Before initiating a dialogue on this topic, one needs to be very clear about the definition of the term in question. There are several definitions of monogamy(and consequently, polygamy) depending on the context. I am not really an expert on this subject and I haven’t really gone through the pain of researching how the experts categorize and study this phenomenon but, I have come up with a few categorizations of my own.
First, we have sexual monogamy where a person is expected to indulge in sexual intercourse and other sexual practices with one individual only. Then, we have emotional monogamy where it is expected that a person will fulfill all his/her emotional needs by associating with one individual only. Then we have marital monogamy, which is probably the broadest form of monogamy, where a person is expected to spend his/her life being loyal and committed to one person. This usually involves both emotional and sexual monogamy.
Whether polygamy is right or wrong and whether it has any place in our modern civilized society is a question that has generated lot of traction in the last few decades. This is to be expected because the concept of monogamy as a virtuous model for a relationship between a man and a woman has originated fairly recently in human history. Its roots can be traced to the rise of the women empowerment movements in the western world that aimed to raise the status of a woman in a household by preventing the dilution of this status by the presence of multiple women. Before this, many women used to share one husband with the husband acting as the head of the family. This highly patriarchal model was not in line with gender equality. However, its not true that all men or that most men of earlier times had more than one wife. But, the reason behind this was that it was very tough for most men, except the most wealthy, to support and sustain a big family.
In truth, the concept of marriage as a solely romantic union is also very recent. Marriage, historically has been an economic and political ritual. As human beings evolved, the time period required for a human child to become self sufficient increased. In fact, at birth, a human baby is perhaps the most helpless among all animals. This necessitated that the two parents stay together for a long amount of time to take care of their progeny. And hence, it made economic sense for the two parents to enter into an alliance with a promise to procreate with each other. This was especially beneficial for males since, now they did not have to repeat the whole process of persuading a new mate. However, it was also a loss since, having only one partner greatly reduced diversity.
As human society evolved more and became more complex, males took the role of leaders while females were reduced to the status of workers. This made a life long relationship even more lucrative for men. In such a situation, it made sense for wealthy men to indulge in multiple alliances to ensure a wide distribution of their genes. Also, during time of wars, most healthy young men were sent to fight in foreign lands for extended periods of time making a long term relationship unsustainable. In some communities living in very harsh environments, like Bedouins in the desert, most men did not traditionally own land or other unmovable property thus, making them unsuitable for marriage. Due to these and many other reasons, the practice of wealthy men keeping multiple wives became a socially accepted trend and over time, this further reduced the status of women in the household.
The rise of gender equality meant that this practice had to be done away with. However, instead of allowing women to take multiple partners just like men, we decided to make monogamy the norm for everyone. But, is monogamy sustainable?
A close look at other animals species suggests that there are very few truly monogamous species. Even in the few bird species that seem monogamous on the surface, DNA fingerprinting reveals rampant cheating and adultery, with eggs in the same nest coming from multiple fathers. This is to be expected because monogamy is tough. It requires better communication abilities and social skills and hence, might have played a role in faster development of the human brain. As John Keating (Robin Williams) says in the Dead Poets’ Society “Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.” Well, seems there might be some truth to that after all. May be the highly evolved language skills that we humans have developed is partly so that we could communicate better with our partners. Monogamy seems to to make you smarter (take this with a pinch of salt though).
However, as traditional gender roles change and the contact between men and women increases in the workplace, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify how reasonable monogamy is. Is it unrealistic to expect one person to fulfill all your needs? In that case, it indeed makes sense to divide this responsibility between many people so that in case, one of them disappoints, you can fall back on the others. I, for one, find the idea of polygamy very tough to digest. May be its all part of a big corporate conspiracy to make us all shell out money or may be this is just the way I am but, I have always found a monogamous relationship easier and better. The long term commitment and trials and tribulations associate with it, have always seemed to me bearable if not, beautiful.