Wickedly Wired


Modernista!’s ad campaing for Hearts on Fire jewlers

“In 1977, she was a translator at the US embassy in Bonn, West Germany. She met a man called Frank Dietzel, whom she described as looking like Robert Redford. She fell in love instantly. [...] She never suspected him; she said she loved him too much to think he would do anything bad.”

- Victim of an East Germany “Romeo” spy during the Cold War

On a rainy February day, following Peter Sozou’s lecture on ‘Courtship as a costly signaling at UCL, a handful of us took Peter to the nearest bar on campus. A few bottles of wine were ordered, and with our minds still very much on the courtship issue, we turned to the next most obvious topic. Birds.

… Well, their brains anyway.

For gravity-defying organisms, birds sport bigger brains than would appear advisable. “It seems”, said a fellow bird-lover, after explaining in some detail the fine intricacies of birds’ courtship displays, “that brain size in birds correlates with the mating system; the more monogamous the species, the bigger the brain”.

In an instantaneous (and ephemeral) light-bulb moment, a stream of images of my boyfriend adjusting his red bike helmet around his bulbous head condensed into one immensely reassuring thought: with a head that size, I have nothing to worry about.

Or do I? *light-bulb out*.

Despite my high hopes for a blissful existence of monogamous fidelity, I quickly realized that there must be something wondrously more complex and Machiavellian lurking behind these bulges of ours than a world of exclusivity and devotion; and it doesn’t take looking much beyond my own nose to understand that these brains of ours are not made for lovin’.

It is almost heart-warming to think of our big brains as evolved for long-term matrimonial love, but it takes just one ejaculation to tip that idea off its knees. Men release 280 million sperm during each single ejaculation. Why, then, would they waste all that sperm on one single being? Why put all their metaphorical eggs in one literal basket when they could be spreading the wealth? Why be monogamous when you can pretend to be monogamous?


Baboon sexual swelling during ovulation period

… But when it comes to brains, there is no room for sexism; it’s one size fits all.

In what seems to be the most exemplary case of bad PR, women put themselves through the physically (and emotionally) demanding task of ovulating every month without ever making the effort of marketing their fertility periods. This rather passive-aggressive “I’m not telling” strategy seems not so conducive to matrimonial trust either, and this withholding of information makes it impossible for males to assert their  paternity (at least before chastity belts and DNA testing) – in fact, degrees of non-paternity can range from 0.4% to over 50% in societies worldwide.

Whether we vow our bodies and souls, for better or worse, to our better halves, there is no escaping our neocortical baggage. We are inescapably involved in a pull-and-tug war between bonding and cheating. Our souls and hearts may be rooting for coupling, but our bodies and minds scream deception all over.

According to the Journal of Couple & Relationships Therapy, 20 to 50% of married men and women cheat. But given our built-in trumpery widget, the surprise is not that pair-bonded couples should choose to sexually deceive their partners, but that we expect that they should not and that we equate monogamy to normalcy. In light of our prolific baby-making power, “till death due us part” seems, on the contrary, like a most extravagant demand. After all, even the most seemingly monogamous of animal species shy away from such a life of eternal one-on-one love – black swans, wolves and elephants may keep house together for many years but are sexually promiscuous; even penguins only remain monogamous and faithful to one partner for one breeding season.


Tree Swallow feeding its progeny

Birds have long been upheld as poster-children for monogamy and until recently it was believed that 93% of  avian species bred monogamously (Lack, 1986). Griffith et al (2002), however, burst that last bubble of hope when their results showed that 86% of the 130 so-called ‘monogamous’ species were in fact very much adulterous; over 2/3 of female Tree Swallows produce at least one extramarital offspring and baby Starlings from the same nest often come from different fathers.


Female gorilla caught in the act by the silverback

Although more common in primates (15% of species) than in mammals (less that 5% of species), monogamy is a very rare behaviour, as our closest living cousins can attest. While chimpanzees have long been known for their promiscuity, female gorillas, who have an alpha of a reason not to cheat, also seem to find ways to benefit from illicit affairs on the silver-side of things by sneaking away into the jungle for random quick flings. They’ve even learned the finer subtleties of betrayal in order to avoid getting caught, and while they are vocally appreciative of the alpha-male’s love-making efforts, they keep the sound to a minimum with their young furry toy-boys.

Our Westernized views of how many people should be involved in one amorous union compel us to feel disappointment if not shock at such social laxities. But the fact is that a menage-a-deux is not the only way to go for humans either. 80-85% of societies allow polygamous marriages even if the majority of them involve one husband and one wife (most of the men in societies that allow polygamy do not obtain sufficient wealth or status to have multiple wives). And in the few societies that shun these types of arrangements, like the US, about 12-26% of married women and 15-43% of married men engage in extramarital sex.


