Is Monogamy Bad For Your Health?

Is Monogamy Bad For Your Health?

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It has been a while since I have written a post that takes me beyond my own comfort zone. It may take many others beyond theirs, as well! Not since I took on writing on the subject of religion have I felt challenged like this.

Monogamy and marriage are, for the majority of people, an unchallengeable part of being human. But there is something in me that forces me to question everything. No matter what.

I read this book recently: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. It talks about the evolution of monogamy in humans and human mating systems. They say that having multiple sexual partners was common and accepted  when we were hunter-gatherers, before agriculture made us settle down permanently. According to the authors, sex was promiscuous and paternity was of no concern, like the mating system of our closest primate relative – Bonobos. Far from causing jealousy, sexual relations actually strengthened trust, social equilibrium and reciprocation within social groups.

If you look into Bonobo sexual social behaviour, it reveals even more. Sex plays a major role in Bonobo society: it’s used as a greeting, to bond socially, to resolve conflicts, and to make up after a fight. Bonobos do not form permanent monogamous pairs and do not discriminate in their sexual behaviour. Anyone in the local community will do, anywhere, any time. Basically, for all they are primates, they are ‘at it’ like rabbits. Bonobos are the only non-human animal that engages in a whole range of ‘human’ sexual practices – including french kissing.

The Bonobo has a very interesting immune system. For example, the Bonobo does not suffer from the widespread Simian Immunodeficiency Virus that infects some 45 other species of primate. How the Bonobo does this is presently unknown, but it does set them apart. It is also interesting to note that despite promiscuity there is little evidence to support the heavy existence of bacterial STDs in Bonobo populations. The likely reason for this is that Bonobos are promiscuous within their own tight knit community rather than cross communities like humans are currently. They are a paradigm shattering species that offers a unique window into human evolution.

This triggered a thought: what if Bonobo sexual social behaviour was a deliberate evolutionary system for creating group immunity? What if the Bonobos, like our ancestors, are simply enacting sexual behaviours that not only bind a society emotionally and physically, but also have a powerful health benefit?

I remember seeing a study on how kissing transfers bacteria. Scientists swabbed couples’ tongues and saliva to look at the composition of the microorganisms that live in your mouth. Researchers calculated that 80 million bacteria were transferred during a 10-second kiss.

So this is my crazy hunch. I see a link between this and an emerging area of health that looks set to transform everything. I’ve been spending a lot of time researching into the impact of the human biome on health. A friend of mine, James Maskell, recently gave a TEDx talk in my community that suggested that the human biome was one of the 3 areas that could revolutionise the future of healthcare.

The human microbiome is a collection of microbes, bacteria, fungi, and viruses found living in and on the human body – in our saliva, sweat, gut and other places. This complex ecosystem is unique to each individual. We actually contain far more bacterial cells than human cells, and yet conventional medicine does not consider its impact on these communities that cohabit with us. Scientists are discovering just how important these resident microbes are to our health and wellbeing, particularly in maintaining our immune systems, contributing to the digestion of our food, and acting as a first line of defence against pathogens. Many diseases may be the result of disturbed microbiomes.

Antibiotics, vaccines and other chemicals are upsetting our natural immunity. Over the next few years, we will see an explosion of knowledge and new health solutions coming from the work of organisations like the Human Biome Project and uBiome. Prescribing bacteria rather than carpet bombing them with antibiotics will rapidly become of the main ways we treat health problems in the future. And through that shift in approach, we are going to see radically improved health outcomes for patients worldwide.

While we wait for this incredible change, it might be time to get back to basics and consider how our ancestors interacted in order to maintain good health.

My conclusion begs the questions:

  • Has our rejection of the hunter-gather mating system negatively impacted on our health?
  • If we follow the Paleo Diet, should we go further?
  • Should we sharing our sexual partners to benefit our health and wellbeing?
  • Will questioning some of our taboos lead to a much healthier – and more peaceful – planet?

All I know is that whenever we deviate from our hunter-gatherer past, elements of our biology seem to break. The way we live, educate, interact, eat, and connect have all radically changed in relatively recent times, by evolutionary standards. We are only now beginning to understand the societal consequences of these recent changes.

The fastest way to improve our health may be to let go of something we hold dear. Ending the era of monogamy could be one of the biggest health opportunities available to us as a human race.

This post is as much a provocation for discussion as anything else! I would love to know your comments in the comments section below. I would also love to see some more research commissioned in this area.

Marc

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  1. Female life expectancy goes down on marriage, and male life expectancy goes up.

  2. Really enjoy all your posts….this one in particular has got me thinking. I find myself defending Monogamy from a support/power viewpoint. I know very little about Bonobo’s but surely the bond of unconditional love between two individuals and their collective power would outweigh any potential questionable health benefits…Also, an ill thought question on my part but not sure how this reduces jealousy and strengthen trust…?

    • There is an argument to say that unconditional love can extend further than just two individuals. Certainly some egalitarian human hunter gather tribes still in existence have successfully tackled the jealousy/trust thing. The concept of sharing everything is hard wired into their social structures.

    • Kellie Brooks says

      Not sure where I stand or sway on this topic yet… what I do have is curiosity around the concept of “unconditional love.” Wouldn’t it be conditional to say love looks like “this” and not like “that?” If we remove ideas of ownership (he / she is *mine*) couldn’t that be considered free of conditions? And does jealousy only exist within the framework of ownership and conditions?

      Digging deep within with so many questions to piece this concept apart… and see what’s left.

  3. You’re overlooking one very important part of graph theory and immunology: the more interconnected a graph is (social or otherwise), the more easily a communicable threat (a disease in this case) can spread across most or all of the population. There’s a threshold mean node degree (branching factor, number of sexual partners in this case) above which it becomes impossible to break the graph into quarantinable cliques. Bonobos probably have high immunity to SIV precisely because they had to evolve that defense to counter the complete-connectedness of their sexuosocial graph.

  4. Hi Marc,

    Really interesting, will definitely share! I love the way you are always on the cutting edge of thought, even if it is uncomfortable.

    james

  5. This blog has inspired me to go and bum a bonobo! The last time man mixed with ape we unfortunately got HIV for our efforts. I think if I tweak my technique this time, perhaps with a reach-around I may become superhuman!

  6. Human do not do monogamy well. That is a fact of life. We need to accept that and get over it….

  7. Really interesting article, and judging the other comments, pushing the rights buttons.
    I did not think about the Immunity benefits of sexual openness, but I have thought about how rationalizations about STDs are just a sign of hidden (Christianity based?) sexual repression.
    I have worked in the medical field and find it surprising, how different diseases are judged -even if they carry similar risk- depending on if they are transmitted sexually or not.

    Compare Tuberculosis with Syphilis. Both severe and in some populations common diseases, that can lead to death without treatment.
    Tuberculosis is transmitted through air – meaning through common human interactions like sharing a train with 100 strangers.
    Syphilis is transmitted through contact in mucus membrane – meaning through the common human interactions like having sex with another person.

    But he later comes with a negative moral judgment for the infected. Society demands: stops interacting sexually with more than one human being in your life (even if emotionally unhealthy).
    But we would never demand people only sharing trains with just one person one knows (and yes, we could construct society this way if given priority).

    Yes, STDs are an issue, but the permanent ones (like HIV and Hepatitis) can be prevented through condoms and the others are treatable, just like many other infections. Life is not risk free atm!

    If you are not judging all disease for their health impact the same, I suspect you have sexual hangups.

  8. I realized that living in open relationships was massively liberating for. I was a challenging growth process, but the honest communication comes with it, makes relationship much closer. An example: I can and do tell my girlfriend if I am attracted to some else. In most monogamous relationships this is not considered cheating, but intentionally hidden – dishonest communication.
    Not having to suppress my basic human desires, even is old society demands it, started for me the process of liberation to form a society with morals appropriate for our times: sex can be decoupled from having a baby that needs a family. So nowadays we can enjoy the other benefits of sex like bonding, relaxation, spiritual growth and (immune boost?) without guilt – if we decide to.

  9. Adding to the point of the importance of the biome:
    On century old technique is rediscovered for its quick and impressive healing effects:
    stool transplants!

  10. I am very fortunate to be amongst the seemingly too few being enlightened by the collective collaboration of many Summit events online and via other media. A great example of what lies ahead has been, is, and will continue through the Evolution of Medicine Summit, et al.

  11. An Alien told me:

    Pair bonding is vastly different than the instinctive desire to randomize genetic material.

    Your species pair bond emotionally for the sake of ensuring that your helpless, young offspring are protected/cared for, and then fornicates with various others due to instinctive drive to ensure survival of your species.

    A female of your kind needs the familial and communal benefits to raise young humanoids, but having offspring with the sperm from many different males guarantees a good, random gene pool.

    All early vertebrates we evolved on your world millions of years ago exhibited this same behavior. This is by design.

    Male to male and female to female sexual interaction is due to alpha-beta lead-role desires, as well as self-fascination with your own sexual response. A curious side effect of our bio-engineering team’s coding.

    So please, continue to “boff” as many as possible, but maintain the pair bonds. It will assist us in raising robust slaves for the upcoming colonization we’re planning for on oxygen-laden planets in other sectors of the galaxy.

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