Geoffrey Miller on polyamory

I really liked Geoffrey Miller’s paean to polyamory on Sam Harris’ recent podcast. I’ve quoted it below; I hope he won’t mind me reproducing it here.

Humans have an innate tendency to form long-term pair bonds, no doubt. Pair bonds are extremely important in human evolution: people finding mates, settling down, having a little home, raising kids together, bi-parental care, dads investing…

So: I’m not going to go dis monogamy. It has been a wildly successful way to take hominid pair bonds and update them for agricultural and industrial civilizations in ways that work for most people, most of the time, pretty well.

But in the modern world the issue is: are your kids or grandkids seriously going to pursue lifelong monogamous marriage as their default? The surveys among millennials and Gen Zs say no. A lot of them don’t want that. So what are they going to do? We don’t know.

I think of it as kind of a Cambrian explosion of different relationship patterns. Most of which will end up being dumb and fail. But the ones that don’t fail will be great learning experiences for updating monogamy and figuring out how to do it, or something else, better.

A lot of polyamorists say jealousy is a social construct… I think, on the contrary, evolution created sexual and emotional jealousy for very, very good reasons. They are deep instincts; they have important adaptive functions. However, that doesn’t mean you have to let them rule your life. Better Angels of Our Nature is all about how we have these aggressive homicidal instincts, but we’ve managed to drop the rate of homicide by orders of magnitude.

I think the same thing could be done with jealousy. But most people aren’t willing to try. They’re terrified of jealousy, and can’t imagine being in a relationship where they’re comfortable with their partner going out on a date for a night. That terrifies them more than, like, bankruptcy… But it’s survivable.

What are the upsides? It’s fun. You get to meet more people. I think humans are actually evolved to use sex to make friends, and I’m not being totally facetious about that. Sex is a great way to get to know somebody better very quickly. You sort of are recreating a tribe in a way that a lot of modern alienated people in society don’t have.

A lot of people who are in long-term relationships get … locked into this duet with a partner and you’re isolated, on your own, without any genuine romantic or emotional engagement with anyone else. A lot of people feel ‘either I’m stuck in this, bored to tears, or we break up the relationship.’ There is a third alternative.


The full transcript of the segment is below.

HARRIS: So why isn’t [polyamory] more trouble than it’s worth?

MILLER: Humans have an innate tendency to form long-term pair bonds, no doubt. Pair bonds are extremely important in human evolution: people finding mates, settling down, having a little home, raising kids together, bi-parental care, dads investing – that has been crucial to human evolution for at least a million years.

Then it’s gotten ritualized culturally into the expectation of lifelong monogamous marriage, and every large successful civilization in human history has adopted monogamous marriage as the typical mating pattern…

So: I’m not going to go dis monogamy. It has been a wildly successful way to take hominid pair bonds and update them for agricultural and industrial civilizations in ways that work for most people, most of the time, pretty well.

However. They can be oppressive to certain people who have certain values or certain life situations or simply certain personalities.

If you go back and ask ‘what were the original cultural and social functions of monogamous marriage?’, a lot of them had to do with things like reduce the transmission rate of STDs, ensure paternity certainty (that your kid is who you think your kid is), manage inheritance of wealth and land, and it was also crucially about spreading reproductive opportunities fairly evenly across young males and young females so nobody monopolizes the mating market. And that all worked very very well – you couldn’t have had Chinese or Roman or medieval European civilization work as well as it did without monogamy.

But in the modern world the issue is: are your kids or grandkids seriously going to pursue lifelong monogamous marriage as their default? The surveys among millennials and Gen Zs say no. A lot of them don’t want that. So what are they going to do? We don’t know. (This is probably the topic of my next book.) But I think we have to look at the all the different sexual subcultures that have tried different kinds of mating patterns – monogamy, polygamists, polyamorists, asexuals - figure out what are the lessons learned from each of those subcultures…

I think of it as kind of a Cambrian explosion of different relationship patterns. Most of which will end up being dumb and fail. But the ones that don’t fail will be great learning experiences for updating monogamy and figuring out how to do it, or something else, better.

HARRIS: How do you deal with jealousy? How do you deal with one partner in the relationship hooking up more?

MILLER: The success and failure rate seems comparable at least in terms of how happy people are in these relationships short-term; we don’t yet have good data on how stable are they long-term…

In terms of the jealousy issue, here’s where I part company with the standard polyamory culture. A lot of polyamorists say jealousy is a social construct… I think, on the contrary, evolution created sexual and emotional jealousy for very, very good reasons. They are deep instincts; they have important adaptive functions. However, that doesn’t mean you have to let them rule your life. Better Angels of Our Nature is all about how we have these aggressive homicidal instincts, but we’ve managed to drop the rate of aggressive homicide by orders of magnitude over the last thousands of years. That was a win for civilisation. Taking aggressive instincts and harnessing them, and managing them, and making them not run our lives.

I think the same thing could be done with jealousy. But most people aren’t willing to try. They’re terrified of jealousy, and can’t imagine being in a relationship where they’re comfortable with their partner going out on a date for a night. That terrifies them more than, like, bankruptcy… But it’s survivable.

It’s fun. You get to meet more people. I think humans are actually evolved to use sex to make friends, and I’m not being totally facetious about that. Sex is a great way to get to know somebody better very quickly.

HARRIS: That’s a tweetable meme, I think.

MILLER: The poly culture tends to be very tightly socially networked, and that can bring a lot of benefits: socially, emotionally, professionally, in terms of careers, in terms of cost savings… You sort of are recreating a tribe in a way that a lot of modern alienated people in society don’t have.

A lot of people who are in long-term relationships get stale, their self-image is “I don’t know whether I’m an interesting person any more. I don’t know how attractive I am any more. I don’t know who I am, what my interests are.” You get locked into this duet with a partner and you’re isolated, on your own, without any genuine romantic or emotional engagement with anyone else and I think for a lot of married couples that can be extremely alienating…

A lot of people feel ‘either I’m stuck in this, bored to tears, or we break up the relationship.’ There is a third alternative.