Though humans are quite different anatomically than other species on Earth, humans are neurologically connected and similar to the animal kingdom. Modern genetic research and DNA homology are showing there is no more than a <0.5% difference in DNA between all humans. The genetic difference between chimps and humans is only about <4%, about <10% with cats, and about <25% with mice. With so few genetic differences over more than 120,000 years, what can certain animals show us that mirror relationships between people, more importantly between intimate social-sexual relationships? How similar are we? How different do we try to make ourselves?
What Nature Shows Us
Various science organizations and university departments estimate there to be 3-30 million different animal species on Earth. Only 11 or 12 of those species are currently known to be (mostly) monogamous to their mate, i.e. 0.0000004% of Earth’s animal population. Of the closest-linked species to humans, the primates, only a large majority of the Gibbon apes fall in love for life with a rare few “divorcing.” All other primates happily philander and it is socially accepted. And at least fourteen species go outside heterosexual parameters for mating or breeding: humans, lions, whiptail lizards, boa constrictors, stick insects, flatworms, chinstrap penguins, sharks, deep-sea squid, bottlenose dolphins, black swans, Griffon vultures, Japanese macaques, and Bonobo chimpanzees.
Love is clearly anything but black and white. Who are the faithful eleven out of millions? Here they are…
Since the 1970’s the prairie vole has been cited as one of the premier models for animal monogamy. They rank right up there with 90% of birds who are the socially monogamous élite. But the case-study which ignited the love-vole citations, by Lowell Getz of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found one vole-couple out of twelve was not monogamous. Both voles of that couple had other partners in separate love-nests pulling double-duty. However, the other 83% of prairie voles – taking simply Getz’s research – appear to be quite the exception in a world of non-monogamous mammals. Only about 3% of mammals practice social monogamy according to psychologist David Barash and psychiatrist Judith Lipton. Anyone else would be hard pressed to prove their figure grossly incorrect in mammals. Why is it that mammals, particularly humans, find it difficult to mate for life?
Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly to some, mating habits and behavior can be linked to the relative size of the male testis. Studies have shown (in Journal of Evolutionary Biology 2005 and Animal Behavior 2004) that at least for the male mammals, the bigger the balls, the bigger their female appetites. Something to chew on ladies; pun may or may not be intended. If any of you have been in hundreds of “nocturnal social settings” as I have where there are two or more men with large grapes in their beanbag, the competition for women can get comical, even nasty sometimes! Can you say Coyote Very Ugly? But understand ladies, those are the male primate hormone genes behaving naturally over many a thousand years of evolution. To be fair however, many women, probably certain types of women, consciously or unconsciously, fuel and enhance that male competition with specific pheromones and mating behavior, right? Just answer yes. The similarities between human courting and mammalian courting are remarkably uncanny.
Merely Competition and Protection?
It has been argued that in species where the new offspring are vulnerable, the best strategy for survival is protection by both parents. This would seem to support the validity of monogamous systems, at least in the animal kingdom. But once again, this is not the case in some species. Female bears with cubs often chase off their male lover after the honeymoon is over for fear the father will kill the male cubs. Many zoologists believe this might be due to food and mating competition if too many bears, particularly male bears, are in close proximity of each other. In the case of hamsters, the cousin to prairie voles, female hamsters often slaughter and eat their sexual partners much like the female black-widow spider. Wow, talk about the consequences of “not performing to standards” huh? Are there cases like hamster and black-widow mating crime-scenes in the human courting-mating season? Hah! I’ll leave that discussion for another time.
This begs the question: Competition with who and protection from whom!? Yikes!
If anthropologists are able to find monogamous mating in only a small number of species, where else can they look? If you answered “in the Bible”, you would be wrong, or not entirely correct. Historically speaking, approximately 85% of all human cultures have been polygynous, allowing at least a number of men – the ones of social rank, or who could afford it or demand it – to have multiple sexual mates AND sire children by them. If you feel there is one exception, the Abrahamic religions, then again you would be wrong. King Solomon had an active harem with a thousand wives and concubines. The more informative and better question might be when, where, and how did any forms of monogamy rise?
Yes, a male helping protect and raise young to sustain survival is a plausible answer, except once again that doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case. Zoologists Tim Clutton-Brock and Dieter Lukas of Cambridge University found:
“…detailed field studies have found no evidence of any form of male contributions to care [for offspring] in 94 of 229 (i.e. 41%) socially monogamous species. Not to diminish the role of fathers, but their contributions to child rearing seem to be an afterthought, evolutionarily speaking.”
If Western binary cultures, or more precisely heterosexual cultures, are to bear witness to anything consistent, it is their divorce rate: rising. Heterosexual males and an increasing number of experimenting females in human mating or courting behaviors are showing no overwhelming evidence for healthy long-term monogamy for raising children to be 100% healthier in every case, emotionally, mentally, or physically than non-traditional pairings. The evidence is not there. And nailing down one cause to the evolving institution of marriage and human relationships is an exercise in finding the rabbit in a maze of rabbit holes.
