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Is infidelity natural? Ask the apes

By Wendy Shalit, Special to CNN
  • Wendy Shalit says recent articles spin evolutionary theories to justify infidelity
  • One says men more likely to cheat on breadwinner wives, but also on low-earning wives
  • Another claims men "hardwired" to cheat, she says; a third says infidelity natural, as with apes
  • Shalit: Infidelity "science" a convenient excuse; men's better selves have self-control

Editor's note: Wendy Shalit is the author of "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue" and "The Good Girl Revolution: Young Rebels With Self-Esteem and High Standards."

(CNN) -- In recent weeks, a series of CNN articles have appeared purporting to get to the bottom of male infidelity. "Men More Likely to Cheat on Women With Bigger Paychecks," one headline informs us; yet in the body of the article we are told that the opposite is true as well: "A man who makes significantly more money than his girlfriend or wife is also more likely to cheat."

It's a bit bewildering, keeping track of all the things that could cause a man to be unfaithful. Earn too much and he might cheat, but earn too little and he might cheat then, too.

Association is not the same as causality, but news outlets have latched on to this anyway as the reason actress Sandra Bullock was betrayed; high-and-low-earning ladies everywhere had better beware.

This article and others like it that surface in the media every so often amount to something of a cottage industry in the justification of male infidelity. Scratch the surface of any of them and you get a phenomenon of male entitlement that is oddly abetted by some women.

For example, if you thought that the man himself had anything to do with it, former "sugarbabe" and mistress Holly Hill explains otherwise in an article that ran a few weeks ago: "Men are hardwired to betray women on the long-term." In this view, man is but a victim of faulty "wiring" -- although the wires evidently worked well enough to fund her "sugarbabe" business.

But the real eye-opener was psychologist Christopher Ryan's essay, "Monogamy unnatural for our sexy species."

Before reading this, I hadn't realized that I could have a "central, respected role" as part of a "harem of women" and that marriage was all a ruse to make the "human female [into] just another possession for men to accumulate and defend, along with his house, slaves and asses."

I have already notified my husband that I am onto him, and that he may no longer defend nor accumulate me for "pair bonding."

Curiously, accumulating large numbers of other women poses no problem, according to Ryan. For on account of "women's pendulous breasts" -- and the vast evolutionary forces that have produced them -- he suggests it's "utterly natural" for men to cheat, or to exhibit "nonpossessive, gregarious sexuality."

We are, he points out, "the most sexual species on earth." At first I was confused about why this sexuality can only be expressed via multiple partners, but then I got to the part about the "Bonobos [who] famously enjoy frequent group sex that leaves everyone relaxed and conflict-free." And who, really, can argue with that?

All I ask, as a woman, is for consistency. When we turn to the bonobos to be our guides, let's not be quite so selective about the take-home message. Let us try to examine every species more thoroughly.

For example: true, women have "pendulous breasts," but hey, men have pendulous ears, and what could those possibly be for? Any serious evolutionary scholar can plainly see that the human male is designed to be listening to women at all times. That's why their ears are larger.

Ryan claims that, since the male organ is "the longest [and] thickest," we cannot deny the evidence that "prehistoric promiscuity" is part of our primate inheritance. Yet this fascinating investigation is cut short. If we continue traveling further upwards, we discover that a man's arms are also generally longer and thicker than a woman's.

From a strictly scientific standpoint, here we see a strong indication that a man is evolutionarily adapted to give out more back rubs than he gets. Sure, today an individual man can refuse a request for a massage, but when the next wave of natural selection works its magic, he may find that his massage-phobic genes are out of the running.

Once at the Toronto Zoo, my family witnessed a male orangutan picking nits off his baby's hair, while the female lolled about peacefully, grooming herself under a tree. Can there be any clearer precedent, from an evolutionary perspective, for men to scrape the dinner plates while women get manicures?

Another time on YouTube, I saw a female gorilla munching on stinging nettles, even though they seemed to bother her. It was a humbling, yet powerful directive for me to go shopping even though I couldn't really afford a new outfit.

Ladies, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. It is time to stop arguing with evolutionary theorists when they use bonobo behavior to justify their own low standards.

Why should men have a monopoly on the totally arbitrary selection of chimp behavior that renders their own predilections normative under the guise of scientific observation? I am picking up my pad of paper, I am ready to take notes and I am headed for the zoo.

Do the gorillas speak to you, too? If they don't, simply write to let me know what behavior of yours you'd like to rationalize, and I am confident that working together as a scientific team, we can find a gorilla somewhere out there doing that very thing with a vengeance.

Let's face it -- the new "science" of infidelity is just not very scientific. It certainly provides a convenient "out" to deny personal responsibility, but anyone who buys this "science" is missing out on the best parts of being human: the freedom that comes from self-control and the intimacy that can only come with commitment.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wendy Shalit.