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We're monogamous because we all can't be George Clooney

May 29, 2012|By Paul Whitefield
  • Why do people marry? Modern monogamy originated in the distant evolutionary past, and a new paper offers some explanations on how.
Why do people marry? Modern monogamy originated in the distant evolutionary… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

So, you’re an old-fashioned “dinner and a movie” kind of guy?

Turns out you may be a lot more old-fashioned than you realized:  say, millions of years old.

As Times staff writer Rosie Mestel explained Monday:

The roots of the modern family -- monogamous coupling -- lie somewhere in our distant evolutionary past, but scientists disagree on how it first evolved.

A new study says we should thank two key players: weak males with inferior fighting chops and the females who opted to be faithful to them.

These mating strategies may "have triggered a key step in the very long process of the evolution of the family," said study author Sergey Gavrilets, a biomathematician at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "Without it, we wouldn't have the modern family."

Gavrilets sought to explain why humans became monogamous, unlike, say, chimps, which tend to be organized in bands with a few dominate males that, politely speaking, get all the babes.

As Mestel writes:

First, he stopped assuming that all males would act the same. Instead, he tested what would happen if only the low-ranking males in the group offered food to females in return for mating opportunities. These weaker males had less to lose by switching strategies because they wouldn't get very far through fighting anyway.

The other key change was realizing that these low-ranking males would select faithful females.

"When I factored those things in, then things start to happen with the formation of pair bonds," Gavrilets said. Pair-bonding ultimately swept through almost the entire group.

Now, some scientists disagree.  (And at least one commenter on the article said it was bunk because the Bible offered a much more believable explanation.)

But I’m all in on this one. 

I mean, sure, we still have our alpha males:  Bill Clinton, George Clooney, Nicolas Sarkozy (think not?  Let’s see you get Carla Bruni to marry you!). 

But for most of us, it’s dinner (and a movie?) with a female who’s happy to have the food and will, most of the time, remain faithful to us poor schlubs, provided we keep feeding her (and the children) and put a decent roof over her head, coupled with a nice SUV or Volvo, something safe, and decent schools, and a vacation now and then, and -- well, it was probably a little simpler for Thog 2 million years ago.  

Now, one of the naysayers Mestel quotes, David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of "The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating," said that Gavrilets’ proposal hugely simplified human sexual behavior.

Human mating behaviors, for men and women, are quite varied, he said -- including not just committed, long-term pairing but a smorgasbord of other strategies such as casual sex, serial monogamy, having a long-term mate with sexual partners on the side, and combinations thereof.

I suppose he’s right, though mostly just in California. I doubt that describes the folks in North Carolina or North Dakota or Nebraska, for example.

For the people in those states -- OK, even in many of the duller parts of California, though not L.A.’s  Westside and most of San Francisco -- I’m thinking dinner (and a movie) and a faithful couple is still the rule.

And now I know why.

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