Monogamous societies superior to polygamous societies

By Razib Khan | January 30, 2012 9:14 pm


The title is rather loud and non-objective.  But that seems to me to be the upshot of Henrich et al.’s The puzzle of monogamous marriage (open access). In the abstract they declare that “normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robbery and fraud, as well as decreasing personal abuses.” Seems superior to me. As a friend of mine once observed, “If polygamy is awesome, how come polygamous societies suck so much?” Case in point is Saudi Arabia. Everyone assumes that if it didn’t sit on a pile of hydrocarbons Saudi Arabia would be dirt poor and suck. As it is, it sucks, but with an oil subsidy. The founder of modern Saudi Arabia was a polygamist, as are many of his male descendants (out of ~2,000). The total number of children he fathered is unknown! (the major sons are accounted for, but if you look at the genealogies of these Arab noble families the number of daughters is always vague and flexible, because no one seems to have cared much)

 

So how did monogamy come to be so common? If you follow Henrich’s work you will not be surprised that he posits “cultural group selection.” That is, the advantage of monogamy can not be reduced just to the success of monogamous individuals within a society. On the contrary, males who enter into polygamous relationships likely have a higher fitness than monogamous males within a given culture. To get a sense of what they mean by group selection I recommend you read this review of the concept by David B. A major twist here though is that they are proposing that the selective process operates upon cultural, not genetic, variation (memes, not genes). Why does this matter? Because inter-cultural differences between two groups in competition can be very strong, and arise rather quickly, while inter-group genetic differences are usually weak due to the power of gene flow. To give an example of this, Christian societies in Northern Europe adopted normative monogamy, while pagans over the frontier did not (most marriages may have been monogamous, but elite males still entered into polygamous relationships). The cultural norm was partitioned (in theory) totally across the two groups, but there was almost no genetic difference.  This means that very modest selection pressures can still work on the level of groups for culture, where they would not be effective for biological differences between groups (because those differences are so small) in relation to individual selection (within group variation would remain large).

From what I gather much of the magic of gains of economic productivity and social cohesion, and therefore military prowess, of a given set of societies (e.g., Christian Europe) in this model can be attributed to the fact of the proportion of single males. By reducing the fraction constantly scrambling for status and power so that they could become polygamists in their own right the general level of conflict was reduced in these societies. Sill, the norm of monogamy worked against the interests of elite males in a relative individual sense. Yet still, one immediately recalls that elite males in normatively monogamy societies took mistresses and engaged in serial monogamy. Additionally, there is still a scramble for mates among males in monogamous societies, though for quality and not quantity. These qualifications weaken the thesis to me, though they do not eliminate its force in totality.

In the end I am not convinced of this argument about group selection, though the survey of the empirical data on the deficiencies of societies which a higher frequency of polygamy was totally unsurprising.  I recall years ago reading of a Muslim male who wondered how women would get married if men did not marry more than once. He outlined how wars mean that there will always be a deficit of males! One is curious about the arrow of causality is here; is polygamy a response to a shortage of males, or do elite polygamist make sure that there is a shortage of males? (as is the case among Mormon polygamists in the SA)

Finally, I do not think one can discount the fact that despite the long term ultimate evolutionary logic, over shorter time periods other dynamics can take advantage of proximate mechanisms. For example, humans purportedly wish to maximize fitness via our preference for sexual intercourse. But in the modern world humans have decoupled sex and reproduction, and our fitness maximizing instincts are now countervailed by our conscious preference for smaller families. Greater economic production is not swallowed up by population growth, but rather greater individual affluence. This may not persist over the long term for evolutionary reasons, but it persists long enough that it is a phenomenon worth examining. Similarly, the tendencies which make males polygamous may exist in modern monogamous males, but be channeled in other directions. One could posit that perhaps males have a preference to accumulate status. In a pre-modern society even the wealthy usually did not have many material objects. Land, livestock, and women, were clear and hard-to-fake signalers to show what a big cock you had. Therefore, polygamy was a common cultural universal evoked out of the conditions at hand. Today there are many more options on the table. My point is that one could make a group selective argument for the demographic transition, but to my knowledge that is not particularly popular. Rather, we appeal to common sense understandings of human psychology and motivation, and how they have changed over the generations.

Addendum: When I say polygamy, I mean polygyny. I would say polygyny, but then readers get confused. Also, do not confuse social preference for polygyny with lack of female power. There are two modern models of polygynous societies, the African, and the Islamic. The Islamic attitude toward women shares much with the Hindu monogamist view, while in African societies women are much more independent economic actors, albeit within a patriarchal context. The authors note that this distinction is important, because it seems monogamy (e.g., Japan) is a better predictor of social capital than gender equality as such, despite the correlation.

