The View on Human Pairbonding Through Multiple Evolutionary Lenses

This post relates to a paper I recently wrote and posted on PsyArXiv.

Karo couple from North Sumatra, Indonesia. I previously conducted Fulbright Scholars Research on impal marriage amongst the Karo.

A pairbond is a close and enduring relationship between two individuals. It often includes mating and, in the case of humans, marriage and shared childcare responsibilities. There might be a tendency to think of pairbonding as unique to monogamy, but an individual can develop a bond with more than one individual in polygamous systems as well.

At some point in our recent evolutionary past, our ancestors began to pairbond, which differentiated us from our closest living relative the chimpanzee who engages is much more promiscuous mating. The evolution of pairbonding then had wide-ranging effects in shaping various aspects of our behaviour, anatomy, physiology, and society.

Evolutionary scholars interested in human behaviour have approached the problem in a variety of ways — so, in a nutshell:

  • Human behavioural ecologists analyse the adaptiveness of human behaviour in social and ecological context.
  • Evolutionary psychologists study the evolution of the behaviour-producing mechanisms in past environments.
  • Dual inheritance theorists are concerned with cultural evolutionary processes, including how biology and culture coevolve.

I wrote a paper that investigates how these paradigms have tackled the problem of pairbonding. For each, I examined two questions that have been addressed by their practitioners (see table below). In doing so, I was able to assess the viability of three pathways that have been proposed for integrating the methods and assumptions of each paradigm.

ParadigmQuestion 1Question 2
Human Behavioral EcologyWhen will a woman marry an already married man?What ecological factors are associated with pairbond stability?
Evolutionary PsychologyHow do short- and long-term mating preferences compare?Do sex differences in jealousy reflect our evolutionary history as a pairbonded species?
Dual Inheritance TheoryWhat cultural factors have led to the primacy of monogamy in Western societies?Can cultural evolutionary forces lead to variations on the normal pattern of pairbonding?

Some background: First, I am a human behavioural ecologist at The Australian National University (ANU) with interests in human reproductive strategies. Second, my PhD supervisor was Eric Alden Smith, who wrote a series of papers on the “Three Styles” outlining the assumptions of each paradigm. These had a formative effect on how I view the evolutionary social sciences. Third, I wrote a book chapter on the relationship between parenting and technology from an evolutionary perspective that was framed in a similar way. Fourth, I wrote a mini-review of the ecological factors influencing pairbond stability, which was fleshed out to become one of the sections of the current paper. Finally, I recently co-authored a paper on one aspect of pairbonding — the evolution of romantic love — with a PhD student at ANU.

The manuscript has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, and I have posted a pre-peer review version on the preprint server PsyArXiv:

Kushnick, G. (2022, June 4). Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Pairbonding: Reconciling the Major Paradigms. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/vesgq.

Image Credit: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Unported 3.0, Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen.

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