But alas, biologists, geneticists, and psychologists are getting closer! They all know that dopamine-rich areas in the brain, associated with reward and motivation, are activated in romantic love. The chemical most linked to long-term, trusting love is oxytocin. Studies have consistently shown that by giving oxytocin to monogamously attached men caused them to stand farther away from attractive stunning women, by as much a six inches to a foot. Interestingly, that is about the distance of an erection, is it not?
The Fuller Spectrum of Love, Mates, and Mating
As if heterosexual mating in humans and nature isn’t already complicated enough, there are many species who, like humans, practice homosexual, bisexual, and asexual behavior. It may come as a surprise, but animals practicing these alternative behaviors seem to do it well – better than humans in certain cases. Here are ten of those most popular bisexual, homosexual, or asexual animals…
Perhaps one of the best known kinky romances in the animal kingdom was the chinstrap penguins Roy and Silo of the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan, NY. Here’s one version of the love-affair:
“Two penguins native to Antarctica met one spring day in 1998 in a tank at Central Park Zoo in midtown Manhattan. They perched atop stones and took turns diving in and out of the clear water below. They entwined necks, called to each other and mated. They then built a nest together to prepare for an egg. But no egg was forthcoming: Roy and Silo were both male.”
The zookeeper who caught and witnessed this behavior later took an egg from another pair of heterosexual penguins having trouble hatching it, and snuck it into Roy and Silo’s nest. Roy and Silo took turns on the egg warming it, and thirty-four days later a female chick broke her way out. Exactly like two hetero penguins, Roy and Silo raised the chick until she was ready to live and grow on her own.
In the warm humid climate of Zaire, Africa, there are a group of chimpanzee cousins called the Bonobos. What distinguishes them from their chimp cousins? Male dominance plays a major factor in chimp society. Conflict is resolved by males displaying threatening behavior or violent fighting; the winner rules over all females for sexual gratification, harassment, and procreation, including infanticide. The killings of chimp infants by the dominate-male removes potential competition while making a motherless female more available sooner for mating. Yet, in bonobos society there exist stronger bonds among all males, females, and infants. Bonobos use sex to reinforce bonds within the entire group and therefore have no apparent conflict within. Some of the evolutionary benefits of this type love-behavior are no infanticide, paternal obscurity removes the need for infanticide, and the bonding coalitions between females further protects their young from outside threats, which in turn further reinforces the groups survival. This makes a strong case for the concept strength in numbers…or better yet, strength in more loving numbers!
How much can humans learn from nature’s exhibit of love? If we seek not simply survival, but happier healthier survival, then we can learn a lot from nature; mammoth amounts in fact, if I may use the pun!
The Nature of Love?
If conclusions can be made about the scientific research of love-mating, its similarities and differences between animal species and humans, it is that many are sexually non-monogamous with various hetero and non-hetero behavior and by comparison few are sexually and socially monogamous and non-experimental with one mate. Neither behavior can be judged as better when so many million various species, including humans and their primate cousins, practice many love-types. The data seems to indicate that specific behavior functions best socially, and has functioned so over 120,000 years for the survival and healthiest growth of the species and future offspring.
Although written human history has shown that attempts to pigeon-hole humans into a purely binary “wanderer” or “pair-bounded” role – against their genetic neurological wiring – does eventually lead to perceived or actual social misbehavior, discord and instability, perhaps violence or death. When young women are monopolized by a privileged caste, it gives rise to a disaffected underclass of single men leading to crime and political instability, as Homer alludes, “a face that launched a thousand ships.” Subsequently, those groupings or civilizations reach higher risks of diminished numbers or extinction by revolution or war. Oh the power and influence of the vagina, eh?
Yet, in animal groupings or cultures that embrace both roles (and multiple ones) as valid, functional, and non-punishable passively or directly, have shown to possess more positive social and family structures; a very real equality (still elusive to human social-mating structures today) that indeed rules supreme. Hence, the result is a higher probability of healthier specie-survival and descendants.
With that said, it would seem to me that both monogamy and non-monogamy, whether sexual or social, serve an enormous life-giving life-sustaining purpose. It’s not a question of right or wrong, good or evil; they just are. As a progressive educated minister or priest might conclude, God wires us all in many different ways, not just one.
For further information on the subject of non-monogamous and non-traditional human relationships, feel free to read any number of my posts categorized to the right under Love, Intimacy, and Relationships. Or specifically…
I would love to read everyone’s thoughts, comments, and opinions below on what can be learned from our animal cohabitants and applied(?) in human love-mating. Don’t hold back!
For further research and reading, go to these sites, especially the last one from Yale University College of Science!
Homosexuality Activity Among Animals Stirs Debate — National Geographic
10 Animals that Practice Homosexuality — ListVerse.com
Are There Any Homosexual Animals — BBC Earth.com
5 Myths About Gay People Debunked — LiveScience.com
Do Animals Exhibit Homosexuality? — YaleScientific.org
Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always
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