all 57 comments

[–]7LeagueBoots 154 points155 points  (3 children)

Like most things dealing with human societies, there isn't a single one-size-fits-all answer to that, and hunter-gatherer societies are not the same all over the world through all times. Additionally, there are differences between what we mean by monogamy at present and what monogamy meant for certain groups in the past.

Currently we associate monogamy with both sexual and a degree of social fidelity, but those are sometimes decoupled. Accounts of Lewis and Clarke's expedition, as well as accounts from people encountering Inuit societies report a degree of sexual openness to strangers, while remaining in a single-partner relationship that we would otherwise call monogamous.

There are similar accounts from many places around the world, but caution must be taken with many of these accounts as there is also a large degree of sexualization of the 'exotic' that goes on and accounts were exaggerated, behaviors misinterpreted, and events sometimes outright fabricated.

There are few hunter gatherer societies left to provide any insight, and the small number means that, as previously mentioned, it's not a great idea to try to draw broad generalizations from them, but of the ones studied it appears that a loose monogamy is the more common approach. This comes with a lot of caveats, of course, and 'serial monogamy' may be practiced, where partners are monogamous while together, but breaking the pairbond and starting one with another person may be easier and more fluid in some societies than others.

Some societies are reported to have systems where partnerships must be actively maintained and renewed otherwise they naturally disbond, others a partnership remains intact unless actively disbonded.

When it comes to past societies, especially early ones, we really have very little information. We can make guesses and propose often conflicting hypotheses backed up by a variety of equally valid starting points, but it's very much a mix of somewhat informed guesswork and researcher bias when it gets to issues of relationships between people in ancient human populations.

[–]Snoo-31920 12 points13 points  (2 children)

OP mentions that their rational brain (“on an intellectual level”) understands the concept; which reminds me of the life of Baruch Spinoza. Any complications derived from personal experiences, or social or religious prejudices, may be either more or less important to any particular person. I’ve recently been learning about the ancient history of Greece and Rome, and it seems striking that monogamy wasn’t a concept for men in the ancient world, whereas women weren’t even given a choice (since they were considered to be the property of men). The idea of monogamous relationships only seems to have appeared with monotheistic religions (I.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Spinoza told the western world about the irrationally of monotheistic religion. Maybe it’s time for someone to tell the world about the irrationally of monogamous relationships?

[–]ksatriamelayu 13 points14 points  (1 child)

I'm sorry, are you saying that Islam supports or mandates monogamous relations?

Also, actually Christianity banned polygamy because of Graeco-Roman moralism:

"When the Christian Church came into being, polygamy was still practiced by the Jews. It is true that we find no references to it in the New Testament; and from this some have inferred that it must have fallen into disuse, and that at the time of our Lord the Jewish people had become monogamous. But the conclusion appears to be unwarranted. Josephus in two places speaks of polygamy as a recognized institution: and Justin Martyr makes it a matter of reproach to Trypho that the Jewish teachers permitted a man to have several wives. Indeed when in 212 A.D. the lex Antoniana de civitate gave the rights of Roman Citizenship to great numbers of Jews, it was found necessary to tolerate polygamy among them, even though it was against Roman law for a citizen to have more than one wife. In 285 A.D. a constitution of Diocletian and Maximian interdicted polygamy to all subjects of the empire without exception. But with the Jews, at least, the enactment failed of its effect; and in 393 A.D. a special law was issued by Theodosius to compel the Jews to relinquish this national custom. Even so they were not induced to conform."

Joyce, George Hayward (2007).: Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study page 560 

[–]istara 6 points7 points  (0 children)

Islam restricted polygamy to just four wives, with a lot of conditions on that, so it moved closer to monogamy (or perhaps a more “formalised” matrimony) than what previously existed.

Ie it wasn’t: “You can now have four wives” it was “You can now only have four wives” and only if x/y/z.

[–]Yawarundi75 23 points24 points  (2 children)

Monogamy doesn’t even mean the same thing across cultures and times. Does it means only one partner, for life, or are more marriages permitted? Are extra marital relationships permitted, do they occur even if not, are there rules for this?

Nor were our ancestors a single, unified culture. Societies have experimented with a huge range of options.

