Reengineering Human Nature: Lust

The Problem: According to the commandments of the major religions, God expects humans to have only a single lifelong romantic partner and to remain sexually faithful to them: “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).

Yet, as any given week of tabloid headlines will tell you, humans aren’t naturally wired for monogamy. Even after we’re married or in a monogamous relationship, the sex drive continues functioning, often producing strong feelings of attraction and lust for people other than one’s chosen partner. Even celebrities and politicians in high-profile relationships, people who have by far the most to lose from being caught cheating, seem unable to resist the urgings of adulterous desire. (John Edwards and Tiger Woods are the two most famous examples in recent headlines – by the time you read this, there will probably be others.) Religion also seems ineffective at restraining lust: consider the many high-profile preachers, from Jimmy Swaggart to Ted Haggard to Jim Bakker (and many, many more), who’ve been caught in heterosexual or homosexual relationships outside their marriage.

The Solution: It’s utterly bizarre and inexplicable, on the theistic worldview, that God would create humans with overwhelmingly strong inclinations to commit an act he doesn’t want them to commit, and then punish them harshly if they fail to resist the temptations he himself implanted in them. This view makes God out to be some kind of Kafkaesque sadist who doesn’t want humans to be saved and delights in placing stumbling blocks in their path.

But it didn’t have to be this way. If God is an omnipotent architect with the power to create any kind of beings he pleases, and if God’s preferred model of sexual and romantic relations is lifelong monogamy and fidelity, it would have been easy for him to make that happen. Rather than creating human beings as we are now, God could have created a world of human beings with a different psychological makeup.

In this possible world, if entered into willingly, the ritual of marriage produces psychological and physiological change in the brain such that from that day onward, a married person experiences feelings of love and sexual attraction for only their chosen partner and no one else. The ability to feel platonic love, to form friendships and meaningful relationships based in mutual respect and admiration, would be unaffected, but the idea of falling in love or feeling lust for someone other than your partner would be as inconceivable as the idea of falling in love with a lamp or a table. In this world, adultery simply wouldn’t exist, as there would be no desire to engage in it.

The Real Explanation: Human nature was not created by God, but shaped and instilled in us by evolution. And evolution, above all else, rewards reproductive success: the drive to have as many descendants as possible, to maximize the contribution of your genes to the next generation. This is not because evolution has some sort of moral preference for this behavior, but simply because living beings that act in this way will proliferate at the expense of those that don’t, and therefore we’re more likely to be descendants of the former rather than the latter.

That being the case, it’s to be expected that many human beings become attracted to more than one person over the course of their lives. There’s no evolutionary advantage to shutting down your sex drive, while there is an evolutionary advantage to mating with anyone who might be willing. (Natural monogamy does evolve, but only on rare occasions – usually when children need the full attention and nurturing of both parents to survive.) For this very reason, if human beings were wired as I’ve described above, this would be strong evidence against evolution and in favor of God’s existence. But this isn’t what we actually find to be true.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Pither

    Great article. I think it would be even more powerful if you would directly address the inevitable first response that the theist would give. Specifically, “God didn’t create us this way. It was mankind’s sin that tainted our once perfect human nature.”

  • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

    Hey, we’re thinking along the same lines. Cheers.

  • Katie M

    I’ve wondered about monogamy. It’s present in some species (some for life, some for a season), absent in others, and it seems humanity (as a whole) hasn’t made up its mind yet. I wonder why?

  • Leum

    The other option would just be not to give us a sex drive or sexual pleasure (this would be largely in keeping with Christian theology, though not at all acceptable in Jewish). Then we’d only have sex for babies. Tertullian (IIRC) believed that this would be the nature of sex in Heaven.

  • tdc

    I wonder where, if monogamy is not natural nor commanded by God, we would have gotten this idea that we should only have one partner in the first place. Why create such a rule if it goes against our very nature?

  • jemand

    @Katie M, I think we’re just more aware of breaches of monogamy in our species because we are living in it. When genetic tests are done, it’s seen a lot of the other “monogamous” species also have quite a bit of cheating going on… I think we qualify as “monogamous” as much as any other species, it’s just that “monogamous” is rarely ever truly lifelong, at least for entire species. But some individuals might be.

  • ArtyB

    Ebon, I believe adultery is a sin only if you sleep with someone who is not your partner and as such has nothing to do with polygamy. If a man has six wives, sleeping with any of them will not be considered adultery because he is married to them and therefore acceptable. It only becomes adultery if the person he sleeps with is not his partner.

