I am currently reading a fascinating collection of responses to the question “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” asked to 150 of the world’s brightest minds. It’s the Edge Question 2012, and the responses are both online and assembled into John Brockman’s book, “This Explains Everything.”
After reading the first few answers positing obvious candidates such as DNA and natural selection, I turned the page and read, “The Overdue Demise Of Monogamy.” Now you have my attention. Any friend of mine or reader of this blog understands how strongly I feel that closed relationships are outmoded and are motivated by base impulses that we would be well-served to diminish. Then I read the author, the infamous Aubrey De Grey. Well, this should be interesting, indeed.
And it is. De Grey makes some of the points I have made in countless forums and to countless people. His thesis here, however, is reflexive equilibrium of morality. He chooses monogamy to illustrate the point because of the “most critical juncture” in which we find ourselves.
Monogamy today compares with heterosexuality not too many decades ago, or tolerance of slavery 150 years ago: quite a lot of people depart from it, a much smaller minority actively advocate the acceptance of departure from it, but most people advocate it and disparage the minority view.
This certainly seems to be true. Divorce is common, “cheating” rampant, fornication accepted as the norm, and “alternative lifestyles” are increasingly a subject in popular media. While this would have horrified me as a religionist, it gives me a sense of hope as a humanist.
An argument from reflective equilibrium always begins with identification of the conventional views with which one then makes a parallel. In this case it’s all about jealousy and possessiveness. Consider chess, or drinking. These are activities that are rarely solitary pursuits; one does them with someone else; in some such cases (chess more often than drinking!), with just one other person at a time. Now: is it generally considered reasonable for a friend with which one sometimes plays chess to feel aggrieved when one plays chess with someone else? Indeed, if someone exhibited possessiveness in such a matter—displeasure at one’s chess partner having other chess partners—would they not be viewed as unacceptably overbearing and egotistical?
Tennis is usually my preferred example, but the idea is the same. Those who advocate for “monogamy” make all kinds of nonsensical faux-arguments for why sex should enjoy primal status among social activities. A demand for closing a relationship should be viewed with great suspect and as a desperate and insecure request by someone clearly not ready to be in a healthy relationship based on mutual love and respect.
Every single society in history has seen a precipitous reduction in fertility following its achievement of a level of prosperity that allowed reasonable levels of female education and emancipation. Monogamy is virtually mandated when a woman spends her entire adult life with young children underfoot, because continuous financial support cannot otherwise be ensured. But when it is customary for those of both sexes to be financially independent, this logic collapses.
Is the end of monogamy inevitable? I certainly hope so. You can read the entire piece by visiting the “online” link above and searching for “monogamy.”