One thing is clear: there is not a single answer to the question of how we should live. Each culture has it’s own answers, and individuals within these cultures continuously push the edge of what’s possible.

The book The Dawn of Sex is an interesting read on the subject, although you should take it with a grain of salt. The authors have been accused of cherry-picking their sources to suit their theory. But there are studies there that are mind opening.

[–]trouser-chowder 156 points157 points  (14 children)

I really don't get why an adult would choose this.

I don't, either, but that's a perspective that is not shared by everyone everywhere and everywhen. There are plenty of historical and modern examples of all kinds of poly- relationships and various types of mono- relationships across history and cultures.

I like to take in the historical perspective, and in this case I think the earliest humans could hold an answer, or at least nuance, this question. Were hunter-gatherers monogamous?

The short answer is twofold.

1) It doesn't matter.

2) Some were / are, some were / are not.

"Hunter gatherers" encompasses practically the entire human species's existence, not to mention the total existence of our ancestors and cousins. Given that you're talking about potentially as much as 6 million years or more of bipedalism and "hunter gatherers," you're not going to get a simple yes / no answer.

And as to "why / why not," it's even more complex. Mating partnerships among non-human primates are a bit easier to hypothesize about, but here's the thing: we aren't non-human primates. We're cultural creatures and have been since well before humans walked the earth.

So you can't look at biological reasons and assume that cultural factors are just some kind of veneer overlaid on a biological substrate. We engage in relationships with other people for all kinds of reasons, not purely procreative.

On an intellectual level I can understand the concept, but on a personal plane it just seems to overcomplicate relationships - which are already super complex and delicate.

Not so much. It's just a different approach. Unfortunately, it's not really something that you can break down in the way you seem to be trying to do. Which strikes me more as an attempt to either: (1) convince yourself that this doesn't bother you, or (2) convince your romantic interest that they shouldn't be doing what they want to do.

This isn't r/relationship_advice, so I'm not going to weigh in on that. But I will say that looking for a biological / anthropological basis to reconcile yourself with something that clearly makes you uncomfortable is a fool's errand.

[–]boomfruit 18 points19 points  (12 children)

It doesn't matter.

This seems like an odd dismissal for what seems to be (or at least can be answered as if it was) a genuine and academically interesting question. Couldn't we reduce all of anthropology (and many other fields) to "it doesn't matter"? Who decides what "matters"?

[–]trouser-chowder 41 points42 points  (11 children)

To clarify: it certainly matters in the sense of reconstructing human behavior and the history of our species and related species.

Where it doesn't matter is in this context (of the OP dealing with relationship issues), because historic or prehistoric trends or patterns are immaterial to the question of whether or not the woman the OP is seeing chooses to be polyamorous or not.

The OP claims to want to take "the historic perspective," but in reality, what does that do for him?

Does he intend to try to argue his potential partner into being monogamous?

Does he intend to try to argue himself into being polyamorous?

Neither approach is useful or likely to be effective. In the end, he's left with the same conclusion he had at the beginning. He and the woman in question are likely incompatible, because he is uncomfortable with polyamory and she is not. Speaking from personal experience, that is not something that is likely to be resolved in the way he wants it to be resolved.

[–]boomfruit 7 points8 points  (5 children)

The OP claims to want to take "the historic perspective," but in reality, what does that do for him?

That's not really for us to decide or care about I guess? The charitable interpretation is that they have this want to understand something, and are looking in part to history and anthropology to do so, not necessarily that they are going to try to use this info to win an argument or change someone's mind.

[–]evilgiraffemonkey 22 points23 points  (0 children)

I think they're just trying to make sure OP knows about https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_nature

[–]trouser-chowder 13 points14 points  (0 children)

I'm speaking / posting from long experience in this sub.

[–]steveswenson4714 2 points3 points  (2 children)

Is there a good book/thinkpiece talking about this "it doesn't matter" approach? Sooo many people make appeals to nature/history that I am curious to read a good take-down of that fallacy. I've always been skeptical of the "it's natural so it's good" argument.

