Join 3,375 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Promiscuity is good.
August 6, 2002 5:22 AM   Subscribe

Promiscuity is good. I knew something felt right about the '70s. (courtesy of Arts & Letters).
posted by fpatrick (30 comments total)

 
Right.
posted by drstrangelove at 5:58 AM on August 6, 2002


Oh, it's pretty groovy alright, but I gotta tell ya, she's a mannnnn, baby!
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:59 AM on August 6, 2002


Good in terms of evolutionary reasons. Due to the fact we don't really need more people on the planet I'd have to say that all of these 16 year old kids that don't know who the dad is are actually a bad thing.
posted by banished at 6:00 AM on August 6, 2002


I think that these studies are meaningful only if you accept the premise that primitive tribal societies are somehow equivalent to ours. Had they actually studied the impact of "slutty" behavior on our own society, they probably would have reached a significantly different conclusion. Tribal culture is by nature isolated, so there is a distinct need to keep deliberately widening the gene pool. Our culture is far more diverse and mobile, so I don't see how promiscuity could play the same role.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:37 AM on August 6, 2002


.......as is train surfing apparently, y'know who'd have thought.
posted by johnnyboy at 6:46 AM on August 6, 2002


BooTAY!
posted by UncleFes at 6:58 AM on August 6, 2002


This makes no evolutionary sense. Why would all the boyfriends have a hand in taking care of kids that possibly aren't theirs? What's in it for them? The sensible thing to do is offer the woman protection in return for fidelity. Then you don't go wasting resources on the wrong genes. That's marriage isn't it? What a cold world we live in.
posted by Summer at 7:30 AM on August 6, 2002


It makes plenty of evolutionary sense. Women will marry the best care takers (ensuring that she and her children will survive) and have children with the best gene carriers. The two men work in tandem to perpetuate the species. ;)
posted by xyzzy at 7:37 AM on August 6, 2002


But evolution isn't about perpetuation of the species. It's about perpetuation of genes.
posted by Summer at 7:47 AM on August 6, 2002


Oh, I've just realised you're joking. Sorry.
posted by Summer at 7:48 AM on August 6, 2002


That's ok. ;) I could have worded my post better. =p
posted by xyzzy at 7:57 AM on August 6, 2002


Anyone who has read history knows how promiscuous native tribal cultures were as recounted by early explorers and it doesnt take a leap to realize modern culture is new enough that we still act out as tribal animals so yeah maybe being a slut and being madonna are one and the same thing.
posted by stbalbach at 7:59 AM on August 6, 2002


He's joking, but he's also making a good point. (Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it.) The marriage-as-protection-scheme you describe, Summer, is a common theory, and it might be correct. Or, it might just be an after-the-fact justification of our current society in terms that sound scientific. Generally not a good idea to fit your hypothesis to existing data, rather than the other way around -- you run the risk of basing your theory on a statistical anomaly or an unconscious bias instead of the facts. Xyzzy's hypothetical (duogamous? Triogamous?) society fits the premises of your theory even better than monogamous society does -- so why does it sound so ridiculous? Maybe it's because some of those premises are incorrect?

It does strike me as somewhat odd that the (relatively) new science of anthropology, when it gets round to studying the many, widely varying forms of human society, should just happen to conclude that the "best" society, evolutionarily speaking, just happens to be the very same one used by the people doing the science. Even though, evolutionarily speaking, monogamous society is relatively new, and (as stbalbach points out) relatively uncommon.

Monogamous culture does work, and creates a (more or less) stable, functioning society; I won't dispute that. But to argue that it's the only possible or sensible choice because Evolution Hath Decreed It So is dead wrong -- as evidenced by the many other more or less stable, functioning societies throughout history and the present which were and are not monogamous.
posted by ook at 8:25 AM on August 6, 2002


Maybe AIDS and other STDs didn't factor into the tribal equation. Perhaps cannibalism made sense at one time, too, but it isn't necessarily relevant today.
posted by drstrangelove at 9:41 AM on August 6, 2002


Or, it might just be an after-the-fact justification of our current society in terms that sound scientific.

