John Witte on “why monogamy is natural” (cont.)

10.05.2012, 5:56 PM

As a companion to Elizabeth’s post just below, here is John Witte in the WaPo on monogamy/polygamy and on the goods of marriage:

Given these four factors, nature has strongly inclined rational human persons to develop enduring and exclusive sexual relationships, called marriages, as the best form and forum of sexual bonding and reproductive success. Faithful and healthy monogamous marriages are designed to provide for the sexual needs and desires of a husband and wife. They ensure that both fathers and mothers are certain that a baby born to them is theirs. They ensure that husband and wife will together care for, nurture, and educate their children until they mature. And they deter both spouses from destructive sexual behavior outside the home.

Polygamy might ensure paternal certainty, but only at ample cost. Social science studies of polygamous families in Africa and Asia, and in isolated Fundamentalist Mormon communities in North America have documented these costs. While a polygamous man usually has his sexual needs met, his multiple wives often do not, producing rivalry and discord in the home. While a polygamous father may know who his children are, his children have to work hard to get his attention, affection, and resources which are dissipated over multiple wives and children. While polygamy might seem to contain extramarital sex better than monogamy, the opposite is often true. A polygamous man, not schooled by monogamous habits, will always be tempted to add another attractive woman to his harem. A co-wife, once pushed aside by another, will be sorely tempted to test her neighbor’s or servant’s bed, unless threatened with grave retribution. And single men, with fewer chances to marry, will resort more readily to prostitution, seduction, and other destructive sexual behavior.

Witte is a long time friend and, in my view, a terrific scholar of issues related to marriage, law, and religion.


22 Responses to “John Witte on “why monogamy is natural” (cont.)”

  1. Jonathan says:

    This is not at all a good article. It is certainly not scholarly. It quotes the Bible more than any natural scientist, and its biblical quotes are themselves partial.

    Witte seems to confuse why monogamy might be desirable with the question of whether it is “natural.” His view of nature is moralistic in a very simplistic way.

    Most scholars of human sexuality do not think that humans are naturally monogamous.

    Many people who extoll marriage do so on the grounds that it encourages monogamy. The belief is that without marriage and the social conventions associated with marriage, humans would naturally not be monogamous.

    Witte turns this on the head and argues that humans are naturally monogamous but the sexual revolution somehow caused people to behave unnaturally. (As though before the sexual revolution monogamy prevailed. His grasp of history is as weak as his grasp of natural sciences.)

    I happen to believe in the desirability of monogamy for couples in longterm relationships. There are a lot of benefits to monogamy. But that it is not the same as saying that it is a “natural state.” Monogamy owes more to civilization than to nature.

  2. Mont D. Law says:

    It seems to be a pretty threadbare argument to me too, since the kind of monogamy he’s talking about didn’t exist until the industrial revolution and the emancipation of women.

    The truth is people are designed by nature to live in small clan groups, where as far as anthropology can tell family structures varied wildly and were disconnected from biology in many important way.

    The idea that these pre-industrial monogamous arrangements meet women’s needs is particularly silly.

  3. Diane M says:

    “Most scholars of human sexuality do not think that humans are naturally monogamous.”

    It depends what you mean by naturally monogamous. If you mean that we are programmed to be faithful, no, but then we aren’t really programmed to be anything. That’s part of being human.

    I think many biologists refer to humans as primarily monogamous. By that they mean that we pair bond with one mate. They suggest that human societies are flexible and allow polygamy at times for some of the men, but that monogamy is the main model/evolutionary strategy for must men and almost all women.

    Biologists argue about it, but the idea that humans evolved to be monogamous in the sense of pair-bonding with mostly faithful behavior is pretty common and I think the mainstream view.

  4. Diane M says:

    Witte says:
    “Both traditional theorists and modern scientists point to four facts of human nature that commend monogamy.”

    and

    “Given these four factors, nature has strongly inclined rational human persons to develop enduring and exclusive sexual relationships, called marriages, as the best form and forum of sexual bonding and reproductive success.”

    So I think he’s not saying that we are inherently and purely monogamous (one of his four factors is all the problems we cause when we aren’t), but that our natures make monogamy the system the works best for us.

  5. Jonathan says:

    His idea of “nature” is laughable. He is some sort of preacher not a scientist. This is embarrassing.

  6. Mont D. Law says:

    Witte quotes 2 anthropologists, Levi-Strauss and Chapais who don’t actually support the argument he’s making. The rest of his sources are clerics and political philosophers. Only one source he cites has produced work in the past 50 years. This is just silly.

  7. Jonathan says:

    It is no accident that it is published in the “Faith” section of the WaPo rather than the “Science” section. Actually, it should not have been published at all.

  8. Anna says:

    Okay, so you don’t like his methodology or sources. I’m reminded of a remark I read recently about the temptation to turn straight to somebody’s methodology if you don’t like their conclusions, and pick holes there without assessing the content itself.

    So do you disagree that pair-bonding is the most effective way of ensuring that fathers become invested in their children, while avoiding the negative effects of polygamy on women? If not, what other system do you think is more effective?