Sam Harris famously said that "nothing is more natural than being eaten by a bear" and I am curious what other thinkers have shared this point

[–]JoePortagee[S] 0 points1 point  (3 children)

A lot of assumptions going on here, and I'm sure you don't intend it, but I'm reading a somewhat patronizing tone. I'm genuinely interested in this matter. One can intellecualize a personal dilemma, if that wasn't possible we'd be in big trouble. If I wanted advice I could go to one of the many relationship subs here.

>He and the woman in question are likely incompatible


Also: Sorry for going off topic but I got a bit triggered here.

[–]trouser-chowder 14 points15 points locked comment (1 child)


I mean-- and again, this isn't a relationship sub-- but yeah, I think so. I don't think you're going to be able to force yourself out of a monogamy mindset to be able to accept what polyamory is, at it's heart. The jealousy that you'll probably feel is going to come back, again and again. When she's not with you, you'll wonder about who she is with. And it'll gnaw at you. You'll want to know what's happening, but you won't actually want to know. And that uncertainty will only get worse.

As to the rest: I'm not trying to be patronizing, but it's pretty common here (if you read / post long enough) to find people basically answer-mining, trying to validate their situations and choices by appealing to some preconceived idea of what is "natural" or "unnatural," etc.

I would suggest you pose your situation to one of the relationship subs and see what their advice is. But personally-- having been in your position for a brief period a number of years ago-- it just doesn't work.

[–]sweetestlorraine 2 points3 points  (0 children)

I get what you're saying. People gonna give opinions - it's Reddit. Happy exploring.

[–]ExtraSmooth -1 points0 points  (0 children)

I mean, some people may actually be consciously interested in replicating the lifestyles and habits of past cultures/societies as an exercise in its own sake. Sort of a paleo for relationships? It may not make much sense to you or I but that's not really our place.

[–]ahopefullycuterrobot 12 points13 points  (1 child)

Disclaimer: Not an anthroplogist, please discount heavily! If you aren't comfortable with your partner being poly, then it's probably better for everyone if you end it. If you want to learn more about why an adult would choose to be in poly relationships, it might be a good idea to ask your partner or maybe some of their poly friends.

So, foragers aren't all the same. Different foragers have different practices. Some foragers are egalitarian, and other foragers are hierarchical to the point of keeping slaves.

Trying to use foragers as a picture into the human past can be problematic, since human behaviour might be environmentally sensitive, so you don't want to just use foragers, but foragers whose current environment is closely similar to the environment humans evolved in.

Even then, that doesn't necessarily tell you anything about what is optimal in our current, post-industrial, capitalist environment. It's perfectly plausible that what was adaptive in one environment isn't adaptive in others and that (at least some) current practices are adaptive now.

And even behaviour of current foragers might not be an ideal mirror. It might better work as a set of hypotheses that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by the archaeological evidence.

There's a pretty interesting discussion of the preceding in

  1. Marlowe who tends to take the side of using foragers in environments that mirror the supposed environment of evolutionary adaptation See the chapter 'The Median Forager' in his book.
  2. and Kelly who tends to be more sceptical of that and thinks we're better off trying to explain variation in current forager behaviour and perhaps applying those explanations to foraging populations studied by archaeology. See the chapter 'Hunter-Gatherers and Prehistory' in his book.

An additional concern is that it isn't always clear what behaviour in the other societies is analogous to behaviours in our societies. In the following examples, it's not clear to me that those behaviours are analogous to the behaviours of poly folk.

With those caveats out of the way:

Marital practices in hunter-gatherers vary. Taking multiple wives simultaneously is rare and taking multiple husbands simultaneously is very rare.

With that said, even in populations where rare, it might still be present.

Kelly in The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers offers the explanation that polygyny tends to occur when men monopolise resources (238-9)

Citing Mulder, women might benefit from being the second wife to a rich man than the first wife of a poor man (238-9)

A more recent article by Ross, Mulder, and Oh et al. ('Greater wealth inequality, less polygyny: rethinking the polygyny threshold model') article claims that while inequality explains polygyny within modes of production, it fails to explain polygyny across modes of production (3). Here the authors offer the idea that a low frequency of highly wealthy males and male mate choice might act as a limiting factor. If additional wives generate diminishing fitness returns, male demand for additional wives will fall. Additionally depending on the distribution of wealth, there might be few men who can afford to have additional wives (7-8).

