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Future of relationships: monogamy vs. promiscuity; the winner is…
Dick Pelletier   Feb 26, 2013   Ethical Technology  

There’s a pervasive notion that monogamous relationships are the end-all-be-all – the default pact in human couplings that keep the fabric of society from being torn apart. But growing numbers of scientists believe monogamy is not our biological default; and may not even represent the best road to happiness.

Nearly all mammalian species demonstrate sexual promiscuity. Even mate-for-life prairie voles, the animal kingdom's poster child of monogamous relationships, produce pups from different fathers twenty percent of the time. Moreover, for humans, historians say, promiscuous behavior is not new at all.

Anthropologists have uncovered clues to how our Paleolithic ancestors lived. Before the advent of agriculture, humans faced a short, brutal lifespan. Some survived to age 50, but most died young or at birth with average life expectancy in the 30-to-40 range.

With such a short lifespan, ancestral children were likely to experiment with sex by age six. Most couples lived in temporary relationships, and being unfaithful was common for these cave dwellers.

When our forbears found themselves in an unhappy situation, they simply walked away and found another cave. Scientists believe that hunter-gatherers had sex mostly for fun, not just to reproduce.

Research professor at Rutgers University, Helen Fisher, who has written five books on the future of human sex, love, and relationships, says that marriage has changed more in the last 100 years than the previous 10,000, and it will change more in the next 20 years than the past 100!

We're shedding traditions that have survived since our culture began 10,000 years ago, Fisher says, and it appears we're returning to the ancient sex and romance practices of our hunter-gatherer days.

Concepts such as, 'till death do us part, a woman's place is in the home, and men as the primary wage earner, began disappearing in the last half of the 20th century. Relationships are now undergoing radical changes. Divorce is viewed more as a solution than shame; working-women are the norm; living together without marriage is gaining popularity; and some states have even legalized same-sex weddings.

In addition, our concept of infidelity is also changing. Some married couples agree that it's OK to have brief sexual encounters when they travel separately; others sustain long-term adulterous relationships with their spouse' approval. Moreover, recent studies have shown that relationships like these with less pressure on 'being faithful' are more stress-free for both participants, leading to happier lives.

Internet dating wields its impact on relationships too. Matching people with great partners is getting so efficient, and the process so enjoyable, that marriage itself may one day become obsolete.

As we wind through the 21st Century, new relationships will challenge many of our traditions and social policies. Houston futurist Sandy Burchsted, who recently spoke at a World Future Society conference, believes that in the future, most people will marry at least four times and experience extramarital affairs with little public censure. Marriage will be considered an evolutionary process, not a one-time-only event.

It may be time to rethink monogamy, especially given the way that the world has politicized the concept of marriage. As prairie voles aren't "pure as the driven snow," there is also no biological evidence to suggest that human beings are naturally monogamous. We may be culturally and socially encouraged to be faithful, but it is unclear how much that sway really has over our biology.

Some believe a monogamous relationship is the best way to achieve happiness; but a University of Michigan study says not so fast. Researchers found non-monogamous relationships reported higher levels of satisfaction and intimacy, and less jealousy than experienced by monogamous pairings.

Today, we live in a sea of technologies that reshape our lives. To bond is human and drives to fall in love are embedded in our nature. With new sex and romance aids, such as Viagra and estrogen replacement, and science providing us with longer healthier lifespans, we have the opportunity to create a more fulfilling partnership than at any other time in history. Welcome to the future! Comments welcome.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.


There is a danger to using statistical studies to suggest individual action. What is necessary is to remove any legal impediment to people choosing the kind of relationship that they and their partner desires. I know that in most jurisdictions that the legal formula for marriage is limited to an expectation of permanence and monogamy. This, as you say, is not everyone’s cup of tea. It may be time to look at open marriage or term contract marriages, both of which have precedence in history.

I find this line of thought to be a noble savage fallacy. The way Humans originally lived is not necessarily the best way to live. The noble savage fallacy also assumes that hunter gatherers exist in a ‘state of nature’, outside any influence of culture, religion, politics, ideology, etc. Culture is part of what it means to be Human, and is at least a big a factor in what we are as biology. Asking if Humans are naturally monogamous is as meaningless as asking if Humans are naturally supposed to use computers.

I like the comparison of monogamy to veganism. Humans may be natural meat-eaters, but that doesn’t make it right. Veganism is a moral choice to abstain from ‘natural’ behaviour that you believe is wrong. The same is true of monogamy. Being horny doesn’t make it okay to cheat on your spouse.

It’s interesting that you speculate (and it is speculation), that Paleolithic Humans were promiscuous because they were short lived. Don’t transhumanists want to live forever? I think most immortals would eventually settle down into an eternal relationship. I expect immortals to be very conservative and neophobic, despising change and doing everything in their power to prevent it, like the Elves in Lord of the Rings. An eternal partner would provide a constant in an ever-changing world.

