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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Better Definition of "Faithful"

Posted by on Wed, Apr 23, 2014 at 8:36 AM

NPR take a look at the "divorce rate" among birds:

Flamingos, it turns out, are embarrassing. They break up 99 percent of the time. The divorce rate for piping plovers is 67 percent. Ducks do better than humans. Human marriages (American ones) fail at a rate of roughly 40 percent (which is about equal to Nazca boobies). Mallard marriages are 91 percent successful. The big shock was swans. Everybody, ornithologists included, figured swans would be at the top of the Most Faithful list. But they're not. They have a 5 percent divorce rate. So who's the champ? Do I need to say? Albatrosses are 100 percent faithful. That's not to say that albatross dads don't occasionally have a dalliance with ladies who aren't their mates. That happens. But the original pair stays intact—which is surprising when you consider that albatross couples can last for decades.

Unless male albatrosses are scrupulous about dallying—that's NPR for "fucking"—only with single lady albatrosses (albatri?), the female of the species is getting it elsewhere too. But the albatross may have a more workable definition of "faithful" than the one humans have been saddled with: a lasting partner bond with the occasional dalliance, aka social monogamy, not sexual monogamy. Another thing albatrosses seem to do right: they spend a lot of time apart—sometimes months alone. Research shows that human couples who do the same are happier and have stronger relationships.

UPDATE: Yes, yes—human beings are not birds, as folks are pointing out in the comments. That would be a more devastating point if birds long believed to be monogamous—because they were socially monogamous—had not held up for centuries as a moral example to human beings. Then along comes genetic testing and we discover that—lordy!—none of those birds we'd been hearing about were sexually monogamous. So we had a lot to learn from birds when we believed they were monogamous. Now that we know they're not... nothing to see here, folks, move along.

And it wasn't too long ago that social conservatives were cheering March of the Penguins, a documentary about the mating habits of penguins that "[affirmed] traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing," according to social cons:

Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, told the young conservatives' gathering last month: "You have to check out 'March of the Penguins.' It is an amazing movie. And I have to say, penguins are the really ideal example of monogamy. These things—the dedication of these birds is just amazing."

Reality, however, has a liberal non-monogamous bias:

Emperor Penguins are serially monogamous. They have only one mate each year, and stay faithful to that mate. However, fidelity between years is only about 15%. The narrow window of opportunity available for mating appears to be an influence, as there is a priority to mate and breed which often precludes waiting for the appearance of the previous year's partner.

To recap: "Penguins are monogamous? People should act more like penguins! Penguins are a shining example to us all! Wait—penguins aren't monogamous? People shouldn't act like penguins! Penguins are animals and their example is entirely irrelevant!"


Comments (26) RSS

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Those birds were never married in the eyes of God! They were living together in sin! Hence, they can not be divorced.
Posted by LML on April 23, 2014 at 9:17 AM · Report this
AmyC 4
Oh, man, I relate to this so hard. My spouse and I are textbook examples: I had secure attachment growing up, he had insecure attachment and I need and want waaaay more space/time alone than he does. I am managing for now, but we're going to have to talk this out soonish.
Posted by AmyC on April 23, 2014 at 9:23 AM · Report this
When I saw this article on NPR the other day I knew someone somewhere was going to use it to defend monogamishy. The problem with this is that albatrosses are not people. Neither are orangutans, bees, lions, bonobos, etc.

It would be just as easy to point to the forced copulation of female orangutans, call it rape, and say hey orangutans share 99.99% of our DNA, they rape, we rape. It's our nature!

The entire article reeks of anthropomorphism, which Krulwich is great at. He's not a scientist; he's a journalist.

In case you misunderstand me, I'm definitely not against monogamishy. Monogamishy by people for people has it's own merits and shouldn't be put up against an animals behavior. We shouldn't be attempting to use studies of birds to analyze human behavior.
Posted by Incompossible on April 23, 2014 at 9:23 AM · Report this
I'm with @1. The link doesn't show that marriages are stronger when the partners spend months away from each other.

The only relevant evidence it provides is: "Of those who reported being unhappy, 11.5% said the reason was lack of privacy or time for self. [Compared to] 6% who said they were unhappy with their sex lives."

It doesn't say what the other 80% of unhappy partners are unhappy about. Maybe a lot of them are unhappy their partner is gone so much. We don't have that information, so we can't argue from this piece that marriages are stronger when one partner goes on long book tours -- sorry, Dan.
Posted by EricaP on April 23, 2014 at 10:03 AM · Report this
MacCrocodile 7
Marriage is one bird and one other bird for life!
Posted by MacCrocodile on April 23, 2014 at 10:21 AM · Report this
smajor82 8
@5 Animal mating behavior can be characterized in many ways, one of which is the length of time that pairs stay together as a social unit. To suggest that humans are magically special and can't have their mating behaviors compared with those of other animals reeks of anthropocentrism.

As for rape and orangutans - that something occurs naturally does not make it "ok". You;re missing the point. The point here isn't that being monogamish is ok because bids do it, it's that of all the birds, the ones that stay together the longest exhibit certain behaviors, and we could infer from that fact that those behaviors may also contribute to humans having successful long term pairings. Whether this is "good" or "ok" isn't the point.