Citation: Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, and Peter J. Richerson, The puzzle of monogamous marriage, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B March 5, 2012 367 (1589) 657-669; doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0290

Image credit: 1, 2, 3

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture
MORE ABOUT: Group Selection
  • Clark

    I wonder how much distinction is done between formal polygyny versus de facto forms such as powerful males in 19th century Europe typically having mistresses put up in homes financially taken care of. I’d rather suspect it’s more common than a lot of analysis make out simply due to the way it is analyzed.

    It also seems difficult to maintain in a stable society not just because of the problem of men – and at the most problematic time for males: adolescence. But you also have the problem that until very recently women died quite regularly in childbirth or from other causes. So even independent of powerful men having multiple partners you have the problem of the supply of women constantly decreasing. Thus too many males. Many societies already tried to get rid of young males by ensuring a constant state of warfare. During the colonialist times shipping males off on boats helped as well. So I’m not sure this is just characteristic of formal polygamist groups – as sad as it is to hear of the Lost Boys of Colorado City in Utah.

    My wife was watching The Tudors on Netflix and it struck me that while European royalty wasn’t polygamist the way some groups in the middle east were that they certainly had many mistresses, bastards (often with formalized relationships), and with marriage often being done for political reasons rather than romance, even the deeper relationships were often de facto polygamist. (Think of Prince Charles prior to the formal divorce of Diana) It would be interesting were it even possible to analyze the rich and powerful males in European society for the past 1000 years and see whether from the point of view of offspring whether males were effectively polygamist.

    The problem of course is that such narrow necks of the powerful with everyone else being largely oppressed isn’t exactly a desirable state to live in. I do think you’re right though that a lot of signaling remain with us. Speaking as a former climber with more than his share of adventures I often find the Evolutionary Psychology explanations of such sports quite interesting. (Even if I find too many EP explanations a bit too ad hoc) Even exploration probably can be seen in terms of limited chances for marriage. Now we have little to explore outside of scientific exploration so instead we end up with odd inclinations to dangerous sports – and most would never say they are doing it to attract women…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I’d rather suspect it’s more common than a lot of analysis make out simply due to the way it is analyzed.

    best way would be look at proportion of unmarried men. my own impulse was dismiss the normative/formal difference and assume that cryptic polygyny via mistresses made the distinction semantic. but i think i tend to be too glib about assuming that norms are irrelevant. additionally, in relation to your later comment, i wonder if the big difference is at the level of the gentry. “big men” everywhere sired bastards galore, but there are only so many mistresses that kings and dukes, and perhaps even earls, can take up. how about the local gentleman? also, mistresses are not always life partners. so at some point when an elite man gets “bored” he can push her back into the mate pool.

    It would be interesting were it even possible to analyze the rich and powerful males in European society for the past 1000 years and see whether from the point of view of offspring whether males were effectively polygamist.

    one thing, alluded to the paper, is to distinguish between the cultural/anthropological definitions, and look at the biological/genetic angle. societies which are formally polygmist and formally monogamist may have the same reproductive skew on a genetic level, in theory, and so be indistinguishable.

  • Clark

    BTW – what do you think of theory that polygamy, as you note, merely went “underground” in Europe among elite males. But it was the rise of more democratic movement and dispersion of power that made monogamy dominant. The poor (i.e. nearly everyone except for small groups of the powerful) couldn’t afford polygamy for obvious reasons. Monogamy limited conflict over affairs and the like which could lead to violence. (It still happened, but perhaps less than it otherwise would have) As the power of the elites became more dispersed monogamy becomes more socially dominant. You still have dominant males like Newt Gingrich or John Edwards doing de facto polygamy at times. But I bet there are far fewer polygamist politicians today than there were in the early 19th century in America let alone 19th century Europe.

    Also, regarding your other point. The interesting thing about a lot of mistresses is that it is not just a de facto polygyny but often de facto polyandry with married women being the mistresses of the powerful and their husbands powerless to do much about it. The interplay of polygyny with polyandry isn’t something I’ve read analyzed much.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    But it was the rise of more democratic movement and dispersion of power that made monogamy dominant.

    i find this argument appealing. the median wage in the western work closed between skilled and unskilled between 1800 and 1970. that being said, i suspect that i have a tendency of disregarding norms/beliefs in shaping the median outcomes in a society.

    The interesting thing about a lot of mistresses is that it is not just a de facto polygyny but often de facto polyandry with married women being the mistresses of the powerful and their husbands powerless to do much about it.

    but a lot of the time husbands encouraged the behavior, because it gave them an entree to power. as you note in european elites such matches were arranged, and the cuckold was likely to have affairs on the side. but, the goings on in the court of st. james or versaille is going to have only a marginal demographic effect i suspect….

  • Sven

    Aren’t we missing a few things here? Such as the rate of “secret polygamy” for instance?
    According to Kinsey about 40% of married people have a little on the side, most of them more than once and/or long-term.

    The number of socciety members living in single households will be near 50% very soon.
    Serial Polygamy is practised by many if not most coupled/married people.
    People tend to get much older, live much longer and have a much longer active sex-life.

    The basic flaw of the article is to assume lifelong monogamy as the prevailing form of relationship in the developed countries. Monogamy probaly still serves as kind of a social rule. However, this rule ist not very strictly adhered to anymore. And so far the “western” societies are still among the most powerfull, despite their frivolous lifestyle ;-)

  • X

    Their Table 1 compares HPCs to LPACs. The trouble is, there are conspicuous climactic differences between the two sets: the HPCs are basically concentrated in tropical Africa less the Horn, whereas most of the LPACs are in northern or southern Africa. They try to anticipate this objection with the table of under-20º countries, but that runs into the problem of genetic differences: most of the CMCs have an extremely different racial background and history. Comparing neighbours with similar backgrounds could help, but then the results become much less clear-cut (is Gambia really doing so much better than Senegal, or Guinea-Bissau than Guinea, or Qatar than Kuwait? West Bengal than Bangladesh, maybe…)

    Polygamy and violence potentially form a vicious circle: more violence means fewer men to go around, and institutional polygamy means more motivation for violence once the sex ratio re-equalises. To break such a cycle requires effective violence-suppressing institutions – ie, usually, a strong state. Most of the high-polygamy countries on their list (ie Tertilt’s list) have rarely or never had such a thing, although Bangladesh is a notable exception.

  • Eerikki

    It goes both ways: when there is violence, this will lead to too few men, which will lead to polygyny.

  • Bobby LaVesh

    I wonder how much of the argument that “life is better in monogamous societies” is simply down to many of them being more highly influenced by western political culture and economic ideals.

    There was after all a time when Islamic nations (where the men had multiple wives) were the dominant force- they had a higher standard of living, more scientifically advanced, and a superior culture to the monogamous europe of that time.

    We are rather fortunate at the moment in that we don’t have any major wars that seriously deplete a large percentage of men. (France was in a terrible state after the Napoleonic wars- I don’t remember the exact number but a large percentage of young men died).

    With drones and their ilk, hopefully we will never see large number of soldiers killed in battle again- but in such a situation (as happened in the past) it might be to society’s benefit to have multiple wives- to make sure everyone has a partner.

    If you don’t mind me going political- I really don’t have a problem with polygamy myself. I’m happy having just one wife and wouldn’t want two. BUT If all parties are content and agree to the deal (including sister-wives… or brother husbands) then I don’t see why society should try to prevent polygamy from happening or make it illegal. I really don’t see who it hurts. Now if the male dominates the group- and the wives don’t have a say- (or are opposed to an additional wife) I see a problem; but, as long as everyone is in agreement- let them do what they want.

  • FredR

    Some of the argument seems dependent on the “bare branches” idea I remember Jason Malloy attacking a little while ago. Do you have a take on that issue?

    Also, I remember Henrich made some similar points in a affidavit he submitted to the Canadian government against legalizing polygamy a couple of years ago. I guess they were good enough for the Canadian Supreme court!

  • dcwarrior

    Also, is there necessarily a causal tie between success and monogamy? And if there is one, which way does it run? Does affluence and an open society in certain cultures make it practically harder to have polygamy?

    Note that in Europe, polygamy went away for historical reasons – I thought I read somewhere that one historian thinks that the Catholic Church decided in the Middle Ages that polygamy led to social problems in Europe they were tired of mediating?

  • Clark

    Razib (4), as you note a lot of husbands managed the polyandry or even encouraged it. In part due to the nature of marriage being primarily dynastic or similar among the powerful – really until fairly recently. I wish I knew more about the development of marriage outside of Europe as I think within Europe religion still has a significant effect on its development. Although religion tempered by politics and culture. (i.e. contrast the view of extra-marital affairs even among the masses in Southern Europe with the more Protestant areas – and I believe as Europe entered a post-Christian era you see a new set of changes)

    Yet despite not having much Christianity monogamy pops up as dominant in most of the world. Even in the middle east you had movements to at least limit or regular polygamy – although often the elite managed to avoid those requirements. So there’s definitely some benefits to getting rid of it. (And one might even argue formal polygamy was a way of regulating the rights of women in polygamist cultures so that dominate females kept their power – as opposed to the de facto forms)

    It’d be interesting seeing the differences between separated cultures and seeing if there are natural effects leading to particular structures. (Beyond the obvious ones of unattached males, insufficient females and the instinctual effects that has on young adult males within a society)

    dcwarrior (8) I think Razib’s point is that when polygamy went away formally (which I actually think was much earlier than the middle ages – the question was always how much influence Catholicism had on particular lands) it remained in a de facto form among the powerful. Not just royalty or the major figures at court but also among richer merchants and the like. Life was sufficiently bad for many women that having a powerful lover was worth it in many cases despite it seeming bad to us. As for when polygamy ended within Christianity I think it was pretty early. Romans didn’t like it, despite having their own de facto forms. Even Judaism had ended it pretty early among many groups – although interestingly it apparently persisted among other Jewish groups well into the 19th century. I remember reading one paper talking about polygamy among early American Jewish immigrants.

