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Sociobiology, which seeks to understand the social behavior of animals (including humans) in terms of its biological or genetic basis, began in the 1960s, and became widespread after E.O Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975. Since its inception, it has been the subject of a great deal of controversy. Eminent biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin were particularly harsh in their criticisms. They argued that while biology of course has some influence on social behavior, the genetic determinism that they claimed was propounded by sociobiologists, is false. There is, they said, no simple, straightforward and one to one relationship between genes and complex social behavior, especially in humans. Rather, one’s biology leaves open a wide variety of possible behaviors all of which are compatible with genetic makeup. Partly in response to this controversy, sociobiologists, now often referred to as evolutionary psychologists, have, they claim, suggested a richer and more complex relationship between behavior, genes and environment.
The husband and wife team of Barash and Lipton fall squarely within this sociobiology/evolutionary psychology tradition (although, interestingly, they are on the left of the political spectrum in contrast to most within this field who tend to have more conservative social views). In an earlier book, The Myth of Monogamy, they used this explanatory framework to explore monogamy, arguing that ``monogamy is extremely rare in the animal world, and that it simply isn`t `natural` for animals or human beings`` (13). Evidence in support of this claim comes first from the fact that, e.g., “out of about 4,000 mammal species, only a handful have ever been called monogamous”(27). The reason for this, they claim, is that being promiscuous, even when ‘mated’, has biological advantages and hence would be a selected for trait. This is perhaps obvious in males since having sex with lots of females increases his chances for more children and hence for passing along his genes. Though the case is more complex and indirect for female infidelity, in many animal species a combination of presents, like food, and protection of their offspring serves to make females as well as males engage in extra pair coupling. This is confirmed by DNA evidence, which shows that offspring are often not the product of the coupled male’s sperm.
Barash and Lipton are quick to point out that natural is not synonymous with good (23), nor is what is natural inevitable. Indeed, many things that are not natural -- like playing a flute -- can be well worth pursuing though they will take much time and effort (24). In a series of short chapters, they discuss ways in which monogamy can make sense for an animal, human or otherwise. For example, In Chapter 4 (57-69), they discuss how monogamy can aid in bi-parental care. Such care is especially necessary in species where infants are exceedingly helpless, such as in many bird species and, of course, in humans. Another example is reciprocity, discussed in Chapter 5 (71-85). As mentioned above, one of the threats to monogamy is that there often seems to be a biological advantage to cheating because doing so, for males at least, can produce more offspring. In game theory, this has been called the defect, or non-cooperation strategy. While pursuing such strategies in the short term may make sense, pursuing them with others over longer periods of time produces sub-optimal results. As the old saying goes, once bitten, twice shy, so defectors or cheaters simply aren’t trusted enough to allow into cooperative ventures. But these ventures often have tremendous benefits not available for individuals on their own. As a result, individuals will behave monogamously as the price to be paid for the benefits of cooperation.
In Chapter 9 (109-128), Barash and Lipton discuss some fascinating (though speculative) material on ways in which our brains may be hard-wired toward monogamy. They discuss this issue under four different headings: attachment theory, neuroplasticity, mirror neurons, and hormones. Very briefly, attachment theory states that our relationships are built upon our first relationship with our mothers when we were helpless. Neuroplasticity is the theory that our brains can develop new pathways on the basis of our experiences and that our brains can even grow new cells. Mirror neurons are motor neurons that fire when we witness similar behaviors in others, and are thought to be important in our ability to empathize. Finally, the hormones in question -- oxytocin and vasopressin -- are thought to have a part to play in making us behave socially. Barash and Lipton summarize their thoughts on these processes/materials and their relation to monogamy in the passage below.
Human beings have a profound need for attachment, beginning in infancy and continuing through adulthood. The benefits of attachment [apply] ... to childhood ... and adults as well. Attachment itself (at any age) is encouraged by standard psychological processes, such as reward and punishment, and facilitated as well by mirror neurons, which, by promoting empathy, make for benevolent, prosocial, interpersonal connections. All the while, these connections are being literally structured by the brain`s capacity for neural plasticity, in which nerve cells grow and brain regions develop in response to the continued interaction that defines attachment. And waiting in the wings, ready to provide an encouraging chemical environment, are those love-potion hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin, along with their gene-based receptors (128).
Strange Bedfellows is a clearly written, insightful small book filled with lots of wonderful examples of animal behavior. While it may not be wholly convincing regarding the extent to which human mating behavior is influenced (let alone determined) by our biology, as opposed to our environment (not to mention free will), it is well worth the read.
Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, Cape Breton University, Sydney, NS, Canada