That gets my vote.

Maybe AIDS and other STDs didn't factor into the tribal equation.

So you're gonna let a few viruses dictate how you structure your society? These are blips on the temporal radar and will soon be irrelevant anyway. Think bigger than that.
posted by rushmc at 10:05 AM on August 6, 2002


I was only suggesting what seemed to a good strategy for men in evolutionary terms, ook, not trying to justify the structure of modern society. Harems are also a good strategy for the same reason - one man gets to further his genes and the women get protection. It's the other men that lose out. The situation suggested in the article doesn't make sense - that's if you accept that the driving force behind evolution is the propagation of genes. Not everyone does.
posted by Summer at 10:13 AM on August 6, 2002


rushmc,

Facetiousness aside, AIDS is not just a "blip" on sub-saharan Africa's radar.
posted by drstrangelove at 10:18 AM on August 6, 2002


From an April 2001 thread: Monogamy increases as fertility is hidden. "By offering sex all the time, females in monogamous species disguise whether they are fertile and trick males into sticking around."

On a side note, I'd love to take the Jerry Springer Show to some of the tribes mentioned in the article.
posted by jennak at 10:28 AM on August 6, 2002


The situation suggested in the article doesn't make sense - that's if you accept that the driving force behind evolution is the propagation of genes.

I don't agree. Take the Canela example: each child has 40 or 50 men who might be his father; that's 40 or 50 men who have some incentive to act to help that child's survival, instead of just one guy. Especially when you consider that each man is probably going to be part-father to many of the children in the group, that gives them a very good incentive to keep the whole society together and to keep all of its members -- and their genes -- alive. Compared to our every-family-for-itself system, I'd say they've got a pretty good evolutionary strategy there.

When you say "Why would all the boyfriends have a hand in taking care of kids that possibly aren't theirs? What's in it for them?", it sounds to me like you're making the mistake of analyzing their culture in terms of the failings of our own. Certainly, in our monogamous society, a "boyfriend" has no incentive to take care of a child that might not be his own. In their society, though, these guys aren't boyfriends who can skip out if they feel like it; they're fathers who are expected by social contract to participate in the upbringing and protection of the child, even though it might not be theirs.

(And, yes, in protecting each individual child, each father is protecting the "wrong" genes 39 times out of 40. But there are 39 other guys doing the same thing, and the kid with the "right" genes is in there somewhere... come to think of it, even infertile men have been tricked into sticking around and playing Dad -- so even from Dawkins' perspective, this strategy is "better" than plain monogamy.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that polygamy is dictated by evolution any more than monogamy is. To be honest, I'm not sure that cultural mores like this last long enough to have much real effect on evolution one way or the other.
posted by ook at 11:39 AM on August 6, 2002


Ook, man, you hit it right on the money.

Plus consider that even if a guy's genes aren't expressed in a given child, by participating in the child's life and upbringing and particularly by teaching the child, his memes get perpetuated in the kid.

Curioser and curioser...

Plus, hey, anything that says polyandry is okay naturally has a lot going for it, in my book :).

I think any particular mating pattern arises from and reflects the situation of the people practicing it. Until recently (when we've been able to analyze gene frequences and comparative anthropological studies), people just tended to blindly adopt what their culture told them they should do.

Now we have choices, and look what happens - we get a smorgasbord, everything from strict lifetime monogamy to serial monogamy (rather a popular choice these days) to total swinger-itude. Some of this is powered by our newfound ability to control (read: prevent) conception and spread of venereal diseases (still not perfect, but absolutely frickin amazing considering how far we've come since we first came down from the trees).

It's actually pretty cool, the idea that we're "waking up from history" so to speak and can individually start to choose what appeals to each of us, and still be moral and safe and end up with kids who are cared for and loved and not stigmatized, no matter what the particular shape of the sexual relationships between adults.

Well okay, we're not totally there yet. Give it three hundred years or so, maybe.
posted by beth at 12:51 PM on August 6, 2002


Promiscuity is the cultural death of a society. We've known this ever since 1935, when renowned anthropologist Joseph Unwin tried to prove the opposite: that marriage was an irrelevant and even harmful cultural institution. He was forced by the evidence to conclude that only marriage with fidelity, what he called absolute monogamy, would lead to the cultural prosperity of a society. Anything else

In his address to the British Psychological Society, Unwin said this:

The evidence was such as to demand a complete revision of my personal philosophy; for the relationship between the factors seemed to be so close, that, if we know what sexual regulations a society has adopted, we can prophesy accurately the pattern of its cultural behavior...

Now it is an extraordinary fact that in the past sexual opportunity has only been reduced to a minimum by the fortuitous adoption of an institution I call absolute monogamy. This type of marriage has been adopted by different societies, in different places, and at different times. Thousands of years and thousands of miles separate the events; and there is no apparent connection between them. In human records, there is no case of an absolutely monogamous society failing to display great [cultural] energy. I do not know of a case on which great energy has been displayed by a society that has not been absolutely monogamous...

If, during or just after a period of [cultural] expansion, a society modifies its sexual regulations, and a new generation is born into a less rigorous [monogamous] tradition, its energy decreases... If it comes into contact with a more vigorous society, it is deprived of its sovereignty, and possibly conquered in its turn.

It seems to follow that we can make a society behave in any manner we like if we are permitted to give it such sexual regulations as will produce the behavior we desire. The results should begin to emerge in the third generation.


--"Sexual Regulations and Cultural Behavior," Joseph Daniel Unwin, Ph.D., in an address given to the Medical Section of the British Psychological Society. Library of Congress No. HQ12.U52
posted by gd779 at 1:03 PM on August 6, 2002


I think evolution is a red herring here. Even tribal societies possess a culture that can transcend purely evolutionary considerations. This study points out flaws in the fields of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary sociology, which try to tie human behavior to evolutionary considerations. This tie is controversial at best; the evidence just isn't very strong, and there's quite a bit of wild speculation.

Anyway, evolutionary psychology has long asserted that monogamy is an evolutionary beneficial long-term equilibrium strategy (to appropriate some of Dawkin's language). While the study at hand contradicts this assertion to some extent, it's equally irresponsible of the author to claim "If the anthropologists are right, monogamy may well be counter-evolutionary or an adaptation to modern life." I think a more valid conclusion is "you really can't say much about the connection between evolution and human behavior". There are plenty of reasons for this, but I think it mostly lies in our linguistic ability to pass down detailed cultural information from generation to generation. This allows the establishment of true group structures that survive together outside of purely genetic cost-benefit calculations.

On preview, ook says:
Especially when you consider that each man is probably going to be part-father to many of the children in the group, that gives them a very good incentive to keep the whole society together and to keep all of its members -- and their genes -- alive. Compared to our every-family-for-itself system, I'd say they've got a pretty good evolutionary strategy there.

Well, it really has nothing whatsoever to do with evolution. In genetic terms, there's no such thing as a "part-father". These tribes show, however, that you can have cooperative fathering in cultural terms. This is a strategy that supports well the survival of the culture, but I don't think there's any evidence to say it's an equilibrium strategy for propagation of the fathers' genes. We might be talking about "memetic evolution" here, but that's pretty much wildly speculative pseudoscience. I think it's best to avoid considering evolution in these situations altogether; it leads to more confusion than anything.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:10 PM on August 6, 2002


And, gd779, though I'm not intimately familiar with the field, I do know that so much work has been done since 1935. I doubt your author's conclusions are in currency.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:13 PM on August 6, 2002


Monogamy = Starvation Economy
posted by illusionaire at 1:34 PM on August 6, 2002


::kicks self for failing to distinguish polygamy from polyandry::

the idea that we're "waking up from history" so to speak and can individually start to choose what appeals to each of us [beth]

That's a tricky one. While I'm all in favor of more choices, one advantage of stricter, more limited societies (speaking strictly from a cultural, not an evolutionary standpoint) is that there are fewer opportunities to evade parenting responsibility. Much as I hate to admit it, I don't think multiple-partner marriages could work in our culture, primarily because there's no built-in stigma attached to letting them break down -- that social contract that keeps the Canela fathers from skipping out on the mom doesn't exist here. But, as you say, maybe in a few hundred years.

