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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at St. Andrews chapter.

If I said love was a scam, how many of you would believe me? Not many, probably. Many of us believe love to be a higher power; it’s something that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and what we like to claim makes us human. But maybe, just maybe, this hasn’t always been the case. Is love contingent on human existence? Soulmates, true loves, meant to bes; they’re all labels we like to throw around, but what if we don’t need them? What if ‘one in a million’ is just a myth? 

Love has always made a great protagonist. It wins just as much as it loses; we can believe in it and we can mourn. It runs through tonnes of tales we tell ourselves, our friends, our children — really, anyone who will listen. Loving or caring for something is not a recent phenomenon. It is present in the roots of many Indo-European words — for example, the German word for home, heim, which is derived from the ancient kei, meaning a place to hold dear. Love for objects, therefore, must be part of human existence. But at what point did we become wedded to the notion of loving a person?

In modern times, loving and caring for someone takes on very separate meanings. You can care for anyone and everyone, and need not express it for the world to see. It can be private, a card held close to your chest. But loving involves the public sphere. It constitutes boundaries, rules, agreements, compromises — it involves relationships. It is something that has to be socially defined. Love may be a feeling, but the relationship that follows is a rule. 

It wasn’t always like this. Anatomically-modern humans (a.k.a. our brand of Homo sapiens) have been around for approximately 300,000 years. Until about 12,000BC, we all existed as hunter-gatherers, in fiercely egalitarian societies. What yours is mine, mi casa es tu casa, and so on and so forth. Everything was shared. So, naturally, so was everyone

We come now to my attempt to prove to you that human society was non-monogamous for most of its existence. Early Christian missionaries (hate to love them, love to hate them) kept detailed accounts of their interactions with the people most “exotic” to them, and so tracking social changes throughout history is actually not as hard a feat as you may think. What these accounts prove is that villages were almost entirely made up of women and the children they bore; men would visit a village, impregnate pretty much every woman they biologically could, and then leave for the next as soon as the deed was done. A man’s focus was on spreading his seed, not raising his subsequent offspring — and it wasn’t expected of him to. Consequently, lines of lineage blurred. As men had no involvement in their children, they had no claims to fatherhood. A Jesuit Missionary spoke to a Naskapi Indian (c. 1600s) about their social approaches to monogamy and child-rearing — the Jesuit asked, “if you let your wives have this much freedom, how do you know that the child she bears will belong to you?”, to which the Indian responded, “Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children, but we all love all the children of our tribe”. Simply put, parenthood was unrelated to biology. We see similar approaches in modern-day cultures — the Bari of Venezuela replicate such parental commonality. Every man who sleeps with the women with children is considered a father, and thus helps provide for them during rearing. Studies have shown these children with social fathers have higher chances of surviving to adulthood. I’m not sure such an egalitarian approach would have much success in Wrexham, though.

Let me don David Attenborough’s cap for just a minute. In biology, such approaches to monogamy and child-rearing are the norm. In the animal world, true sexual monogamy is practically unheard of — so why should we be any different? If monogamy is romantic, then we should all be glad we are not the most romantic creature out there; the parasitic tapeworm Diplozoom paradoxum literally fuses with its partner for life. I guess there’s no space after an argument for that couple. 

So, if humans are historically non-monogamous, then surely our biology would reflect that, right? Right. If we treat the fertilisation process like a game of survival of the fittest — like a cellular Love Island then the competition for off-spring must be ingrained in our very bodies. If we track our animal ancestors back a few generations, patterns of non-monogamy stand clear. Our closest ancestors, chimps and bonobos (who are closer to us than the African elephant is to the Indian elephant) are non-monogamous. They don’t hold hands, they don’t go on dates, and they certainly don’t enter three-month talking stages over Snapchat. But what we do have in common, is what proves that we are supposed to be non-monogamous. Prepare yourself for some biological anthropology. 

