9/12/12 - monogamy? or omnigamy?

In today's excerpt - in their recent book Sex at Dawn, authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha suggest -- controversially -- that pre-historical homo sapiens in foraging bands typically had multimale, multifemale sexual relations. In making their case they cite scholars as far back as Charles Darwin and Lewis Henry Morgan:

"Lewis Henry Morgan ... [is] the only American scholar to have been cited by each of the other three intellectual giants of his century, Darwin, Freud, and Marx, [and] many consider Morgan the most influential social scientist of his era and the father of American anthropology. ... Morgan was especially interested in the evolution of family struc­ture and overall social organization. Contradicting Darwinian theory, he hypothesized a far more promiscuous sexuality as having been typical of prehistoric times. 'The husbands lived in polygyny [i.e., more than one wife], and the wives in polyandry [i.e., more than one hus­band], which are seen to be as ancient as human society. Such a family was neither unnatural nor remarkable,' he wrote. 'It would be difficult to show any other possible beginning of the family in the primitive pe­riod.' A few pages later Morgan concludes that 'there seems to be no escape' from the conclusion that a 'state of promiscuous intercourse' was typical of prehistoric times, 'although questioned by so eminent a writer as Mr. Darwin.'

"Morgan's argument that prehistoric societies practiced group mar­riage (also known as the primal horde or omnigamy -- the latter term apparently coined by French author Charles Fourier) so influenced Darwin's thinking that he admitted, 'It seems certain that the habit of marriage has been gradually developed, and that almost promiscuous intercourse was once extremely common throughout the world.' With his characteristic courteous humility, Darwin agreed that there were 'present day tribes' where 'all the men and women in the tribe are hus­bands and wives to each other.' In deference to Morgan's scholarship, Darwin continued, 'Those who have most closely studied the subject, and whose judgment is worth much more than mine, believe that com­munal marriage was the original and universal form throughout the world. . . . The indirect evidence in favour of this belief is extremely strong... .'

"Indeed it is. And the evidence -- both direct and indirect -- has grown much stronger than Darwin, or even Morgan, could have imag­ined.

But first, a word about a word. Promiscuous means different things to different people, so let's define our terms. The Latin root is miscere, 'to mix,' and that's how we mean it. We don't imply any randomness in mating, as choices and preferences still exert their influence. We looked for another term to use in this book, one without the derogatory sneer, but the synonyms are even worse: sluttish, wanton, whorish, fallen.

"Please remember that when we describe the sexual practices in vari­ous societies around the world, we're describing behavior that is normal to the people in question. In the common usage, promiscuity suggests immoral or amoral behavior, uncaring and unfeeling. But most of the people we'll be describing are acting well within the bounds of what their society considers acceptable behavior. They're not rebels, trans­gressors, or Utopian idealists. Given that groups of foragers (either those still existing today or in prehistoric times) rarely number much over 100 to 150 people, each is likely to know every one of his or her partners deeply and intimately -- probably to a much greater degree than a mod­ern man or woman knows his or her casual lovers.

"Morgan made this point in Ancient Society, writing, 'This picture of savage life need not revolt the mind, because to them it was a form of the marriage relation, and therefore devoid of impropriety.'

"Biologist Alan F. Dixson, author of the most comprehensive survey of primate sexuality (called, unsurprisingly, Primate Sexuality), makes a similar point concerning what he prefers to call 'multimale-multifemale mating systems' typical of our closest primate relations: chimps and bonobos. He writes, 'Mating is rarely indiscriminate in multimale-multifemale primate groups. A variety of factors, including kinship ties, social rank, sexual attractiveness and individual sexual preferences might influence mate choice in both sexes. It is, therefore, incorrect to label such mating systems as promiscuous.'

"So, if promiscuity suggests a number of ongoing, nonexclusive sexual relationships, then yes, our ancestors were far more promiscuous than all but the randiest among us. On the other hand, if we understand promis­cuity to refer to a lack of discrimination in choosing partners or having sex with random strangers, then our ancestors were likely far less promis­cuous than many modern humans. For this book, promiscuity refers only to having a number of ongoing sexual relationships at the same time. Given the contours of prehistoric life in small bands, it's unlikely that many of these partners would have been strangers."


Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha


Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality




Copyright 2010 by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha


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