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Polyamory, Feminism and the Myth of the Noble Savage

A critical examination of the idea that prehistorical humans were egalitarians and polyamorous.

Benjamin West, Death Wolfe Noble Savage
Benjamin West, Death Wolfe Noble Savage

A long, long time ago, we lived in tribes in which men and women were equal, sharing in the gathering and preparation of food, and having equal decision power. Tribes lived in peace with each other. Everybody could have sex with everybody else in the tribe. Children were raised in common by the tribe and nobody cared who their father was.

But was it really like that? Or rather…

A long, long time ago, we lived in tribes of hunter-gatherers in which men did the hunting and women did the gathering. Because men carried weapons to hunt and were stronger, they subjugated the women. In fact, women were considered chattel to be traded between tribes. The kidnapping of women and warfare over them was common. A careful record was kept of who was the offspring of whom and this was a major determinant of allegiances and social status.

The first idea is known as the Myth of the Noble Savage and can be traced back to the writings of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I wrote it here as a recent interpretation that I found in the book Sex At Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.

The second idea is often called Hobbesian, after the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously wrote that “life in the state of nature was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

More nuanced versions of the Hobbesian view can be found in the popular books The Better Angels of Our Nature, by psychologist Steven Pinker, and Sapiens, by historian Yuval Noah Harari. Pinker argues in his book that we live in the least violent period of human history and that this is the culmination of a steady decline in violence from prehistory to our days. He provides compelling evidence for his claim.

The way I wrote the second paragraph is taken from the descriptions of the Yanamamö tribe of Venezuela and Brazil by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon in his book My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.

The debate on whether our ancestors were noble or violent savages has raged for over a century. It is critically important because it addresses deeper questions about human nature. The reason for this is the following. Our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for 250,000 years. During most of that time we were hunter-gatherers and lived in tribes. Only during the last 10,000 years (4% of our existence) we have practiced agriculture, domesticated animals and lived in cities. Therefore, our genes were shaped by evolution during our time as hunter-gatherers and not during our relatively brief existence as civilized people. Questions like whether men have a natural tendency to dominate women, whether we are naturally monogamous, or whether jealousy is inevitable should be answered taking this into account.

Political implications

Whether human nature is Rousseauian or Hobbesian has deep political implications.

Socialists want to emphasize that humans are naturally inclined towards cooperation, because then solidarity between workers, associating in unions, and creating a state that enforces equality would be a natural human tendency.

Conversely, capitalists prefer the Hobbesian view of human nature. That way, the selfish search for our own interest and competition for natural resources that form the basis for market dynamics would be just an extension of our natural inclinations. The creation of money, commercial transactions and the laws of economics are ways to rationalize what otherwise would be a violent competition for resources (see Sapiens).

A related political issue needs to be recognized: the appalling history of violence, theft and exploitation perpetrated by the European colonizers against indigenous people around the world. This shows that being “civilized” (that is, an inhabitant of industrialized states) does not imply any kind of moral superiority over being a “savage” (that is, a member of tribes of hunter-gatherers). However, important as it is, this is not the subject of this article.

Are we naturally violent or cooperative?

Who is right? Ironically, research by some economists revealed that humans make decisions about money not based on rational calculus, as assumed by capitalism, but based on emotional decisions about what is fair.

Thus, experiments using the ultimatum game proved the existence of altruistic punishment, in which a person is willing to lose something or invest energy to punish another person who is perceived to act unfairly, even if the injustice does not affect the punisher. Altruistic punishment exists in all human communities and is driven by hormones like oxytocin and testosterone (it is stronger in men). This shows that it is biologically determined, not cultural. This is evidence that human nature is geared towards fairness and cooperation, and therefore supports the idea of the Noble Savage. In other articles, I suggested that uniquely human emotions like shame and pride also evolved to support cooperation.

On the other hand, humans are quite violent. Primitive humans living in tribes seem to be more violent, not less, than us. Thus, Chagnon recounts how the Yanomamö live in a constant state of warfare between tribes. The killing of men and the kidnapping of women (which is tantamount to gang rape) are very common. There is also violence inside the tribe, quite often due to disputes among men for the possession of a woman. Women are beaten, even killed, by jealous husbands who suspect them of infidelity. Powerful men may have several wives (polygyny), but sometimes two men may share a woman (polyandry).

Similar dynamics in the tribes of New Guinea are described by biologist Jared Diamond in his book Why Is Sex Fun?

There is a caveat, however: both the Yanomamö studied by Chagnon and the tribes of New Guinea studied by Diamond are not pure hunter-gatherers, but are more accurately described as horticulturalists: they hunt but also consume fruits and vegetables that they cultivate in gardens near their villages. Therefore, they represent an intermediate step between hunter-gathering and agriculture.

The birth of the Patriarchy

Feminists propose that the Patriarchy started with the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago, when the defense of cultivable land, domestic animals and food stocks led to the militarization of men. As a consequence, women started to be considered as just another possession, like land and animals. It was also important to determine if a child was truly sired by the man whose possessions he was going to inherit.

So, perhaps the Yanomamö and the New Guinea tribes were already infected by the cultural virus of the Patriarchy? Maybe during the last 10,000 years the memes of monogamy and the possession of women have reached even the last remaining hunter-gatherers, but in ancient times everything was different?

It is hard to know how humans lived tens of thousands of years ago, since they left almost no cultural remains. However, human bones and skeletons from before the Agricultural Revolution often show signs of violence. Steven Pinker proposes that this means that primitive humans warred frequently and were more violent than we are.

The following figure shows that violent deaths were far more numerous in tribal societies than in societies run by the state. This is even true for nations like Germany, Russia and Japan that were decimated by the World Wars of the 20th Century.

Bar plot of violent deaths in state and non-state societies.
Bar plot of violent deaths in state and non-state societies.

Is polyamory ancient?

Polyamory is a recent cultural phenomenon, so the question of whether humans are naturally polyamorous was not considered by anthropologists and sexologists. In fact, most anthropologists seem reluctant to consider polyamory as a viable alternative to monogamy. For them, the options are between monogamy (one man married to one woman) and polygyny (one man married to several women), because these are what we find in modern cultures.

“Of the 1,231 societies listed in the 1980 Ethnographic Atlas, 186 were found to be monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry. […] More recent studies have found more than 50 other societies practicing polyandry.” Wikipedia.

However, polyamory is different from both polygyny and polyandry, because it allows for any combination of genders, including same-sex relationships.

In Sex At Dawn, Ryan and Jethá propose that this is not just a modern phenomenon but was in fact the common way of life before the Agricultural Revolution. They offer a vision of ancient tribes in which sex was shared as commonly as food, even between people of the same gender. The paternity of children was a non-issue because there was no property to inherit and children were raised in common by the whole tribe. Since men didn’t possess women, jealousy, fighting over women, and the abuse of women were unnecessary.

This view seems to agree with the myth of the non-violent and highly cooperative Noble Savage. However, it is not required that the two things go together. It is possible that ancient tribes were fairly violent and yet promiscuous, and that monogamy only became standard after the Agricultural Revolution.

Are there other indications that we are naturally monogamous or promiscuous?

Monogamy is driven by oxytocin and vasopressin

There is strong evidence that monogamy in mammals is genetically determined, so whether we are monogamous or polyamorous is inscribed in our biological nature and is not a cultural phenomenon.

This evidence is based on research on prairie voles, a species of rodents that are monogamous: they bond for life and raise their offspring together. However, a closely-related species, the montane vole, is promiscuous. The difference between the two species is the number of receptors for oxytocin in their brains: prairie voles have many more receptors that montane voles. Using transgenic techniques, scientists decreased the expression of oxytocin receptors in the brains of prairie voles, and this made them as promiscuous as the montane voles.

Since then, there has been a great deal of research on oxytocin and the other social hormone, vasopressin. While monogamous behavior in females is driven by oxytocin, in males it is driven by both oxytocin and vasopressin, which also induces territoriality and playful aggression.

Therefore, it is likely that humans are monogamous or promiscuous depending on the amount of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors expressed in their brains.

Ape sexuality

Another way to look at the question of whether we are naturally monogamous is to look at our close cousins, the great apes. None of these species are monogamous.

  • Gorillas are polygynous, with one silver-back male guarding a harem of several females.

  • Orangutans are quite weird sexually: males are solitary and females sporadically choose to mate with older males having facial plates. However, often a younger male rapes a female orangutan.

  • Chimps live in troops that are hierarchically organized, with a dominant male in control. When a female reaches estrous, the dominant male mates with her and then allows other males that he favors to have access to her (see Chimpanzee Politics by Frans de Waal).

  • Bonobos are by far the most interesting species, sexually speaking. Unlike chimps, their troops are ruled by a coalition of females who bond by having sex with each other. They also have sex with the males, and do not need to be in estrous to do so. Sex is very frequent and is used for bonding and to dispel social stress. Hence, bonobos have become a poster example for polyamory. Their close genetic proximity to our species has been used as an argument in favor of humans being naturally polyamorous.

Indeed, if monogamy was natural to humans, it would not be so difficult being faithful. It may be that our brains do not have all that many oxytocin receptors, after all.

Gender equality and monogamy are separate issues

Some feminists want to tie gender equality, non-monogamy and non-violence into one neat package in a modern version of the Myth of the Noble Savage. According to this view, when sex is shared and there is no jealousy, the use of violence to control women and to keep other men away from “our” woman becomes unnecessary. When a bunch of men and women are deeply bonded by sex and romantic love, social hierarchies based on male power cannot be established, just like happens with bonobos. Then, gender equality comes naturally.