    Also, I don’t see anything laughable about his use of “nature.” There’s a perfectly legitimate (and in fact sophisticated, in my opinion) philosophical tradition of using “human nature” to describe not necessarily what every human everywhere does inevitably, but what is necessary for the optimal expression of what it is to be human. E.g., speech is natural to human beings. A feral child might grow up without it, but he’d be unable to flourish as a human being that way, and many of his distinctive human abilities would be frustrated and unfulfilled. It seems to me that Witte is using “nature” in this sense.

  9. Jonathan says:

    Anna, you obviously didn’t read my comments. I like his conclusions insofar as they say that monogamy is a good thing for couples in longterm relationships. The problem is that he uses “junk science” (if it can even be called that) to say that monogamy is a good thing. His argument is absurd. It does not help the cause of monogamy (if there is such a cause) to promote it by absurd arguments.

    Witte’s argument probably says something about the state of religion in this country right now. He would like, I suspect, to simply make a religious argument in favor of monogamy. But insofar as religion has become so tarnished its brand, he pretends that his argument is really an anthropological one. It isn’t. And it is dishonest to pretend that it is.

  10. Mont D. Law says:

    [So do you disagree that pair-bonding is the most effective way of ensuring that fathers become invested in their children, while avoiding the negative effects of polygamy on women?]

    If that was the only point he was making this would be a very different discussion. He’d still be completely wrong because the pair-bond biological father investment theory is not born out by the study of human culture. The nuclear family he is holding up as timeless has only existed for 200 years or so. And his view of historical monogamy as a net positive for women is true like cholera is better then small pox is true.

    His attempt to tart his argument up with discredited science just makes him look silly and destroys his credibility. Why would anyone debate solutions to problems of water contamination with Felix Pouchet. Anything he had to offer would be useless because his science is ridiculous.

  11. Diane M says:

    My reading of the Washington Post article was that he talked about religion because he was saying that both religion and science support something. I didn’t find that odd at all.

    It was a short essay for the Washington Post, I didn’t expect lots of sources. I am assuming that his book will go into more detail as to why he thinks that most biologists and anthropologists argue monogamy is natural. I’m pretty sure from my own reading that that is not an unusual thing for a scientist or anthropologist to say.

  12. Diane M says:

    Mont D Law – “He’d still be completely wrong because the pair-bond biological father investment theory is not born out by the study of human culture. The nuclear family he is holding up as timeless has only existed for 200 years or so.”

    We don’t have to have had nuclear families for fathers to have been making biological investments in their children and therefore falling in love, getting jealous, and forming pair bonds. That can still happen in the context of a nomadic tribe or extended families living together and
    farming.

    Compared to polygamy, monogamy has been a positive for women. One of the things that is often forgotten in discussions of monogamy is that female monogamy is pretty much universal around the world and historically.

    So the social development of monogamy has been more about not having to share your husband. The only positive of polygamy is when you have wealth concentrated in a few guys and so you are better off with one of 1% than having a poor guy of your own. (A theory on how to strengthen the family – don’t have a huge income gap?)

    Male monogamy has also been pretty much universal in practice because most men couldn’t afford wives. I would say that when the Greeks started making it the ideal (in terms of wives not perfect faithfulness), it was a step forward for everyone – the wives, the guys who didn’t get wives otherwise, and the society as a whole.

    In any case people had monogamy and marriage long before they had the nuclear family of today. (There are also arguments that the nuclear family existed for most people in medieval Europe.) So the 200 years isn’t that important to his assertion that monogamy is best for natural reasons.

    Also, in terms of evolution and what we evolved to be, the real question is what did pre-human apes do? Not that we know that, but biologists who look at it generally talk about early humans evolving to be mostly monogamous pair bonders with occasional polygamy.

  13. Jonathan says:

    Diane M.: science, or the term he uses, “nature,” does not support the conclusions he reaches. Nature or Science could care less whether human beings are monogamous or polygamous or whatever.

    The question is not whether monogamy is good or bad. I think it is good. The question is whether this absurd essay that pretends to be drawing upon natural science has any validity at all. It does not. Witte knows nothing about anthropology and even less about history. And even less about “nature,” which seems for him to be just another name for God.

  14. Matthew Kaal says:

    Jonathan,

    Witte is a professor of law and religion – so it isn’t that surprising that his viewpoints sound like they are being put forward by a religion professor, its not like he’s disingenuously trying to trick us into thinking he runs a bio lab somewhere. He’s written an essay that you think is overly simplistic – that is fine – no reason to attack him as an academic or allege he knows nothing about anthropology or history, and even science (one WaPo essay does not an academic career make).

    I suspect you’d each define “nature” and the desirability of conforming with “the natural” differently (which is fine – I imagine that there is a diversity of views among evolutionary biologists even about the importance of conformity to natural functions, over how to define those functions, and over non-conformity’s importance to the process of evolution). I also don’t really see a problem in someone who studies religion positing that there might be a moral dynamic to the natural world. You probably disagree – but it is not a crime against science to speculate on it.

  15. marilynn says:

    Ha Ha this guy has his wife snowed. Guys are all the same.

  16. marilynn says:

    This article kills me. Marriage does not make people faithful or monogamous. From what I can tell it makes them super pretend at it.

