Monogamy isn’t ‘natural’

There’s a piece by me on the Guardian Comment is Free website in response to today’s news about research on evolutionary theories of monogamy.

So monogamy works for some animals. Doesn’t mean it’s ‘natural’ for us
We cannot resist evolutionary research on monogamy but biology is only part of how humans connect

There has been a good deal of press coverage surrounding a research study that addressed the question of how human monogamy came about, from an evolutionary perspective. This suggested that males in monogamous mammal species remain with female partners to protect their families from other males, who would otherwise kill the young and mate with the females.

This is no doubt an interesting study, as is other recent evolutionary research highlighting how unusual monogamy is across animal species (reported in the book Sex at Dawn). However, more interesting to me is the focus of such research – and the journalists who report it. If we are genuinely interested in human monogamy, I wonder why our main focus is how it evolved in animals.

It seems that this reflects our current cultural preference for internal explanations of human behaviour. We seem drawn to neuroscience and evolutionary biology to address our questions, rather than to the social sciences or philosophy for example. Undoubtedly the ways in which humans evolved, and the ways in which our brains and bodies now function, are part of the picture of how we relate to one another. However, there are clearly many more contributing factors than that. We require a biopsychosocial approach, rather than one that engages with biology alone.

As a researcher I use a biopsychosocial approach to give a fuller picture of human relationships. As a therapist I also find such an approach useful in helping people to make sense of their relationships. People in the therapy room grapple with questions of how to maintain their freedom while in a relationship, how to form loving connections, and how to remain in relationships when they can be so painful. Here, it is helpful to have a sense of the diverse ways people can structure their relationships, and the common human dilemmas around freedom, belonging and craving the approval of others, which pervade such concerns.

In relation to social aspects, when we look back through time and across cultures, we see a diversity of relationships, structures and rules. More societies are polygamous than monogamous, and the forms that polygamy takes vary greatly. In many seemingly monogamous societies, secret non-monogamy and/or serial monogamy are actually the norm.

The basis of western partner relationships has shifted over the past century from pragmatic and economic concerns to an overwhelming emphasis on romantic love. There have been related shifts in living arrangements from extended to nuclear families, and with increasing numbers of people living alone and not having children. Of course the recent extension of marriage to same-sex couples reflects another change which research on male/female relationships alone will struggle to inform. Increasing gender equality is a further shift which has a huge impact on how we now conduct relationships. The internet too raises new questions around what counts as sexual or emotional fidelity. With new technology there has been a proliferation of forms of open non-monogamy: hook-up culture, friends with benefits, monogamish relationships, polyamory, and relationship anarchy, to name but a few.

Turning to psychological elements, we find that people experience their relationships in a diversity of ways, even within one culture or community. Ask people their reasons for getting married, or swinging, or having an affair, and you will get a wide range of responses. For example, some openly non-monogamous people emphasise their individual freedom or hedonistic pleasure; some have political reasons to do with the patriarchal and capitalist history of monogamous marriage; some feel it is an inherent part of their being, akin to a sexual identity; some wish to connect with multiple people, to find a sense of belonging, or to avoid the risks inherent in pressurising one relationship to meet all of their needs.

We need to get beyond our cultural obsession with what is “natural” when it comes to human relationships, and the common assumption that this equates to what is “normal” and also to what is “good”. Instead we should turn our attention to the diversity of ways in which humans connect, and ask ethical questions about how we relate to each other in a world of ever-changing relationship rules.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).


  1. Stu White

    30 July

    Great article, Meg.

    On first hearing this research reported, I couldn’t help but think that this supports polygamy among human societies (as practised in some cultures), mankind having evolved sociopolitically into a species in which ‘male incomer infanticide’ is vanishingly rare …