Whence Monogamy?

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by Neil Godfrey

This post offers some explanation for the monogamous societies as a “footnote” to my previous post on the statistical benefits of monogamy for men. Robert Wright (The Moral Animal) points out that most societies have not been strictly monogamous, so it’s not as though we’ve evolved to be monogamous by nature:

A huge majority — 980 of the 1,154 past or present societies for which anthropologists have data — have permitted a man to have more than one wife. And that number includes most of the world’s hunter-gatherer societies, societies that are the closest thing we have to a living example of the context of human evolution. (p. 90)

It’s been a mixed bag:

Actually, there is a sense in which polygynous marriage has not been the historical norm. For 43 percent of the 980 polygynous cultures, polygyny is classified as “occasional.” And even where it is “common,” multiple wives are generally reserved for a relatively few men who can afford them or qualify for them via formal rank. For eons and eons, most marriages have been monogamous, even though most societies haven’t been.

Still, the anthropological record suggests that polygyny is natural in the sense that men given the opportunity to have more than one wife are strongly inclined to seize it. (p. 91)

Economically imposed monogamy

The first step toward answering the “Why monogamy” question is to understand that, for some monogamous societies on the anthropological record — including many hunter-gatherer cultures — the question isn’t all that perplexing. These societies have hovered right around the subsistence level. In such a society, where little is stowed away for a rainy day, a man who stretches his resources between two families may end up with few or no surviving children. . . .

Roughly the same logic holds if a society is somewhat above the subsistence level but all men are about equally above it. A woman who chooses half a husband over a whole one is still settling for much less in the way of material well-being.

The general principle is that economic equality among men — especially, but not only, if near the subsistence level — tends to short-circuit polygyny. (p. 94)

Socially imposed monogamy

[P]olygyny has tended to disappear in response to egalitarian values — not values of equality between the sexes, but of equality among men. And maybe “egalitarian values” is too polite a way of putting it. As political power became distributed more evenly, the hoarding of women by upper-class men simply became untenable. Few things are more anxiety- producing for an elite governing class than gobs of sex-starved and childless men with at least a modicum of political power. (p. 98)

In 1985 the eminent social historian Lawrence Stone published an essay that stressed the epic significance of the early Christian emphasis on the fidelity of husbands and the permanence of marriage. After reviewing a couple of theories as to how this cultural innovation spread, he concluded that the answer “remains obscure.” Perhaps a Darwinian explanation — that, given human nature, monogamy is a straightforward expression of political equality among men — deserved at least a mention. It may be no accident that Christianity, which served as a vehicle for monogamy politically as well as intellectually, has often pitched its message to poor and powerless men. (p. 99)

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Whence Monogamy?”

  1. Re the “poor & powerless” Google “Nietzsche on Monogamy”.

    Feminists complain (rightly) about rape, but has “feminism” indirectly and inadvertently promoted it?

    I hope these comments are not regarded as “trolling”.

    1. Given that rape is an act of violence and domination, how exactly would feminism promote it, even indirectly?

      Or are you suggesting, perhaps, that it’s similar to the way that emancipation and enfranchisement after the Civil war “indirectly and inadvertently promoted” murder, terror, lynching, Jim Crow laws, etc.? Or, more bluntly, “these sorts of things happen when you threaten white men”?

  2. “Still, the anthropological record suggests that polygyny is natural in the sense that men given the opportunity to have more than one wife are strongly inclined to seize it. ”

    Apparently, in some societies—the women (the first wife) finds the other wives—reasons given were status and/or sharing of workload according to the women interviewed..the men interviewed felt that this (household organized around first wife) reduced tensions….(read the article a long time ago—but it seemed counter-intuitive)

    wasn’t communism supposed bring egalitarianism—any studies of gender relations under communism?

    also—Japan has the problem where even monogamy is no longer attractive….

    1. Alas, Darwinian compromises and negotiated agreements do not necessarily mean “attractive” in an absolute sense. One of the few men in history for whom monogamous bliss seem undiluted was Charles Darwin himself, according to Robert Wright:

      We can now roughly sketch a Charles Darwin plan for marital bliss: have a chaste courtship, marry an angel, move to the country not long after the wedding, have tons of kids, and sink into a deeply debilitating illness. A heartfelt commitment to your work probably helps too, especially when the work doesn’t entail business trips. (p. 130)

      chaste courtship — increases the anticipated long term prospective value of the union
      marry an angel — a plus for the development of one’s offspring
      move to country — like gibbons keep well away from the temptations that accompany abundant social interactions
      tons of kids — focuses the attention
      debilitating illness — removes one from the wider sexual eligibility market

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