Lost in the mating maze

2012-05-26 09:37

Love is a battlefield.
I think serial monogamy
says it all.

               – Tracey Ullman (1989)

Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, comes from the humblest beginnings. Zuma has only five years of formal education, but a lifetime of experience hard-won in the trade union movement, the anti-apartheid struggle and as a prisoner on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

Whereas his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, always radiated cool statesman-like dignity in finely tailored suits, Zuma can still sometimes be seen in traditional Zulu leopard skin outfits belting out anti-apartheid rallying song Lethu Mshini Wami (Bring Me My Machine Gun).

Zuma is a controversial and enigmatic figure. He rose to the presidency as a populist, stoking the ambitions of those who feel they are little better off now than when apartheid ended, but in office he is finding out just how difficult it is to govern.

Since 2004 Zuma has been tainted by a massive corruption scandal over an arms deal, yet he survived and outmanoeuvred Mbeki to oust him as president.

Zuma governs a country that is as rife with contradictions as he is. The dismantling of apartheid, and Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election as president, were nothing short of miraculous, yet South Africa remains a country of stubbornly persistent inequality and endemic violence.

It had the modern infrastructure and organisational know-how to flawlessly host the 2010 Fifa World Cup, yet traditional and often anachronistic customs of dozens of ethnic groups are sacrosanct.

It has some of the most progressive gender equity legislation on the planet and a high representation of women in Parliament, yet sexism is rampant, the rape statistics terrifying and more than 5 million people are infected with HIV.

Zuma put South Africa’s HIV/Aids policy on the right track after years of denial and dithering by Mbeki.

He was acquitted of the 2005 rape of an acquaintance who was known to be HIV positive, with the judge accepting his defence that the sex was consensual.

Zuma admitted that rather than wearing a condom, he showered after sex in order to reduce the chance of HIV infection.

In addition to his much-publicised extramarital promiscuity, Jacob Zuma has been married six times.

But unlike celebrity serial monogamists like Elizabeth Taylor, whose many consecutive marriages titillated Western gossip mags, Zuma is a polygamist with four current wives. His second wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, herself a senior government minister, divorced him in 1998.

Zuma’s third wife committed suicide in 2000. Yet the president seems unlikely to stop his marrying ways.

He has paid lobola, the traditional bride price that signifies engagement, to the families of two more women.

By his wives, fiancées and at least four other women, Zuma has allegedly fathered at least 22 children. In evolutionary terms, polygyny and extramarital vigour are delivering Zuma high fitness.

But his polygyny is controversial. When Zuma made his first state visit to the UK in 2010, soon after his fifth marriage, most of the press coverage centred on his polygyny. But why should the Brits or anybody else care about the exotic domestic arrangements of a foreign head of state?

Are they, as Zuma’s supporters allege, just petty cultural imperialists intent on imposing their own bourgeois values on other cultures?

Mating arrangements and marriage customs vary enormously among societies, from strict lifelong monogamy, to shorter monogamous unions lasting a handful of years, to polygyny in which some men marry two or more women, to polyandrous marriages in which a woman takes two or more men – often brothers – as husbands. But what is the “natural” human mating system?

Some anthropologists and sex researchers point at our capacity for deep and profound pair bonds, and claim that humans are naturally monogamous.

Helen Fisher, one of the most influential popular writers on human sex, asks: “Is monogamy natural?” Her answer is: “Yes . . . among human beings polygyny and polyandry seem to be optional opportunistic exceptions; monogamy is
the rule.”

This message resonates with conservatives and fundamentalists, many of whom would have problems saying the word “evolution” without choking on their own bile, yet who cheerily assert that lifelong monogamy is the natural state of affairs.

Those who stray from the path of “one woman, one man” righteousness are not only sinners, according to the ancient gospels, but they also defile the order of nature.

But the evidence is just as strong that we are naturally polygynous and that men can love and bond with many wives, whereas women tend to bond with just one husband. This position is understandably popular with polygynous men and those men who aspire to emulate them.

More than four out of every five societies allow one man to be married to more than one woman at a time.

It might appear then that polygyny is pretty much the norm. Yet a minority of men in polygynous societies have more than one wife.

Many small polygynous tribes of a few hundred souls inflate the number of societies that permit polygyny. Indonesia, with 250 million people, is the most populous nation, where polygynous marriage is generally allowed, but most people alive today live in larger societies that do not legally permit polygyny.

To add to the confusion, good evidence also indicates that people are naturally promiscuous.

Marriages in many of the remaining hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies tend to last only a few years.

Many married men and women in modern societies entangle themselves in several sexual relationships at once, and our ancestors did the same, at least until the very recent advent of agriculture allowed men to accumulate property and wealth.

In my opinion, there really is no such thing as a single “natural mating system” for humans. Mating systems such as monogamy, polygyny and polyandry are mere pigeonholes that help us organise the mind-boggling variability we see in the world.

Evolution shapes the repertoires of behaviours that individual men and women are capable of, and especially how men and women use and adjust those behaviours to suit their circumstances.

As environmental circumstances like the abundance of food or the ratio of men to women change, so individuals will adjust their behaviour. As a result, the aggregated effects of modest shifts by individuals can effect quite big changes in broad patterns of behaviour.

Even within a single “mating system”, there is always a lot of variation among individuals. For example, in a so-called “polygynous society”, usually fewer than 10% of men have two or more wives.

Most men who are married are in monogamous marriages and there are many men who are not married at all.

Likewise, there are unmarried women, monogamously married women and women who are one of many wives married to polygynists.

Every one of these individuals is doing what they can to thrive and, usually, to reproduce. And our ancestors have negotiated an even wider range of roles every generation since sex evolved.

The institutions of marriage by which human societies regulate responsibility for children and property ownership do shape our mating patterns, but we should not be blinkered by these conventions into believing that they define our mating system.

Even in Western societies that allow only monogamous marriage, most people have more than one sexual partner throughout their lifetime.

In fact, most people have, at some time during their lives, more than one sexual partner at one time.

Men and women in monogamous long-term relationships or marriages seek out or fall into affairs and sexual liaisons: some that are
short term and some lasting many years.<>

These affairs are so common that strict sexual fidelity to one partner is probably by far the exception rather than the norm.
Even a simple category, like polygyny, can be richly complex; polygynists come in many shapes and forms.

Zuma, who is married to many wives at the same time, and the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who married 27 women in a single ceremony, can both unambiguously be considered polygynists. But marriage is irrelevant in evolutionary terms.

From an evolutionary point of view, Tiger Woods, who married Elin Nordegren yet had affairs with many other women, is also somewhat polygynous.

And Rod Stewart, who in succession either married or had long-term relationships with models Dee Harrington, Britt Eckland, Alana Hamilton, Kelly Emberg, Rachel Hunter and, most recently, Penny Lancaster-Stewart, is himself a model – for the special kind of polygyny we euphemistically call “serial monogamy”.

There are differences, but only in degree.

In modern Western societies, where people routinely enter and leave many long-term sexual relationships, nearly all men are polygynists – even if they are never unfaithful.

» Brooks is the author of Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll 

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