    It is also true that the NT calls for marriage between one man and woman, but the OT has numerous examples of men with multiple spouses, and this did not necessarily incur the wrath of God. Examples of polygamous and/or adulterous men are Abraham, Solomon and Jacob. God tolerated or allowed such practices and even put in measures that guaranteed the “right” treatment of women in such relationships.

    Consequently, I can say that God created us to be polygamous and that the only reason he was later against it ( and this is mind-boggling because God is supposed to be omniscient or all-seeing, and therefore he should have known and seen this will happen when he allowed it) was because of the rivalry between these wives and biases of husbands ( you know there is always going to be a favorite one).

  • Valhar2000

    Jemand, yes, that’s what I was going to say. According to Ian Stewart (can’t remember which book) monogamy is turning out to be rarer and rarer in the rest of Nature, to the point where we can only really assume for some species of worms in which the female absorbs the male, keeps him inside her all his life, and mates with him that way.

  • Valhar2000

    ArtyB, your hypothesis does not explain why women cheat almost, though not quite, as much as men do. If things were as you say, women should be content with only one man, and never feel any lust toward another, but that is not always so.

  • Archimedez

    “The Problem: According to the commandments of the major religions, God expects humans to have only a single lifelong romantic partner and to remain sexually faithful to them: “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).”–Ebonmuse

    Wait a minute. It says not to commit adultery. It doesn’t say do not have more than one partner.

    The Bible is contradictory and ambiguous on this issue.
    http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/interp/polygamy.html

    The Mormon scriptures are contradictory
    http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/BOM/says_about/polygamy.html

    The Quran is clearer on this; a man can have up to four wives and an unlimited number of female “right hand possessions.”
    http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/quran/says_about/polygamy.html

    Polygamy is not popularly accepted among Hindus today (and is illegal for Hindus in India) though there were some allowances for it in old Hindu laws.
    http://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/h_polygamy.asp

    Buddhism according to wikipedia does not regulate marriage, but examples of polyandry and polygyny exist in Buddhist communities.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy#Buddhism

  • ArtyB

    @ Valhar. My comment is not about the fact that women are as likely to cheat as men, no. It is about the fact that God is not necessarily against polygamy. I used the examples of men in polygamous relationships because the bible does not give examples of women with multiples husbands. it only gives examples of adulterous women, who may be single or married, because women were not allowed to have multiple husbands, that was only reserved for men.

    You can however substitute whatever gender you want in the examples I gave.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Aww, and here I was hoping you’d be proposing biological tweaks to make us more likely to be faithful (such as jacking up oxytocin for your “first”). Although I suppose any such mechanism would be fraught with problems of its own (would you spend your whole relationship then trying to chase that first high?*), making it impractically research-intensive. Oh, well.

    The explanation I received as a child for the impossibility of perfectly satisfying all of God’s commands was thus: see, God wants us to know how imperfect we are, and thus how badly we need him, so we’re such messes for the greater glory of God. It doesn’t make a lick o’ sense, but it’s authoritarian dick-waving at it’s finest.

    * – On second thought, I suppose this could be used for the “be fruitful and multiply” BS that some Bible-thumpers use to tell us we need to be baby factories, so… maybe it does work, after all. Ugh.

  • AnonaMiss

    @ArtyB, you’re dodging the point.

    If God intended for polyandry to be allowed, and God is responsible for early Jewish law (as you indicated you believe he is, with the phrase “God… put in measures that guaranteed”), why did he forbid polyandry in early law? If God did not intend for polyandry to be allowed, why did he give women wandering eyes?

    You can’t say, “God originally intended for men to be polygamous, and I know because it was allowed in the early law,” and then turn around and say “God did not originally intend for women to be monogamous, even though polygamy for women was forbidden in early law.” And you definitely can’t say that the genders are interchangeable in your example.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I wonder where, if monogamy is not natural nor commanded by God, we would have gotten this idea that we should only have one partner in the first place. Why create such a rule if it goes against our very nature?

    I believe I can answer your question, tdc.

    As is often the case, we can shed considerable light on human behavior using evolutionary reasoning. The key point here is that, while evolution gives each individual a motive to stray, it gives them an equally strong motive to want their partner to remain faithful. After all, if your spouse sleeps around and has children with other people, they’ll be spending at least some of their energy and resources on those children – which means they have that much less to spend on your children. Needless to say, evolution gives people a good reason not to tolerate such behavior and to insist on spousal fidelity. These two competing motives push and pull on each other, leading to just what we see: a society where monogamy is the agreed-upon norm, but with many people who try to sneak around behind their partner’s back.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    This is a good beginning to the new series! I like how you’ve included the possible religious solution and the real explanation. It really shows how the real explanation is more in line with the real word compared to the religious explanations.