Bill and his three wives in HBO’s ‘Big Love’ TV series

But while a polygamous arrangement may seem lax, it is certainly not relaxed. Bill’s constant Viagra pill-popping, neighbour-dodging and money-pouring, clearly requires a high degree of social intuition and very refined manipulative and diplomatic abilities – the same abilities needed for successful extramarital hanky panky… And international espionage. Take “Romeo” Spy Frank Dietzel’s good looks, for example, which paired with an enhanced knack for deception, duped Gabriele Kliem into unsuspectingly betray her country of West Germany during six years.

Increased social complexity and the ability to manipulate others is a unique primate condition. Superbly mastered by sociopaths and politicians alike, in humans, this quasi pathological ability to manoeuvre in complex and dense social environments is the genius we’ve been increasingly amassing in our globular think tanks. This evolutionarily favoured Machiavellian Intelligence neatly folded behind our faces – the neocortex – makes up to 76% of the human brain’s volume. To the detriment of our love-obsessed souls, encapsulated within these cranial vaults, rest 1,400 grams of jellied evil. Ganged up with an exuberantly lustful appetite, we seem unavoidably wired for inducing heartaches.


Neocortex in blue

Eager to ignore my own 76% duplicitous nature, my suspicions turn to my long-distance big-headed partner: I knew it… lurking behind that red bike helmet lies a large mischievous fatty lump.

… Or does it? *light-bulb flickers*

While our self-imposed ‘for-all-eternity’ style monogamy may be borderline self-harming (from a genetic and reproductive point of view), the notion of pair-bondedness in nature takes a very different shape: it’s behavioural, not sexual – a necessary condition for spicing up the genetic pool. Behaviourally monogamous birds, for example, have been shown to seek males that are genetically more different than their better-halves, thereby (surreptitiously) increasing genetic diversity in the species.

Because survival is not just about production but also about reproduction (making sure the progeny procreates in turn), knowing how to juggle the quest for genetic flavour and successful rearing is why many behaviourally monogamous species pack more gray.

Lifelong monogamy is a risky commitment, but in species where substantial post-natal parental investment is needed, it may well be a necessity. It takes between 10 to 17 years for a human to be sexually mature (sometimes many more years to be emotionally or financially independent), and for over 1/3 of that period infants are physically dependant on their parents. Reproductively speaking, successful twosomes are those who will coordinate and synchronize their activities so that each half gets time for grubbing and napping. Perhaps as a precursor to this biological drive to procreate, successful human coupledom must also involve anticipation, harmonization and synchronization of behaviours and needs.

… And judging by the boy’s perfect Skype synchronicity, perhaps that fatty lump is also a good dose of sugar too.


Eros and Psyche

What can be painful for the heart is essential for survival, and our thirst for clandestine caresses outside of the nest is what propels us to propagate and diversify. Sculpted over the course of our winding evolutionary road, our wrinkly bundles of gray matter have been shaped to a size fitted for our success.

While we cannot escape our wickedly wired brains, much room lies in its winding valleys and folds for the free human spirit to arise. A spirit as tortuous and shaded as our cortical matter betrays: one of good and evil particles indistinguishably blending together in a mesh of gray dough.

For better or for worse, our brains push us to move us forward all the while keeping us fickle. Like Eros to Psyche we constantly put our souls at Venus’ whim, despite clinging to the hopes of that intangible goal we’ve set for ourselves of exclusive and blissful duality. And in this permanent conflict between our vagabond bodies and brains, and our monogamous souls, we are able to find overwhelming pleasure in the form of great pain, and a way to forge true bonds in the midst of much deceit…

6 thoughts on “Wickedly Wired

  1. I always felt very confused about this all monogamous business. In my opinion monogamy is more cultural than biological. I dont believe natural selection or sexual selection has selected for genes encoding for monogamy just because we need more parenting time to fully develop as adults and auto-suficient individuals(what would such gene be if it exited at all). There might have been remodeling of genes related to libido and sexual desire or maybe a pattern of synapse formation related to monogamous behavior, but i truly believe that we are all polygamous in nature and that it is society who “obliges” us to became monogamous. Maybe the understanding of our own existence lead us to became monogamous all in the search of company. Also, it seems to me that evolutionary theories have always failed to explain polygamous societies. Its a very interesting subject. Well done Anna. x

  2. Pingback: Carnival of Evolution #11 « OH, FOR THE LOVE OF SCIENCE!

  3. “It takes between 10 to 17 years for a human to be sexually mature (sometimes many more years to be emotionally or financially independent), and for over 1/3 of that period infants are physically dependant on their parents”.

    There are parts of the world near the equator where women can easilly support themselves and their child by garden agriculture; this is where polygyny is found.

    Further away from the equator in a certain time frame only monogamy was practical.

    <a href="http://ww.jsecjournal.com/NEEPSfrost.pdf&quot;

  4. I recently made some bad internet decisions with regards to publicizing my private life on my blog. I let petty emotions get a hold of me and thwart my judgment. I apologize for any damage I caused, and hope that my readers know this does not reflect who I am. I’ve deleted the comments I made last week, and restituted this blog post to its original state, in an attempt to redeem myself.

    I hope I’ve succeeded.

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