Part 10: Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Wondrously Complex Paleo-Sex

This is the tenth(!) part on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the Introduction here.



In her new book “Paleofantasy,” Marlene Zuk (2013) takes on the notion that our diet, exercise, and mating Zuk Paleofantasypatterns are out of synch with our evolutionary biology. Some have argued that we have modified our environments too quickly for our own good, leading to the position that we would be better off if we could return to the days of old, before the modern world messed things up. There is probably some truth to this argument (an example I use in classes is that in only a few seconds, inserting $1.00 into a vending machine could return you over 400 empty calories bereft of other nutrients, a scenario our ancestors never encountered). But Zuk counters that the idea that we are stuck with hunter-gatherer bodies and minds in a modern world is overly simplistic.

Zuk notes that attempts to find health and happiness by returning to our idyllic, ancestral past (i.e., paleofantasies) face a few challenges. Among these are:

1. The methodological difficulties in determining exactly how our ancestors lived.
2. The variation among human groups across time and geography.
3. The idea that we were ever fully (perfectly?) adapted to our environment.
4. The fact that evolution does not stop; we are not ‘stuck’ evolutionarily in time.


 In sum, she writes:

“Paleofantasies call to mind a time when everything about us – body, mind, and behavior – was in sync with the environment. But as the previous pages have shown, no such time existed. ”(p. 270)


Similarly, in his review of the book, John Hawks had this to say:

“People coming to this book for “the right answer” about ancient environments are not going to find it. There is no right answer, at least not a scientific one, for many of the topics covered here.”

I wanted to apply some of these ideas to the “Humans are Blank-ogamous” series. I think Zuk (and Hawks) capture how hard it is to fully summarize what “the humans” are, because we live in so many different ecological and social circumstances, and because we are so behaviorally plastic. Unlike, say, “the condors,” “the cheetahs” or Lonesome George of Pinta Island, caution is required when we are tempted to make sweeping generalizations about our species. Instead, we’re forced to refer to “these humans, under these circumstances.”

In terms of our mating patterns, Zuk writes:

“Humans have successfully reproduced under a variety of mating systems, depending on where on the planet and when in our history one looks. As with diet, as with exercise, as with all the other features of out biology that people want to make a single “natural” way – we don’t have just one natural pattern of the sexes.” (p. 181)


To that point, Starkweather and Hames (2012) noted that polyandry (the practice of one woman having multiple husbands) previously had been underappreciated in the ethnographic record. Most researchers would labels humans as monogamous, serially monogamous, or slightly polygynous (ex. Dixson 2009; Fisher 2004). By contrast, Ryan and Jethá (2010) suggested that our sexuality has a lot in common with multi-male/multi-female chimpanzees and bonobos.  But the overlooking of polyandrous societies adds further to our complexity.


We are capable of all of the above, albeit not in equal frequencies. Therefore, looking to the past for guidance has some clear limitations. In Part 1 of this series, I cited Robert Sapolsky’s description of humans as neither monogamous or polygamous, but as “tragically confused.” Maybe that’s too bleak. Perhaps a more optimistic description might be “wondrously complex.” 




Dixson A. 2009. Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems. Oxford. Link

Fisher H. 2004. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic LovePutnam. Link

Ryan C, Jethá C. 2010. Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. Harper. Link

Starkweather, KE Hames R. 2012.  A survey of non-classical polyandry. Human Nature 23(2): 149-72. Link

Zuk M. 2013. Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live. Norton: New York. Link


  1. Part 1. Introduction Link
  2. Part 2. Promiscuity Link
  3. Part 3. Promiscuity (Genetics) Link
  4. Part 4. Promiscuity (Anatomy/Physiology) Link
  5. Part 5. Pair-Bonding and Romantic Love Link
  6. Part 6. Many Intimate Relationships Link
  7. Part 7. Is It Possible to Love Two People? Link
  8. Part 8. Love and Suffering Link
  9. Part 9. Love Is an Evolutionary Compromise  Link
  10. Part 10. Wondrously Complex Paleo-Sex Link



3 thoughts on “Part 10: Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Wondrously Complex Paleo-Sex

  1. It is interesting that we consider our variation and flexibility in other areas of life – cultures, diets, technologies – as assets in that they allow a single species to adapt to many circumstances. In fact, dietary diversity is probably one of the most essential things that has allowed us to exploit varied ecosystems. With mating patterns, however, things are different and cultural restrictions are tighter.

  2. I’m polyamorous and dating multiple people (currently 9 people), and I’d like to thank you for these posts. They were wonderful and insightful. It looked at the issue without many of the biases I see in people when dealing with this issue and was very informative. So, again, thank you. 🙂

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