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On vacation, I love to read pop psychology.  Or pop-evolutionary-psychology.  Like this book Sex at Dawn.  Basic premise:  like the animals most similar to us, Bonobos and Chimps, humans exhibit a lot of physical, mental, and emotional markers of non-monogamy.  Or, as the authors call it, “multi-male, multi-female mating.”  Not to be confused with the “one male with many females”, this model is “one male with many females AND one female with many males.”

Both Daniel and I have always been skeptics about marriage.  Simultaneously and separately, throughout our teens and twenties, we would state our intentions to “never get married.”  As an institution, it seems improbable.  Everyone, everywhere in this country-culture is surrounding by friends in relationships/ marriages who are cheating, fighting, separating, and divorcing.

Among the reasons we decided to have a very small, very private wedding (i.e., no family. Only two witnesses and an officiant) -it seems like such an overly-romantic and “jinxy” plan to have a big one.  When so many of your friends- who you might invite to a big wedding- are in the throes of their own divorces, doesn’t it seem just a wee bit insensitive?

So clearly-  as is well outlined in Sex at Dawn – marriage is hardly a synonym for monogamy, and it has different meanings in different times and places.  In our culture, it’s a legal institution with heavy moral overtones.

In Arabic, the word for mating among animals is the same as marriage between people.  (this is a funny one that I’ve seen educated people mistranslate into english-  to say that the cats are “marrying” is practically nonsense in English, but a literal translation of the Arabic
تزواج )

idealization of the primitive

Why do people seem to love the imagined ideal of life before agriculture or life after apocalypse?  It’s like a clean slate, there are limited to no societal structures, and none of us have experienced it. Much of Sex at Dawn traces this simple pre-history of small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, surrounded by easy-to-reach food sources and supportive, sexually-satisfying, needs-meeting cultures.

The idea bores me. The greatest pleasures in our world seem to be just those things that the prehistoric/ posthistoric worlds lack- writing, philosophy, connectedness with other cultures, technology. Creative work.

logic organized around genetic continuation

If, your entire view of humanity and all its motivations can be dumbed down to the continuation and propagation of an individual’s genetic material, then most of culture makes no sense.  Mainstream evolutionary psychology seems want to argue that this propagation of genetic material is the root explanation for the complexity of our desires and everything we do with them- from building skyscrapers and obelisks to writing symphonies.

I believe, in my heart or my gut or whatever, that it’s not that simple. But there’s no way to prove beliefs, there’s only ways to construct logical arguments using data.  The challenging thing about any book on evolutionary psychology is that we, the luxury reader, are not looking into the experiment design, data validity, or so forth.  We’re taking a ride with the authors and trusting them. That’s why mass-market books about pop-evolutionary-psychology – or any science really- are pleasure books.  They prompt discussion and thought processes, but aren’t solutions.

technologized societies become prescriptive about sex-  to what end?

an interesting question that Sex at Dawn alluded to but didn’t delve into is:  if we accept the authors hypothesis that prehistoric societies were small bands of hunter-gatherers who enjoyed frequent sex with many partners-  why is it that agricultural and subsequent technological development has, seemingly universally (with minor, small-scale exceptions) led to prescriptiveness around sex?  Why are all dominant religions so prescriptive about sex?  What benefit is there to gain?

The authors identify and discredit the standard answer to these questions, which goes as follows:  women have few eggs, and pregnancy and child-rearing is a big chore, thus they look for faithful men who will help them. Men have many sperm and which they wish to turn into many children, thus they try to sleep around on the sly.  (read the book to understand the logic discrediting this.)

So the question becomes-  in technological societies, where the ‘standard answer’ above doesn’t apply, what does? Is there a reason- any reason- for the prescriptiveness around sex?

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Posted by:brook delorme

13 replies on “Weekend Marriage

  1. Hi there Brooke,
    Although sometimes I feel a bit dumbed down while reading your blogs, because it seems to me your intelligence is like mine amplified by 10 times at least, I like when and how often you mention post-historic world, because I feel how I’d finally fit in and be at home.
    Also while reading this post, minutes ago, electricity went out in the entire building. I love this type of coincidences.
    Much peace.
    Jovan

    1. hi Jovan! thanks so much for reading and your kind message- why do you think you’d be more comfortable in a prehistoric or post-apocalyptic world? just curious.
      nice spooky coincidence!
      thanks
      b

      1. hi Brooke. You are very welcome. I say it or feel it because I am this simple man which is easily drawn to complexity, or the vice verse. Either way, I connect simplicity with prehistoric or post-apocalyptic world. And for me simplicity means, paradoxically or not, being present, being ready, able to love, understand, create, and be deeply happy. I hope it makes sense.
        Congrats on the marriage (on English not Arabic).

