Polyamory in the News
. . . by Alan M.

September 22, 2010

Mono, poly, and the anthropology of jealousy

Psychology Today online

If we've been shaped by the fact that our ancestors evolved in polyamorous mate-sharing tribes for hundreds of thousands of years — as argued in the hot new book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality — then why do humans the world over seem to have come out of those hundreds of thousands of years hardwired for jealousy?

The conventional answers are simple. Men who carry the trait of driving other men away from their women are more likely to spread their own genes — including that trait. And, women and infants were more likely to survive and reproduce if a woman stopped her man from giving scarce resources to someone else; this selected for the jealousy trait in females.

But those two answers are built on an unspoken assumption that the Sex at Dawn authors call Flintstonization: the assumption that our stone-age ancestors lived in compartmentalized monogamous families like the Flintstones, "the modern stone-age fam-il-eee." In reality (anthropological findings indicate), people in isolated, stone-age hunter-gatherer tribes interbreed so thoroughly that they perpetuate very similar genes no matter who they mate with inside the tribe. And secondly, child-rearing is such a communal activity that the identity of the birth father hardly matters and is often not even known.


NEWS! Christopher Ryan,
Sex at Dawn co-author, will appear at Loving More's Poly Living West conference near Seattle on October 23, for an evening speech and book-signing! Day passes available. See the end of this post.


Dropping the Flintstones assumption explains another age-old question: why wasn't homosexuality quickly bred out of humans ages ago, since gays tend to not pass on their genes at all? Yet homosexuality continues to exist all around the world, and as far back as is known.

A poly-tribe explanation for this is clear. Females in the tribe had abundant mates; semen-scarcity was not the limiting factor for successful reproduction. The limiting scarcities were things like food, resources, defense against predators, and other things that depend on cooperation and loyalty within the tribe — for which gay bonding works as well as the straight kind. Darwinian selection happens at all levels — groups as well as individuals.

But what about jealousy? In particular, what about jealousy among gays and lesbians? Why does gay jealousy persist when it has nothing to do with breeding?

Jesse Bering, a blogger for Scientific American, challenged Sex at Dawn co-author Christopher Ryan about this last month in a much-quoted essay on why jealousy and heartbreak exist. He challenged the "polyamory chic" that Sex at Dawn and its like are creating, and argued that the powerful human traits of jealousy and heartbreak torpedo Ryan's thesis.

Last week he and Ryan met in person (and shared a dinner of octopus). Following their no-doubt animated (and tentacular?) discussion, Ryan posted his rebuttal on his Psychology Today blogsite. In short: jealousy as we know it is not really about sex. Symptoms of mate-jealousy in modern society, where available mates tend to be scarce, are remarkably like childrens' fear of abandonment where there is a scarcity of invested parents. Writes Ryan:

On Gay Jealousy:
How to explain jealousy in same-sex couples?

Jesse Bering recently wrote a typically insightful and entertaining blog piece in which he explores the possible evolutionary origins of sexual jealousy. He begins by asserting that, "Heartbreak is every bit as much a psychological adaptation as is the compulsion to have sex with those other than our partners, and it throws a monster of a monkey wrench into the evolutionists' otherwise practical polyamory."

He goes on to dramatically buttress his case that our evolved capacity for empathy, a signature feature of our species, makes us very sensitive to the suffering our sexual indiscretions may cause our primary partner:

"We may not be a sexually exclusive species, but we do form deep romantic attachments, and the emotional scaffolding on which these attachments are built is extraordinarily sensitive to our partners' sexual indiscretions. I also say this as a gay man who, according to mainstream evolutionary thinking, shouldn't be terribly concerned about his partner having sex with strangers. After all, it isn't as though he's going to get pregnant and cuckold me into raising another man's offspring. But if you'd explained that to me as I was screaming invectives at one of my partners following my discovery that he was cheating on me, curled up in the fetal position in the corner of my kitchen and rocking myself into self-pitying oblivion, or as I was vomiting my guts out over the toilet for much of the next two weeks, I would have nodded in rational Darwinian assention while still trembling like a wounded animal.

...Bering argues that while this emotional/psychological response may have originally been related to biological concerns (paternity assurance for men, resource flow for women), its ubiquity among homosexuals shows that the response is now deeply embedded in the human psyche, concluding that, "sexual jealousy in gay men can only be explained by some sort of pseudo-heterosexuality mindset simulating straight men's hypervigilance to being cuckolded by their female partners."

I'm not buying that.

Where's the proof that sexual jealousy (experienced as heartbreak) is an unavoidable response to a partner's extra-pair sexual activity? If it were a genetically encoded behavioral response, there would be very few, if any exceptions to this pattern. Yet every major city (and plenty of small towns) have sex clubs where couples have sex with extra-pair partners with no discernible emotional consequences at all — at least not negative ones.... Most surveys of these so-called "swingers" indicate that they are more satisfied with their marriages than couples in more conventional arrangements. Add to this the large number of men who actually find the notion of being cuckholded very appealing (described by fellow PT blogger, David Ley in his fascinating book, Insatiable Wives). Then add the societies we describe in Sex at Dawn in which a party without extra-pair sex is like breakfast without coffee, and the genetic argument starts looking very wobbly indeed.

Let's consider the possibility that much, if not all, of this heartbreak is a learned response.

The separation anxiety Bering describes bears striking similarities to that experienced by a baby who feels abandoned by its mother. We live in a society that greatly amplifies that innate fear of abandonment by ignoring the baby's need for 24/7 maternal contact in the first few years of life.... The association between mother-love and lover-love is enhanced through a constant media onslaught ("Oooh baby, baby") and a freakishly childish understanding of mature sexual love.

...Loss is loss, regardless of sexual orientation. We all fear rejection and abandonment. It's a harsh and lonely world out there, and we're a tender, vulnerable species. So it's not surprising that gay men cherish their deepest connections and fear losing them just as much as anyone else does. It's not really about sex at all, at the deepest levels. It's about intimacy and love [when these are scarce –ed.]. We just find this fear often expressed in the sexual arena because that's where we've relegated so much of our intimacy in our fractured, conflicted world.

Read the whole article.

The anthropological studies behind this stuff, by the way, aren't just about mating and relationships. Just out from the University of Notre Dame: Research Shows Child-Rearing Practices of Distant Ancestors Foster Morality, Compassion in Kids.


Breaking News: Loving More has just snagged Christopher Ryan for its Poly Living West conference on the outskirts of Seattle October 22-24. Ryan will speak on Saturday evening, October 23, from 7 to 8. This will be followed by an author's reception from perhaps 8:30 to 11:30 along with three other poly-book authors, as a fundraiser for Loving More (which desperately needs funds). Ryan is witty, fast and funny and should be quite an attraction.

He has not had much to do with the poly community up to now, but he has become very interested in learning more about us. This means you. C'mon, show up! I'll be there too.


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Anonymous lalouve said...

Not buying the 24/7 maternal contact; however, 24/7 human contact is needed by children. when I read about the 18th century practice, in my home country, of assigning the new baby to someone - servant, sibling, or parent - who carried him/her around everywhere, I started to wonder if the breaking of this hait in the 19th century might not be responsible for a lot of the trauma Freud saw. If he had been born a hundred years earlier, would there have been as much neurosis to discuss?
In today's society, we also encourage a feeling that everything apart from our home and family is scary and dangerous; only with our nearest can we be safe (which, of course, is blatantly untrue for women and children, who are most at risk in their homes). The loss of this connection makes us feel we'll be alone in the world, and the fact that we are so focused on an exclusive bond strengthens the fear.
It's not genetic, but cultural. which means we could do something about it.

September 24, 2010 11:14 AM  
Blogger Christopher Ryan said...

Hey, I'm looking forward to meeting everyone in Seattle, including (especially) you, Alan! Lalouve, I agree with you that the contact isn't necessarily mother/infant only. In fact, one of the interesting traits we share with bonobos (and few other primates) is that bonobo mothers are relaxed about other adults holding their infants. Chimp mothers apparently won't allow that, probably for fear of infanticide. So yes, alloparenting is very important and dispersed maternal care is "natural" for our species.

September 25, 2010 7:34 AM  
Anonymous HoldensPoly said...

I'm curious. There appears to be an assumption by most people on both sides of the debate that jealousy is a natural or biological (genetic) trait. Is there any evidence for this? Simpler or more basic aspects of jealousy strike me as biological. As discussed above: desire/need of affection care from early childhood, propensity of pair bonding (regardless of exclusivity or not), general desire/envy in the sense of seeing something and wanting it. But jealousy seems to me to add on to those more natural feelings a desire for ownership. The step beyond envy "I want that" to jealousy "I want that and I want to ensure nobody else can have it.". This strikes me as a learned trait. Something we are indoctrinated into by society, which does not appear evident (in my experience) until later childhood.

Is my experience wrong? Is there evidence of genetic jealousy? Or is the assumption of a society thoroughly indoctrinated from early childhood on how "rightly" to feel?

September 29, 2010 11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just came across this article on the internet while reading about polyamory, but as a student of biology, I feel compelled to point out that this statement is false:

"If it were a genetically encoded behavioral response, there would be very few, if any exceptions to this pattern."

My brown hair is a genetically encoded trait, and yet there are many people who don't have brown hair, so whether a trait is universal has nothing to do with whether it's genetically encoded. While I like, in a broad sense, the arguments that Ryan seems to be making, the evidence he presents does not preclude the possibility that sexual possessiveness is a genetically determined that varies across individuals (which is how sexual orientation seems to work).

Also, I'm not an anthropologist, but I'll also add that sexual possessiveness seems to me to exist in some form across a wide variety of cultures, from institutionalized monogamy in the west, to the hijab in the middle east, to genital mutilation in Africa. I don't think that sexual possessiveness is always (or often) positive, but to me, at least, the diversity of cultures in which sexual possessiveness is somehow expressed serves as at least mild evidence that it's not entirely learned.

January 11, 2012 1:52 AM  

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