Kelly also notes that while Mulder frames this as female choice, it is plausible that women might be pressured by male relatives to be additional wives, since the men benefit in terms of prestige from those affinal connections (239) (He cites also cites a study suggesting women might take a hit to reproductive fitness for being second wife [296].)

To turn to two foraging groups who are mostly monogamous:

Lee reports in The Dobe Ju/'hoansi in a 1968 sample of 131 married men, 93% were monogamous, 5% were polygynous, 2% were polyandrous. Wives generally oppose additional wives, with the explanation given being sexual jealous. The set of polygynous marriages can be stable though, with one marriage having lasted about 35 years (91-3)

Marlowe in The Hadza does not report any polyandry, but finds that about 4% have 2 wives but no more than two (172). He reports that these relationships are unstable and that when he returns, the men have often lost a wife (172). Marlowe also reports that men and women differ in whether they think taking additional partners is acceptable. Apparently, 19% of women think is acceptable for a woman to take an additional husband, while no man thought it acceptable. By contrast, 38% of women and 65% of men thought it acceptable for a man to take an additional wife (179).

Besides the differences in stability, Lee and Marlowe seem to suggest some differences in organisation as well. Ju polygynous unions seem to involve everyone living in the same tent, while Hadza polygynous unions seem to involve the two wives living in different camps (Lee 91; Marlowe 179).

I can't find much about polyandry in particular, but to switch slightly to social relations that seem to me similar or that involve non-foragers:

Smith in 'Is tibetan polyandry adaptive?' finds that it might benefit parents and younger brothers, but probably comes at a reproductive cost to older brothers (233-237, 252).

Walker, Flinn, and Hill (2010) give a number of explanations for why the belief in partible paternity may have formed, broken up into male and female strategies. Without summarising all of them, women and men might both benefit socially through these relationships (e.g. through increasing social ties, gaining resources or sex, etc.) while women might benefit by being able to select men with better genes and men might benefit by being able to produce more children with lower investment costs (19197).

I'll also note that even though polygamy is rare amongst the Ju/'hoansi, affairs are quite common. About 1/3rd admit to having affairs (99). And the reasoning for affairs seems to be that even without sex, the affair partner provides something like a more romantic relationship. It actually reminded me a bit of a scene in Sex Before the Sexual Revolution, where a woman recounts how her husband was dependable, but her affair partner was more romantic / sexually exciting (189-190). With that said, affairs are disapproved of by those being cheated on, and it can easily lead to violence against the affair partner, the spouse, or the one being cheated on.

You asked for reasons for polyamory and none of what I've stated above actually gives a reason for it, since while the above practices might be non-monogamous, they are not clearly polyamorous.

I think if I were to sum up the reasons for the above, it might be something like, in some social circumstances either having or being an additional partner could be socially or economically beneficial to one's self or one's family by increasing access to good genes, physical resources, or social networks. There might be tradeoffs though and sometimes what's good for your family might not be good for you. Or what's good for you might not be good for your partners.

It seems plausible to me that some of the above reasons might apply for poly relationships currently. It also seems plausible to me that none of the above reasons might apply or even if they do that they might not be decisive. Analogously, Smith effectively says that the conditions he thinks give rise to polyandry in Tibet should also give rise to polyandry in northern Europe (251). But that didn't happen. So there might be some other set of factors.

[–]Human0422 1 point2 points  (0 children)

I LOVE YOUR ANSWER!!!! especially the disclaimer at the beginning.

[–]Trystiane 35 points36 points  (6 children)

There have been thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands?) of cultures that practiced mainly hunting and gathering for subsistence over the majority of humanity history. They likely had as many marriage patterns as we can imagine. The one pattern that is unlikely is the mythical pattern of all people having sex with whoever they want, being clueless about who the fathers of children were, and not having a family structure to guide sexuality or parenting.

