Just because the animals do it, doesn't make it right.
You are not your evolutionary history. This may come as a relief to some and will definitely come as a disappointment to others. The popular website Ozy just ran a summary of scientific studies with the title “Is Monogamy a Myth?” and though at the end the writer avoids answering the question, the answer we are pushed to is yes. And if the answer is yes, some people . . . let’s just say they feel a little freer than they did before they read the article.
There is in this an Advent message.
“As animals ourselves, let’s examine other members of our family tree for clues,” writes Melissa Pandika, one of the site’s regular writers. Sure enough, few of them stay faithful to one mate, and even animals hitherto thought to be monogamous have turned out not to be. This Pandika calls “our promiscuous lineage.”
“The name of the game is evolution,” says one scientist quoted, who concludes that “We’re not as different [from other animals] as we sometimes wish we were.” (I like that “sometimes.”)
Complicating matters, at the end of the article the writer herself suggests that man is not particularly monogamous even now, after all this evolution, and that evolutionary theory itself suggests we’re not really meant to be. In non-monogamous animals, the males “tend to be much taller than the females. But in monogamous species, males and females are about the same height. Human skeletal remains fall somewhere in between, suggesting that humans didn’t evolve to be strictly monogamous.”
In other words, monogamy evolved in human beings for purely evolutionary reasons, because it gave some advantage in the circumstances, but it never completely evolved, and it may well un-evolve if other ways of relating give more advantage in new circumstances. There you are. What we call sleeping around is just what animals do, and so is not sleeping around. Moral restrictions and ideals, whether you get them from the ancient philosophers or the modern popes, don’t matter.
It’s a seductive theory for modern Americans, who tend to believe that if a behavior is the product of evolution, it must be natural, and if it’s natural it must be good. No one says this about cancer cells or cats torturing chipmunks, but when people think about sex they begin to think of nature as one of the pastel-colored woodland scenes in a Disney movie. That is, until they have to face the possibility of the natural products of sexual union, at which point they start believing in creating artificial constraints on natural processes. But the need the indulge their sexual desires, they still believe that’s natural.
This idealized view of nature is all very hazy in most peoples’ minds. But in general, Nature rules. It trumps human moral codes, because it’s natural. Scientists say so.
They accept what I call the “Modified Mead Method.” As I wrote last spring , Margaret Mead produced the idea that primitive cultures rutted joyfully and what we would call promiscuously and that civilization produced sexual repression (a.k.a., Christian morality, the kind of belief that produces words like “promiscuous”). To that was soon added the idea that we evolved to rut joyfully.
With the idea that all such customs and rules are social constructions no better or worse than any others (the Mead Method) is combined the idea that the sexual life such people want to promote is natural because the product of evolution (the Modification). This lets us privilege the primitive against the modern. The moral instructions of Christianity are socially constructed, while the behavior of the adulterous women of the tribes is evolutionary.
Here’s the Advent lesson. You are not your evolutionary history. You are directed to something else, something infinitely higher. Your life is directed to that child in the manger, in whom we see God but also ourselves as we truly are.
In the famous words of Gaudium et Spes , “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” Jesus “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” He is “the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin.”
The evolutionary life Ozy implicitly commends leaves husbands and wives cheating on each other. It’s a promise of liberation that will always end badly. It’s like freeing a man from gravity so he can fly, which he will enjoy until he rises too high and can’t breathe any more. The promise of being restored to the likeness of God, the promise we spend Advent looking forward to, that’s the true liberation. You can be like the monkeys, or you can be like Jesus.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMillsWrtng.