“Miller is a bit naïve here. He does not seem to notice that, as a general rule, polyamory eventually becomes polygyny.”
One of the great critics of monogamy in the 19th century, Karl Marx, did as he preached. He was married with children but did not waste time in having an affair with the family’s maid. But, he was only halfway consistent, for he never had the guts to tell his wife that his disdain for monogamy was not just in writing, but also in deeds. He, thus, went to great lengths to conceal the child the escapade with the maid had produced, and he lived a double life.
Geoffrey Miller, a renowned evolutionary psychologist, is more consistent. He has been teaching courses on the psychology of polyamory, and, in a recent piece in Quillette, he summarizes his views, arguing that this lifestyle is becoming increasingly popular—and we must accept it. He is not necessarily harsh in his critiques of monogamy, but he does believe that alternative lifestyles, such as polyamory, are equally valid. And, unlike Marx, he is not living a double life. He is quite frank in telling his fiancée that he is open to having other sexual partners. He also seems capable of overcoming jealousy, and is, thus, accepting of his fiancé having intercourse with other men.
People who engage in this kind of lifestyle are beginning to come out. Outsiders cannot help but wonder if this is just another histrionic movement in this age of identity politics. Few millennials want to be put in the box of white, heterosexual, cisgender identity, so some people may embrace polyamory just to make some political statement and wear a badge of honor in the culture wars. Rejecting monogamy would be just another ‘I-am-holier-than-thou’ ploy, or “virtue signaling,” as Miller himself calls it. Miller is not the typical anti-system progressive. He is a libertarian, and, as such, he just wants to live and let live. As long as open relationships are consensual, there is no harm.
I am afraid that Miller romanticizes polyamory too much. Miller acknowledges that polyamory is hard because—alas—jealousy is deeply-wired into our human nature. In this regard, Miller is much more reasonable and consistent with evolutionary logic, than Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn, which dubiously argues that humans are not naturally jealous. But, Miller thinks that this natural disposition can be overcome, just as we control anger or moodiness.
Jealousy was an evolutionary advantage because males do not have paternity certainty. So, a husband is very possessive of his wife because he cannot run the risk of supporting offspring that will not carry his genes. But, Miller argues that, with contraception, this is no longer a problem. A married couple can have intercourse in order to conceive a child, and in the meantime, the woman can have sex with a partner wearing a condom; in that case, the husband has nothing to fear.
But, it seems to me that the function of jealousy goes beyond the paternity uncertainty aspect. Yes, with discipline, we can control many emotions. But, jealousy is not entirely a bad thing, so I wonder why we must get rid of it in the first place. Admittedly, jealousy can release our inner Othello, and, as a result, we can do incredibly destructive things. But, jealousy is also the foundation for love and care. When you know that something or someone belongs exclusively to you, you take better care of it. Quite frequently, shared things are ultimately neglected. This is what economists call the “tragedy of the commons,” and it was among the causes of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Having fled from a country brought to ruins by socialism, I have seen this economic phenomenon closely. But even on a more anecdotal and intimate side, I have seen that guys who share female lovers are less willing to go to the gynecologist with the lover and such, than those men who do have the privilege of exclusivity.
Miller also acknowledges that monogamy was an important aspect of civilization building, as it helped control violence. If you prevent one powerful man from accumulating wives, all other men are happy because they have a better shot at finding a wife. So, in this regard, polygyny is bad. But, Miller counters that defenders of monogamy “confuse polyamory with polygyny. Polygyny makes it harder for lower-mate-value men to find partners, but polyamory actually makes it easier, because these guys don’t have to be good enough to be a woman’s primary partner.”
