Love and arranged marriage

By Razib Khan | April 29, 2011 12:46 am

In the wake of yesterday’s review of a paper on heritable variance in trait preferences realized in romantic partners I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this new study out of PLoS ONE, Evolutionary History of Hunter-Gatherer Marriage Practices. It’s actually a pretty thin piece of work in all honesty from what I can tell. They wanted to query ancestral ranges of marriage patterns by mapping the cultural variation in customs onto a phylogenetic tree. To generate that tree they took mtDNA sequences, which to me seems kind of old school. Using the cultural patterns present in living hunter-gatherer groups they presumed they could infer the ancestral state.

So combining these two sources of data they generated this:

They conclude:

Arranged marriages are inferred to go back at least to first modern human migrations out of Africa. Reconstructions are equivocal on whether or not earlier human marriages were arranged because several African hunter-gatherers have courtship marriages. Phylogenetic reconstructions suggest that marriages in early ancestral human societies probably had low levels of polygyny (low reproductive skew) and reciprocal exchanges between the families of marital partners (i.e., brideservice or brideprice).

There’s an immediate problem in that “binning” or categorizing these customs as “arranged” vs. “courtship” is somewhat artificial to my mind. That’s a perennial issue in anthropology, so setting that aside this is actually an interesting question if you could adduce the ancestral state in a clear and distinct manner. A book like The Mating Mind argues that sexual selection driven by free choice is the major driver of human evolution. But if marriage is arranged by one’s family then that significantly weakens the selective effect. Yes, theoretically the parents and offspring could have perfectly aligned preferences, but I doubt that’s what’s going on.

As it is I probably do lean toward the model of mate-choice outlined by Geoffrey Miller in The Mating Mind. I’ve long held that the rise of powerful extended patrilineages eliminated the relatively level playing field between men and women which may have existed in “small-scale” societies. This does not mean that hunter-gatherers were and are gender egalitarian in a way we’d understand them, but I doubt that you’d ever see the transformation of women into de facto property of powerful groups of men which occurred with upper class Athenian women or modern Saudi women. I think that sort of mobilization of collective power to control other humans and bind social institutions with marriage ties is a feature of mass society and agricultural civilization. In particular, of higher status lineages strongly associated with the distinctive institutions of a given society. By this, I mean that a medieval or early modern European aristocrat may have had to marry for family considerations, but the peasant was often constrained by more prosaic practicalities. He or she had relative free choice once the variables of distance and social class were accounted for. If one does not have property at stake marriage can be much more of an individual affair.

Ultimately the plausibility of the range of answers to this sort of question comes down to one thing for me: why crazy love? I don’t think romantic love is a cultural invention. It’s a neurological phenomenon which is easily evoked given the right conditions. The software comes pre-installed on the hardware, you don’t need to download it. My own opinion emerges partly out of personal experience. My family comes from a society where arranged marriage is normal, especially among elite lineages. But love happens, and people have strong individual preferences. If they are compliant they will suppress these individual urges for what they know to be good, prudent, and respectable. Oftentimes they may not have a practical choice. The parents and older siblings who make the decisions which go against the instinctive and romantic preferences of the subordinate parties themselves are not lacking in feeling, and understand what they’re doing, and they may have gone through the same process. In many societies individual action is marginalized in favor of the interests and preferences of the family, which is ultimately dominated by older individuals within the kinship network. The interests of the firm and the employee do not always perfectly align!

Don’t hate the player!

But this sort of social water running up the psychological hill, that is, the suppression of individual preference in the interests of collective rationality, needs some fuel to drive the process. You need something forcing individuals to cede their own range of options and accept that others will make the right decisions. In a pre-modern world I think that the fuel for that force consists of the rents stolen from the populace by elites. The rational for Augustus’ marriage to Scribonia was clearly different from that of his marriage to Livia. As a young man Augustus needed the money and connections which marriage with the older Scribonia would provide. Money and connections which ultimately emerged from the protection racket that was the late Republican aristocracy. As an older man Augustus’ was powerful enough to follow is hearts’ desire by expending the accumulated capital he’d built up, in part by operating within the system so long (instead of fighting his rival Marc Antony he allied with him until the triumvirate was not feasible).

The historical example above shows that the dichotomy between courtship and arranged marriage can manifest within an individual’s lifetime based on their context. I believe that if arranged marriages where individuals had marginal choice were overwhelmingly dominant across human history and prehistory than the psychological tension imposed by the preference for personal choice should slowly be eliminated by natural selection. From what I know that does not seem to be so. I infer from that that a mix of social customs was always operating, but that arranged marriage tended to become dominant only in more complex societies with enough inequality and monopolization of marginal surplus by some lineages to “fuel” the decisions of firms at cross and counter-purposes to individuals.

As for our ancestral hominin bands, I believe their bias toward courtship and arrangement was the same as our own. In a situation of material surplus there is more to fight over, and inequality may arise in the power hierarchy. When things matter, people become pawns. In flatter social contexts free choice would be given more room to operate, as there would be less to fight over.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics, Evolution
  • Interesting

    Hazda mating: sexual selection without selection for height or other size variables.

    The chart is otherwise ok, but unlike in the evolution of biological traits, we cannot really make strong arguments about the past as the cultural norms may change quickly…

  • German Dziebel

    I quickly glanced at the paper and it seems to be a rather confused account of human marriage practices. Brideprice and brideservice are treated as a single trait, whereas it’s 2 traits, with brideservice likely preceding brideprice. New World populations aren’t even in the study, although it’s precisely in the New World (especially, in Amazonia) that we find most basal (in the classic theory of kinship evolution) marriage structures involving symmetric prescriptive alliance. The nature of prescriptive alliance is such that it’s neither free choice nor arranged marriage: mates are selected from the category of cousins that’s “inherited” from the previous generation. My parents are cross-cousins and I’ll marry a cross-cousin. Finally, the authors claim that New World foragers have high rates of polygyny, whereas in reality polygyny in New World is everywhere low.

    I recently reviewed a paper applying Bayesian methods to human kinship structures and that one, too, was seriously flawed in the way it treated primary data. Pretty common for Bayesian aficionados, I guess. But I may be wrong in the Walker et al. case, as I’m boarding the plane and don’t have time to read the paper carefully.

    It’s good that people are at least interested in kinship systems.

  • AG

    Arranged marriage is quite similar to the breeding of domesticated animals. The choice is that of mental one stead of emotional one.

  • ohwilleke

    There are all sorts of issues here.

    First, there is insufficient attention to what factors (mostly economic) drive the switch from predominantly arranged marriage to predominantly courtship marriage, and varies within different strata. Given that the switch has taken place in vast numbers of societies in a well documented and analyzed way in the historic era, using evolutionary change model uniformed by that process is really shallow.

    The gist of the ethnographic and historical experience has been that the shift from arranged marriage to courtship marriage is driven by new economic realities.

    Re: Razib’s thoughts on the evolutionary biology of mate preference v. parental preference, I think that this exagerrates the extent to which the two approaches produce different results. Yes, there are well documented differences between mates that individuals would prefer and those preferred by their parents. But, there is also an immense overlap in the mates that both would consider inferior and there has historically been a much smaller pool of viable prospects than there is today.

    If you are a feudal peasant, you are limited to potential spouses within a dozen or two miles of the appropriate gender restricted somewhat by age and incest considerations, at a time of fairly low population density. Hunter-gatherers had a bigger geographic range, but lower population densities in that geographic range and similar age and incest considerations. In societies with short life expectancies (about 40 was the norm until the modern era), bottom heavy age pyramids (due to high death rates of children), strong tendencies towards monogamy, and near univeral marriage of women at a fairly young age (all of which are true for a very large subset of all pre-modern agricultural socieites) choices would be narrowed yet further.

    Once you boil down a pre-modern mate choice to the half a dozen or dozen eligibles, and further exclude the perhaps two-thirds or more of them that both parents and their children would consider poor choices, you are down to a very small pool of eligible bachelors. Moreover, parents and matchmakers aren’t indifferent to the emotional compatability of members of a couple. A couple of people who hate each other and fight constantly aren’t necessarily a good recipe for the late life happiness of the parents that they are supporting in their golden years.

    The limited benefits that freedom to choose a spouse provides when the pickings are slim anyway may go a long way towards explaining the failure of courtship marriage to be a dynamic alternative to arranged marriage until recently. Lobbying parents for a favorite choice may have been more productive than trying to change the fundamental workings of the mate selection system. The fact that the vast majority of couples in arranged marriages grow to love each other deeply also suggests that love is pliable enough an emotion that absolute choice of a partner isn’t necessary for it to do its magic.

    In the same vein, how many modern adults are crushed emotionally for life because they didn’t end up marrying the person that they took to homecoming or the prom when they were in high school? Yet, it is a child choice at that age that we are talking about for most of human history. Surely some young women who did not get their first choice of spouse when they married would have come to be glad that they didn’t end up marrying that person later in life as they see how that person (who probably still lives in the same community) turned out later in life.

    The other problem with the whole arranged v. choice marriage concept is that it makes unduly strong assumptions about what marriage involved in hunter-gatherer societies. Some hunter-gatherer societies (and even pastoral societies) do not equate marriage with absolute sexual fidelity. Indeed, some of these societies don’t consistently have a system where the parents of a child consistently and persistently all cohabitate together, and it likewise isn’t at all obvious that marriage until death ’til you part has been a secure norm for all of pre-history (just as it isn’t a secure norm today). For example, the ease with which a man can divorce his wife under Islamic law probably flows from similar traditions among pagan Arab pastoralists.

    Indeed, death in childbirth and other forms of premature death were so common in the pre-modern era that serial monogamy was at least as common then (as a result of widows and widowers) as it is today (as a result of divorce) even in most pre-modern societies which were monogamous. The revolutionary/pioneer history of the United States, for example, is flush with people who had multiple marriages in life. And, in many societies in which first marriages were arranged, remarriages were not.

  • Razib Khan

    . But, there is also an immense overlap in the mates that both would consider inferior and there has historically been a much smaller pool of viable prospects than there is today.

    i said that.

  • Keitpants

    The argument that personal preference would be eliminated from human population is interesting, however it neglects the fact that in many ancient cultures with arranged marriages, such as the Greeks and Romans, it was expected that you would also have numerous mistresses in addition to your legal wife. The inevitable offspring from these unions (matches made through choice not politics) could be enough to sustain the preference for personal choice within the population as a whole. Just a thought…


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

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


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar

Login to your Account

E-mail address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »