One of the workshops I really wanted to attend was presented by Leanna Wolfe, PhD and titled: "Human Origins and Polyamory: when did it all begin?" I admit I was especially interested in this workshop because I'd just read Christopher Ryan's Sex at Dawn, the book that is giving scientific credibility to the concept that coexisting peacefully with more than one sexual partner not only has historical validity, it makes anthropological and evolutionary sense as well. (In fact, as Christopher Ryan put it in his presentation, it's the only explanation that DOES make sense for the way humans have evolved sexually when you consider the volume of research that's accumulated). I'm not a scientist or psychologist, but I'm a good enough librarian and teacher to know the importance of research.
Leanna Wolfe is one such researcher. She is a sexual anthropologist who works as a college professor, social theorist and clinical sexologist, and who has had a longstanding interest in polyamory both as a researcher and as a participant. Her workshop provided factual background on the debate (which is currently heating up) on whether monogamy, or some form of non-monogamy is more "natural" to humans.
The presentation covered a lot of material, beginning with a detailed summary of human characteristics that researchers have identified as being critical to the development of human social/sexual behaviour. She discussed the concept of maternal provisioning (the need that mothers caring for dependent infants have for someone else to provide them with food and shelter). There is, she says, no evidence that "sex for meat" exchanges took the form of monogamous pair bonds, and in fact there is current evidence among cultures that live primarily as "immediate return" hunter gatherers that this exchange takes the form of non-monogamous bonds within a community.
The fact of "sperm competition" (there is ample physiological evidence that this occurs in humans and in our closest primate cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos) means that successful reproduction depends on females having sex with many males within a short timespan rather than with one exclusively. (This section of the workshop produced one of my favourite quotes of the conference: "Sperm is complicated!" meaning that different components of human sperm serve different purposes, from blocking and attacking other males' sperm to insemination.)
Cultural and social components were also discussed in the workshop. The feeling of NRE (New Relationship Energy) that poly people so often refer to is seen as one of the biggest challenges to the poly paradigm (though not impossible to deal with, as many of us have found). Independence and individuality, so valued in the Western world, are cultural paradigms that can encourage monogamy, which makes being poly a challenge in a world oriented toward "coupledom" (more about this in a future blog post about Pepper Mint's workshop: "Facing a Monogamous World").
The workshop gave a great overview of anthropological research on this fascinating topic. In the end, Dr. Wolfe left us with the thought that whatever is most "natural" depends not only on physiological characteristics or environmental conditions, but on culture as well. We cannot lift ourselves completely out of the context of our current cultural paradigm, but we can (and those of us who are polyamorous DO, all the time) make a conscious choice to creatively adapt a different style of sexual behaviour that feels natural for us. Whether this style is monogamy, serial monogamy, polyamory or something completely different is up to the many factors and complexities that have combined to evolve human primates.