    As for the question of success, I think it undeniable it’s correlated. I’m somewhat skeptical about cause and effect. As Razib noted the biggest problem is excess males. Many anthropologists have noted that the most difficult problem for any culture is what to do with unattached males. They can seriously disrupt the success of any culture. Polygamy isn’t the only structure that can acerbate such problems. But it definitely is a major one which is why it probably went underground. I’m sure the Straussians could talk about the double movement between rules for the elite and rules for the masses.

  • Jason Malloy

    A better paper would’ve been titled “The puzzle of polygynous marriage” since polygyny has always been the marginal mating type for humans (The authors begin the paper with the habitually misused 85% statistic). They also repeat the claim that polygyny increased from foraging to agriculture, which is not supported in the SCCS. And this wouldn’t be surprising if they focused on the more profitable ecological causes of polygny, which are similar for foragers and states, rather than the cultural causes, which are not. A small number of variables describe a good deal of global variation in mating systems, beginning with Bobbi Low’s linking of pathogens and marriage systems in the 1980s. Nigel Barber has even explicitly tested ecological theory against cultural theory:

    “Polygyny increased… in female-biased populations and in countries with a high burden of infectious diseases. In contrast, there was little evidence for cultural determination of polygyny (favorable religion, approval of wife beating, exposure to mass media)”

    Women tend to share mates more in regions where reliance on male subsistence is lower and, more importantly, where the male genetic contribution is of higher consequence than the male subsistence contribution. Men in these areas become more genetically adapted to mating competition, not only because the reproductive stakes are higher, but because the competitiveness is itself an honest signal of genetic fitness.

    And the role of sex ratio is the opposite of what the authors posit: the abundance of women causes both more polygyny and more social pathology (aka mating competition).

  • David

    Monogamy’s real genius is the turning beta males (80%+ of all males) into highly productive citizens with a stake in the success of the society in which they live in. It should not be confused with women’s emancipation which is a different (and usually parallel) form of social advancement. Arguably many females would prefer to have a shot at an elite alpha male than having a beta all to themselves. Even if it means sharing the alpha. This preference is called Hypergamy. Just as males in their unhibited state would prefer Polygamy, females would ideally prefer Hypergamy. What we call Monogamy is an uneasy truce between the hypergamous aspirations of women and the polygamous aspirations of men.

  • AG

    Morality aside, monogamous populations seems better at preserving diverse gene pool than polygyny populations from biological sence. Population with larger diverse gene pool has always edge over inbred population in terms of group survival.

    But true polygamous societies with serial monagamy or random mating maybe different story.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    According to Kinsey about 40% of married people have a little on the side, most of them more than once and/or long-term.

    kinsey is an out of date and unrepresentative source. if you want credibility, don’t cite him.

    The basic flaw of the article is to assume lifelong monogamy as the prevailing form of relationship in the developed countries. Monogamy probaly still serves as kind of a social rule. However, this rule ist not very strictly adhered to anymore. And so far the “western” societies are still among the most powerfull, despite their frivolous lifestyle

    you didn’t read the paper. chill on the contentless comments.

    Comparing neighbours with similar backgrounds could help, but then the results become much less clear-cut (is Gambia really doing so much better than Senegal, or Guinea-Bissau than Guinea, or Qatar than Kuwait? West Bengal than Bangladesh, maybe…)

    compare muslim to non-muslim punjabis?

    Most of the high-polygamy countries on their list (ie Tertilt’s list) have rarely or never had such a thing, although Bangladesh is a notable exception.

    bangladesh does not have a strong state. no one pays taxes from what i recall. the state makes money off customs and all that sort of stuff.

    Now if the male dominates the group- and the wives don’t have a say- (or are opposed to an additional wife) I see a problem; but, as long as everyone is in agreement- let them do what they want.

    a standard muslim anti-monogamy argument is that equitable arrangements are impossible in practice. kind of like ‘separate but equal.’

    Note that in Europe, polygamy went away for historical reasons – I thought I read somewhere that one historian thinks that the Catholic Church decided in the Middle Ages that polygamy led to social problems in Europe they were tired of mediating?

    the historical reasons were that christianity adhered to the greco-roman norm of monogamy. when christianity spread to northern europe they attempted (sometimes not successfully) to get elite males to abandon the practice of polygamy. also, some scholars argue that the catholic church enforced stringent incest (no cousin marriage out to high degrees) and legitimacy (children born not of wives are bastards with no rights) requirements because that prevented noble lineages from accruing too much power, and property often devolved to the church when there were no heirs. polygamy would also work against having heirs, since it would limit legitimate issue in number.

    Even Judaism had ended it pretty early among many groups – although interestingly it apparently persisted among other Jewish groups well into the 19th century.

    ashkenazi jews stopped the practice mostly, probably because they lived in christian areas where christian norms were dominant. non-ashkenazi kept practicing it. i once talked to a yemeni jew who was happily telling me that in israel polygamous marriages are recognized if you get married outside of israel (he was planning on doing so in morocco).

    the greeks and romans recognized formal monogamy. caesar’s great-nephew, not his son caesarion, was his heir. caesarion was not legitimate.

    It should not be confused with women’s emancipation which is a different (and usually parallel) form of social advancement.

    i said that in the addendum. why are you repeating what i said as if it’s a new contribution?

  • isamu

    Why is Belize a hotbed of polygamy?

  • Grey

    “I wonder how much distinction is done between formal polygyny versus de facto forms such as powerful males in 19th century Europe typically having mistresses put up in homes financially taken care of.”

    The critical thing is the percentage obviously. I don’t think anyone would say any society was ever 100% monogamous. If 5% of males had three females (in some form) and 85% had one then there’s only 10% left without and if you subtract the asexual, homosexual, misanthropic, retarded etc from that 10% then the angry spares are very few. On the other hand if 5% of males have six females, 10% have four and 10% have two and 10% have one that leaves 65% angry spares.

    .
    “but i think i tend to be too glib about assuming that norms are irrelevant”

    I think functionally it comes to the same thing but the norms are important for creating peer pressure and (critically imo) reducing elite emulation. Rich mistresses were there but hidden.

    .
    “But it was the rise of more democratic movement and dispersion of power that made monogamy dominant.”

    Greeks, Romans, Catholic Church. Monogamy has been dominant in Europe for a very long time.

    .
    “The basic flaw of the article is to assume lifelong monogamy as the prevailing form of relationship in the developed countries.”

    It’s saying past monogamy is correlated with current prosperity. We’ll see if the prosperity lasts now the norms have been broken down.

    .
    “There was after all a time when Islamic nations (where the men had multiple wives) were the dominant force”

    People from a polygamous, pastoral population conquered a pre-existing settled (mostly) monogamous civilzation and replaced the ruling elite. They didn’t trash it but they didn’t create it from scratch either. Same thing with the Mongols and China.

    .
    “Polygamy and violence potentially form a vicious circle: more violence means fewer men to go around, and institutional polygamy means more motivation for violence once the sex ratio re-equalises. To break such a cycle requires effective violence-suppressing institutions – ie, usually, a strong state.”

    Or movement into an environment where females couldn’t provision themselves and males couldn’t provision more than one female. Polygamy requires either that females can provision themselves or that some males have access to a surplus which they can use to support more than one female. Monogamy isn’t just about reducing conflict there’s a simple calorie element underlying it.

    So a population that moved from an environemnt where the females could feed themselves and their offspring to one that required male provisioning would have had to become monogamous with all the evolutionary changes that might have been neccessary before monogamy became viable e.g. longterm emotional rather than just short-term sexual bonding, tears reducing aggression, reduction in female hypergamy etc.

    (Perhaps limiting original out of Africa to a specifc type of environment until some of those changes had occurred?)
    .
    Also, levels of monogamy / polygyny would have an effect on inbreeding / outbreeding which might have knock-on effects.

  • Bobby LaVesh

    I wonder if the same qualities would apply for someone picking an additional mate as they would the first.

    If having a certain group of genes pre-disposes you to be attracted to someone with a certain other group of genes? Would that same formula work for the second mate as it does the first? Do polygamists go for wives with different qualities or similar qualities?

    Perhaps polygamy, if it causes someone to have different causes for attraction, (for better or worse) would lead to greater genetic-combination variability- resulting in higher combinations of certain genes than would normally occur.

    (Granted I’m completly ignoring the nurture side of nature/nurture – a huge omission)

  • Doug1

    Clark—

    Even Judaism had ended it pretty early among many groups – although interestingly it apparently persisted among other Jewish groups well into the 19th century.

    Polygyny is permitted in Hebrew scripture. It was socially permitted among all Jews until the 11th century, when a leading Rabbi prohibited it among European Jews living among Christians, i.e. the Ashkenazim. It continued to be not prohibited among Jews living in Muslim lands until recently, or even to this day in some places. Interestingly, Tunisia prohibits polygamy. It’s the only Muslim land I know of that does, probably due to French influences.

  • pconroy

    ashkenazi jews stopped the practice mostly, probably because they lived in christian areas where christian norms were dominant. non-ashkenazi kept practicing it.

    I have it on reasonably good authority that polygamous marriages are still happening in Brooklyn, NY, among the Satmar and other Hassidic groups, whereby one wife is legally married and multiple others claim welfare as single mothers, though they are religiously married to the same elite male.

  • http://julianodea.blogspot.com/ Julian O’Dea

    Minor point, but I find it hard to believe that people in Irian Jaya (West Irian) are less polygamous than people in Papua New Guinea (the other half of the island). West Irian is included in Indonesia as part of a Muslim state. But it is likely to resemble the rest of New Guinea socially, and have a high incidence of polygyny due to the Big Man ethos.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #21, there has been massive settlement from places like madura in central indonesia. probably pushed down the fraction.

  • http://julianodea.blogspot.com/ Julian O’Dea

    Yes. There is some ambiguity in the legend to the map too.

  • Grey

    From the paper

    “Given its historical rarity and apparent ill-fit with much of our evolved psychology, why has this marriage package spread so successfully? Historically, the emergence of monogamous marriage is particularly puzzling since the very men who most benefit from polygynous marriage—wealthy aristocrats—are often those most influential in setting norms and shaping laws. Yet,here we are.”

    I’m not sure it’s so puzzling as there’s only a few logical options.

    Firstly either a female can provision her offspring on her own or not. If she can’t provision herself then there’s a limiting subsistence case where it takes one male (or possibly more than one e.g. three brothers sharing two wives) to support one female and then there’s a surplus case where a male can support more than one female so
    1) female provisioning polygyny
    2) subsistence monogamy
    3) surplus polygyny

    Female provisioning polygyny (sans modern welfare systems) is mostly restricted to certain environments. I find it hard to imagine routes from that to surplus polygyny that don’t go through subsistence monogamy first.

    The only situations where i can imagine it happening are something like Arab / Greek trading outposts with a pre-existing agricultural package setting up shop among people who are in stage (1) and in adopting the package the locals jump straight from (1) to (3).

    In most cases the situation will be a population in the tropics where (1) applies try to move to a new terriotory. If (1) doesn’t apply in the new terriotory and the females require male assistance to feed the young then that population will go through a phase of subsistence monogamy which will apply dramatically different selection pressures for some period of time.

    (There’s also the possibility of group provisioning here where both the provisioning and all the children are viewed as a group responsibility but either way the selection pressures are very different to (1))

    At some point, either through foraging in a particularly abundant environment, or through the jump to agriculture and either pastoralism or eventual abundant agriculture a population can produce a concentrated surplus which can be collected by elite males and used to support surplus polygyny. The most obvious examples of this last would be the early agrarian civilizations based around the great river-valleys: Nile, Fertile Crescent, Indus and Yellow River.

    So the first point is i don’t believe monogamy is entirely an ill-fit with our evolved psychology. I think most human populations must have gone through a phase of varying length where the selection pressures were very different to those that created the foundational psychology. It seems plausible to me that some changes to the base human psychology may have been neccessary before a successfull move out of the tropical zone was possible. This doesn’t mean the foundational psychology was erased just that other layers had to be laid on top of both male and female psychology to make child provisioning work.

    Secondly if you look at a world map outside the tropics and mentally cover up the areas of the great river valleys (and all the places their armies could reach) and those regions only suitable to nomadic pastoralism (and all the places their armies could reach) that doesn’t leave a lot of places available for monogamy.

    However if a region without one of the great riverine valleys e.g. Europe, spent longer in subsistence monogamy and it couldn’t be easily reached by either agrarian or nomad armies then that region may have spent longer developing monogamously inclined traits – again not exclusively monogamously-inclined but the balance of power between that and the foundational polygamous psychology – to the point where monogamous traits became dominant and locked in culturally and then further reinforced through religion so even when Europe got to the point where surplus polygyny *would* have taken off it was (mostly) culturally blocked.

    When Europe became globally powerful (which may or not have much to do with monogamy although i think it did for the reasons mentioned in the paper and others) monogamy could be adopted elsewhere simply through elite emulation in the same way Ancient Gauls adopted Togas and it wouldn’t neccessarily be that hard a jump because most of the world would still have their underlying layers of monogamy-inclined psychology from their subsistence monogamy phase.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    I am deeply skeptical of the claim of the graphic that more than 25% of women are in polygyny in almost all of West Africa and a substantial share of East Africa. I don’t doubt that polygyny exists and in relatively common in those societies, but have serious doubts that it is that common and have seen some academic citations to the claim that even in societies that are polygamous, that typically only a low single digit percentage of families are polygynous.

  • Onur

    Validity of the polygyny map aside (I am very skeptical of the Turkish results as someone living in Turkey, as I have never personally encountered a polygamous person in Turkey), it has too few shades. There is a huge difference between 6% and 24%. BTW, polygamy is illegal in Turkey, so all polygamy cases in Turkey have to be unofficial.

  • Onur

    BTW, polygamy is illegal in Turkey, so all polygamy cases in Turkey have to be unofficial.

    For those who don’t know, unofficial marriages are solemnized by prayer imams and have no legal status.

  • Anthony

    What is the social difference between a society where a smallish number of powerful/wealthy men have, aside from their formal wives, mistresses who bear them children versus having mistresses who generally do *not* bear them (or any other man) children ?

    Some English kings are notable for large numbers of bastards, while others are well-known to have had mistresses, but not bastards (or not many). Have there been societies with formal mongamy where one type of mistress is more common than the other as a social practice, rather than as individual preferences/luck? Upper-middle-class white Americans seem to prefer that their mistresses not have children, while among lower-class whites and among blacks in the U.S., there doesn’t seem to be a strong preference against fathering children among multiple baby-mamas. (Is there a strong preference among the playas in those groups *for* having children by multiple women, or merely an indifference to fathering children?)

  • Leor

    @pconroy — that’s BS. you are shmutzing up the heimishe yidden of Brooklyn with your naarishkeit “reasonably good authority.” There have been no multiple marriages among any Ashkenazim for about a thousand years! No Satmar rabbi would permit that any more than he would permit Razib’s Thai food… ;-)

  • Dan

    One would have to wonder about the steep decline of all forms of marriage in the West.

    Is this an indication of a sudden rupture in the very types of norms being praised here? After all, the life of people who move rapidly in and out of the dating market without marrying, which is fairly typical of much of the west now (so-called serial monogamy) seems a lot like polygamy:

    – low investment as compared to marriage
    – an abundance of unsatisfied males as a few males date more than their share of women

    Certainly the West is in economic crisis and has been for some time. Low new family formation is a reason mentioned by financial greats like Pimco’s Bill Gross.

  • Grey

    “Is there a strong preference among the playas in those groups *for* having children by multiple women, or merely an indifference to fathering children?)”

    Yes, it’s a kind of a competition and how many separate women have had one of their kids is how they score it. 2+ from the same woman doesn’t count. It’s also why they go after them very young as “if you love me you’ll have my baby” works better when the girls are very naive.

    “Is this an indication of a sudden rupture in the very types of norms being praised here?”

    The polarity of the social norms has more or less been reversed.

  • Clark

    Anthony (28) in theory (if not always in practice) actual wives have more rights than a mistress does. Consider what happens at the death of man in terms of inheritance. This of course varies from culture to culture. The more liberal west tends to have strong child support laws which while hardly unproblematic at least attempt to give non-married women some support from men.

    As for the difference between having children and not having children there’s the question of resources and genetics. Which I find interesting even if others might not. (If only because it seems an aspect of the distant past that actually remained long after it apparently disappeared formally) I think the social structures will be quite different if there isn’t a question of children though. In some ways a lot of social structures end up being about children and probably have roots in various instincts – even if I’m a bit dubious about some “just so” stories the evolutionary psychology movement puts forth on sexual instincts. Admittedly some of the issues might be tied to the whole issue of heirs which may well be somewhat unique in its form the way it developed in the west. (I just don’t know enough about sex and marriage in other cultures to dare say much)

    Leor (29) I think that depends upon how narrowly you take Ashkenazim. If you just mean Germany and not all of Western Europe then you’re probably right. If you include Spain and souther France I’m fairly sure there was modest practice up until the inquisition periods. And as someone else mentioned there were parts of the middle east where Jews continued to practice it – and I’m fairly sure there were a number of American immigrants in America that practiced it leading to the Reform Judaism ban in 1869 in Philadelphia. (I fully confess this isn’t something I know much about)

    Dan (30) Serial monogamy often isn’t that serial. Rather you have guys playing the field. Even someone like Gingrich who moved from wife to wife had some overlap (and who knows what else he was doing). In some communities it’s pretty frequent for some men to have children by many, many different women – and not in a terribly serial fashion. This happens with the elite a fair bit (NFL and NBA stars have a reputation here) Birth control ought really change all the behaviors though. Modern singles who have numerous sexual partners in one sense are somewhat like polygamists but in other important sense aren’t simply due to the lack of anything like a shared home or resource not to mention the much, much lower incidence of children.

