"Equality and polyamory: Why early humans weren't The Flintstones"
|Caption: The “standard narrative of prehistory” presents the idea that, like Fred and Wilma, men have always gone out to hunt/work and women care for home and children. (The Guardian / Everett Collection / Rex Features)|
The year 2010 marked a turning point for the polyamory movement, partly due to the publication of Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. More on this later. Memorably, the book zinged anthropology's "Flintstonization" of stone-age families — the timid, ridiculous assumption, never really stated or defended, that our prehistoric ancestors, who shaped our inherited traits, evolved in 1950s nuclear families like Fred and Wilma Flintstone.
And only had across-the-hedge chats with Barney and Betty Rubble.
This morning's Guardian uses the Flintstonization zinger to begin a long report on some new research just out. The article then takes a wider look at the likelihood that we are literally born and bred for multi-partnering.
Equality and polyamory: why early humans weren't The Flintstones
A study released last week presented evidence that prehistoric men and women lived in relative equality. But is the truth even further from the nuclear narrative?
By Simon Copland
Last week, scientists from University College London released a paper presenting evidence that men and women in early society lived in relative equality. The paper challenges much of our understanding of human history, a fact not lost on the scientists. Mark Dyble, the study’s lead author, stated “sexual equality is one of the important changes that distinguishes humans. It hasn’t really been highlighted before.”
Despite Dyble’s comments, however, this paper isn’t the first foray into the issue. In fact, it represents another shot fired in a debate between scientific and anthropological communities that has been raging for centuries. It’s a debate that asks some fundamental questions: who are we, and how did we become the society we are today?
Our modern picture of prehistoric societies, or what we can call the “standard narrative of prehistory” looks a lot like The Flintstones. The narrative goes that we have always lived in nuclear families. Men have always gone out to work or hunt, while women stayed at home to look after the house and the children. The nuclear family and the patriarchy are as old as society itself.
The narrative is multifaceted, but... can probably be traced back to Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection.
The Guardian / Everett Collection / Rex Features
...Yet, for centuries many have questioned the logic, and the biology, of the standard narrative.
The first real splash in this arena came from the anthropologist Lewis Morgan, and his book Ancient Society . In the book Morgan presented the results of his study of the Iroquois, a Native American hunter-gatherer society in upstate New York. The Iroquois, Morgan observed, lived in large family units based on polyamorous relationships, in which men and women lived in general equality.
Morgan’s work hit a broader audience when it was taken up by Friedrich Engels (most famous for being the co-author of The Communist Manifesto) in his book The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State. Engels drew on Morgan’s data, as well as evidence from around the world to argue that prehistoric societies lived in what he called “primitive communism”. Other anthropologists now call this “fierce egalitarianism”: societies where families were based on polyamory and in which people lived in active equality (i.e. equality is enforced).
Morgan and Engels were not painting a picture of a “noble savage”. Humans were not egalitarian nor polyamorous because of their social conscience, but because of need. Hunter-gather societies were based largely on small roaming clans where men engaged in hunting, while women’s roles focused around gathering roots, fruit and berries, as well as looking after the “home”. In these societies community was everything. People survived through the support of their clan and therefore sharing and working within their clan was essential. This crossed over into sex as well.
Polyamory helped foster strong networks, where it became everyone’s responsibility to look after children. As Christopher Ryan states: “These overlapping, intersecting sexual relationships strengthened group cohesion and could offer a measure of security in an uncertain world.”....
On top of Dyble’s study last week, new anthropological and scientific evidence backs up this challenge to the standard narrative. In 2012 Katherine Starkweather and Raymond Hames conducted a survey of examples on ‘non-classical polyandry’, discovering the phenomenon existed in many more societies than previously thought.
In another example Stephen Beckman and Paul Valentine examined the phenomenon of ‘partible paternity’ in tribes in South America: the belief that babies are made up from the culmination of the spermatozoa of multiple males. This belief, which is common in tribes in the Amazon requires polyamorous sexual activity by women, and that men share the load of supporting children.
And then there is the example of the Mosua in China, a society in which people are highly promiscuous and where there is no shame associated with this. Mosua women have a high level of authority, with children being looked after by a child’s mother and her relatives. Fathers have no role in the upbringing of a child — in fact the Mosua have no word to express the concept of “father”....
Read the whole article, with many links (May 19, 2015).
It includes a sidebar link to a Guardian article about modern polyamory: Being polyamorous shows there's no 'traditional' way to live (Aug. 20, 2013).
Five days ago The Guardian published another story on Dyble's research: Early men and women were equal, say scientists. "Study shows that modern hunter-gatherer tribes operate on egalitarian basis, suggesting inequality was an aberration that came with the advent of agriculture." (May 14, 2015).
More on the significance of Sex at Dawn:
Sex at Dawn made quite a splash in the summer of 2010 and briefly got onto the New York Times bestseller list. It drew on anthropology, primate studies, and human anatomy to built a case that nuclear-family monogamy is unnatural to our species, dating only from the invention of agriculture and settled property about 10,000 years ago. The previous 99% of our evolution as a species shaped us to live a naturally polyamorous life of "fierce equality" between the sexes, living and interbreeding in hunter-gatherer bands. This remains the pattern in the few surviving hunter-gatherer societies today that continue their prehistoric way of life.
Some anthropologists and others criticized Sex at Dawn for cherry-picking its evidence, misrepresenting some of it, and overstating its case. However, its core argument has held up pretty well.
The book's impact on the poly movement was immediate. We had always labored under the dismissive criticism — and the self-doubt it raised in our own lives — that what we were doing could never really work because everyone knew that happy polyamory was contrary to human nature. I wrote at the time that Sex at Dawn
blows away the conventional wisdom that multiple relationships are unnatural or cannot fit with how humans are built. In fact, it reverses the human-nature argument 180 degrees.
It followed The Myth of Monogamy by David Barash and Judith Lipton (2002) and other works and research trending in the same direction. Since 2010, it's the remaining innate-monogamy defenders who've been thrown back on their heels, and polys have become the ones confident and on the offensive. To continue:
For most of the polyamory movement's 30-year history, advocates who have sought to give poly a theoretical foundation have generally turned to New Age or spiritual philosophies, involving things like the limitless nature of love, the spiritual heart of the universe, and other concepts that I find fairy-taley and unproductive. By unproductive I mean that theories built on them never seem to lead anywhere predictive or useful, as a good theory must.
Ryan and Jethá have now given us a theoretical underpinning that is concrete and evidence-based. They make the case that polyamory matches what human nature actually evolved to be. Seen in this light, the modern, ethical, egalitarian version of poly offers a path to a saner future — in which humans are not so perpetually conflicted with themselves, and are less driven by the insatiable needs and neuroses that in many ways are causing us to ruin the world.