An evolutionary biologist reflects on Eliot Spitzer’s extramarital encounters (and, now, it appears that of his successor, David A. Paterson, as well) in an op-ed piece in the LA Times (via Arts & Letters Daily). David Barash writes:
One of the most startling discoveries of the last 15 years has been the extent of sexual infidelity (scientists call it “extra-pair copulations” or EPCs) among animals long thought to be monogamous. It’s clear that social monogamy — physical association and child rearing between a male and a female — and sexual monogamy are very different things. The former is common; the latter is rare.
He goes on to note the biological and evolutionary foundations for male strayings and also observes that from the perspective of women, ” Power-as-pheromone is pretty much the default.” Thus, putting the two together, it is no surprise that humans seem by nature to be polygamus.
Not surprisingly, before the homogenization of cultures that resulted from Western colonialism, more than 85% of human societies unabashedly favored polygamy. In such societies, men who accumulate power, wealth and status gain additional wives and consorts. In avowedly monogamous cultures, successful males accumulate a wife and often additional girlfriends. Even if, thanks to birth control technology, they do not actually reproduce as a result (and thus enhance their evolutionary “fitness”), they are responding to the biological pressures that whisper within men.
He also includes this amusing anecdote:
A story is told in New Zealand about the early 19th century visit of an Episcopal bishop to an isolated Maori village. As everyone was about to retire after an evening of high-spirited feasting and dancing, the village headman — wanting to show sincere hospitality to his honored guest — called out, “A woman for the bishop.” Seeing a scowl of disapproval on the prelate’s face, the host roared even louder, “Two women for the bishop!”