Monogamy is not so bad (at least for men) after all

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

robertwrightAnother work I’m finally catching up with is Robert Wright’s Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (1994). We all know the usual narrative about men being shaped by their genes to want to reproduce with everything in sight while women are always on the shrewd lookout for the best candidate to protect and provide for her children.

To cut to the chase and speaking in broad evolutionary/social psychological terms, Wright raises an interesting question (at least for me who is shamefully twenty years late in reading his book!):

[W]hereas a polygynous society is often depicted as something men would love and women would hate, there is really no natural consensus on the matter within either sex. Obviously, women who are married to a poor man and would rather have half of a rich one aren’t well served by the institution of monogamy. And, obviously, the poor husband they would gladly desert wouldn’t be well served by polygyny. (p. 96, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Wright adds that the males who are advantaged by monogamy are not only those at the bottom of the income scale.

Consider a crude and offensive but analytically useful model of the marital marketplace. One thousand men and one thousand women are ranked in terms of their desirability as mates. Okay, okay: there isn’t, in real life, full agreement on such things. But there are clear patterns. Few women would prefer an unemployed and rudderless man to an ambitious and successful one, all other things being even roughly equal; and few men would choose an obese, unattractive, and dull woman over a shapely, beautiful, sharp one. For the sake of intellectual progress, let’s simplemindedly collapse these and other aspects of attraction into a single dimension.

Suppose these 2,000 people live in a monogamous society and each woman is engaged to marry the man who shares her ranking. She’d like to marry a higher-ranking man, but they’re all taken by competitors who outrank her. The men too would like to marry up, but for the same reason can’t.

Now, before any of these engaged couples gets married, let’s legalize polygyny and magically banish its stigma. And let’s suppose that at least one woman who is mildly more desirable than average — a quite attractive but not overly bright woman with a ranking of, say, 400 — dumps her fiance (male #400, a shoe salesman) and agrees to become the second wife of a successful lawyer (male #40). This isn’t wildly implausible — forsaking a family income of around $40,000 a year, some of which she would have to earn herself by working part-time at a Pizza Hut, for maybe $100,000 a year and no job requirement (not to mention the fact that male #40 is a better dancer than male #400).

Even this first trickle of polygynous upward mobility makes most women better off and most men worse off. All 600 women who ranked below the deserter move up one notch to fill the vacuum; they still get a husband all to themselves, and a better husband at that. Meanwhile 599 men wind up with a wife slightly inferior to their former fiancees — and one man now gets no wife at all. (p. 97)

Wright digresses to address some obvious objections, such as the woman who will loyally “stand by her man” no matter what, etc, but . . .

The basic point stands: many, many women, even many women who will choose not to share a husband, have their options expanded when all women are free to share a husband. By the same token, many, many men can suffer at the hands of polygyny.


All told, then, institutionalized monogamy, though often viewed as a big victory for egalitarianism and for women, is emphatically not egalitarian in its effects on women

Polygyny would much more evenly distribute the assets of males among them.

It is easy — and wise — for beautiful, vivacious wives of charming, athletic corporate titans to dismiss polygyny as a violation of the basic rights of women. But married women living in poverty — or women without a husband or child, and desirous of both — could be excused for wondering just which women’s rights are protected by monogamy. The only underprivileged citizens who should favor monogamy are men. It is what gives them access to a supply of women that would otherwise drift up the social scale. (p. 98)

Serial monogamy is not the same thing

Wright later points to studies that show a link between unmarried men and murder, robbery, rape. It is not unreasonable to question whether increases in these crimes are linked with society’s drift into serial monogamy. Serial monogamy, with older men taking younger (with more child-bearing years) women out of the market has a similar social effect to polygyny. It leaves more young men without matching women.

[A] Darwinian outlook shows the prevailing marital institution, serial monogamy, to be in many ways equivalent to polygyny. As such, this institution is seen to have inegalitarian effects on men, working against the disadvantaged. Darwinism also highlights the costs of this inequality — violence, theft, rape. 

Then there are the costs on the children. Statistically substitute parents generally care less deeply for children not their biological own. And we don’t need to spell out the many deleterious effects on children of divorce, etc. We’re speaking very generally, of course. But it is at such a level that we do tend to see social trends. Wright’s conclusion:

Whatever the relative merits of monogamy and polygyny, what we have now — serial monogamy, de facto polygyny — is, in an important sense, the worst of all worlds. (p. 104)


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

33 thoughts on “Monogamy is not so bad (at least for men) after all”

  1. I read TMA when it came out – what is that, around 20 years ago?! – and thoroughly enjoyed it. It sparked off a decade-long fascination with evolutionary psychology. Things have moved on, but I bet a lot of it is still worth reading. Have you read Wright’s subsequent book, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny? Another book I enjoyed immensely, and should re-read. And I should also get round to tackling his fat The Evolution Of God at some point soon!

