In Defense of Monogamy!

By Razib Khan | November 21, 2008 12:16 am

OK, not really, but I have a new piece in The Guardian‘s Comment Is Free on polygamy.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
  • http://missivesfromthefrontallobe.blogspot.com Katharine

    [insulting comments are always deleted :-) why does katharine dickson of university of wisconsin leave such potty mouthed comments?]

  • windy

    Re imposition of Greco-Roman monogamous norms on Europeans: If you believe Tacitus, Germanics were rather monogamous too: “Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance”

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    some of tacitus’ comments about germans reflect more his didactic intent as presenting these peoples are virtuous exemplars which one might contrast decadent imperial romans with (with the republican romans also being virtuous). read the barbarian conversion and you note that there were objections by the church to convert kings who refused to give up their extra wives, who served to cement alliances. the transition took centuries, along with the concomitant campaigns against partible inheritance and adoption (usually of relatives). by charlemagne’s time he only had concubines, as opposed to extra wives.
    p.s. this is not to suggest that northern europe habitually saw sub-saharan african levels of polygyny. but many cultures had high status males who had solemnized relationships with multiple women.

  • windy

    some of tacitus’ comments about germans reflect more his didactic intent as presenting these peoples are virtuous exemplars which one might contrast decadent imperial romans with (with the republican romans also being virtuous).

    sure, I wouldn’t suggest that we take him at face value…

    read the barbarian conversion and you note that there were objections by the church to convert kings who refused to give up their extra wives, who served to cement alliances.

    …but this is entirely consistent with what the T-man says.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    …but this is entirely consistent with what the T-man says.
    ok, true. but facultative monogamy is dominant in most ‘barbarian’ societies ;-) e.g., very few persians had a large harem or more than one wife. couldn’t afford it. the question is not whether there is reproductive skew, but the extent. some african societies are probably at one end, and most other societies at the other (e.g., so the distribution of skewness might be poisson).
    one of the issues is that during the time that tacitus wrote, germany was very poor. there is a new school of archaeological classical roman history which argues that the reason germanicus et al. never held the german territory which they invaded (up the elbe) is that the tax base was so low. there is a big contrast in material culture between the celtic areas and german areas whereby scholars argue that it might have been a net + from the roman elite to conquer gaul, but not germany. long way of saying that a poor society is of course content with one wife, almost no one has marginal wealth to support more than one.

  • http://museinvivo.blogspot.com Muse142

    One minor issue with this idea of polygamy is that women are seen as a resource to be acquired. As women (at least in modern society) are not mere resources but persons with agency, their best interest no longer served by attaching to a high-status male, I don’t see this kind of anaylsis holding true today.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    their best interest no longer served by attaching to a high-status male,
    how do you know this? if women have agency they get to decide, will they all decide the same way, based on the same values? are all women the same in innate disposition or socialized outlook?

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    p.s. to be clear, i think human agency and free will in general, are highly overrated.

  • http://museinvivo.blogspot.com Muse142

    I gotcha. I feel basically the same way about the free will idea… but as far as “agency” goes, I was just pointing out that women are no longer considered property, as something to be acquired or accumulated.
    Your piece talks about males ‘possessing’ females, and men ‘collecting’ women. For much of humanity’s existance, it is true that men (who are typically seen as the ‘agent’ in this transaction) have done something like ‘acquiring’ women, either by force or via a contract with the woman’s previous owner – her father. As it stands now, this is less the case. Women can ‘acquire’ men, or men can enter into mutual relationships with women, or or or etc.
    I think that this unmentioned factor – that women are now considered people to be bargained with instead of property to be acquired, what I call the ‘agency of women’ – could influence the prevalence of polygamy. (After all, monogamy or even polygyny would be ideal for the propagation of a female’s genes as much as polygamy is ideal for the propagation of a male’s genes; females now have more power to do what is in their [genes’] “best interest”.)
    Your questions to my initial post seem a little loaded. I hope I have cleared up my perspective.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    muse142, one point of note, the most ‘polygynous’ societies today are probably those of sub-saharan africa. though these are patriarchal societies, women actually have much more agency (e.g., property and economic independence) in these societies than they do in the middle east or south asia, and arguably east asia. in this way, they are like some parts of latin america, where the exoteric social norms are patriarchal, but women are often allocated a great deal of responsibility and choice.
    i think a biological modal disposition is probably for a pair bond at any given time (i.e., i don’t discount a tendency toward serial monogamy). but, life is about scarcity, in a society where a few men control most wealth and a relationship is a “consumption” partnership one could make the cast that the ‘rational’ choice for a woman is to be wife-n of a very wealthy man as opposed to wife-1 of a man of more modest means. from what i know this is the kind of decision making that does go on in parts of africa where some women make the calculation that in a monogamous relationship with a poor man they would shoulder much more of the economic burden than if they had a small slice of a very wealthy man’s income stream. nevertheless, there is other ethological data which suggests that women in polygynous relationships do suffer from the competition over time and attention, where rich men are constrained so that they don’t have much more to give than non-rich men.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    also, i put ‘polygynous’ in quotes because there is a big difference between normative arab muslim polygyny, where women are sequestered and become assimilated to the patrilineage, and african forms where in some cases multiple wives may continue separate households where they are primary economic producers, and the children grow up in a matrifocal context.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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