Firstly, in species that engage in sexual competition, the males tend to be 15-25% larger than the females (side note, this article is going to be very cisgendered). That definitely checks out with us. I’m going to rattle off a few more facts I’ve researched that align with humans being non-monogamous: if males are battling to impregnate women, their testicles would be bigger than in monogamous species; female copulatory vocal emissions (or, non-anthropologically put, moaning at orgasm) is common among primates that engage in sperm competitions; and perhaps my favourite, bonobos and humans are the only two species that use sex to form bonds. Consequently, we’re the only two species that have sex facing each other, so maybe missionary is special after all. 

But perhaps the most convincing proof that humans should be non-monogamous I can offer is the penis. The human penis is unique to our species (don’t go telling boys that, though; they don’t need the ego boost) – the flared head creates a vacuum in the female’s reproductive tract during sex. This vacuum pulls any sperm already present in the vaginal canal away from the ovum, thereby giving the sperm in the new emission an advantage as they are closest to the cervix — giving them the best chance at fertilising an egg

When Stormy Daniels called Donald Trump’s penis a “mushroom”, she was unknowingly linking biological non-monogamy (the penis) to cultural non-monogamy (Donald Trump’s infidelity). But if both biology and the adultery epidemic prove monogamy wrong, why do we still try it? What changed to make us fall in love with commitment?

In 12,000BC, hunter-gatherers were no more (in developing societies). Overpowering concerns of property rights, the development of agriculture, and politics all meant that suddenly, men were taking notice of their children. They wanted to put them to work, and see if offspring could be a profitable investment for the future. Once children became part of the social network, soon enough those that bore said children had to be factored in too. Along came marriage. It was born as a trade agreement, to once again grow the family labour power and construct a ‘family unit’. How romantic. It was never a consequence of care between a husband and a wife — it was a business affair, often used to get in-laws. Take Anthony and Cleopatra, for instance. It was not a love story, simply an alliance to combine two of the biggest empires at the time; we just like inserting love in retellings.

Love only came into marriage in the 1700s, when the Church realised that women weren’t so happy entering into partnerships with men they had no care for. Love was promulgated as an incentive to marry and to bear children – and so came stories of soulmates; two halves of a whole, opposing and yet completing each other. Men are the protectors and aggressors, and women are the nurturers. 

“Love is a fallacy” is a sad realisation, and one which we try to battle against. We all get butterflies swirling around our stomachs, we get goosebumps, we blush, we giggle; we fall in love. It feels biological. But anthropologically? There’s no proof. What we do know is that sexual jealousy is a powerful drug, and that attractiveness based on pheromones results in preferences for sexual partners. But, personally, I want to believe it’s something more. Something inexplicable. Something human.

But if we want to be monogamous, why are we so bad at it? In a 2016 study, researchers found that 1 in 5 Americans have been in a non-monogamous relationship, and a third of participants in another study said their ideal relationship would be polyamorous. Most people want to cheat, many do, and most married couples get divorced. What is proven time and time again is that people are not committed to their partners, they’re committed to the idea of commitment. 

So… what comes next? We’re trying as a species so inexorably hard to be monogamous, but we’re falling at every hurdle. Should that mean we revert back to the ways of our hunter-gatherer ancestors? Perhaps. After all, only 300 years of our 300,000 year existence has involved monogamous love (that’s only 0.1% of our time). Maybe monogamy isn’t natural, but if we recognise that, if it’s something we want, we’re going to have to work hard for it. Perchance. 

Perhaps what makes us human isn’t our ability to love. What makes us unique, what makes us human, what keeps us alive — is that we’re capable of doing things that are ubiquitously unnatural. Let’s keep fighting biology, and keep loving whatever way you know how.

P.S. This topic – biological and sexual anthropology – has been a fascination of mine since I found out what the word anthropology actually meant. In another life, topics such as these would have been contenders for my Masters and PhD projects – but writing tens of thousands of words about still taboo topics would land me with a whole lot of weird looks and exactly no career prospects. So, this article is me doing that dream justice. It’s why it’s so damn long.

I'm a second year Social Anthropology and French student studying at the University of St Andrews and from Manchester and Bèziers. I love travelling (as per), writing, hiking and kayaking – and enjoying general student life in our little town, many pubs and few and far between clubs.