Therefore, polyamory eliminates in one full sweep gender inequality, violence against women and violence between men. In fact, they argue, this is the natural state of the human species. The Agricultural Revolution was the Original Sin that started the Patriarchy with all its nasty corollaries of violence, gender inequality, warfare and jealousy.

As somebody who practices polyamory and has experienced its benefits in my personal life, I find this view is quite appealing. However, I need to consider the evidence.

The Patriarchy is a set of beliefs, customs and laws that assigns specific roles to men and women that put men dominant positions. Likewise, Monogamy (with capital M) could be defined as a set of beliefs, customs and laws that prioritize monogamous, sexually-exclusive relationships and prohibit other types of sexual relationships. Both are power structures that predominate in modern societies.

However, this doesn’t mean that Patriarchy and Monogamy are the same thing. Some traditional Mormon and Islamic societies are patriarchal but not monogamous. Conversely, many feminists oppose both the Patriarchy and polyamory, because they view polyamory as another trick of men to satisfy their inveterate lust without having to commit to stable relationships. Of course, this is not true. Recent research shows that women become bored with monogamous sex more often than men. There are also libertarians who practice polyamory while opposing feminism.

My point is that Patriarchy and Monogamy are different, and so is the fight against them.

My conclusions

There is a lot that we don’t know about ancient human societies before the Agricultural Revolution. Given the scant remains that they left behind, perhaps we will never truly know how they were. Uncontacted tribes of hunter-gatherers have practically disappeared, and with them our hope of learning how we were in the distant past. Only recently we have begun to realize how important it is to leave their cultures intact, instead of trying to convert them to Christianity and to the pervasive religion of consumerism and industrialization.

Other sources of knowledge about human nature are the great apes, but research on them has been seriously curtailed by animal rights activists.

Perhaps our best hope to answer these questions is neuroscience research comparing the human brain with the brain of monogamous and non-monogamous mammals.

With these caveats, here are my temporary conclusions on these issues:

  1. Cooperation is the most basic characteristic of the human species. We do this better than any other animal thanks to language, which is able to transmit an enormous amount of information, not just in the present but across time.

  2. However, we are also violent. Cooperation does not automatically eliminate violence. In fact, we are very good at cooperating for violence and warfare. There is ample evidence that ancient humans were more violent than we are. As demonstrated by Steven Pinker in Better Angels, civilization and moral progress were the key factors in diminishing violence through history.

  3. Regarding gender equality, I think that this is a modern achievement. If primitive societies were violent and engaged in frequent warfare, this would have established power structures in which men dominate women.

  4. Regarding monogamy, I don’t think that we are naturally monogamous. What we have is a great flexibility in our ability to bond and form sexual relationships. These are largely determined by the culture we live in.

  5. One of the most remarkable features of the human species, that we share with bonobos, is that sex has evolved from a mere reproductive function to sustain social bonding and cooperation. This explains some mysterious features of human sexuality: concealed ovulation, lack of estrous, continuous availability for sex, the prevalence of homosexual sex, sexual dominance and submission, having powerful orgasms, and menopause.

In general terms, I don’t believe in the Myth of the Noble Savage.

I wish it was true, but the balance of the evidence indicates otherwise. We have a tendency to believe in a golden past era when everything was better. In fact, it is quite the opposite. By any standards, we live in the best possible moment in History, in terms of lack of violence, wealth, decreased poverty, sexual freedom and gender equality. I have to thank Steven Pinker and his book Better Angels for opening my eyes in this regard.

Perhaps polyamory is just one more of these modern achievements, and not a return to the relationship model of ancient humans. If so, it is okay.

Still, it is clear that monogamy, sexual exclusivity and jealousy are not written in our genes, but are cultural norms that can be overcome. Therefore, even if polyamory is not the natural relationship model for humans, there is nothing in our nature that keeps us from practicing it. Perhaps it will become the relationship model of the future.

2件のコメント


Your conclusions seem very reasonable to me. We are a highly social species and our behaviour is strongly driven by societal rules and hence it is inherently flexible (as opposed to most animals that exhibit predominately innate behaviour). I believe societal rules develop from the prevailing circumstances and the environment. We are currently in the “Age of the Noble Technologist” which is a time of plenty, where most jobs can be performed equally by men or women, sex causes neither undesired procreation nor disease and there is approximately an equal gender ratio. Under these conditions, the most successful societies are cooperative, non-violent and gender neutral. Over time, I expect we will see a greater acceptance towards polyamory although I…


いいね!
Hermes Solenzol
Hermes Solenzol
2023年2月13日
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We are in complete agreement on this. Yes, men have a biological drive to be more risk-prone and aggressive. Boys and young men need to be educated on how to use these drives for the good.

いいね!
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