The nature vs. nurture debate will always be with us poor cultured apes. Only very rarely can we lay the blame for our behaviour on genetic programming. A typical issue is that of monogamy.
I happened upon two bloggers (here and here) who argue that humans are polygamous (“everybody’s built to screw around”), or at least polygynous (“men are built to screw around”), by nature. They base this assertion on the results of research showing that a) somewhere between a percent and a third of all babies show genetic evidence of having been sired by someone else than their officially alleged progenitor, b) the pupils at one high school proved amazingly promiscuous over a 6-month period. The bloggers also taught me a cute acronym for adultery: EPC, “extra-pair copulation”.
Now, I find all this very interesting, but as always with evolutionary psychology, I wonder what kind of truth claims these statements about human “nature” really are.
Humans are air-breathers, no doubt about it. Humans are diurnal creatures. Humans are omnivores. All these are reasonably uncontroversial biological claims about humans. But can we say with the same kind of certainty that humans are polygamous? I think that’s pretty close to saying that humans are Mozart fans by nature or that humans like hamburgers by nature. Beyond the basics, it’s actually very hard to disentangle nature and culture.
Humans choose, and that means we’re responsible. Very few wives would accept “My genes made me do it” as an excuse when they catch their husbands cheating. And the research I mentioned suggests that most women actually choose to get impregnated by their steady partners, no matter how friendly the mailman is. It strikes me as an odd interpretation to suggest that the reason that most babies are sired by their mom’s steady partner is that culture conditions women (against their nature) to turn down the friendly mailman. I’d like to suggest another interpretation: humans have free will, and some screw around a lot, some very rarely, and some not at all beyond the officially sanctioned serial monogamy that most cultures cultivate.
I’m a happily married man myself — second marriage. I still look fondly at women in the street, but given all the grief and hassle an EPC would cause, I limit myself in practice to frequent and enthusiastic IPC. Does this mean that I am a polygynous ape acting against my nature? I’d say it means I’m a human who’s pretty happy with the social mores favoured by his culture. But culture isn’t forcing me to be monogamous, and my genes couldn’t force me to be polygamous. I choose. And if you saw my wife, you’d realise that my choice is a pretty easy one.