  2. Hi B! You asked the question of where the origins of the parameters concerning marriage originate. Currently I’m reading a book called Against Our Will/men women and rape. It speaks to the historical evolution of rape in the context of war, slavery, marriage. A woman was considered property of the husband when entering the aggreeements of legal marriage. Maybe this is where monogamy comes into play since the woman had no rights whatsoever in previous societal structures. Her loyalty to her husband/master was required.

  3. This is the most interesting blog post I’ve read in a long time, Brook. Much better than “5 ways humans are just like bonobos”.

    In regard to your question, my theory on monogamy is that it came into being as it became more and more expensive to raise children. When that happened, a woman’s father – who was trying to ensure the well-being of his grand-genes – looked to extract a promise from his daughter’s suitors that they would stick around and help her rear her children, and not spread his seed to other women in the tribe.

    In the modern world, however, with our extended life spans and complex personalities and interests, expecting to remain true to a single person for 50 years and get all your physical, spiritual and emotional needs met by that person is increasingly unrealistic.

    My feeling is our primary relationships should be imbued with enough understanding to permit us to seek deeper, more intimate fulfillment from others with whom we share common interests, whether sexual, intellectual or creative.

    I think people are evolving culturally in that direction.

    Thanks for posting!

    1. hey Rob- thanks for writing & your kind words about the post –

      interesting idea about the expense of raising children. My understanding of pre-industrial history (maybe say, pre-1850 in the west) is that having children was actually not expensive in real dollars- it obviously had an expense in terms of time, primarily for women raising children- but since children mostly worked and contributed to the household, it was considered desirable to have more…

      I’ve too found the topics raised by the book Sex at Dawn fascinating, but I’m not sure I agree with their hypotheses in general- or, I don’t want to agree with them because I tend to prefer monogamy. It’s hard to pull those threads apart! As with all types of evolutionary psychological research topics…. it’s really hard to know what the truth might actually be, because we’re all so far removed from the field work that is done with contemporary peoples who live in cultures that are, possibly closer to pre-history…

      thanks !

  4. This is the most interesting blog post I’ve read in a long time, Brook. Much better than “5 ways humans are just like bonobos”.

    In regard to your question, my theory on monogamy is that it came into being as it became more and more expensive to raise children. When that happened, a woman’s father – who was trying to ensure the well-being of his grand-genes – looked to extract a promise from his daughter’s suitors that they would stick around and help her rear her children, and not spread his seed to other women in the tribe.

    In the modern world, however, with our extended life spans and complex personalities and interests, expecting to remain true to a single person for 50 years and get all your physical, spiritual and emotional needs met by that person is increasingly unrealistic.

    My feeling is our primary relationships should be imbued with enough understanding to permit us to seek deeper, more intimate fulfillment from others with whom we share common interests, whether sexual, intellectual or creative.

    I think people are evolving culturally in that direction.

    Thanks for posting!

    1. Isn’t that a paradox that now in this modern world (when it seems that personalities and interests are increasingly more complex, together with extended lifespans-I intentionally say: seems) in this world of infinite opportunities and choices, the quest for the “one” (for me it is what you have listed: deeper, more intimate fulfillment from “other” with whom we share common interests, whether sexual, intellectual or creative) becomes even and ever more evident and important?
      I have not been very good at it, but I still hold monogamy as one of the highest ideals for myself and others.
      Much peace.

  5. Hi Brook,
    I just discovered your stores and then your blog through Lizzie’s write up of Brook There on Tomboy Style. Your blog is an incredibly compelling read–I’d love to know what happened to your book proposal and your Arabic studies. As a New Englander who has been studying Arabic for 6 years, I have a lot of advice on where to study in Jordan if you get there. I also lived in Beirut for a year and I feel that (although full language immersion is more difficult) you would love the beauty of Lebanon. As someone who finds their social activism slightly at odds with their love of design and material good, I loved your questioning of this contradiction.
    Cheers!

    1. hi Sarah- thanks so much for writing! I’d love to hear more about your experiences in Lebanon and Jordan. The book proposal went nowhere, but I’m starting to write down more stories, because the studies have been going well. Please feel free to email me brook@brookthere.com – would love to know more – thanks :)

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