Miller is a bit naïve here. He does not seem to notice that, as a general rule, polyamory eventually becomes polygyny. Evolutionary psychologists have long known that women seek more status in mates and are choosier than men. In technical jargon, this is called “female hypergamy.” In the end, women will not mind sharing a man with other women, as long as that man has a high status and is a strong provider. And, being satisfied with the resources from that man, very seldom will they have intercourse with lower status men. Even when none of this is enforced and all relationships remain open, the natural course of things will still be that powerful men get a large number of women, whereas the less powerful remain involuntarily celibate. We are now becoming painfully aware of what these involuntary celibates (Incels) are capable of doing. As I have argued in another piece, polyamory is not a good solution to the Incel problem; only monogamy is.
Miller also believes that polyamory makes sexual things more interesting. He is basically repeating Engels’ claim that all that monogamy achieves is, “conjugal partnership of leaden boredom.” By contrast, in Miller’s words, “… interactions with ‘secondary partners’ can put the spark back into the marriage bed. Polyamorous people have incentives to sustain their mate value—to stay more energetic, vivid, and attractive.”
To be sure, sexuality in monogamy can be tedious, and this is not a minor factor in the divorce epidemic our society faces. But, I am not totally convinced that polyamory would make things better. In monogamy, you need to make an effort to keep your partner satisfied because he or she can always run off with a lover. If you are not the jealous type, and come to think that it is fine for your partner to be with someone else, then you lose the incentive to keep your partner satisfied exclusively in your own bed. Again, the tragedy of the common comes into play: shared things tend to be neglected.
There is, of course, great hypocrisy in monogamy, and this was one of Marx and Engels’ strongest arguments to begin with. Miller is quite aware of this and points to the fact that conservatives have more fantasies about threesomes and group sex than liberals. Yet, Miller leaves out that men fantasize about this much more than women. This is natural, given that men are more interested in having multiple sexual partners, whereas women are more interested in mating with high status men. Evolutionarily, it makes sense: a man has a lot to gain from multiple partners because they can all spread his genes; a woman has nothing to gain from a greater number of partners. This is because once she is pregnant, additional mates will not contribute anything to the spread of her genes. Evolutionary psychologists call this “Bateman’s principle.”
This is yet another indication that polyamory eventually becomes polygyny: in polyamory, men play out their fantasies of having multiple partners; women prefer to mate with one powerful high-status man, and, again, that ultimately leaves out an increasing number of men who may go on to become Incels.
Tellingly, Miller writes very little about the fate of children in a polyamorous environment. Indeed, this has been quite the norm among proponents of “free love.” During the early days of the Russian Revolution, the town of Vladimir came up with a Bureau of Free Love to advance polyamory. Yet, it all collapsed when males could not agree on who would cover the costs of childcare. As Lyn Saxon cleverly asks, “Is it really surprising that males are attracted by the prospect of ‘free’ sex but are far less keen on the subsequent costs of reproduction?”
As I mentioned above, Miller thinks that contraception takes care of this problem. But, the polyamorous neglect of children goes beyond paternity uncertainty. Humans are especially vulnerable in the early phases of development, so they need extra care from both parents. Monogamous pair bonding provides this extra care. By diverting attention to other sexual partners, polyamory weakens the bonding, and, ultimately, children suffer. When a husband and wife are exclusively devoted to each other, they run the extra mile to care for their children. The intrusion of a third party is a distraction from the enormous amount of attention children require.
Miller makes no mention of it, but—at least historically—the usual corollary of polyamory has been the communal raising of children. That is what all Utopian socialists have hoped for. In the same manner that love and sexuality needn’t be exclusive, so the argument goes, children do not need exclusive parents. All adults from the commune can be their parents. In fact, one prominent 19th century anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, believed that this was the natural state of affairs before the advent of agriculture. We now know that this was not the case, but some people are still fond of the African adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
Only specific parents can provide that attachment; it is virtually impossible to feel attached to an abstraction such as the commune, let alone the State. It may take a village to raise a child, but it sure takes a mother and a father to feel attachment.