    I don’t know what to think about the fact that there is a whole Wikipedia entry on a List of Christian Evangelist Scandals.

    @ Pither (comment 1):

    Great article. I think it would be even more powerful if you would directly address the inevitable first response that the theist would give. Specifically, “God didn’t create us this way. It was mankind’s sin that tainted our once perfect human nature.”

    You make a good point. Another explanation I’d guess a theist may offer is, “We live in a fallen world” (which is similar to yours). It does help to try to anticipate what the other side will say.

  • Stephen P

    Nobody has mentioned sexual dimorphism yet. On the whole, those species of mammals where males and females are the same size and almost identical in appearance are monogamous, or nearly so. Mammals where the males are much bigger than the females are highly polygamous. Given the moderate degree of sexual dimorphism in humans, one would expect moderate polygamy – and that is indeed what we observe.

  • Valhar2000

    It doesn’t make a lick o’ sense, but it’s authoritarian dick-waving at it’s finest.

    D, that may not be the best sentence ever written, but it has to be high up there.

  • Archimedez

    I question two basic premises of this article.

    1. Ebonmuse’s statement that “According to the commandments of the major religions, God expects humans to have only a single lifelong romantic partner and to remain sexually faithful to them” is not correct. (See ArtyB’s comment 7 and my comment 10, above). It may be a mainstream assumption among the adherents of the world’s major religions that marriage should be to a single lifelong partner, but the religious texts have plenty of material that suggests otherwise. One of the religions, Islam, allows polygyny. In addition, the Abrahamic religions allow for divorce, and traditionally even Hinduism allowed males to get divorced under some limited circumstances. The Abrahamic religions and Hindu law, interpreted in modern times, do explicitly allow for divorce.

    2. The assumption that we humans are not “wired” for lifelong monogamy because we have sexual desires that exceed it. This I believe is partly correct, but I think we have competing tendencies, some of which favor having sex with many partners, but others than seem to limit the number of partners. All of these tendencies were probably subject to evolutionary pressures. One strong emotion that many people feel, though, is jealously, especially with regard to romantic or sexual partners. This would tend to favour monogamy. Jealousy in humans probably pre-dates religion by a long time in our recent evolutionary history.

    Ebonmuse writes: “And evolution, above all else, rewards reproductive success: the drive to have as many descendants as possible, to maximize the contribution of your genes to the next generation.”

    Without jealousy, possessiveness, and other such forms of territorialism, we humans would perhaps have produced far more offspring. But we have developed these tendencies also through evolution, and this limits the number offspring. So it might be more accurate to say we have evolved such that we now have competing tendencies, toward maximizing sexual partners and minimizing sexual partners.

    Religions generally do a lousy job of regulating behaviour in light of the human sex drive. In particular, they limit the female’s sexual selection. They limit premarital sex. However, religions generally do emphasize being fruitful and multiplying. Insofar as religions are human creations, and mostly male-dominated ones at that, they do reflect the conflicting tendencies within us to some extent. Through affording extra privileges and freedoms to males, the major religions may have even skewed us off of a 1:1 sex ratio in our recent evolutionary history, giving us slightly more males than females, and giving us customs that are socially unstable in the long term (e.g., polygyny).

  • Archimedez

    p.s., Edit [ ] “we now have competing tendencies, toward maximizing [the number of] sexual partners, and toward minimizing [the number of] sexual partners [toward one].”

  • Archimedez

    p.p.s. I see that Ebonmuse has already addressed my point about competing tendencies in his comment #14. It might be helpful to add an edit to the main article.

  • paradoctor

    About monogamy: I regard it as a kind of sexual socialism. In a totally laissez-faire marriage market, you’ll have winners (harem owners) and losers (involuntary celibates). Theoretically this might have meant polygyny and spinsters, but in practice it tends towards polygamy and bachelors. Now it so happens that unattached males tend to be dangerous to themselves and others. Therefore it is in the interest of social order for there to be sexual sharing; one man, one woman. And that is why the authorities, worldwide, have tended to mandate this, despite its ‘unnaturalness’.

    Some notes; some Moslem countries haven’t gotten the memo yet, so polygamy survives there. Note their social instability.

    Also, here in the West we have a modified form of monogamy; serial polygamy disguised as monogamy via divorce.