It's perfectly ok to take data from other species as suggestive evidence for our own species, because we're all pretty friggin similar.
Posted by smajor82 on April 23, 2014 at 10:24 AM · Report this
venomlash 9
Yo Dan, the conclusions drawn by that WSJ article you linked are fuckstupid. Just because more spouses said their #1 relationship concern was having enough space than said it was their sex life doesn't mean that having space is more important for couples than having good sex. (It just means that it's a more prevalent problem.) And I have no idea HOW you went from that morass to "[r]esearch shows" that spending lots of time apart leads to healthier relationships.
Posted by venomlash on April 23, 2014 at 11:04 AM · Report this
Sounds like the ever-shifting arguments you used to hear against teh gays. To wit:

Fundamentalist: "Homosexual behavior is unnatural!"
Scientist: "Here are 300 species that have been observed displaying homosexual behavior."
Fundamentalist: "Homosexual behavior is base and animalistic!"

In other words, the argument can change all the time, as long as the conclusion stays intact.
Posted by Pope Buck I on April 23, 2014 at 11:09 AM · Report this
The NPR article is misusing the word "faithful" as it is currently defined for sexual contexts. I'm not sure that the non-sexual meaning of the word applies here either, considering that the albatrosses don't really have shared lives the way human couples do.

But yes a little time apart can work wonders.
Posted by DRF on April 23, 2014 at 11:29 AM · Report this
Ophian 12
I agree with most others that, while this is ornithologically interesting, it doesn't really make any broader point about human relationships.

That being said, I am a fan of non-monogamy, monogamishy, and lots of space in relationships. For anyone with a "clingier" partner, you can now reassure them: Hey, baby, I'm not gonna do you like some flamingo. No, baby, I'm an albatross.
Posted by Ophian on April 23, 2014 at 11:46 AM · Report this
Yes, yes—people are not birds, blah blah blah. That would be a more devastating point if supposedly monogamous birds were not held up for centuries as a moral example to humans who had a much harder time being monogamous. Then along comes genetic testing and we discover that—lordy!—none of those monogamous birds were sexually monogamous.

We had a lot to learn from birds when we believed they were monogamous. Now that we know they're not... nothing to see here, folks, move along.
Posted by Dan Savage on April 23, 2014 at 11:59 AM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 14
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on April 23, 2014 at 12:02 PM · Report this
Penguins too - turns out they do make exclusive pair-bonds .... but only for one breeding season at a time. Next year, all the hot skanky penguins down the street are back on the table.
Posted by Pope Buck I on April 23, 2014 at 12:04 PM · Report this
Ophian 16
Dan @13, okay. Agreed that as a scientific argument it is thin, but to counter decades of pro-monogamy, bird rhetoric it is a solid and useful response.
Posted by Ophian on April 23, 2014 at 12:15 PM · Report this
Dougsf 17
To be fair, there are far more "failed" marriages than there are divorces. That may be true with birds as well, but we don't have to watch birds sit in annoyed silence next to each other in airport waiting areas.
Posted by Dougsf on April 23, 2014 at 12:32 PM · Report this
Dan, most posters here agree with you that many happy marriages don't stick to monogamy. And that outside observers can't tell whether a marriage is monogamous or not (sometimes one of the partners also doesn't know), so we underestimate how many non-monogamous happy marriages there are.

But when you write this --"Research shows that human couples who do the same are happier and have stronger relationships" -- what do you mean? What research are you pointing to? And what do you think it shows for humans?
Posted by EricaP on April 23, 2014 at 12:58 PM · Report this
If humans are so special, I guess we should just quit studying any other animals, from fruit flies to apes, for any more insight into our own physiology, evolution, behavior, and ecology. Shucks, we've done this in ernest since the late 1700s and all we've got to show for it is modern medicine, the human genome project, developmental homiostasis, an understanding of why such behaviors as altruism and infanticide arise in social groups...come to think of it I guess we can learn something from animals. Before modern biology theologians looked for evidence of God's wisdom in the birds, beasts, and flora. With scientific activity around the world in evolution of behavior and cognition, we now gain enormous insight into humanity from non-human animals that are not much different from us. Darwin proposed the theory of evolution by SEXUAL selection to explain much of what he observed in the behavior of males and females. Since birds face many of the same constraints as humans when it comes to reproduction (females bear more costs) and parenting (it takes two parents to successfully raise chicks in most cases), we can and do learn a LOT from birds. Doubters and the willfully ignorant could learn a lot by skimming a used textbook on animal behavior. And DAN SAVAGE: I've meant to tell you for years that you might LOVE more info from that perspective. Sexual selection theory really does explain a lot about people....
Posted by tiny frogs on April 23, 2014 at 1:13 PM · Report this
20 Comment Pulled (Trolling) Comment Policy
Pope Peabrain 21
Well, you can see our lizard predecessors in the fetus of both humans and birds. So, comparing us to birds is not at all farfetched.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on April 23, 2014 at 3:08 PM · Report this
rob! 22
@20: Pinning! Yes! Yesssssss

@21: Lizards, hell. Fish, mofo!
Posted by rob! on April 23, 2014 at 4:17 PM · Report this
@20. Ive had plenty of access to females my whole life. Still turned out gay. For me, that's normal.
Posted by Clayton on April 23, 2014 at 4:48 PM · Report this
24 Comment Pulled (Trolling) Comment Policy
wait......back when penguins had newly outed themselves as gay wasn't Danny strutting around clucking about how awesome they were?

Posted by back to deleting posts, Danny? pussy.... on April 25, 2014 at 6:50 AM · Report this
Sandiai 26
I've been deleting your posts, Troll.
Posted by Sandiai on April 25, 2014 at 12:05 PM · Report this

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