The kibbutz movement in Israel has tried this approach, with mixed effects. Those living in this way do not engage in polyamory, but they do raise their children communally. Bruno Bettelheim famously claimed there were advantages to this system, but, overall, this type of organization has not been successfully long-lasting. As John Bowlby and his school of thought constantly reminded us, children need attachment. Only specific parents can provide that attachment; it is virtually impossible to feel attached to an abstraction such as the commune, let alone the State. It may take a village to raise a child, but it sure takes a mother and a father to feel attachment.
Miller tries hard to persuade us that there is nothing to fear with the rise of polyamory, and that we must come to terms with it, accepting it in the same manner that we have come to accept homosexuality. He does have a point in arguing that we need a cooler approach to this issue, and that the hysterical reaction of religious conservatives does not help. Miller himself is an example of how polyamorous relationships can be perfectly healthy.
But, if history is any guide, polyamory has not provided good results. Most Communist experiments with polyamory, whether it is Plato’s “community of wives” or the Oneida community’s “complex marriage” have ended up in totalitarian nightmares. Aristophanes wrote Assemblywomen, a comic play mocking how collectivists go too far in their ideas of free love, forcing people to have sex with strangers, all in the name of equality and shared possessions.
Miller and other polyamorists, of course, make it very clear that they advocate consensual polyamory. But, they should still learn from history. In the early years of the Soviet Union, polyamory was all the rage, and the young revolutionaries also made it clear that love would be free and consensual. Alexandra Kollontai, as I mentioned in my previous article, allegedly said that sex should be as natural as having a glass of water; so just as drinking a glass of water with a neighbor is fine, having sex with that neighbor can be fine too. Not a small number of young people took her advice seriously.
Yet, by the early 1930’s, even this was too much for the Soviets. There was concern for the huge number of neglected children, who were born to single mothers. Yes, Miller might be quick to say that, in those days, contraception was scarce, so things are different now. But contraception will always be limited, and, ultimately, polyamory will play to the advantage of men. With polyamory, men are the ones who are really satisfying their fantasies, for it is much more in their nature to seek multiple partners. Even when they have parental certainty, men prefer to run off and search for other mates; because as Bateman’s principle would predict, their reproductive strategy is more based on promiscuity than on care of offspring. Polyamory takes away the pressure for men to commit, and this is precisely what women are more interested in. It is, therefore, hard to see how polyamory can advance the cause of feminism.
Miller argues that polyamory’s growth is unstoppable, but I think that, if history is any guide, in the best-case scenario, most relationships will revert back to monogamy. In the worst-case scenario, polyamory will turn into polygyny, and, with it, all the typical ills that polygyny brings forth will grow worse (inequality, violence, misogyny).
So, what to do? Should monogamy be enforced, as Jordan Peterson has suggested? Miller argues that polyamory is better than the strict enforcement of monogamy—because it avoids the drunken hook up escapades that are part of monogamous culture. So, in a sense, this is the same type of argument in favor of the legalization of abortion and drugs: by appealing to more realist, yet safer, alternatives. In this regard, Miller is not far removed from Marx and Engels’ famous passage from the Communist Manifesto, in which they claim that Communism can only be accused of legalizing already existing non-monogamous relations.
This is not a bad argument. But, note that—when it comes to abortion and drugs—pro-choice and legalization activists do not celebrate these things in-and-of-themselves; they just claim we are all safer to avoid back-alley procedures. My view is that the same should apply to polyamory. It is better to be open with your spouse and society about having extra sex partners than going to the brothel secretly. It is better to have consistent multiple sex partners than to have drunken one-night stands. But, we should aim higher and admit that it is even better to be committed to one single sex partner—and consequently give your children the attention they need.
In the end, it is hard to argue against Miller’s libertarian idea that the State should not be mingling in the bedroom. But, the State, and more importantly, civil society (and, most especially, intellectuals such as Miller), can use non-coercive methods to uphold monogamy. The first step is refusing to glamorize polyamory and insist instead that, while it may work for a few people, as a whole it is not a good idea.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at Ajman University, United Arab Emirates. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.