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Making Love: As problematic as making war?

Nancy Ahern

is a freelance writer and columnist in Arizona.

Nancy Ahern
August 30th, 2002

If you live in a primitive hunter-gatherer tribe in the deepest jungles on earth, you may be doing a good thing by being a slut. Anthropological research conducted on tribes in places like New Guinea, South America, and Polynesia has concluded that female promiscuity binds communities closer together and improves the gene pool. If a primitive woman has multiple partners, then each partner, it is reasoned, feels as though he fathered her children. Her intimate associations with multiple men creates a desire among those men to protect her and her offspring. Some people have read the studies, which are presented in Stephen Beckerman's book "Cultures of Multiple Fathers" and concluded that promiscuity is an evolutionary necessity and that the model of "death-do-us-part, missionary position" is only a tiny part of human history.

This may be valid. It may be true. It may be that in primitive times when tribal cohesion was a necessary component for survival that the more partners a woman had, the tighter (and, doubtless, happier) the tribe. Everyone was related to one another. Of course you're going to fight for and feed your son/nephew/cousin!

Before we start celebrating this new research by running out and joining a spouse-swapping club, it'd be worthwhile to think things through. What other aspects of tribal society were necessary parts of human evolutionary history?

Well, war was one. Competing for hunting grounds meant that tribes would clash and the stronger would annihilate the weaker. Those who didn't die in the wars would be enslaved. So slavery was also a necessity -- as the slaves would do the difficult and dangerous tasks, protecting the tribe members. Rapine was a necessity -- it's important to create diversity in the gene pool, so while those strong victors were enjoying the fruits of the field, they also sowed a harvest of fresh genes into their tribes. Foraging during times of privation -- eating bark and bugs, for example -- was another necessity.

It appears to me that these anthropologists seem to be scoffing at how society today is set up, and seem to be lauding the "natural" inclination to be promiscuous when they tout that "modern relationships are not all that different". They say it is understandable that we have high divorce rates and infidelity among our culture today -- that it reflects our past, not the permissiveness of today's liberal society above, but they are actually contributing to some serious problems that may, in the end, destroy our society, not strengthen it.

Civilized societies still war, but more and more we are coming to dread war and seek ways to deter it. We certainly don't consider it a good thing. We've learned, too, to produce food in abundance and are engaged in trying to teach lesser-developed peoples these techniques. Civilized and democratic societies are not famine-stricken societies. They do not clash over the need for food or land. Slavery has long been abolished in civilized lands, and rape is considered a crime, not something one does to celebrate a victory. I don't know about you, but I would tend to forage at a Food Bank or a church, not in my backyard.

If mankind has overcome the evolutionary ties of primitive times with regard to competition for survival, then it makes sense that mankind is well able to overcome the so-called evolutionary urges that lead to promiscuity, infidelity, and divorce.

Social engineers, instead of focusing on excusing this natural biological urge, should spend more of their time on teaching people how to overcome the urges that lead to single-parent families. Reducing the causes of the problem naturally reduces the problem.

And what a problem it is! While some social scientists are partying down with thoughts of slutty women, others are discovering that the offspring of divorced families and the results of out-of-wedlock birth do not fare well. For one thing, they are likely to be poor and stay poor. They are likely to drop out of school, get pregnant as teens, abuse drugs and end up in jail. They are likely to have emotional and behavioral problems. They are at risk for physical or sexual abuse. This moreso than for children from intact families, according to a 1988 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics.

This is not, by the way, an attempt to attack single mothers who are struggling to do the very best they can. No, it's quite the opposite! If social scientists would accept this data and then work together to find ways to lower the incidence of single parenthood, then those single mothers wouldn't have to struggle, because they wouldn't be single. Simplistic, yes, but it's often the simplest solution that is the correct one.

The key to that solution is a return to recognizing that morals have an even more important evolutionary role in our society than does promiscuity or the drive to forage for leaves and bugs. It is possible to say "no". It is possible to work through problems rather than run from them. It is possible to teach these things to our youth and to expect them to adhere to them and to succeed. One way to get started is to stop celebrating sex outside of commitment as a good thing. Sure, it happens and we should not turn a blind eye to it, but no, we should not make it seem as problem-free as eating a doughnut. or as laudable as winning the Heisman trophy.

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"...If mankind has overcome the evolutionary ties of primitive times with regard to competition for survival, then it makes sense that mankind is well able to overcome the so-called evolutionary urges that lead to promiscuity, infidelity, and divorce...."

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