Polygamy is a difficult subject. Anytime it is brought up, we are usually faced with two opposite positions. There are studies that defend polygamy and claim monogamy is a myth. Polygamy is regarded as the natural state of family structure because it increases the possibility of procreation, specially in the case of men. The more they copulate with other females, the higher the chances for the species to survive. Alternatively, other studies do acknowledge the benefits of polygamy in the past, but also regard monogamy as a natural structure that resulted from evolution.
Different species may stick with monogamy or polygamy for different reasons. But there is a particular fact we should pay attention to: of the 5,000 species of mammals that have been studied, only 3 to 5 percent are known to form lifelong bonds with a single mate. Beavers, otters, wolves, and foxes are some of these examples. Although the underlying benefits of monogamy still remain unclear, the most commonly accepted explanation is that monogamy evolved in situations where offspring had a better chance of survival if both parents stayed together. So it seems polygamy is the predominant norm among mammals.
There are three types of monogamy: Genetic monogamy (a female’s offspring comes from one father), social monogamy (species mate but still have flings), and sexual monogamy (species have sex with only one mate at a time). In our case as human beings, social and sexual monogamy tend to go together.
For centuries, polygamy has been considered unacceptable by most western cultures. Moral values dictate that nothing can lead to sex if love isn’t involved first.
However, according to a recent study from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, there are enough reasons to question this logic and suggest that everything happens exactly the other way around. Let’s just consider something: sex started out as a mechanism to keep us alive. It evolved for hundreds of thousands of years, so it has broadened its scope. Love might be the most valuable and endearing result from these centuries of development.
The small percentage of monogamous species that we previously mentioned also share a very significant trait. They, and us too, have brain receptors with a higher capacity to release and measure hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin, which are strongly related with feelings of attachment, longing, and bonding between individuals. Its is due to these chemicals that humans are capable of forging complex relationships that involve, in turn, complex feelings like love.
These hormones are produced with every sexual encounter. Chemical reactions may or may not lead to love in the long-term. The thing is, love doesn’t determine whether a couple is monogamous or polygamous. This is rather determined by the quantities of oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine in each person’s brain.
In the case of humans, monogamy has been more of an imposition rather than a result of evolution. Leaving aside notions like fidelity or infidelity, virtue or sin, there is a truth that won’t change: No matter how you look at it, social relationships have always been the foundations of human civilization. As social structures change, so does our consciousness, worldview, and the way we create bonds.
Consequently, it would be contradictory to pin down infidelity in terms of biology and evolution. Hundreds of variables, from upbringing to sex education and culture may shape people’s relationships in a given society. However, understanding different sexual behaviors according to hormonal interactions is a first step towards finding an answer that may or may not be definite for every person.
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Translated by Andrea Valle Gracia