How to Think About: Monogamy (and not be an idiot)

When we complain that people are generally bad at something, often we’re not saying they don’t understand it, as in they don’t understand it at all. What we’re saying is that they have missed (what appears to us as) a clear application, which is the mark of true understanding.

Take stats. Most reasonably educated people understand what correlation is, or variance. They might be able to explain the usefulness of regression, or even calculate the mean squared distance between two sets of observations. But even if so, they will often still have trouble thinking statistically in the world, of recognizing — without being prompted by a test question — patterns and pitfalls amid the noise of normal life.

In fact, most of what passes for education, at least up until your upper division college years, is memorization: can you regurgitate the definitions of a list of jargon words? Can you match meanings to words as well as words to meanings? Can you pick the correct answer from an artificially constrained list of options, one of which is assuredly the right one?

This is not a complete waste. It’s a good way to arm a student with core concepts, which are a prerequisite for actual applicable knowledge. After all, repetition is the key to learning. I’d estimate that 80% of medical school is memorization. Because repetition is the key to learning. Medical students don’t really broach the art of medicine until they “graduate” and begin a legally-required residency program under the oversight of an attending physician.

But in any discipline, knowing the basic concepts is the equivalent of practicing your letters. (Repetition is the key to learning.) Literacy requires more than knowing how to spell a word, or even what it means. You have to be able to use it — correctly, even artfully — in a sentence. And you have to keep practicing until that word joins the effortless core of your vocabulary, and you use it without thought.

What is the key to learning?

Lately I’ve been running into this idea that we are our genes, that biology is destiny, that how we are (as a species) is how we should be (as people). But then, I don’t think the people espousing it realize at all what they’re suggesting. They’re missing the application.

We are a violent species. I don’t think any sane person would argue. We are not the most violent species, but clearly we tend towards it. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to hit someone. It doesn’t make assault right or good. It doesn’t mean we’re allowed to indulge our violent nature, or — and here is the important part — that we’re incapable of restraining ourselves. And the same could be said for a whole lot of things: overeating, risky sex, gambling, politics, and the rest all the way down to picking your nose or defecating in public. Absent a developmental disorder or somatic brain injury, you are perfectly capable of controlling yourself.

Unless you’re still a child.

In fact, as any school trip to the natural history museum will teach you, the defining characteristic of our species is that we have shed — in significant part, at least — a life of instinct. We routinely override our animal selves to produce art, philosophy, fashion, mathematics, music, representative government, wellness centers, environmental regulations, and sometimes even justice. Arguing that, biologically, “we’re not a monogamous species,” and therefore shouldn’t be monogamous, is saying that what is good or right (those are not the same) is whatever our genes have saddled us with.

But whether we’re a monogamous species or not — and it’s an open question how to define that, which we’ll get to in a moment — is largely irrelevant to the question of whether it’s a good way to live. We’re not a peaceful species either. Does that mean it’s right to make war? Our genes urge us to overeat. Does that mean a good life is one that ends early from heart disease? That we should strive our very best for cancer?

Of course not. But just for the sake of argument, let’s look at the science. The best evidence from biology is that our genes urge us to form pair bonds of roughly 10-15 years — maybe more, maybe less — which is about the time it takes to rear a couple of offspring to viable sexual maturity (in the wild, anyway).

I’m going to make another paragraph and say that again because it’s important. Our genes actually encourage long-term pair bonds. As a species, all across the globe, we enter into them spontaneously. Our genes do this because human babies, or rather their brains, take an inordinate amount of time both to build and to fill with the requisite knowledge. A horse stands within minutes of its birth. A baby can’t even lift its own head.

But then, have you seen a baby’s head? It’s ginormous! Grossly so. This is why women have large hips: to support a turned pelvis that can both cradle that massive noggin during development as well as pass it through the birth canal. (When we develop implantable wombs, men will have to deliver via C-section. I can’t wait.) And yet the brain still isn’t done. Humans give birth to live young after nine months of development for no other reason than mom’s body just can’t wait any longer — as any woman in near-term pregnancy will tell you.

But that means at birth we’re yet incapable of walking and talking let alone feeding or even cleaning ourselves. Developmentally speaking, we’re not done. We require another 18-24 months to acquire basic mobility and communication and another ten years past that to reach sexual maturity, during which time we need to be taught the necessary life skills, including the social and political requirements for our own material and reproductive success in the herd.

. . . all just so our genes can keep on truckin’.

A mother bear, on the other hand, can raise her offspring by herself over a few seasons because her cubs pop out more or less already able to walk and understand her. It’s still damned hard, mind you, but it can be done. It happens every year. Of course, it helps that bears, unlike humans, are not a social species. In fact, mom will do everything she can to keep her babies away from warring males (who are ultimately fighting for access to her womb, about which she is very choosy).

If our genes abandoned us to our own devices, they would be leaving their propagation, their continued existence, entirely up to chance. So they gig it. They arm us with the urge both to reproduce and to stay together long enough to bring our brain-heavy offspring to some kind of minimal maturity — again, that’s in the wild versus in modern complex societies where neoteny is now extended into our third decade.

[Aside: That helps explain the contemporary trend towards over-protective parenting. Twenty-some years is a bigger friggin’ investment than any species has made in its offspring ever in the history of our planet! And we owe it to the open capacity of our brains to create ever-increasing social complexity.]

But as with violence, our genetic urges are not destiny. You’re perfectly capable of overriding them. You’re capable of not being violent just as you’re capable of not overeating. If you don’t want to be monogamous, don’t. But that’s a far cry from saying “we’re not a monogamous species.” That statement implies that monogamy, “real” monogamy, is only ever the archaic religious kind, the extreme kind, and thus only possible in species like birds that are still slaves to instinct, that as soon as choice is involved, any kind of long-term pair bond is a pipe dream — or fundamentally oppressive to one gender — and should be abandoned.

Besides that it’s only possible to make such an argument inside the structures of the modern state, whose institutions facilitate child-rearing through organized wealth-sharing and compulsory education, that view reduces human beings to gene vectors, to conscious-less bags of nucleic acid. It reduces the Mona Lisa to a biologically-determined reproductive strategy, a proposition flatly contradicted by ascetic monks, the Thinker of Cernavoda, or anyone who ever successfully dieted, let alone sacrificed themselves for anything other than their biological kin or — the cardinal sin — chose not have kids at all and so became a genetic dead end.

Worms are not monogamous. Bacteria are not monogamous. Ungulates are not monogamous. In purely biological terms, humans are somewhere in between, which, if you think about it, is actually the best place for us to be. Our genes — in this rare case — actually do us a service. They give us a leg up. A head start. After that, it’s our choice.

(art by Thomas Warkentin)

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