  17. Diane M says:

    “Diane M.: science, or the term he uses, “nature,” does not support the conclusions he reaches. Nature or Science could care less whether human beings are monogamous or polygamous or whatever.”

    Witte doesn’t say that nature cares what we are. He says

    a) they both believe that monogamy is the most “natural” form of reproduction for the human species.

    and

    b) Both traditional theorists and modern scientists point to four facts of human nature that commend monogamy.

    The second statement is confusing because he then goes on to present evidence scientists argue favors the idea that human evolved to be monogamous. Then he throws in a reason that monogamy is good for society that stems from the not-good-at-sexual fidelity part of human nature.

    I am not an expert in evolutionary biology, but from what I know of it, the general consensus is that humans are a primarily monogamous species with some polygamy, but the polygamy is rare and only practiced by a few males. The evidence he offers (having sex at all seasons and dependent children) is evidence they put forward in support of the idea that humans are monogamous.

    This fits with his first statements – which also has qualifiers to it. He says most “natural,” suggesting that it is what we are most inclined towards.

  18. Diane M says:

    @marilyn – when biologists talk about monogamy, they don’t use the word the same way we normally do. They are talking about whether or not people pair-bond and have one partner. This is different from species where a female mates with multiple males when she is in heat or species where one male monopolizes a group of females. It is not necessarily the same thing as perfect sexual fidelity.

    As far as marriage goes, there are no guarantees, but people who have made the promise are more faithful than people who haven’t.

  19. Jonathan says:

    Diane M., the next time I see “nature,” I will ask him and her what he or she thinks about monogamy. How ridiculous.

    “I am not an expert in evolutionary biology, but from what I know of it, the general consensus is that humans are a primarily monogamous species with some polygamy, but the polygamy is rare and only practiced by a few males.”

    Yes, you are not an expert in evolutionary biology. Polygamy can hardly be considered rare. Over history, it has probably been the most common domestic arrangement. Even today, it cannot be considered “rare,” though it is much less common than it was a century ago.

  20. diane m says:

    Jonathan, I’m not an expert, but I’ve read some. Polygamy is not the most common domestic arrangement. Hands down, most men have had monogamous relationships.

    When you count up the number of non-technological societies that allow polygamy, you get the idea that polygamy is common. There were more cultures that allowed it than not.

    But there are many societies were polygamy is an option, but most men can’t afford it. Monogamy ends up being the most common domestic relationship.

    Today polygamy is relatively rare. The number of societies that allow polygamy in any circumstances have been shrinking. It’s still true that most men in places that allow it, can’t afford it. And if you just do it as a numbers game, it’s not allowed in China.

  21. Jonathan says:

    Diane, read what I wrote. I said that “over history” polygamy has probably been the most common domestic arrangement. It is not the most common domestic arrangement today. Indeed, it is far less common today than it was just a century ago. But it is hardly rare. There are polygamists all over the world, and in some societies it is very common. I would be very surprised if there were not polygamists in China, just as there are polygamists in the United States and Canada.

    The decline of polygamy is likely a process of the triumph of “civilization” over nature. Without “civilization,” polygamy would likely be far more common than monogamy.

    My objection to Witte’s article is that it makes scientific claims that it cannot back up. This is known as scientism–which is a misuse of science. Witte should simply state that he thinks monogamy is a good idea for lots of reasons. He should not argue that monogamy is a “natural” state.

    Were monogamy “natural,” human beings would not have to work so hard to be monogamous. (And human beings would be more successful at being monogamous.)

  22. Diane M says:

    “I said that “over history” polygamy has probably been the most common domestic arrangement.”

    I know. And I am saying that it wasn’t because even back then, most men could not afford multiple wives. This is what biologists say – that most societies allowed multiple wives, but most men did not have them. (Jared Diamond talks about this.)

    “Were monogamy “natural,” human beings would not have to work so hard to be monogamous.”

    When biologists say that monogamy is natural (and they do, Witte is not making that up), they do not mean that we are great at sexual fidelity. They are talking about our tendency to pair bond with one partner and to want them to be exclusively ours.

    Biologists have found that many bird species, for example, have lots of “extra-pair couplings.” They still refer to the species as monogamous. It’s in contrast with species that don’t pair bond.

    “My objection to Witte’s article is that it makes scientific claims that it cannot back up. This is known as scientism–which is a misuse of science.”

    Biologists debate when humans evolved to be monogamous. Outside of the authors of Sex at Dawn, most of them seem to think that humans evolved to be monogamous with occasional polygamy.

    You can argue against the idea that humans are monogamous. People debate it and you might have evidence against it.

    However, Witte is not going against science or misusing science when he makes this claim.

    And, as I said, some of the things he refers to in a sketchy way (sex outside of estrus) are things that biologists talk about when they talk about evidence that we evolved to be monogamous. (Some of what they talk about isn’t G-rated.)

    An author I find interesting on this subject is Jared Diamond.

    Anyhow, Witte is right when he says that biologists believe that humans evolved to be monogamous. It could turn out that they are wrong, but Witte is not being unreasonable.