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Has monogamy made us human? 

By From the June 2014 issue

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Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human
By William Tucker

(Regnery, 256 pages, $27.95)

The breakdown of the family is often pegged as a primary source of societal collapse in conservative circles. While some may call this a religious or Christian notion, veteran journalist William Tucker’s new book Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human looks at marriage through a decidedly non-religious lens. Using a swath of data on the anthropological evolution of humans, Tucker comes to a rather surprising conclusion: Monogamy is responsible for our evolution from primate to human. Indeed, he views it as the foundation of modern Western civilization. “The unique social contract of monogamy—a male for every female, a female for every male—lowers the temperature of sexual competition and frees its members to work together in cooperation,” he writes. “It is at this juncture that human societies—even human civilizations—are born.” Thus Tucker argues alongside conservatives that the breakdown of marriage has deleterious consequences for modern society, but he derives his argument from more scientific roots than is the norm.

Marriage and Civilization begins by studying sexual relationships amongst various primates, including chimps, gorillas, baboons, and gibbons. Tucker cites anthropology professor Owen Lovejoy, who says the transition from polygamy to monogamy “happened at the very beginning of hominid evolution and that it was the key to all the evolutionary steps that came after it. In other words, we never would have become human if we hadn’t adopted monogamy.” Humans, he says, are the only species in nature in which males can work together in the context of social monogamy: “This is what makes us unique. It makes us human.”

However, Tucker believes that social context largely controls humanity’s adoption of polygamy or monogamy. Though it “seems clear” that monogamy was widely accepted among our hunter-gatherer ancestors, polygamy re-emerged with the advent of early agricultural society. For Tucker, monogamous relationships were never innate to the human psyche; rather, the specific context of various groups (herding, hunting, farming) made one sort of relationship more palatable than another. As agriculture made wealth accumulation possible, inequalities became more pronounced—and “one obvious and readily available inequality was that a man could take more than one wife.” Because of its roots in inequality, Tucker believes polygamy (whether among primates or people) leads naturally to greater disruption and societal chaos, due largely to the uneven pairing of couples and consequent male fighting.

Tucker goes on to trace monogamy and polygamy throughout the ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman cultures, noting the influence monogamy had on their developments and collapses. Interestingly, he notes the importance of the “virtuous woman” in spreading monogamy—pointing specifically to the Rape of Lucretia as an example of this idea’s advent and spread. He defines the Virtuous Woman as “a woman content with marriage to a male of similar status to herself, who rejects the opportunity to mate in an adulterous affair or in a polygamous relationship with a higher-status male.” Such women prevented wealthy societies from descending into the polygamy of the past, ensuring a male suitor “could not have sex without making a commitment to marriage and fatherhood.” Tucker never fully explains why the Virtuous Woman adopted such stringent views on sexuality, either from a scientific or moral perspective. Neither does he explain why human society would find such a woman appealing. The only explanation given—that the Virtuous Woman’s self-denial and moral sensibility acted as a “lynchpin” in monogamous society—is a reiteration of the result, not an explication of the cause.

Tucker argues that monogamy gave rise to our current Western democracy, and that the Victorian era, in particular, showcased “the triumph of marriage.” After Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859 and faith in the Bible and the church were shaken, “the shelter of ‘home and hearth’ took its place.” Interestingly, it was around this time that Mormonism arose as a religious sect. Tucker gives Mormonism a rather scathing review because of the polygamy encouraged at its outset (and indeed, still carried on by various fundamentalist sects). Tucker seems to point to Mormonism’s “charismatic leadership” and “claims of divine revelation” as potential reasons for polygamy’s growth: these encouraged the inequality previously pointed to as an ideal environment for
polygamy. 

What does all this mean? In today’s culture, Tucker notes, “the ideal of a ‘patriarchal’ family and middle-class respectability is something almost everyone is rebelling against.” He sets out to determine why this has happened, and what its consequences will be. But first, he adds this rather important caveat:

The first thing to keep in mind—something we have learned throughout these pages—is that monogamy is, above all, a cultural construct. It is an artificial systemthat human societies impose upon themselves in order to create a more constructive social milieu. It does not satisfy everyone’s individual desires. At its most demanding, it becomes a rigid moral code that stigmatizes all manner of deviation—homosexual inclinations, the temptation to dally with your neighbor’s wife, pre-marital intercourse, having a child out of wedlock and so forth. There is nothing completely natural about monogamy, which is why it is so easy to undermine. 

This comment seemed rather puzzling, considering that Tucker spent the entire first half of the book arguing monogamy is what makes us human. Yet here at the end, he says it is not natural to humanity, nor often beneficial to the individual. It is merely a social construct, rather than a biological one—as he points out here: “Monogamy is the end point of civilized behavior that…creates advantages at the societal level. If we want a society that satisfies everyone’s most individualistic desires, we will not stick with monogamy for very long.”This parallels with his earlier comments regarding the re-emergence of polygamy among agricultural societies, but never does Tucker explain how polygamy reinserted itself into human civilization after the human species had evolved through monogamy. 

It’s difficult to make sense of this regression. If we truly evolved to be monogamous human beings, if this is what makes us human, then wouldn’t monogamy be the most natural state for the species as a whole? Even if it weren’t a mandatory facet of human behavior, would it not, at least, be a preferred or natural state for the human psyche? And wouldn’t this make deviation from monogamy, in a sense, “unnatural”?

If we believe monogamy is unnatural, yet still try to impose it on the human society, we defy the very principles of human liberty and volition that form the heart of our civilization. We impose a sort of marital socialism or utilitarianism, seeking the greatest good for the greatest number, to the detriment of the individual. Such a position seems antithetical to the claim Tucker made earlier—that marriage, in essence, gave rise to Western democratic civilization.

However, Tucker could be differentiating monogamy from a “natural” (as in “hard-wired”) condition, and trying instead to liken it to a superior evolutionary characteristic: perhaps, even now, monogamy requires us to transcend the shortcomings of our primitive selves. Can we exert the selflessness and faithfulness necessary to save monogamy, even with its sacrifices and difficulties?

Tucker’s book offers a fascinating look at the primeval origins of monogamous order and its ties to the emergence of Western civilization. In the end, however, it may leave certain readers wondering: Ought we to embrace monogamy, or no?

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About the Author

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of the American Conservative.