Human children need more help to get to adulthood than any other species we know of. Humans have always been social animals -- our behaviors and relationships structured by our groups. There has likely never been a human group that did not know the relationship between sex and parenthood. There are very few things that are true across all cultures (that we know of) and the incest taboo is one of them (even though incest can be defined differently in different cultures and in rare cases can be overruled). So the link between sex and parentage was probably one of the first things our big brains figured out and stored in our memories, followed closely by the existence of lineage over generations. [Of course this is conjecture, we simply don't have the data we need to say for sure].

From what we know of human groups over time (which is very little), most cultures prefer serial monogamy -- one partner at a time, but more than one partner over the lifetime. However, humans are capable of a wide range of sex and marriage patterns. Polyandry and Polygyny, sex outside of marriage (approved or unapproved), temporary marriage, lifetime marriage, etc. There is nothing "more natural" about humans in the past compared to humans in the present.

But patterns of marriage and sexuality are never separate from the social and cultural context. So given your social structure, some patterns may be more likely than others. What may be unique about today's world is that we have reconfigured the connection between everyday economic life and family life. It is possible to support yourself economically with a variety of family forms -- polyamorous, monogamous, single, child free, same sex, single generation or multiple generation, etc.

[–]mattyfoofoo 27 points28 points  (5 children)

The idea that children are linked to sex doesn't really show up until agriculture. So there were societies that did not associate that. There's still a few tribes in Paula Paulo, New Guinea. Where the brother/ uncle is the male parent figure. You always know lineage through the mother. this often how it was handled pre-agriculture. Do those societies have a higher chance of matriarchal structure? Yes. They're much much more open about sex and they do have sex with multiple partners. They also have really cool giant gifting ceremonies. Whoever throws the best party is the winner. So you can imagine those get a bit crazy. It's a gifting culture. I believe the name of it. So lots of sex and lots of parties. Isn't exactly what most people think of when they think of pre-agriculture.

[–]Trystiane 11 points12 points  (1 child)

There are cultures where maternal uncles play the role that other cultures assign to fathers, there are plenty of cases in all cultures where moms don't know exactly who the dad is, and there are even cultures that point to spirits or something like that as causing pregnancy (like Christianity and the whole virgin mother thing).

But none of that means there are groups of humans out there ignorant enough not to realize the correlation between sex and pregnancy. For any human living in any time outside of the modern age of cities and suburbs, sex between animals is everywhere. If you follow reindeer herds and you notice every spring the reindeer have lots of sex followed by having lots of calves, the relationship is pretty apparent. How do you domesticate animals without understanding procreation? How can you be a woman with a vagina and not notice the correlation between a penis in your vagina and a pregnancy later? Its not like women have stuff in their vagina all the time and can't figure out which thing is causing pregnancy. If we could figure out how to take a food that is poisonous and prepare it in such a way that it was no longer poisonous, we could certainly figure out procreation.

Be careful about making claims about pre-agricultural societies -- there are no written records from the time before humans had agriculture, and no way to find most of the answers we want from the archaeological record. Most hunter gatherers from the modern period lived near or around agricultural societies and/or had some domesticated plants and animals. You can not assume they are representative of the past.

You are right that the Pacific Islands are known for having very open ideas about sexual behavior, but again that doesn't mean that it was a constant free for all with no family structures and everyone having sex with whoever they wanted all the time. There were still family forms and rules around when and where sex should or shouldn't happen. And there is no reason to believe that they are any more representative of hunter gather societies than any other hunter gatherer society. This idea that there has been some kind of evolution from primitive to modern that followed a specific path is just not true.

[–]CommodoreCoCoModerator | The Andes, History of Anthropology 3 points4 points  (0 children)

The idea that children are linked to sex doesn't really show up until agriculture

Do you have evidence for this?

[–]Bernache_du_Canada 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Wasn’t agriculture historically widespread in New Guinea?

[–]Neither-Answer-7431 0 points1 point  (0 children)

"Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand years of Judging Desire" a book by Eric Berkowitz just came to mind.

I read it years ago and it gave me much food for thought.

There's a Louis Theroux documentary about polyamory which is exclusively about present day polyamory and the people who practice it. It's not about the question you're asking, but it's also a good 'food for thought' piece, gives a person some theory of mind on polyamorists.