Of all the great apes, humans have the biggest penises. Bonobo chimpanzees have the biggest balls. What does this tell us about monogamy?
Seriously, check out this short TED talk by Christopher Ryan, author of Sex At Dawn. I’m ordering the book. His point here is that humans are socially sexual, that it’s not necessarily about reproduction. Or monogamy.
A gorilla’s penis is about the size of my pinky finger and their balls are inside. Do they give a shit? No. Gorillas must think we’re crazy. Gorillas (and most animals) mate when the female is in estrus (ovulating, in heat, whatever). Humans, however, have sex all the time. We have sex in different holes, we have sex with different sexes, we have sex with ourselves. The sex act is obviously divorced from reproduction. Which also explains our high rate of divorce.
Global sex life infographic, by me
In terms of reproduction, this amount and manner of sex is a colossal waste. You really only need a pinky-sized penis and tiny balls. The rate of sex to pregnancy is something like 15 or 10 to one among apes like the gorilla but something like 1,000 to one for us. We have no physical or social signs that a woman is ovulating, we just have sex all the time. Even when she’s ovulating we take measures to not get pregnant. And many women and men are having homosexual sex or masturbating anyways. Sex in humans obviously isn’t just about reproduction.
The other end of the spectrum are the big-balled Bonobo chimpanzees. Bonobos have sex all the time, with everyone, like shaking hands. Male/female, male/male, female/female, adult/child. They don’t give a shit. If there’s a dispute they’ll resolve it over a handjob. This seems strange, but it’s an improvement over more violent conflict resolution among our other cousins, the ‘regular’ chimpanzee, and the other apes. For Bonobos, sex is a social act which maintains complex social networks. It’s not just about reproduction.
In the same way, sex for humans is social. I’ve been watching the Louis C.K. show, ‘Louis’. He has sex with anybody, cause he’s lonely, cause he’s bored, cause they offered. He has kids that he cares for, but the other sex is just sex. He makes a (successful) pass at an ancient but reconstructed Joan Rivers largely because she’s giving such an inspiring speech. He also says that he’d sleep with monkeys if there weren’t any other humans on earth. So he’s one extreme there.
The danger here, of course, is that humans have (retroactively) socialized sex in a more formal way. Generally, you’re supposed to marry one person, have sex only with them, and raise the kids in a nuclear family. In western cultures there are certain times when you don’t have to do this (when you’re ‘single’) and in other cultures you can have sex with more than one person (usually more than one woman) and in reality people tend to allow anything as long as the kids get fed and things ‘look’ OK. But monogamy isn’t necessarily the natural thing.
Just look at our penises and balls. They wouldn’t need to be so big if males were confident that they were the only penises in there. Then a pinky sized sperm droplet would do, and you could use giant arms to reliably dismember any threats to your alpha male vagina monopoly. But, according to Ryan et al, humans compete on a sperm level, not an individual level. A woman may have multiple types of sperm in here and the strongest ones will ‘win’ and reproduce. Hence we have to have big balls to produce lots of sperm and big penises to really get it in there. Oh God. Writing this is a thin line.
So monogamy isn’t natural. Neither is reading, or a blind, allergic person like me surviving very long. Monogamy is still good. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge says:
Where true love burns Desire is Love’s pure flame;
It is the reflex of our earthly frame,
That takes its meaning from the nobler part,
And but translates the language of the heart. (Desire, via Andrew Sullivan)
Love is great and families are great and monogamy is good. But for us not-so-great apes, God knows it’s not easy. But it is worthwhile.
Sex is social more than reproductive, which is important to remember. Modern socialization has said (and found) that monogamy is a better option for everyone, which is perhaps we have so much interest in other people’s sex lives and why sex can be so controversial, toppling leaders and leading to jail terms. It’s one thing to say sex is social and monogamy doesn’t make sense, but that’s not the whole story. Sex is social but monogamy has emerged as a part of that socialization. It may not be ‘natural’ in a biological penis and testes sense, but few things are. We’re a highly socialized species and the idea of monogamy has evolved as much as (and faster) than our ape bodies. So I’m not against monogamy at all, which is not what Ryan is saying. Monogamy is important, rewarding and great on a plane much higher than reproduction. I think the research is just trying to better understand our frail ape frames, and how they can stumble towards greatness.