Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

January 20, 2007

Polyamory cited in The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins, world-renowned evolutionary biologist and popular science writer, has created the biggest stir of his life with his book The God Delusion, a no-holds-barred polemic against religion. It has set even some of his partners in atheism on edge. The book has been on bestseller lists ever since it came out last October.

Did you know that in it Dawkins gives a mini-introduction to polyamory, and at least a theoretical endorsement of it? Starting on page 184:

...Other by-product explanations of religion have been proposed by Hinde, Shermer, Boyer, Atran, Bloom, Dennett, Keleman and others. One especially intriguing possibility mentioned by Dennett is that the irrationality of religion is a by-product of a particular built-in irrationality mechanism in the brain: our tendency, which presumably has genetic advantages, to fall in love.

The anthropologist Helen Fisher, in Why We Love, has beautifully expressed the insanity of romantic love, and how over-the-top it is compared with what might seem strictly necessary. Look at it this way. From the point of view of a man, say, it is unlikely that any one woman of his acquaintance is a hundred times more lovable than her nearest competitor, yet that is how he is likely to describe her when 'in love'. Rather than the fanatically monogamous devotion to which we are susceptible, some sort of 'polyamory' is on the face of it more rational. (Polyamory is the belief that one can simultaneously love several members of the opposite sex, just as one can love more than one wine, composer, book or sport.) We happily accept that we can love more than one child, parent, sibling, teacher, friend or pet. When you think of it like that, isn't the total exclusiveness that we expect of spousal love positively weird?

Even a brief mention in such a major book will send readers who are struck by the concept to Google or Wikipedia — and off they'll go from there in ways that, for some, may change their lives.

Incidentally, here's where Dawkins is going with this. To continue where we left off:

Yet [monogamy] is what we expect, and it is what we set out to achieve. There must be a reason.

Helen Fisher and others have shown that being in love is accompanied by unique brain states, including the presence of neurally active chemicals (in effect, natural drugs) that are highly specific and characteristic of the state. Evolutionary psychologists agree with her that the irrational coup de foudre could be a mechanism to ensure loyalty to one co-parent, lasting for long enough to rear a child together. From a Darwinian point of view it is, no doubt, important to choose a good partner, for all sorts of reasons. But, once having made a choice — even a poor one — and conceived a child, it is more important to stick with that one choice through thick and thin, at least until the child is weaned. Could irrational religion be a by-product of the irrationality mechanisms that were originally built into the brain by selection for falling in love?

Certainly, religious faith has something of the same character as falling in love (and both have many of the attributes of being high on an addictive drug). The neuropsychiatrist John Smythies cautions that there are significant differences between the brain areas activated by the two kinds of mania. Nevertheless, he notes some similarities too....

Of course, polys may object to at least two implied assumptions here: that two parents provided better survival value in the wild than a bonded group of three or more (in fact for most of human history, children were raised in extended families and tribes), and second, that there is anything inherently monogamous about loopy, romantic love. Counterexamples are reading these words. But these assumptions don't negate his point, which is that two parents were better than one.

In any case, we got a good mention.

P.S. My ever-amazing wife Sparkler knew Dawkins when they were in the same research group at Oxford. She describes him as brilliant, witty, engaging, and a rousing scientific debater who, however, was known to "win" a debate as much on style and dazzlement as on science.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I get the connection, other than he sees both romantic love and religious belief as irrational.

There are many monogamous atheists and poly religious people.


January 20, 2007 9:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot about our objections to that bit about the "opposite sex"!

January 24, 2007 6:33 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Yeah, Dawkins was careless in not choosing his words to cover gay and bi people as well... but I thought the big kerfuffle about this on LiveJournal Polyamory (what was it, 100 messages?!) amounted to too many political-correctness trees getting in the way of seeing the forest.

January 26, 2007 5:21 PM  
Anonymous David Stodolsky said...

There is good evidence from the Amazon jungle that more fathers lead to higher rates of survival for children. The tribe believes in partible paternity, that is, that a child can have more than one father. (BECKERMAN, STEPHEN & PAUL VALENTINE (eds). Cultures of multiple fathers: the theory and practice of partible paternity in Lowland South America. 291 pp. map, tables, figs., bibliogr. Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida, 2002. $59.95 (cloth)

March 09, 2007 3:39 PM  

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