Charles Darwin, the guru of evolutionary thought, once argued that an unequal society cannot feasibly be monogamous and that material circumstances often influence even purely biological processes.
For instance, our need for food, shelter and reproduction are biological, but how we satisfy them is a function of culture and economics. And while no one can dispute that our fashion and food are economic phenomena, the mere thought that our dating and marriage patterns are influenced by money mortifies us into denial, even in the face of mounting evidence.
At the hunter gatherer stage, from where human sexuality dates, women would prefer tall, strong males that were dominant because they were more likely to offer security and sufficient resources for the family. This is the genesis of women’s admiration for male physique (especially height), social rank and wealth. That is why male characters with such attributes populate romance novels.
A concomitant evolutionary milestone was internal reproduction in mammals, where children are conceived and grow formatively within a female body significantly increasing their chances of survival. This gave women the added bonus of maternal confidence, which compensates for their diminished sexual adventure on account of their heavy investment in reproduction and child care.
But the set up was at the expense of men’s paternity confidence. Coupled with less involvement in reproduction, men were predisposed for quantitative sex instinctively to widen scope of paternity.
This is the evolutionary milieu that molded human sexuality. It is true that rapid economic and cultural transition has bred a huge proportion of economically empowered women, who may rightly take offence at suggestions that money determines modern dating behaviour.
However, this proportion is low and, given the degree of general disparity, there are also many men at the bottom of the economic pyramid who are socially dispossessed by poverty and unable to initiate courtship especially when the woman is of a higher social and economic class.
WEAK FOUNDATION TO MONOGAMY
All these form a weak foundation for monogamy as it skews women’s attention towards the few men with status and money, hence the all too common secret liaisons with the rich and famous.
To some of the women secretly dating rich, married men, “it’s better a little love from a man who provides, than more love from a man who cannot provide, or total love from no man at all,” Robert Wright writes in his book, The Moral Animal.
This reality is unlikely to change soon however much society pontificate about morality.
As to whether financial autonomy and social liberation has immunised women from money considerations in relationships, the jury is still out, but in a recent study, women reported that they enjoy sex more when the partner is rich! That study was quite heuristic and, as Britain’s The Daily Mirror put it, it could be just more evidence that “for many females, money, status and success remain a key ingredient in sexual attraction.”
This is borne out in such works of fiction as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which a dashing young man “in possession of a good fortune” becomes the centre of attraction when he moves into Netherfiled Park, a neighbourhood in which one of the families has a retinue of daughters all of marriagable age.
In other words admiration for money and status is a strong internal impulse, which originally had a survival motive, but now stubbornly resists economic and technological changes.
This is the same way women admire tall men, even when the survival value of height is overtaken by events. It is the same men retain a polygamous drive to maximise paternity confidence, notwithstanding that modern marriage can reasonably offer the same guarantee. Well, hopefully.
Darwin, then, was right: an unequal society that is monogamous would be an oddity.
One only needs to look at a sexual crisis like HIV/Aids. It has devastated families and at times entire villages and nations, yet, other than making people a little more circumspect, it has hardly altered sexual idiosyncrasies. Or has it, with all this talk of sponsorship?
MODERN AND MORAL?
But since monogamy has been sanctified as modern and moral, society has largely adopted a monogamous face, forcing polygamy underground. In her 2007 inaugural lecture at the University of Nairobi, Prof Akoth Suda called this “formal monogamy and informal polygamy in parallel.” That is what Kenya has today.
It follows that if society desires monogamy, it has to work much harder and create material conditions for monogamous relationships to thrive. At least a reasonable degree of equality.
In Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels averred that love in a relationship is impossible under capitalism where private wealth elevates men with social power to thwart restrictions of monogamy.
“What for the woman is a crime, entailing grave legal and social consequences, is considered honourable in a man or, at the worse, a slight moral blemish which he cheerfully bears.”
Interestingly, the severest assault on monogamy today is led by women. All secret relationships between single women and married men are a silent rebellion against monogamy and its bourgeoisie backers.
The other rebellion is from the top, the economically empowered women, condemned into single life by conservative nuances of courtship that shun successful women. Such women find a unity of purpose with young poor men turning conventional “sponsorship” on its head.
This brings us to the biggest myth of our time: that monogamy serves women’s interest. The Moral Animal queries this wisdom in detail, arguing that, in fact, women stand to benefit more from formalised polygamy as it would allow them to relate with the men whom they love and who can support them — irrespective of marriage.
Importantly, the secret relationships between single women and married men are a testament that there is nothing inherently abominable about polygamy.
The writer is researcher on behavioural ecology.