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Monday, March 13, 2006

The evolution of human relations

In a fascinating post, "Wise Children," David Friedman writes:
That maternity is a fact, paternity a conjecture, is a feature of human reproduction that has shaped the mating institutions of many, perhaps most, human societies. Men want to know which children are theirs, and the only way to do so with at least reasonable confidence was for a man to have exclusive sexual access to a woman.

That is no longer true.


From a technical standpoint, it is now possible to combine any mating pattern from strict monogamy to complete promiscuity with assured paternity. How many of those options actually go into common use will depend, among other things, on how much of our sexual behavior is hardwired and at what level.

If, for example, male sexual jealousy is itself hardwired by evolution—as a mechanism to make sure that men don't waste their scarce resources supporting other men's children—nothing much can be expected to change. Men will still have a strong preference for sleeping with, and having children by, women who are their exclusive mates, and the likely result is something close to conventional monogamy. If, on the other hand, evolution has simultaneously provided men with a desire for assured paternity and a taste for promiscuity—both of which make sense from an evolutionary point of view—we may end up with a form of group marriage, or some less structured alternative, becoming common.
Well, I think that jealousy is hardwired, and the possibility of assured paternity won't change that any more than contraception changed the mating instinct. Having said that, "less structured alternative[s]" to monogamy have evolved naturally in some communities, such as the Brogpas of Ladakh. But they're changing "because of modern education," and I see serial monogamy becoming more and more common across the world.

It's interesting, this conflict between human instincts, as they have evolved, and modern technology, which is making many of the original reasons for these instincts redundant. How do we reconcile these strains on our behaviour, then: what our animal selves dictate and what our rational selves reason? Maybe this is the great clash of our times?
amit varma, 4:07 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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