Lovejoy wrote in Science, these data points suggest "a major shift in life-history strategy [that] transformed the social structure of early hominids." Males and females had started pairing off, and dads learned how to support their families.

A computation-minded researcher at the University of Tennessee, Sergey Gavrilets, finished up a study in May of how that transition might have followed the laws of natural selection. It's not an easy puzzle. Gavrilets explains that a polygynous mating scheme can lead to a "vicious circle" where males waste their time and energy in fighting over females. The group might be better off if everyone split off into happy, hetero-pairs and worked on caring for their babies. But once you've started wars for sex, there's an evolutionary push to keep them going. So Gavrilets set up a computer model to see if any movement toward monogamy might conform to what we know of evolution. He found that a shift in female preference for mates that offer food and child care could have made it happen. (Low-ranked males might also favor relationships with partners that didn't cheat.)

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Gavrilets says he needs to check his model against a few more theories of how human-style partnerships evolved—including one that involves the invention of cooked food. But he's made the case, at least, that biology could lead to modern love, without any help from law or custom. "Culture came much later," he told a reporter in the spring, "and only augmented things that were already in place."

That's one idea, but the study of monogamy takes all kinds. Others have been more interested in the culture and the customs. In January, a scholar named Joe Henrich published with his colleagues an account of how and why the one-partner system might have spread as a social norm. The paper points out that marriage customs are not the same as mating strategies. (They are related, though: We tend to internalize the rules of the society we live in, so "doing right" becomes its own reward.) The authors argue that when a society gets big enough and sufficiently complex, it's advantageous for its culture to promote monogamy, or at least monogamishness.

Why? Because polygamy causes problems. Henrich, et al., review a large amount of evidence to support the claim that the multiwife approach leaves lots of men unmarried and so inclined to act in risky, angry ways. These bachelors are a menace: They increase the rates of crime and conflict, and lower productivity. In China, for example, a preference for male babies skewed the gender ratio quite dramatically from 1988 to 2004. In that time, the number of unmarried men nearly doubled, and so did crime. In India, murder rates track with male-to-female ratios across the country's states. Using these and other data, the authors argue that a culture of monogamy would tend to grow and thrive. It would be the fittest in its niche.

Of course it's also possible that high rates of conflict lead to cases of polygamy. Walter Scheidel points out that the ancient ban on multimarriage was suspended near the end of the Peloponnesian War, with so many soldiers dead that potential husbands were in short supply. Which raises the tricky question of how monogamy relates to war: Some have argued that pair-bonding leads to larger, stronger armies and more battle-ready people. Henrich, et al., suggest the opposite, that men with wives are less inclined to go to war, which weakens despots and promotes democracy.

The answer may be something in the middle, as it often is when it comes to the science of monogamy. Some cultures have made the practice into law and others haven't. Even our human physiology seems undecided on the issue. At every level of analysis, it's hard to say exactly what we are or how we live. We're faithful and we're not. We're lovers and we're cheaters.