Thursday, September 1, 2011

Is Polygyny in Our DNA?

Michael Price, Ph.D., in his Psychology Today blog From Darwin to Eternity, which covers evolutionary moral psychology, asks “Are People ‘Naturally’ Polygamous?” His short answer appears to be that people are naturally polygynous. I think we get into problems when we rely on what we think is natural too much. What is natural can be helpful in explaining why a man would want more than one wife, or why another man is gay, but we start to run into problems when we use what we think is natural to do “one size fits all”. For example, some people say men are naturally assertive and aggressive and prone to use physical force to protect their lovers and family, while women are naturally nurturing nesters and cooperative rather than assertive. However, there are many individuals who are born different than such stereotypes. Likewise, I think it would be a mistake to say that all people, or all men, are naturally polygynous, or that everyone should be. Even if our species is generally that way, there are men and women who need heterosexual monogamy, or need polyandry, or need one partner of the same gender, or multiple partners of the same gender, or a mix of partners. And they should be free to have those relationships.

Price opens the blog entry referencing "Big Love" and "Sister Wives" and the Warren Jeffs trial, then writes…

And although Western culture remains officially monogamous, it tolerates de facto polygamy in many forms. For example, serial monogamists like Donald Trump and Larry King divorce older wives to marry younger ones, which serves to monopolize the fertile years of multiple women (the same thing that polygamy would accomplish). Celebrities like Hugh Hefner and Charlie Sheen live openly with multiple girlfriends, and various male athletes, rock stars, and actors accumulate hundreds or thousands of sexual partners.

The examples are seemingly endless examples today, though I think there's a difference between being polygynous and being someone who simply lacks self control, and there are many examples from the past…

When we do so, we find that these hunter gatherer and tribal societies have, throughout the world, historically practiced polygamy.


It wasn't until the emergence of large-scale agricultural civilization, a few thousand years ago, that wealth-hoarding became possible and powerful men began accumulating large harems of hundreds or thousands of women.

To further make his point…

When polygamous marriages occur in premodern societies, they are overwhelmingly likely to involve polygyny (one husband, multiple wives) as opposed to polyandry (one wife, multiple husbands). Overall, of the 1,231 cultures in the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, 84.6 percent are classified as polygynous, 15.1 percent as monogamous, and 0.3 percent as polyandrous. Polygyny is much more common than polyandry because evolutionarily, the benefits of polygyny for men are much higher than the benefits of polyandry for women.

Insert your own joke here about how bad husbands are and how great wives are, if you must. His basis is reproductive, and the fact that one man can impregnate an almost endless number of women at the same time, while a woman is only going to have one pregnancy at a time (even with twins or triplets) no matter how many men she has sex with.

The modern human mind is composed of genetically encoded psychological adaptations for mating behavior that evolved in these ancestral polygynous environments. That's why there is so much de facto polygyny in Western culture, despite the West's attempts to abolish polygyny in favor of a marriage system that biologist Richard Alexander refers to as "socially imposed monogamy."

Modern life has brought many changes, however. We are living much longer but having fewer children (and we have more control over how many children we have). We have reduced the need for laborers and soldiers, we have a much higher population, we’re living around more people (urban areas) and have more mobility. There are many reasons someone would want one or more sexual partners or spouses other than for reproductive purposes, and we meet more prospective partners. An adult, regardless of gender, should be free to pursue the kind of relationship in which he or she will function best and be happiest. For some, that will be monogamy. For others, it will be some form of polyamory.
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