    1. Your comment appeared before I fully completed the post. No, I have so much reading to do. I am always trying to juggle between biblical studies, science and politics/society. And even within each of these fields there are too many competing subfields. I was telling a friend of mine recently that I can picture myself on my death bed saying, no, it’s not time to go just yet — I need to read just this one more title first . . .

      Wright’s book has been sitting along with Boyer’s, Hauser’s and Ridley’s since I purchased them all together when working in Singapore. Finally, finally….

      1. If the Ridley you mean is Matt, then both “the Red Queen” and “nature Vs nurture” are excellent reads. Whether he’s right or not he is a great science populariser.

        1. I seem to recall Red Queen from some years back. Perhaps I did read that one — I was once reading around the subject of the origins/explanations of sex (and death). The title that has been waiting on my shelf is Origins of Virtue — so yes — thanks for the encouragement to not leave it idle any longer.

          1. Red Queen is discussed at length in William Clark’s Sex and the Origins of Death. IIRC Clark takes over Ridley’s explanation in Red Queen and links this this, again with the same function of improving the species in the long term, with evolution’s introduction of death and cells that have triggers for decay as opposed to ongoing division and multiplication.

            I thought there was something poetic, something ‘?’ quaint, in the way our psychological association of sex and death is matched in such a primeval stage of “our” evolution.

    2. I’ve hyperlinked the titles. Non-Zero looks like it’s right on a couple of questions I’ve been wondering about “all my life” — thanks for notice.

  2. Wright’s utilitarian, market-based framing of the question leads to Wright’s answer while completely avoiding any real attempt to understand the human condition and what drives human decision-making. As a result, Wright’s methodology is inherently flawed and not worthy of serious consideration. If this is a good example of what “evolutionary psychology” has to offer, I won’t waste my time on it. Thanks for digging into it so I won’t have to do so.

    1. The understanding of “the human condition” really must include a study of the whole underlay of what we do and are. Have you read The Selfish Gene? The simple mechanics of the market really are at the very basis of what genes “do” as we can strongly infer with as much evidence as enables us to infer evolution from the fossil record.

      I was hardly giving a review of Wright’s methodology nor even giving the background to his argument in this specific case. I simply decided to comment on a snippet of data that I found of interest and I did not encumber the post with all the rationale behind tidbit of information I selected. I wouldn’t expect anyone to judge Wright’s very influential arguments by a post like this.

      Of course we don’t think in terms of market dynamics, at least probably most of us don’t think this way very often. But that doesn’t mean the simplest of rules of living organisms don’t apply. The story is complex. It’s worth reading this stuff.

      Don’t confuse market dynamics with the mechanics of behaviorism.

      1. Whether you intended to review Wright’s methodology or not, the little snippet you provided demonstrated that Wright’s analysis is an application of Utility Theory, which Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated in 1979 fails to describe how humans actually think and behave. Of course, the failure of Utility Theory has not led to it being abandoned. Instead, we now have “behavioral economics” which attempts to describe the aberrations of actual human behavior as “predictably irrationality” while maintaining the broader, failed utilitarian frame of neoclassical economics.

        “The simple mechanics of the market really are at the very basis of what genes “do” as we can strongly infer with as much evidence as enables us to infer evolution from the fossil record.”

        The “simple mechanics of the market” don’t exist outside of neoclassical microeconomic models (i.e., they don’t exist in real markets), so query why we should lend them credence when applied to other arenas. All economics is actually “political economy,” with an emphasis on the politics. Don’t be fooled by the scientific clothing of market-based rhetoric. Indeed, when you see market-based rhetoric, be vary wary. The last person I am going to believe about human behavior is somebody who resorts to Utility Theory to describe it.

        1. The theory Wright is applying is the theory of evolution. The example I gave does not describe the behaviour or thinking of individual human beings. Individuals females will refuse to “climb up the ladder” and will “stick by their man”; individual men will prefer a less attractive mate over a beautiful one for all sorts of reasons; etc etc etc. Even in applying the theory of evolution we cannot predict what individuals will think or how they behave. Individual men choose not to have children, for example. Some become monks and nuns.

          You don’t know what you are missing with such a quick and misapplied judgement.

  3. I joined an online dating site a year ago as a casual member, and one thing I found quite interesting was that on the forums, the men were always complaining that they hardly get any messages, and the women were always complaining that they were getting too many messages. Considering that the site statistics showed that there were only slightly more men than women, and considering I had no reason to believe that there were fake female profiles created to entice more men to join, the women getting much more messages than men couldn’t simply be explained by there being slightly more men.

    Now I do believe that generally speaking, men tend to be more willing to have casual relationships than women do, and therefore, men might send women a message even if they are not interested in a commited relationship whereas women will often only want to send a message to a man if she is interested in a committed replationshp with him – so, yes, men are more likely to send messages to women than women are to men. However, there was something else I noticed – that many of the women seemed to have got unrealistic expectations and were trying to “punch above their weight”. Going back to Wright’s ranking of a single dimension for the sake of simplicity, what I noticed was that women seemed to always want a man who was ranked in a higher percentile than them – so a woman who was say in the 40th percentile would be looking for a man who was in the 60th percentile, and a woman who was in the 60th percentile would be looking for a man who was in the 80th percentile. As an example, I would often sit there browsing the profiles of other people (both women and men) when I was bored and had some free time, and I would see completely average looking women (now I know beauty is subjective, but I am talking about how “society” in the West would rate these women) in their late 40s, who were only educated to secondary school level, who did not have a career, and who did not seem very cultured or intelligent, looking for men who were of a similar age to them who were tall, in good shape, had their own hair, funny, intelligent, loyal – and I would sit there thinking to myself, a man in his 40s who is tall, in good shape, has his own hair, is funny, intelligent and loyal will be quite a sought after men by other women who are in a much higher percentile than our totally averegae women!

    From an evolutionary perspective, I think both men and women want to be in a relationship with someone who is higher up in the rank than them but because women can theoretically have a lot less children than men can, for women it becomes more important to be in a relationship with such a person because they want their children to have the genes of someone from a higher rank – for example, if a man who is in the bottom 5 percentile ends up marrying a woman from the bottom 5 percentile, he still has many chances of having children with a woman from a higher percentile – if his wife gets pregnant, he can still go and father a child with another woman in secret, and he also doesn’t have an age limit after which he cannot have children, so even if the relationship breaks up, he can start all over again. For a woman however it is totally different, once she is pregnant with her husband’s child, she cannot have another child for at least 9 more months, furthermore, there is an age limit after which she cannot have children, so if women want to have children with someone who is from a higher rank, it is more important that she ends up being fussy and tries to hold out for such a person, and maybe this is also one of the reasons why women seem a lot more fussier than men on online dating sites.

  4. I have not, unlike many “new atheists” embraced polyamory. Reason being I felt that the arguments for it were often anecdotal or, like communism, appealed to noble-sounding but probably unworkable-in-the-real-world moral intuitions.

    1. I have not had any interest in reading any arguments out there for polyamory, though after reading Wright’s point I am slightly curious. Without knowing the arguments, is polyamory another version of “free love” of the 60’s/70s?

      1. I haven’t seen a professional philosophical case for it, complete with syllogisms and whatnot, but online I’ve seen people compare monogamy with slavery, a type of human ownership, and bemoan monogamy as one person “controlling” the sexuality of another..Very reminiscent of Marx’s criticisms of capitalism, whereby charging a fee for your labor is bemoaned as being unwilling to help someone else without getting something in return. As terrible as both of those sound, I think we have to realize that human beings are not noble creatures and probably cannot be changed into noble creatures either, as the failures of communism prove too clearly.

        1. I think a case can be made for the continued reproduction of the human species, albeit with some demographic and eugenic considerations, and for the raising of children in a kind and responsible manner by preferably two loving parents.

          1. Wright addresses suggestions that “love” and MPI/male paternal investment evolved to serve this function, given that humans take a long time to mature and become independent, it helps to have a helper for the mother sticking around to share the burden

        1. I have not been curious enough to take time out to read anything longer than 1.5 sentences on the subject. So from that position of ignorance I really don’t know what the fuss is about or why anyone would want to write so much about it and I’m not interested enough to make any serious effort involving time-sacrifice to find out.

          Perhaps if someone can tell me in 1.5 sentences or less why some people write about it so much . . . . .

          1. I think some people are annoyed that there is no legal protection for people in a polyamorous relationship, and that’s why they are writing about it so much.