    As for the decline in marriage. Honestly I’m not that surprised – although the US isn’t quite evolving the way Europe has. If a lot of social structures developed to formalize and regularize heirship and you can easily limit children and heirship doesn’t matter to most people then the structures developed to regulate them will naturally deteriorate. That said I suspect we’ll reach a new equilibrium point eventually. The more interesting question is how the intersection between a certain degree of xenophobia and being below replacement reproduction will shift marriage and sexual norms. You already are seeing a lot of state encouragement of children in a lot of European nations. Part of that is tied to the obvious economic problems of the changing demographics. But I think a lot of it is a certain xenophobia and not adopting the immigration stances than Canada or the US have.

  • Leor

    Clark — I meant Ashkenazim according to any standard definition. Spain is de facto out — that is Sefarad, not Ashkenaz. Although Ashkenazim did arrive in Spain in the middle ages, they most definitely would have brought the prohibition with them and disseminated it. I wouldn’t dispute that polygyny was practiced by non-Ashkenazim, but the assertion that modern day Satmar hasidim marry multiple wives acc to Jewish law is absurd. They’d be lynched faster than Razib in Mecca.

  • Justin Giancola

    “One could posit that perhaps males have a preference to accumulate status. In a pre-modern society even the wealthy usually did not have many material objects. Land, livestock, and women, were clear and hard-to-fake signalers to show what a big cock you had.”

    Bravo. It’s about time this has come up…no pun.

  • pconroy

    #29, Leor,

    I don’t understand Yiddish…

    My informant about Satmar and other Hassidic groups in Brooklyn was my real estate broker, a former Hasidim, who left the community decades ago, but spoke Yiddish and interacted with these people daily. Now he may have been somewhat biased, but probably only in degree…

  • pconroy

    @Leor,
    Another thing to remember is that just because something is officially banned or frowned upon, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not practiced.
    A friend used to work in HIV surveillance, and you’d be surprised at the HIV positive rate among married Hassidim – it’s not that high, but it’s entirely linked to homosexual sex among married men in this community, no matter that they are the father’s of scores of kids…

  • Clark

    Leor, OK. I fully admit to not being up on the details of the history and I’ve seen it used to apply to all European Jews rather than just Germany and northern France. That’s why I asked.

  • Onur

    Interestingly, Tunisia prohibits polygamy. It’s the only Muslim land I know of that does, probably due to French influences.

    Polygamy is also illegal in Turkey.

  • http://paradox-point@blogspot.com paradoctor

    Monogamy is sexual socialism. Left to laissez-faire, the marriage market would become unbalanced by monopolists, resulting in large numbers of unmarriagable men; and such men tend to become a hazard to themselves and to others. Therefore, for the sake of social order, share-and-share alike is enforced by law. This is classic socialism, and it has the classic consequences of socialism; mostly it works as advertized, but there are ironic unintended consequences.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    ” A major twist here though is that they are proposing that the selective process operates upon cultural, not genetic, variation (memes, not genes).”

    One way to think of this is: “Who wins the wars?”

  • Robyn

    I always laugh at the “women prefer to share an alpha than have a beta all to themselves” which is ALWAYS claimed by men! This is such a crock. Have you ever actually checked with any real life women? Any women who want an alpha want him ALL TO THEMSELVES and will only very reluctantly share him. They will only share him in the initial stages hoping to get him all to themselves, and will only angrily share when he has moved on to another if they are hoping to get him back or financially dependent on him.
    Most women would prefer a man all of their own and even betas stray and women are afraid of that. Large numbers of women divorce if their man is unfaithful – how does that fit with the “happy to share” mythology?
    Many women like myself and all my friends actively avoid alphas knowing they are vain, self-obsessed, disloyal, promiscuous and full of STDs and just totally repulsive.
    Women are still blinded by the “one true love” mythology and expect far too much from a relationship emotionally that most men are not able to provide, this is what is responsible for the massive increase in marriage breakdown in the West, female emotional dissatisfaction. They leave hoping for someone better, but this someone better does not exist outside fairytales. Women want to permanently remain in the blissful honeymoon stage which is physically impossible in a relationship with the same person. Needs to be much more education around this as marital instability is wreaking havoc on our children.

  • Robyn

    Forgot to add that I have read that polygamous marriages aren’t the total male funfest most men imagine. The wives are jealous and gang up on each other and the man and all try to manipulate him to get the best for themselves and their children. It does not sound like a good environment to raise children. It can’t be good the the kids, especially boys, as it would be very hard for them to get much time with dad with so many kids and wives competing for attention and dad has to work to provide for them all unless he has inherited money.

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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 http://www.razib.com

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