The Science Behind Monogamy

Thursday, August 01, 2013


Here's a longstanding mystery: Why are so few mammals monogamous?

For humans and many mammals, having a single, lifelong mate is extremely rare, except for some higher order primates.

What was the evolutionary pathway to monogamy? Two studies published this week suggest an answer.

While we might think of monogamy as all about women demanding loyalty from the roaming, shall we say, Anthony Weiner-like proclivities of men, these studies suggest that men might need monogamy more from an evolutionary context.

One study in the journal Science suggests that a small number of available females among early primates encouraged males to select a single mate and maintain loyalty as a survival mechanism.

Another study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that males are imprinted to be monogamous as a response to the threat of infanticide by staying near their child’s mother after birth.

The latter conclusion came from analyzing the behavior patterns of more than 200 primates.

Kit Opie, evolutionary anthropologist at University College London was the lead author on the study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He joins The Takeaway to discuss his research.


Dr. Kit Opie


T.J. Raphael

Comments [3]

jgarbuz from Queens

There is no "science of monogamy" because it is purely a MAN-made institution meant to keep some peace and "fairness." Once humans were able to make tools and weapons, the violent competition over turf and access to females turned very murderous. So the institution of marriage was implemented, as were taboos against murder, adultery and later on polygamy in some regions. Or at least limited the number of females a man could legally lay claim to.

Aug. 07 2013 11:45 AM
Stephanie from Portland, OR

Hmmm. I am willing to believe that a male ape might be less likely to kill the offspring of a female he is especially fond of, but isn't it a bit of a stretch to claim an ape is less likely to kill an infant he believes he's fathered? Seriously? There are HUMANS who don't understand the mechanics of reproduction (yes, some U.S. lawmakers, but I'm thinking more specifically of tribes where women sleep with multiple partners hoping to imbue their babies with best qualities of each man.) This anthropologist's argument hinges upon the idea of an ape being able to understand both how conception works and being able to make a connection between the appearance of a newborn ape and an interlude which occurred six or seven months prior. Not very likely. I strongly suspect the concept of paternity does not even exist in the ape world.

Aug. 01 2013 05:46 PM
Brian from Austin, Texas USA

The appearance of monogamy is to a woman's benefit. Random DNA sampling, tissue matching, blood typing and various other tests frequently show that between 20% and 30% of children are not genetically related to the alleged father. Females sneaking sex with other males is a well documented fact of nature in both animals and humans.

Let him think that he is the father so he will provide support and protection.

Aug. 01 2013 12:57 PM

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