Sunday, August 7, 2011

Why Get Married?

Last night, Darla and I had a lively discussion with some of our friends about relationships and how different the approaches of women and men can be where love and intimacy are concerned. Too lively for me to recall it all here. Instead of doing that, I’m going to talk about what I’ve been reading lately on this topic. Now pay attention.

Why is it that men, much more than women, play offense where sexual relations are concerned? The usual, quick and easy answer combines Darwinian principles with an economic cost-benefit analysis that goes something like this: A sexual encounter costs a male very little, biologically speaking. Not too much in the way of metabolic resources are given up as fifty zillion spermatozoa are sent on their way, like so many little kamikaze swimmers, hoping to become part of something bigger. For the lucky one, the payoff is penetration of an egg, mixing of DNA, and presto, creation of yet another Homo sapiens. All this at a minimal cost to the producer of those zillions of kamikazes.

For the egg producer, however, costs are huge, HUGE! A human egg, in itself, is much larger than a spermatozoon, and therefore much more costly for the body to produce. Furthermore, while men have the potential to produce millions upon millions of sperm (which in itself seems to explain a lot), women only ovulate 400 or so times in a lifetime. Compared to a spermatozoon, a human egg is a rare and precious thing.

But for women, the real screwing (so to speak) comes with pregnancy. In order to replicate her DNA in the next generation, a woman has to make a tremendous investment in time, energy and physical resources, while the man, theoretically, may have done nothing more than jump on her bones for a few minutes before taking off for the next whiskey bar (and mating opportunity).

The traditional scientific thinking, which much popular thinking has followed in recent decades, simply considers the vastly different cost outlays for reproduction between females and males, and says, therefore, Males Seek Quantity, Females Focus on Quality. In a nine month period, it would not be too hard for a charming Cad to reproduce his DNA a hundred times over. But even the most brazenly liberated female is unlikely to reproduce herself more than once in such a time span. Obviously, where human reproduction is concerned, nature is no more fair and balanced than FOX News. The popular view has it that Darwinian principles compel males to seek lots and lots of mating opportunities with a variety of females, while females seek an enduring bond with one high quality male.

There could be some truth to this, but it’s obviously inadequate to explain a number of things. For example, if these are the only principles at work, why should males agree to settle down at all? One explanation goes like this: Human infants are so helpless, and their mothers so undermined in their physical capacities during pregnancy and the years of infant care that an extra adult is required to guarantee the survival of the offspring. In other words, our charming but deliriously sex-crazed cad, who wanders the landscape impregnating dozens of women, may actually never see his reproduced DNA survive in any of his offspring because without the care, protection and extra food resources that this potential Dad could bring home, the babies of all the Moms he knocks up won't survive. So, the payoff for him is to stay with a female to ensure the survival of their offspring.

Of course, there’s more to the argument than this. If Dad is also still a Cad, he may stay with Mom to ensure his offspring’s survival, but at the same time seek to have secret rendezvous with potential Moms in the neighborhood, with the idea that those Moms will find other Dads to help care for his offspring – those new mates being deceived into thinking the offspring are their own.

“Dose eediots,” as Arnold “Dad-Cad” Schwarzenegger said in True Lies.

All this Darwinian analysis is likely to make a romantic soul depressed and/or cynical. It’s also likely to be misleading. There are new ways of looking at the origins of marriage, though some of these are no more sweet and romantic than the traditional one I just sketched out.

Canadian anthropologist Bernard Chapais has offered an intriguing explanation for human pair bonding that sees our ancestors as having gone through a phase of polygyny, or multiple-female “marriage” before moving into the pattern that most humans now display, where male-female bonds are monogamous. Even in societies that allow for plural marriages, most marriages are monogamous. Given that the vast majority of marriages worldwide are monogamous, this seems to be the basic program on which humanity’s DNA has settled in order to replicate itself.

Professor Chapais

Chapais, in Primeval Kinship, makes the point that a primate (which is what we are) that lives in a troop or community (as we do) and practices generally monogamous pair-bonding (ditto) is quite unusual. None of our closest relatives - chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas – do anything like this, so why do we?

Bonobos - Lots of Love, No Marriage

Another point that contradicts the classic Darwinian explanation is this: the traditional notion that a woman needs a husband to help care for her newborn doesn’t seem quite right in light of the general food sharing typical of hunting-gathering bands. That is, if you happen to be a Kung hunter in South Africa, or a pre-horse-era Comanche in Texas (or the landscape destined to eventually devolve into Texas), you will live among a band of communist property sharers. This is the original human condition. It is not the case that a hunter in such a society would bring home a wildebeest or antelope and then bargain with the others in the group, trying to sell it at the highest price.

No, these hunter-gatherers share. When one man brings in the meat from a major kill, everyone eats. There is no hoarding or trading of this vital resource.

Given this, why would a woman need to be pair-bonded to a male who would serve as her provider and that of her helpless infant as well? Every male (and female) in the camp would help her baby survive.

Well, the answer is involved, but part of the story relates to male competition for mates. In a polygynous society, there is a Darwinian payoff for a male to have as many mates as he can manage. Doing so maximizes his chance of passing on lots of DNA. So, in multi-mating arenas like those we see on the Discovery Channel - where bighorn sheep bang against each other with skull-splitting mash ups, the best skull splitter gets the most females and becomes the Darwinian champ.

But when humans became skillful hunters – maybe two million years ago, give or take – having males clash over mates became suicidal for the group. A man who fights for access to females using the tools at hand – clubs, spears, poison-tipped arrows – is likely to kill his rival. And then, probably be killed by the next mate-seeking hunter who comes along.

This is not good for the evolution of the species, so, the Chapais-influenced argument goes, humans evolved into a species whereby something like marital rights were recognized, and the social pressure implied by these rights greatly diminished the tendency for men to kill each other over women. Didn’t completely eliminate it, obviously.

Voila, marriage is born as a socially recognized and more or less respected institution defining sexual and reproductive rights and responsibilities.

By the way, I noticed long ago, in my anthropological readings about hunting-gathering societies, that the single most common source of violent conflict in such groups seemed to be competition among males over women.

Anyway, I am pretty much convinced by Professor Chapais’s model wherein human pair bonding, and all the love and lust that go into it, evolved through some kind of group dynamic, perhaps via polygyny and very likely with reference to the need for skillful hunters to minimize their murderous tendencies, at least toward members of the in-group.

There will be a quiz next week.