Monogamy – For the Birds?

In a climate of soaring divorce rates, desperate housewives and sex that sells but doesn’t stick around, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the modern couple’s resistance to fidelity. Why do we live in constant suspicion? We live in a monogamous culture – why can’t we be faithful?

As it turns out, we may not be as hopeless as the tabloids would have us believe. When scientists gathered in Leipzig to share their findings at a workshop, “Monogamy: Partnerships in Birds, Humans and other Mammals,” they determined that monogamy may be less instinctive than we believed.

The standard model for sexual relationships is simple. Males and females mate and relate for one reason: the continuation of the species. Biologists and sociologists alike have long attributed the male sex drive (and wandering eye) to this fundamental survival instinct; deliver your genetic information to as many females as will have you, and your genes will live on. On the other side of the nest, the female seeks a nurturing, stable relationship in which to raise her young. She demands fidelity in a mate, and he must oblige if he wants to stick around to protect and nurture his own offspring. Pretty logical, right?

Biological logic

But it doesn’t account for so many variables in human relationships. This same model suggests that many phenomena in our sexual culture – divorce, remarriage, the female libido – are biologically illogical, even unnatural.

There are other monogamous mammals, like prairie voles, otters, gibbons and foxes, but scientists have obtained most of what we know about monogamy in the animal kingdom from observing birds. They are by far the most monogamous creatures. In many species, the male not only cohabitates with a female after mating, he also stays with her to raise their young.

Birds do it, too

Recently, however, our admiration for the loyalty and commitment of these creatures has been called into question. Professor Kempenaers, director of the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, found evidence that in some species the female routinely mates with different males while fertile, then returns to raise her young with her “monogamous” partner. Kempenaers believes that the wandering bird is actually improving the chances of her offspring’s survival by gathering stronger genes. Other female birds will stray from their mates to “audition” prospective future mates or to gain access to a new partner’s territory. There are various theories as to why monogamous birds have “affairs,” including offers of food, attractive plumage, and added protection. All these motives suggest that cheating, for males and females, is not only natural; it’s beneficial to the survival of the species.

So the question is not, “Why do we cheat?” but “Why don’t we cheat?” Nature wants us to. The media seems to as well. But, depending which statistic you believe, fifty to eighty percent of married people choose to remain faithful. That’s in spite of the fact that those women who were previously credited with enforcing monogamy are as biologically driven to cheat as men.

It seems there is something unique about human intimacy. People cheat because they fall victim to nature’s influence, but they remain faithful out of love and commitment. If monogamy isn’t a genetic trap, and it isn’t a biological drive, it may have to be something much simpler and much more complicated – a choice.

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