I think evolution is a red herring here. [mr_roboto]

For the most part I agree (which I hope was clear from the closing paragraph in my previous post) -- it was probably a poor choice for me to continue speaking in evolutionary terms about what is primarily a cultural phenomenon. All I was trying to demonstrate was that, all else being equal, the Canela culture seemed equally if not more capable of ensuring the survival of the next generation as a monogamous culture.

gd779, the paper you cite seems pretty popular among those who seek to ban gay marriages, but not so much among, well, anybody else. I'm neither an anthropologist nor a sociologist, of course, so I could be wrong -- but the church wouldn't exactly be the first place I'd turn to for info on this sort of topic.

The only copy of the actual paper I can find online is an almost unreadable google PDF cache -- but unless I'm missing something, your quote above badly misrepresents his thesis. This is from his introduction, and seems to sum it up pretty well:

when the social regulations forbid direct satisfaction of the sexual impulses, the emotional conflict is expressed in another way, and that what we call 'civilization' has been built up by sacrifices in the gratification of innate desires.

In other words, "monogamy" doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it: all he's saying is that any successful culture just needs some rules to keep the young'uns working to build up the civilization instead of lying around having sex all the time. Whether those rules are monogamous, polygamous, polyandrous, polyamorous, or antidisestablishmentamorous doesn't make any difference at all.

Even that seems sort of iffy... since it implies that in an energized monogamous culture, married folks, who are allowed to lie around all day having sex, immediately stop contributing to the betterment of civilization. Which doesn't really seem to be the case.

On the other hand, perhaps those who live in cultures which allow immediate sexual gratification feel that their civilization is just fine as it is, and doesn't need improving. Eh?
posted by ook at 2:51 PM on August 6, 2002


In genetic terms, there's no such thing as a "part-father".

Yes, but we are more than mere meat.

We've also got Brain, The Meat That Thinks [tm].

Seriously, I would say not to discount the memetic legacy so quickly. It's also quite important for holding a culture together. I mean, culture is made of memes, really.

We are, far more than other animals, creatures of nurture, not just our genes.

And what's with the idea that unless people are in totally monogamous unions, their culture won't be "energetic"?!

Huh? Does that mean that people have to be sexually frustrated in order to be productive? Oh please, don't let it be so...

(And if it is, count me among the blissfully lazy).
posted by beth at 5:10 PM on August 6, 2002


Seriously, I would say not to discount the memetic legacy so quickly. It's also quite important for holding a culture together. I mean, culture is made of memes, really.

We are, far more than other animals, creatures of nurture, not just our genes.


That was actually pretty much my point. I was just trying to say that it's dangerous to bring evolution--a hard science with plenty of associated assumptions and conclusions--into what is essentially an anthropological debate. It muddies the waters. I'm fine with discussing cultural inheritance and the survival of a society, so long as we're not confusing these relatively fuzzy ideas with the hard and fast concepts of genetic inheritance and survival of the fittest.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:23 PM on August 6, 2002


ook: Somebody threw that Unwin study at me during a debate the other day, and in a moment of weakness -- sorry! --, I decided to see how MetaFilter would respond rather than trying to do the research on it myself. I'm agnostic about it's conclusions, on the whole.
posted by gd779 at 7:19 AM on August 7, 2002


Heh... :) Personally I'd file it under "flawed but interesting." Do you know of a more complete copy of it online somewhere? I'd be curious to read it without all the line noise in that google cache... where did you get the bits of it you quoted?
posted by ook at 7:41 AM on August 7, 2002


No, unfortunately, I don't know of a good copy online. The bits that I quoted were taken directly from a powerpoint presentation on the subject of, you guessed it, homosexual marriage.
posted by gd779 at 1:22 PM on August 7, 2002


« Older Finally somebody's saying it out loud....  |  Egyptian leader jailed for pro... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments