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Jan 24 2012

The Benefits of Monogamy…or Something

Wedding Rings

"Wedding Rings" by firemedic58

Joseph Henrich, the evolutionary psychologist who testified against polygamy at the Canadian polygamy trial has a new paper out on the topic. I’ve engaged with his statements on the topic before, so I was curious what he had to say in peer review. It isn’t so much different from what he had to say on as a witness in court, and I have some of the same sorts of problems with it.

See whether you can spot them. From the press release:

“Our goal was to understand why monogamous marriage has become standard in most developed nations in recent centuries, when most recorded cultures have practiced polygyny,” says UBC Prof. Joseph Henrich, a cultural anthropologist, referring to the form of polygamy that permits multiple wives, which continues to be practiced in some parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and North America.

“The emergence of monogamous marriage is also puzzling for some as the very people who most benefit from polygyny – wealthy, powerful men – were best positioned to reject it,” says Henrich, lead author of the study that is published today in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. “Our findings suggest that that institutionalized monogamous marriage provides greater net benefits for society at large by reducing social problems that are inherent in polygynous societies.”

Considered the most comprehensive study of polygamy and the institution of marriage, the study finds significantly higher levels rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud in polygynous cultures. According to Henrich and his research team, which included Profs. Robert Boyd (UCLA) and Peter Richerson (UC Davis), these crimes are caused primarily by pools of unmarried men, which result when other men take multiple wives.

“The scarcity of marriageable women in polygamous cultures increases competition among men for the remaining unmarried women,” says Henrich, adding that polygamy was outlawed in 1963 in Nepal, 1955 in India (partially), 1953 in China and 1880 in Japan. The greater competition increases the likelihood men in polygamous communities will resort to criminal behavior to gain resources and women, he says.

According to Henrich, monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment, the study finds. Monogamy’s institutionalization has been assisted by its incorporation by religions, such as Christianity.

Monogamous marriage also results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict, the study finds. These benefits result from greater levels of parental investment, smaller households and increased direct “blood relatedness” in monogamous family households, says Henrich, who served as an expert witness for British Columbia’s Supreme Court case involving the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C.

Monogamous marriage has largely preceded democracy and voting rights for women in the nations where it has been institutionalized, says Henrich, the Canadian Research Chair in Culture, Cognition and Evolution in UBC’s Depts. of Psychology and Economics. By decreasing competition for younger and younger brides, monogamous marriage increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality.

ResearchBlogging.orgUnlike many press releases, there is a copy of the paper itself attached. Kudos to Henrich and/or his institution for that. I also have to agree with Henrich and his coauthors that the evils of polygyny that he lists are evil and are common to many polygynous cultures. I’m not certain, however, that the evidence presented by this paper supports monogamy as an adaptive solution to those evils.

The press release does a good job of describing the social ills reviewed within the paper. Those social ills are, in fact, lessened in monogamous societies. However, they are also lessened in societies that don’t view women as property to be acquired solely for the purpose of producing children. When you compare monogamous cultures to each other, instead of simply comparing monogamous to polygynous cultures, those cultures that treat women as autonomous adults do better on many if not all of those measures.

That’s not a problem for this paper, of course, until you understand that the cultures from which the vast majority of his data come also score very, very low on the idea that women are autonomous beings instead of purchaseable baby machines. Suddenly we are faced with a competing theory of a practice that may have made one culture more successful than another. Was it monogamy or female agency that swept the world (to the extent that there was true cultural competition instead of the genocide of global colonialism)?

Given that, is monogamy (in its various forms) an adaptive cultural construct in itself? Or it is largely a tag-along, an idea that has had close association with another idea that we already know is adaptive? This paper draws the first conclusion, even though it doesn’t present the evidence to distinguish between the two.

For most of us, this distinction will be trivial. We’ve been enculturated to serial monogamy, and it’s a fully workable system for most people. It’s even more workable given the fact that our social institutions are set up to support it. Beyond that, building romantic and sexual relationships that meet our cultural expectations for such relationships is complicated. A minority of people have the resources for managing relationships that contain more than one partner at a time.

That minority still exists, however. Not every autonomous adult is best suited to monogamy. And that’s when it becomes important to sort the causes from the effects of various forms of culturally recognized relationships. If we determine that one type of relationship is clearly superior and deserving of official support, we place additional burdens on those who build other types of relationships.

Of course, we could simply say that this is just one paper. It answers one question. On the other hand, Henrich has not restricted himself to this one paper. Both here and in his testimony in the polygamy trial, he has argued strongly against providing any support to nonmonogamous relationships. His behavior is adding to the marginalization of polygamists. Going by his testimony, going by this paper, his research is insufficient to support his behavior.

Henrich, J., Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. (2012). The puzzle of monogamous marriage Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367 (1589), 657-669 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0290

Photo by firemedic58. Used under a Creative Commons license.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    slignot

    I’d like to see a paper that discusses polygyny in Western cultures currently rather than a contrast with entirely different cultures with different contexts. I’d like to see if they can determine whether the underground/illegal nature of it causes more secrecy and abuse in groups like FLDS sects than would be the norm otherwise; or whether moving to legalize polygamy would simply legalize the current coercive practices.

    I have a hard time being detatched from the idea of polygyny specifically because there is measurable harm to men, women and girls here in the Intermountain West of the United States. And even aside from the obvious harm in coercion, child-marriage & rape and expulsion of our “lost boys” to maintain gender proportions, it’s a huge financial drain because of a specific doctrine to “drain the beast” while contributing nothing to public supports.

    I still haven’t figured out how you legally can create steps to prevent abuses without discriminating against polyamorous and healthy polygamous people.

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    Historically, in “the west”, marriage was an alliance between families – specifically, between the patriarchs of the families who chose spouses for their sons and daughters based on calculations of net advantage in which the happiness of the bride & groom factored minutely at most.

    Under those circumstances, the fathers of daughters had every incentive to demand their investments not be diluted by allowing their sons-in-law to take other wives (whose offspring would then compete with said fathers’ prospective grandchildren for the family estate).

    Thus, the origins of the classic western monogamy+mistresses pattern, and its seal of approval from Gawd AlmightyⓇ.

  3. 3
    D. C. Sessions

    The paper assumes that monogyny increases the resources devoted to children, but that in turn depends on having a relatively uniform distribution of resources. Distributing children to families on the verge of starvation etc. instead of to royal nurseries would have the opposite of the claimed results.

    In other words, women looking to secure resources for their children in a society with a high Gini coefficient will have an incentive to make different choices than those in a society with a low Gini coefficient.

    Which therefore argues that this claimed benefit of monogyny (if not others) are less applicable to the USA today than in the past. Or maybe that if we’re going to be structuring laws to secure investment in children, we should worry less about who marries whom and more about, you know, actually making sure that most families with children have resources to invest in them. Instead of telling women to hook up with a billionaire for a baby daddy.

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    the more egalitarian distribution of women

    Did he just say that?

  5. 5
    Bean

    Monogamous marriage has largely preceded democracy and voting rights for women in the nations where it has been institutionalized… By decreasing competition for younger and younger brides, monogamous marriage increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality.

    It sounds like he’s trying to say that monogamy caused increased female agency because the one appeared to precede the other. I would call correlation rather than causation on this one. Also, this really downplays the work of sufragettes in educating the governments and public that women are people. I’ll bet the sufragettes weren’t all in monogamous relationships.

    Also, polygamy =/= polygyny. It can also mean polyandry. This is not addressed. Polygamy between fully consenting adults is not really an issue. It’s only when women are marginalized and not treated like adults who can fully consent or when children are married off into a patriarchal polygamous relationship that we can’t support. I think they needed to frame this whole discussion differently.

  6. 6
    Stephanie Zvan

    slignot, it’s my understanding that the illegal nature of the FLDS is used as leverage to keep the young women in place. Sort of a “You can’t leave because you’ve been part of this thing that everyone else sees as wrong so they may arrest you or something else awful” message. I’m not an expert, however, so please don’t quote me on that.

    What I’d like very much to see is a comparison of highly authoritarian religious communities that practice monogamy and those that practice polygamy.

    D. C., wouldn’t that be nice?

    F, you know he did. It’s part and parcel with not considering female agency as a potential confounding factor.

    Bean, leaders of any gender of movements of any stripe have frequently not been monogamous.

    The polyandry issue was addressed in the paper. It was dismissed based the fact that relatively few societies have been polyandrous as opposed to polygynous. It was also dismissed on the basis that women “naturally” (in a large paragraph of evo psych justification that was presented without a citation) choose higher-status mates, so “naturally” any society that allowed polygamy would look like the polygynous societies in the study.

    Never mind, now, that those societies involved the use of things like bride prices to create their gender skews. Forget that those societies exhibit a common feature of women not being able to make their own choices. Of course it would clearly happen exactly the same way if consensual polygamy were allowed. Or something.

  7. 7
    interrobang

    Of course it would clearly happen exactly the same way if consensual polygamy were allowed. Or something.

    Does he actually think that? Oy vey. I mean, personally, speaking as a Canadian, I want every possible book thrown at the FLDS and then some. They’re egregiously abusing ostensible “freedom of religion” so they can violate about ten thousand other human rights statutes we have here, and that to me is way more wrong than outlawing someone’s damaging abusive cult.

    And if that means talking up monogamy, fine. But I do think there ought to be a huge line drawn between what you’re referring to as “consensual polygamy” and the sort of religious practices we see with the FLDS, in that the power structure is completely different in what you might call “institutionalised polygamy.”

  8. 8
    Stephanie Zvan

    Given his testimony and the intro to this paper, either consensual polygamy has never occurred to Henrich, or he really believes that.

  9. 9
    Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy

    Right. I’m either unnatural or don’t exist.

    Or maybe all my partners are high-status in ways that matter to me, some of which would be recognized by the larger culture (well-paying jobs, advanced degrees). Then again, when he says women “naturally” choose high-status partners, there’s almost certainly an implicit “male” before “partners.” OK, I’ll go slink off into their imaginations.

  10. 10
    some Matt or other

    I agree with the criticisms expressed here. There’s definitely a cart-before-the-horse question unaddressed in Henrich’s thesis.

    Interestingly, I’ve heard a Mormon say that the reason polygyny has been alternately allowed and disallowed by God is because it’s a “higher law” that is divinely instituted only when a culture reaches a certain state of holiness. In more ordinary circumstances, God drops it back down to the “lower law” of monogamy. I could see a parallel secular reasoning, wherein the enforcement of monogamy might be a rough way to carve out space for women’s rights in a culture where they have none. Then, after having secured female autonomy, the culture becomes ready to adopt polygamy – or at least some form of aboveboard non-monogamy – in an equitable way.

    I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of legalized polygamy in America today. Because we still have at least one small but strong subculture where polygyny is used as an explicit tool of oppression, legalizing it would lend legitimacy to that. But by and large, I think consenting adults should be able to enter into whatever contracts and arrangements they feel like. State recognition of polygamy, as the gay-marriage movement is beginning to achieve now, is a whole ‘nother ball of worms. But first, I think decriminalization is worth talking about.

  11. 11
    D. C. Sessions

    But first, I think decriminalization is worth talking about.

    Decriminalization, we already have. At least between consenting adults.

    State recognition, as you acknowledge, is something else again. But as soon as the laws against “fornication,” “adultery,” “sodomy,” and “felonious cohabitation” were gone then you have decriminalization.

    Where the FLDS runs into trouble isn’t the polygyny, it’s the “consenting adults” part.

  12. 12
    slignot

    Sort of a “You can’t leave because you’ve been part of this thing that everyone else sees as wrong so they may arrest you or something else awful” message.

    Stephanie, there’s definitely leverage in keeping women in place, but I can’t think of a real instance here that works the way you’re describing. (That doesn’t mean that women are never told this within the confines of the FLDS communities, but I’m pretty sure the coercion is different.) When arrests for plural marriages go forward, women are never the ones prosecuted, their husbands are. (I’m not an expert either, but it’s a major subject in news, common discourse and college courses here.)

    I’m fairly certain that the type of power to keep women in place is divided along a couple main types:

    1. They are physically and legally isolated. They are raised in total isolation from outside influence (we’ve had BOOK BURNINGS to prevent libraries!) so they have no idea what options are available to get away. They are often (but not always) located in self contained bubbles. Either in whole towns that are all run within the FLDS church (police, everything) or they live in gated clusters of homes. You can make pretty good guesses when you’re driving through small roads off the beaten path and see six modern homes in a tight knot all walled off and gated.

    2. The pressure to stay in is emotional blackmail about family and duty that’s fairly similar to conventional LDS beliefs. Guilt and pressure not to let your family down and cause them the pain of eternal separation can be a powerful tool, especially for those with no idea where to even begin to get away.

    What I’d like very much to see is a comparison of highly authoritarian religious communities that practice monogamy and those that practice polygamy.

    I fear you’d find many similarities. The ideas of Quiverfull don’t sound that different from the way women are viewed and valued in the FLDS church, and you certainly see the same sort of children helping raise children.

    I don’t know that you’d see quite the same level of treating women as commodities. You certainly don’t see women within the Quiverfull or similar movements being reassigned to new husbands as rewards/punishments as you do here. Both are incredibly dehumanizing, but FLDS attitudes toward women feel just that much more commodity-valued.

    Where the FLDS runs into trouble isn’t the polygyny, it’s the “consenting adults” part.

    D.C. Sessions,
    Damn straight. Of course, it’s compounded by religious endorsement of fraud, exploitation of government loopholes, blatant rejection of education and opportunities for children, practices like expelling “lost boys…”

    I’ve often wondered how on earth you can prevent the kind of abusive elements in extreme religious groups legally to protect children and women from what amounts to sexual enslavement. There can’t be any true choice if you were never given one because your entire town is owned and run by a church. How can you choose to live differently if you don’t even know what that looks like, let alone have the opportunity to try?

    It would seem obvious that any marriage should be entered into freely of your own volition, but there is no simple legal test for that. I think that’s why it’s so hard to talk about legal recognition of polyamorous relationships without running into questions like these.

  13. 13
    D. C. Sessions

    As for the “coercion” element:

    Get them young, keep them ignorant, make sure that they never have any money or property, get them pregnant early and often, make sure that they believe that if they escape they will forfeit all right to even see their children and that there is no way for them to make a living on the outside, etc.

    In short: keep them ignorant, helpless, and hopeless.

  14. 14
    some Matt or other

    Decriminalization, we already have. At least between consenting adults.

    As far as I’m aware, blanket anti-polygamy laws are still on the books in this country. I don’t know how thoroughly they’re enforced, but as Lawrence v. Texas showed, all it takes is one use of a law for it to still be a threat to consenting adults.

  15. 15
    D. C. Sessions

    You’re going to have trouble if you try to enter into simultaneous legal marriages. Leave the State out of it and there’s no problem.

  16. 16
    some Matt or other

    In Utah at least, all you need is a single legal marriage for bigamy/polygamy to be a valid charge:

    “A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.”

    I’m not familiar with other states’ laws, but this one was pretty clearly written with the intent of outlawing even unlicensed plural marriages. Granted, enforcement is clearly lax – the Brown family on the reality-show Sister Wives hasn’t been arrested – but it’s nonetheless there on the books if someone decides to use it.

  17. 17
    DuWayne

    slignot –

    We can use the same tools we currently use to prevent the abuses you’re talking about if polygamy is legalized. That it is illegal actually fosters an environment wherein those practicing polygamy can more easily get away with the sort of abuses we see in FLDS cults. Because polygamy is illegal, those who engage become criminals and become less reticent about committing other criminal acts. This is a phenom that is very prevalent in conjunction with the war on drugs.

  18. 18
    DuWayne

    According to Henrich, monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary…

    That gives me a bloody damned headache. Does this mean he identifies as a “cultural evolutionary psychologist?” I am not at all averse to using terms like “cultural evolution,” but it is not the same as using “evolution” in the context of biology. And in this context it just hurts my head. I mean we already have to make distinctions with regards to “evolutionary psychology,” between complete nutter evo-psychologists and non-nutter evo-psychologists – with the former abusing the hell out of the term “evolution.”

    Depressing. Very, very depressing.

  19. 19
    scotlyn

    Per D. C. Sessions:

    Get them young, keep them ignorant, make sure that they never have any money or property, get them pregnant early and often, make sure that they believe that if they escape they will forfeit all right to even see their children and that there is no way for them to make a living on the outside, etc.

    This sounds eerily similar to the effective formula that underpins sex trafficking and prostitution – guess in the absence of support/respect for female agency, it’s all of a piece, really.

  20. 20
    baronsamedi

    It seems to me indeed that the core of the problem is not the polygamy but the coercive nature of the imposed polygamy. Once more the basis of this coercion is religion, so we should all strive to outlaw religion as in general it caused and causes more harm than anything else.

  1. 21
    A Taste of 2012 » Almost Diamonds

    [...] psychology, one of my perennial topics. This time, it was a cultural anthropologist talking about the benefits of monogamy, using only patriarchal, polygynous cultures as the comparison. I returned to the topic at the end [...]

  2. 22
    A “Deep Human History” of Polyandry » Almost Diamonds

    [...] Many evolutionary psychologists like to talk about polygyny. Some say it’s a good thing for the individuals involved. Some say it’s a bad thing. But they tend to agree that this is just how we evolved. Polyandry, if it’s discussed at all, is generally dismissed as being insignificant. [...]

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