It has recently become fashionable to argue that the contradictory nature of the information about the sexual habits of the great apes does not allow any resolution, on the animal plane, of the problem of whether polygamous tendencies are innate or acquired. Fashionable, yes; empirically defensible, no. Social and biological observation combine to suggest that, in women, these tendencies are natural and universal, and that only limitations born of the environment and culture are responsible for their suppression. Consequently, to our eyes, monogamy is not a positive institution, but merely incorporates the limit of polygamy in societies where, for highly varied reasons, economic and sexual competition reaches an acute form ( vide the NYTimes wedding announcements page).
But even in a strictly monogamous society, the considerations of the previous paragraph still retain their validity. This deep polyandrous tendency, which exists among all women, always makes the number of available men seem insufficient. Let us add that, even if there were as many men as women, these men would not all be equally desirable – and that, by definition, the most desirable men must always form a minority. Hence, the demand for men is in actual fact, or to all intents and purposes, always in a state of disequilibrium and tension. In such circumstances, is it possible to speak of men as a scarce commodity requiring collective intervention for its distribution? Not only possible but – given the ethnographic evidence – inevitable. Consider that in traditional societies, the group controls the distribution not only of men but of a whole collection of valuables. Food, the most easily observed of these, is more than just the most vital commodity it really is, for between it and men there is a whole system of real and symbolic relationships, whose true nature is only gradually emerging, but which, when even superficially understood, are enough to establish this connection. The ethnographic literature is replete with examples demonstrating that the methods for distributing meat in primitive societies are no less ingenious than those for the distribution of men. In the great majority of human societies, the two problems are set on the same plane. These exchanges form the web of social life; and men are valuables par excellence from the both the biological and social points of view, without which life is impossible, or, at best, is reduced to the worst forms of abjection (only imagine the arid despondency of life bereft of air guitar).
In the course of human evolution, the emergence of symbolic thought must have required that men, like words, should be things that were exchanged. This was the only means of overcoming the contradiction by which the same man was seen under two incompatible aspects: on the one hand, as the object of personal desire, thus exciting sexual and proprietorial instincts; and on the other, as the subject of the desire of others, and seen as such; i.e., as the means of binding others through alliance with them. But man could never become just a sign and nothing more, since he is still a person. In contrast to words, which have wholly become signs, man has remained at once a sign and a value. This explains why the relations between the sexes have preserved that affective richness, ardour, and mystery which doubtless originally permeated the entire universe of human communications. Only a radical bonobologist could fail to concede the point.