In his Nov. 22 Times Op-Ed article, “Monogamy isn’t easy, naturally,” biologist David P. Barash claims that because monogamy is rare in the animal world, it is therefore unnatural behavior for humans. The logic of the argument is critically flawed.
In stating that dedication to a single individual is “against” human nature and that no one is “cut out for monogamy,” Barash fails to recognize that the human is unlike any other creature on the planet. Comparing our behavior patterns to birds or animals may, at times, prove helpful in understanding our species, but it should not be used to determine what is and what is not “natural” for humans. In many remarkable ways, we are unique in the animal kingdom. No other creature, after all, builds highways, temples or spacecraft. To call such accomplishments “unnatural,” however, would be ridiculous.
Barash points to the sexual habits of swans and penguins to support his argument that monogamy in humans is somehow perverse. I am no ornithologist, but I know that the life span of a wild swan is seven years; the penguin’s is 15 to 20. At age 7, the average human child is nowhere near halfway grown. At 15, the human is very much an adolescent. Unlike any other creature on Earth, raising a human child requires an exceptional amount of time and attention. Few would argue with the fact that the long-term participation of both mother and father is essential to the development of the young human. Monogamy in humans, rather than being the unnatural behavior Barash describes, seems to be a naturally occurring virtue that helps our children grow and our complex species evolve.
Barash makes the blanket statement that “there can be no serious debate about whether monogamy is natural for human beings. It isn’t.” As such, he shuts down the discussion and provides the perfect alibi for adulterers such as Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford and John Edwards.
Despite an apparent crisis within our society, monogamy is surprisingly common in the history of human evolution. Learning from the bones of our primitive cousins to the text of our ancient ancestors, we discover that dedication to family has been common among humans of many places and many ages. As we Americans watch the high-profile marriages of Tiger Woods and David Letterman crumble, let us not forget to look in amazement at couples such as Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, and Oprah Winfrey and Stedman Graham, who have preserved their dedication to one another despite all of the world’s temptations.
It is an understatement for Barash to say that “monogamy isn’t easy.” Love is a battlefield. The belief that it is somehow “right wing” or “unnatural,” however, is not only false, it is also harmful to the future of our society -- most notably, our children.
Monogamy is not for everyone; it is certainly not for the weak of heart. As a mother and wife, I understand the difficulties of staying with a single individual through many years and many ordeals. My husband and I get into arguments that make the Gosselins’ look like the Cleavers’. There are times when it would be much easier to walk away and discover something new. But somehow, as if by instinct, I am always drawn back home. And it is there, in a warm, trustworthy embrace, that I know my family is the most beautiful thing in the world. In my opinion, there could be nothing more unnatural than transgressing that kind of endless love. As rebuttal to Barash’s statement that no one is “cut out for monogamy,” I proudly assert, “I am.”
Sharon M. Scott, a writer living in Louisville, Ky., is the author of “Toys and American Culture: An Encyclopedia.”