  • xa6bn

    I’m curious… does anyone feel that there is there a societal or moral mandate for monogamy or a tendency toward monogamy (non-religious)? Or is this something that society should learn to keep its nose out of? Is it a moral issue apart from religion?

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    @xa6bn (comment #22): Personally, I do see it as a moral issue if there is lying involved. If someone promises to be monogamous but then cheats, I think that’s an immoral thing to do, but if people in a relationship agree to be nonmonogamous, I think that’s fine, since there’s no lying involved.

    I don’t really think any laws pertaining to the matter would be the right thing to do, however. That would just create more problems. I think it should be up to the people involved in the relationship.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    @paradoctor (comment 21): I find it interesting that you wrote “serial polygamy disguised as monogamy via divorce”. It made me smile.

    Also, I just wanted to add to my last comment that I think another moral issue involved has to be the rights of the parties involved. One of the things that’s often pointed out about polygamy is that women don’t have equal rights in the relationship. I don’t think that has be the case, but it does seem to happen often, especially when we’re talking about religious denominations practicing it. I do think that that would be something where legal issues have to be considered, so that if poly marriage are allowed, it should be with equal legal benefits and rights for everyone, with equal laws against abuse, etc.

  • ashling

    After all, if your spouse sleeps around and has children with other people, they’ll be spending at least some of their energy and resources on those children – which means they have that much less to spend on your children.

    Or (if you are a male) you might not even know if they are your children at all – then not only is your partner expending resources raising other people’s children, but you might be too.

    For those interested, I recommend these lectures which touch on the neurobiological basis of some what has been discussed in the post and comments.

    Professor Robert Sapolsky on the Neurobiology of Primate Sexuality

    Part 1: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2732704984000303543
    Part 2: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=210262239460023471

    Very worthwhile viewing, IMHO :)

  • mikespeir

    I hope the argument isn’t that we should indulge our lusts just because we have them. Every so often I want to slap somebody silly, too, but that doesn’t make it a good thing to do.

  • xa6bn

    mikespeir,

    That’s why I was asking the question, above, about the morality issue. Paraphrased, I guess it would be asking whether the tension between acting on lust, vs. not acting on lust is a serious enough issue to warrant ethical or moral consideration. If I understand Ebon correctly, there are diametrically opposed evolutionary drivers at work here. Few, if any, other animals would wrestle with this as an issue. Humans, though, do wrestle with it. Is lust more or less serious than the desire to slap someone? Certainly there are consequences to every action that need to be considered. When do those consequences rise to the level of morality?

  • Zietlos

    I believe everyone here is overthinking this: When something god or inexplicable happens, god did it. Whenever something unfortunate happens, like sinning, Lucifer did it. So there you go: Lucifer was Tiger Woods’ guardian angel. Case closed, who needs this science and discourse? [/trolling]

    It is interesting to think about these things. A conversation from one of these sites on homosexuality leading to polygamy and why it was worse or the same occurred, and the only real sticking point was tax laws, which would need a bit of reform. Humans are stupid creatures, I think we all can accept this more or less. Having only one mate to protect, provide, and prosper with is easier to account for than having two or more. This is likely the religious thinking that led to these things, harems becoming more powerful than their “owner” who needed to guard all of them. An ideal polygamy relationship, of course, shares obligation meaning the same amount of effort is required no matter the amount of spouses involved (monogamous, 1:1, but 3 people you do half and half, each, so it’s 1:1:1 in total, each getting a half from the other two, totaling one still). Since in ancient times, both the economic and religious worldviews prevented women from being equal to men, this ratio could not be maintained, but ironically, in a “free” culture, polygamy is actually more valid than historically, and would work just as functionally as a normal marriage, in theory.

    Just a thought experiment. I don’t give it much thought unless prompted. I’m just glad I’m not a male black widow spider. :)

  • Rieux

    [T]he idea of falling in love or feeling lust for someone other than your partner would be as inconceivable as the idea of falling in love with a lamp or a table.

    Aw–poor Ebonmuse. Clearly you just haven’t met the right table!

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Or another object maybe?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    And here I was trying to pick the most outlandish possible example, some tendency I thought no human being would ever feel. Maybe we need some sort of corollary to Rule 34.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Silly Ebon, anything can be pornographized! I would expound, but I’m at work. That hasn’t stopped me from silently contemplating the matter at my desk for ten minutes, though…

    For my part, I’m surprised that thirty comments have gone by without a single “I love lamp” joke.