            (I did it in 1 sentence!)

          2. I think it is interesting that the French outlawed polygamy in Vietnam when they returned after WW II but it only shifted the balance of power to the first wife. The gender imbalance created by the war in the 1970s made it more popular, at least for a generation.

    2. How many relationships are truly mongamous? How many people end up staying with the same partner for the rest of their life? Monogamy is a social construct, just because many societies have ended up practising it, it doesn’t mean it is natural for everyone.

      I was reading this yesterday about when the Spanish started conquering the Americas:

      Marriage laws are non-existent men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon total nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man’s head or at his hands.


      (Oh, BTW, I actually prefer monogamy, just saying that I respect that many people don’t)

      1. Agreed it’s hardly “natural”. Even in other monogamous species both sexes are known to cheat but the “institution” remains. Rape and violence are natural. Harems for the strongest alpha male are also natural.

        1. Well, whatever transpires is in some sense natural, but Nicholas Wade hypothesised a while back that pair-bonded man-woman dyads were an important and distinctive factor in the evolution of Homo sapiens. That is, among our ancestors, the dyads and their descendants prospered better & reproduced more than the alpha male harems and their descendants. That doesn’t necessarily means that the man-woman pairs were strictly monogamous in practice, or even that they necessarily stayed together for life.

  5. The definition and relationship of “natural” and “institutional” are complex in human societies past and present, and have required substantial and controversial books and studies that can hardly be summarized neatly here. Social anthropology is an on-going “science”, all too susceptible to ideologies and fashions. However, I stick by the assertion made about about parenthood.

    1. I remember loads of controversy surrounding Wilson’s article on sociobiology when that came out. All the ideological fears, real and imagined. From Wright I understand that sociobiology in a sense kind of went “underground” and has since emerged with less of that old controversy as evolutionary biology. When I raised a point not very long ago with a socialist friend I got a very disapproving response: my “science” was not ideologically correct in his opinion.

      1. The sociobiology “debates” were largely over the possibility of a challenge from genetics to the influential politics of personal, social, sexual and racial “equality”; and have reappeared recently in issues of medical gene therapy, genome editing, group variation in intelligence, twin studies, autism, the male/female “brain”, and dispositions towards homosexuality, aggression, religious temperament and cultural creativity. An interesting place to start for Vridar readers would be the late Vincent Sarich’s defence of the term and signification of “race”, the defence by Linda Gottfredson of Philippe Rushton’s “scientific racism”, and the defence by John Glad of “Jewish eugenics” – all accessible on-line.

        We have come a long way from the Left Book Club’s “Out of the Night” advocating socialist sperm-banks or the disciple of Stalin (!) J.B.S.Haldane writing that his views were midway between those of Hitler (!) and the Pope (!)….or have we?

  6. I think there are some modes of thought influenced by our evolution. I read with interest this kind of material that seeks to understand or explain social behavior. As a baseline I would look to observation of our close relatives for models of how such modes might have operated before ‘culture’. They are still social, complex, and intriguingly familiar but do not rely on being shaped or controlled by verbal justifications as we see among humans.

    These evolved modes of thought may not ‘work’ as efficiently in this new (in evolutionary terms) civilized environment as it would in the wild.

    It does sound very plausible to me that monogamy might benefit men more than women in the ways it seems to promise men a woman of their very own.

  7. Here in the USA, just like evolutionary biology is the nemesis of right wing Christians, evolutionary psychology is the nemesis of left wing atheists. It’s funny how a lot of the criticisms are the same too (it’s not real science; it has/will lead to oppressive/immoral behavior, etc.)

    That overlap of type of critique probably implies something interesting sociologically/psychologically. Just not sure what.

  8. In so far as evolution depends on reproductive fitness, the emergence of monogamy or polygamy in early hominid societies would presumably depend on the survival of successful offspring. The general male-female relationships reflect this underlying biological “strategy” but the modern cultural norm is to see it in overwhelmingly two-dimensional terms of erotic satisfaction to the relative exclusion of the third-dimension of assiduous parenthood. Some societies have been “over-domesticated” by contraception, pornography, gender politics and “applied dysgenics”, &c. Time for a non-Freudian update of Unwin’s mammoth “Sex and Culture” perhaps?

  9. This post has engendered more responses raising interesting questions than I had anticipated so rather than attempt a lengthy reply in comments that addresses further research into the question (at least as presented by Wright) I’ll respond to some of these comments with another post.

  10. Pingback: Whence Monogamy? |

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading