Thanks Joe for an excellent well-reasoned article. One of the drawbacks of our tiny ape-brains is that we’re very poor at reasoning. That’s why nearly everyone falls for the false dichotomy trap, the either/or, the black/white oppositional thinking that results in poor outcomes every time. How many times have we heard the line: “there’s always two sides to every story?” In reality of course there is one side (factual) and a potentially infinite number of alternative accounts that are all to some degree or another fictional. But we aren’t hardwired to grasp shades of gray. The monogamy/harem argument is a classic example of this inability to deal with complexity, as is the “monogamy isn’t the problem, X is the problem” type of argument.
Sadly, evolution has played a bit of a trick on homo sapiens. There are many incontrovertible markers that show clearly we are a semi-monogamous species. Stuck in the uncomfortable middle we can neither use sexual behavior to create and maintain social bonds like bonobos, nor can we settle into fixed-mate arrangements like gorillas and (mostly) like gibbons. Our present social structures are a compromise between the needs of the individual and the needs of society, with the individual subordinated to society (even though hardly anyone understands this fact). But our present social structures resulted from haphazard and unconscious attempts to rectify earlier problems, and were most definitely not engineered consciously nor engineered with any awareness of our true natures.
In a rational world we’d begin to explore alternatives, experiment to see what kinds of results we achieve, and iterate until we could perhaps develop a range of options so as to minimize overall downside both for individuals and for society.
Alas, this isn’t how social change happens. Formal mythologies such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc. all enforce particular attitudes by decreeing what’s “acceptable” and informal mythologies such as the “entertainment” generated by for-profit entities such as Disney all influence people so that any real thinking about the core problem is precluded. Which is a shame, but which means we’ll keep blundering around in an unhappy fog. Except for the very few who realize it’s all a bit of a mistake, and seek alternatives that work better for them. No solution is likely to be perfect, but it’s not difficult to imagine individual solutions that are a great deal better than the status quo.