If we factor in how tomorrow’s future is predicted to unfold: radically extended lifespans, unraveling the mysteries of consciousness; and enjoying driverless cars, intelligent household robots, and an overwhelming array of futuristic entertainment systems, our relationships may become less important in our lives.

Research clearly shows that non-monogamous relationships experience less stress. In addition, extended lifespans that some forecast will one day lead to the elimination of ‘natural’ death will reduce the need to create babies to ‘carry on’ the family. This could impede the importance of relationships.

Moreover, like Kurzweil and other futurists have mentioned, some people may find virtual reality so addictive, they would prefer it to real world life. Virtual mates may become the preferred relationship in the future.

Will we one day see an end to today’s relationships? We probably will. Comments welcome.

Hmm? Some very interesting points all round?

What will the future of Human(?) relationships hold? I would say all of the above and even more besides?

The points regarding Posthuman conservatism and monogamous immortals are especially intriguing - I can indeed envision that, as much as any notion of realised unity/unification/Godhead.

Yet you do not mention Love? What of the future for Love? Expanded? Extinct? Ideologically redefined? Divinely manifest?


Granted, today, falling in love is a trait deeply embedded in our nature, but as neuroscience advances in the future, we may develop new and much more exciting feelings to express.

Will mid-century humans still enjoy feelings, such as today’s expression of love; or might we discover new emotions that are more rewarding and produce greater excitement.

I can imagine during the 2040s, brain enhancements that replace biological neurons with carbon nanotubes, speeding thought-processing billions of times, allowing our mind to express feelings with undreamed of pleasures.

Of course, how the future will unfold in the coming decades is mostly just guess work; but if technologies continue to advance exponentially, anything could be possible.

Comments welcome.

Designer spouses are what interest me.
The way people pair bond is scattershot, though I may be missing something here: perhaps a v. large number want that serendipity even if it is negative serendipity. It perhaps ties in with sports mania/gambling, one joy of a sport is not knowing which team will win; and gambling offers the excitement + disappointment of winning and losing.
Part of the joy of pair bonding might be not knowing whether a bond will win or lose. Gamblers could enjoy the fact that marriages fail at a 50 percent rate—spousal gamblers possibly enjoy the risk of 2-1 marital odds.

If intelligence can be defined as a measure of creativity, and creativity can be reduced to fast processing of solutions data-crunched across a bell-curve to filter best possible outcomes for solutions, then intelligence and creativity are not mystical phenomena?

And it is perfectly easy and acceptable for a machine algorithm to even now simulate art, music, painting, literature, (maybe a little more difficult but not impossible as journalism and reporting has already been assimilated)?

Soccer players are not that special, breathtaking goals can be as much to do with luck as creativity and skills? A machine that has dexterity as well as fast processing could and would fare as well?

Intelligent swarms of simple robots can form complex entities that may appear holistically more intelligent and creative than the sum of their parts - just like the neurons in (our) brains?


Last comment was in reply to “b”‘s comment for Piero’s article on “why the Singularity is not coming any time soon”


Apologies accepted, will take it as a cue to regurgitate on what ‘designer spouses’ means: a ‘bot, or enhanced (not that I know anything about enhancement) person who becomes more compatible.
As I write above, ‘scatter-shot’—random dating—is often used to find mates; a man for instance will date a number of women with/without the intention of finding a mate- then finally he pair-bonds temporarily/permanently.
Again, there is serendipity involved to the scattershot (scattersemen, if you don’t mind the indelicacy) albeit negative by conventional standards. Plus, again, it is relatable to the bittersweet thrill of gambling and gambling culture wherein outcomes are unpredictable.. in this context, dating is throw-of-the-dice—a crapshoot if you will.

Comments Welcome, Dick.

... PS.
would like to address this to pastor Alex, and Henry Bower, if he is visiting this site. Not that they are mistaken per se in promoting relatively conventional ethics—concerning this and all other topics they expound on.
However first it must be noted the tendency for intellectuals to be somewhat unaware at times of what is transpiring at the bottom, because high functioners naturally want to filter out unpleasant reminders of the still-uncivilised state of humanity.
In the Midwest it is split-screen: one side of the screen is the morality of Jesus Christ, the other is consumer/sexual/violence/celebrity culture (Pastor Alex’s shorthand of neoliberalism will work as a designation). In the year 2013, I feel to be a sap discussing ethics, feels like going to a slaughterhouse to admonish the workers:

“oh dearie me. How could you do such a thing? Chop up and eat those poor dear creatures of God.”

When examining the bottom of society, one sees there is virtually no accountability; the general sentiment from the top is, we’ll let you do what you want within legal parameters, but don’t get uppity.
To cut it short, go with the flow is the way to go.. you don’t let people annihilate society with drug, drink, STDs, etc.—but you don’t preach futile Dearie Mes down to them, either. I do in fact visualise it as a tightrope both strictly-intellectual and moral.

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