Monogamy - Myth or Magic?

Who thinks that swans and penguins and voles are monogamous? Well, the voles (so far) are still soul mates for life, but as for the swans and penguins and the vast majority of other animals (including birds and insects), science is dispelling our favorite beliefs.

If, in fact, there is virtually no monogamy in the animal kingdom, should humans still be paired off for life? The short answer is yes, they should. Otherwise, who would need romance novels?

The longer answer is…well, you decide.

Swans have long been viewed as a romantic symbol of lifelong devotion. Not only are they beautiful and graceful, but they supposedly mate for life. Nope. Scientists in Australia tested the DNA of baby swans and discovered that 1 in 6 were not fathered by the male partner. That is so disappointing, you swans!

And, of course, this finding leaves open the possibility that the female swan is getting additional nookie which doesn’t result in pregnancy. So how loyal are they? Maybe no more so than humans.

More than any other animal, birds are very likely to form pair bonds to breed. But they cheat, apparently quite widely. One study found that when male blackbirds were given vasectomies (to control the population), their partners were still hatching fertilized eggs. Naughty blackbirds!

DNA testing (of many bird species) has revealed that up to 40% of baby birds were not fathered by the resident male. Apparently birds practice social monogamy, but not sexual monogamy. Another myth busted.
(Yes, science does take the romance out of a lot of things.)

Many people believe in the lifetime pairing of penguins, at least partly because of a recent popular movie. The good news about penguins is that they do form an annual bond during the breeding season. For some varieties of penguins, the bond only lasts for one season. For others, they will return to their breeding grounds and, if the female finds the same male easily, she'll choose him. It's not quite a marriage, but it's not promiscuity, either.

But, how cute is that picture? Penguins actually walk many miles from their feeding grounds in the sea, back to where the nest, or baby penguin is. They do make a big effort to successfully raise their young. They alternate care of the egg and the baby, and they don't seem to fight about who's doing the chores, either!

Of the thousands of mammal species, only 3-5% form lifelong pair bonds. (Wolves do, which makes them excellent shapeshifters, but if a wolf’s partner dies or becomes sexually unavailable, they move on pronto.)

In the animal kingdom, you can find any type of pairing "normal" to some species. There are birds which practice polyandry. That is, one female bonds with several males. Hmmmm, maybe this isn't such a bad deal. Except, when you add children to the mix, I would venture to say the female will never know another moment of peace.

There are many more animals which practice polygyny, where one male is bonded with several females. Elk, horses, baboons and yes, men (a little redundant when I've already mentioned baboons).

And some animals are just outright Cassanovas – never making even a pretense of a bond – call this the hump and dump category. This group includes bears, chimps, and the (appropriately named) wildebeests. I guess we have to add men to this list, too. Yup, seems like the human male can fit in every category. (I don't really mean to pick on men. Females seem to be equal opportunity cheaters everywhere in the animal kingdom.)

Which brings me to the bottom line. Any type of pairing can be found, both in nature, and among humans. So why are we so enamoured of monogamy (a product of Western civilization, btw)?

It is believed that monogamy is important in humans because of the long childrearing stage, where the presence of two attentive parents is useful in helping the child reach adulthood. I wonder if, as society takes over more of a role in providing for children, will this be true 200 years from now? What do you think?

Also, is the raising of children the only reason for monogamy among humans? Or do we have a different emotional need to form a bond that lasts for life? The consumption of romance novels would indicate we have a strong need to seek and achieve a long lasting emotional bond with a mate. What do you think?


Nicole North said...

Great post! I love to watch educational TV programs about this subject, and I've seen a few good ones. According to the scientists, it all goes back to survival of the species. Strong emotional attachments between human parents are supposed to assist them in raising more offspring. But I'm a romantic at heart (and love monogamy), so I ignore the science behind the magic most of the time. :)

Hannah said...

I always find discussions like this one interesting, especially as someone who has consciously chosen to be responsibly non-monogamous in my own romantic life. Is it nature that's responsible, or a desire to have my cake and eat it too (so to speak)? I don't think it matters much. The great thing about being human is we can choose what works for us, not just what our biology tells us to do.

Carly Carson said...

Nicole and Hannah,

What I found interesting in researching this was that Nature seems to have living things doing all kinds of pairing. Nature doesn't seem to care, except for insuring pair bonds last through the child raising stage. Maybe Mother Nature is a fan of tolerance.

kalbright12 said...

This is a great blog and interesting topic! Who would have ever questioned that myth?? Only a writer LOL. (or a bird lover). Thanks for posting it.

Carly Carson said...


Those birds are all so cute! I want to believe they are so in love with each other, don't you?