Are Booze-Drenched Societies More Likely To Be Monogamous?

By Jennifer Welsh | December 28, 2010 5:03 pm

A new study out in the American Association of Wine Economist’s “Wine Economics” journal suggests that monogamous societies are bigger drinkers than those in polygamous societies. Does this mean that being stuck with only one partner drives us to the bottle, or does drinking make us more likely to settle down?

Actually the answer is most likely neither. Both monogamy and drunkenness seem to be related to economics, or at least, that’s why both seem to have blossomed during the industrial revolution. Jo Swinnen, one of the study’s authors, told The New York Times Freakonomics blog (which seemed to have missed the actual conclusion of the study) that he noticed the correlation over, unsurprisingly, a glass of wine:

The inspiration came from a casual observation (over a glass of wine) that the two social/religious groups that do allow polygamy ((parts of) Mormonism and Islam) also do not consume alcohol. So we wondered whether this was a coincidence or not.

While many studies have compared alcohol and cultural traits, this is the study to look at its relationship with polygamy. The researchers compared the marital style and “frequency of drunkenness” of 44 well-documented pre-industrial societies (24 of which were polygamous; 20 monogamous) and found that monogamy was indeed positively correlated with drunkenness. The paper (pdf) says:

In societies that practice agriculture and animal husbandry drunkenness occurs less than in hunting, fishing and gathering societies….Hunting tribes are said to have more monogamous marriage arrangements than agricultural tribes.

Historically, this correlation seems to be found frequently, everywhere from the Roman empire to the Industrial revolution, as the researchers outline in the paper (pdf):

First, we find a historical correlation between a global transition from polygynous to monogamous societies and the growth of alcohol consumption. Second, the Greek and Roman empires were the only societies who consumed only wine in their era and at the same time were the only (and first) to introduce formal monogamy. Third, after the Roman Empire collapsed, formal monogamy was maintained and reinforced by the Christian Church–which was also spreading viticulture around Europe and which became the depositary of breweries and winemaking techniques. Fourth, the industrial revolution seems to have played an important role in the transition to effective/actual monogamy and in the growth in alcohol consumption.

During and after the industrial revolution drinking and the availability of cheap alcohol increased drastically the authors note (pdf):

Many people moved to urban and industrial areas and left behind the closer social structure and hierarchical organization in their villages. Heavy drinking became an important phenomenon among the new working class, induced by their subordinate and exploited status and less constrained by the social structure.

As the industrial revolution changed society, it also changed sources of wealth. Land became less important and human capital and intelligence became driving factors of wealth. The authors suggest that men began desiring “higher-quality” children, making their choice of mate more important. The authors believe these social and economic changes were the driving factor behind the correlation between monogamy and drunkenness, not any direct causal relationship between the two, the paper (pdf) says:

The industrial revolution brought about the major and definitive change towards effective monogamy and popularization of alcohol consumption. Both changes (in alcohol consumption and in marriage arrangements) were induced by changes in social structures, economic developments and technological innovations associated with the industrial revolution.

While this makes sense for the changes during the industrial revolution, it doesn’t seem to fully explain why polygamous societies today abstain from alcohol. Perhaps it has something to do with the recent finding that couples that drink together are happier.

Related content:
Discoblog: Alcohol Makes You Think Everyone Is Out to Get You
Discoblog: Why Do I Feel Woozy? I’ve Only Had One Enormous Glass of Wine
Discoblog: To Animate a Drunken Mess, Use New Algorithms for Wrinkled Clothing and Flushed Faces
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: Sorry Pedobear, science proves drinking is no excuse.
80beats: Fetal Alcohol Exposure Makes for Booze-Loving Rats
Gene Expression: Polygamy and human evolution: maybe it’s agriculture
DISCOVER: Monogamy Kills

Image: Flickr/Rombla

  • Aaron

    I think that the last bit is simply a coincidence: the two modern polygamist societies that are mentioned are both subsets of larger groups that abstain from alcohol.

  • Georg

    In societies that practice agriculture and animal husbandry drunkenness occurs less than in hunting, fishing and gathering societies….Hunting tribes are said to have more monogamous marriage arrangements than agricultural tribes.

    In spite of the vineyards and barley fields
    the hunter/gatherers use to have…

  • Maryu

    The full comment by Georg Says: is not there –

  • Mike the Usually Civilized

    Sometimes you have to drink to forget and forgive.

  • A. E.

    The wine and monogamy thing is a correlation, not a causative.

    Monogamy and alcohol together serve to keep lower ranking males content, and less likely to overturn their ruling class. This system works very well in areas with an entrenched and stable group of wealthy and powerful who want to keep it that way. Sex and alcohol is spread out among the lower ranking males to placate them, and keep their ambitions from heating up too much. (Though the wealthy and powerful often have provisions for themselves to have access to multiple females in these systems, despite the official monogamy. )

    Polygamy is less stable unless there is a lot of war in the area, and there is a large surplus of women. In which case polygamy helps stabilize society by ensuring the surplus women are provided for. If there is a roughly equal birth rate and not a lot of war, it is a very unstable system, and would be selected against unless they can pawn off their excess males by expulsion onto other groups. Perhaps these groups tend to limit alcohol consumption because alcohol would have less of a placating effect on young men who had no mate, and little chance of acquiring one by means other than unseating someone with a harem.


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