Saturday, April 19, 2008

Polygamy and the armchair primatologist

It's not just the religious guys who say that "plurality of wives" is the "will of God." A lot of science guys like to say things like "the sexual dimorphism in humans indicates some propensity towards polygyny in our species." They may be right (the science guys that is, not the religious guys), but whenever I read of scientific fondness for polygyny, I feel like the science guys haven't really thought this through all the way.

Maybe I'm reading too much between the lines here, but I sometimes get this vibe of "Sorry, ladies, but that's just the way our species evolved..." while Professor Scientist is rubbing his nerdy hands together and secretly picturing himself surrounded by nubile babes.** It never seems to occur to Professor Scientist that in a polygynous society he might be one of the males below the fold: out-competed and out of luck. Or alternately that even for the top one-third of males who get all the babes to themselves, there's this little inconvenience of the the bottom two-thirds of males hanging around in the wings, waiting for the opportunity to kill the top guys and take their place...

What does the female armchair primatologist think of the polygamous tendencies of our species? Well, I'll tell you! Please keep in mind that all of this is opinion and speculation, not to be confused with actual scientific research.

For this discussion, I'll define polygyny as any situation where one male monopolizes multiple females throughout their prime reproductive years. So I'm not only including openly polygamous (polygynous) societies (like the FLDS), but also cases where a man has an official wife in addition to maintaining a mistress (or mistresses or concubines), as well as cases where a man takes a young "trophy wife" after his children by his first wife are grown. I'm not counting ordinary serial monogamy or egalitarian open/polyamorous relationships.

One of the most striking aspects of human reproduction is the tremendous parental investment in each offspring. Instead of each adult producing hundreds or thousands of young and letting the chips fall where they may, human parents devote a lifetime's worth of effort and resources to seeing just a handful of kids to adulthood. For humans, successful reproduction isn't just a question of quantity, but also a question of quality: making sure the kids grow up to be healthy and well-placed in society. So both male and female humans tend to seek a mate who will stay with the family for the long haul and provide a strong investment in their offspring. Investment involves not only an economic investment (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), but also social status and personally educating the children.

Despite the heavy emphasis on quality, however, quantity isn't irrelevant in human reproduction. An individual male can improve his reproductive success by attracting multiple mates as long as he can do it without significantly diminishing the quality of mates he gets and the parental investment he can expect from them. For example, in human societies whose upper strata involve some sort of nobility, old money, and/or established families, the mother's social/economic status matters quite a lot to the success of the offspring. A high-status male can't normally expect that a high-status female would be willing to share him (and his money/status) with another female on an equal basis. This often leads to the wife-and-mistress model: a high-status "official wife" is sometimes willing to overlook a side dalliance as long as the mistress (and her children) get little of the father's resources and inherit none of his status.

So what's in it for the mistress? Typically it's a case where any legitimate mate she could expect to attract would be low enough on the socio-economic ladder that she's better off with the leftovers from a fancier table. (Note that -- depending on the society -- this role in not always voluntary.) Since the father's personal attention is valuable, there has to be a very wide economic gulf between the alpha male and the omega males before the alpha's sloppy seconds start looking more attractive than the full-time attention of a lower-status father/mate.

The main thing that makes females tolerate and accept polygyny is lack of power and status of their own. It's my impression that polygyny tends to decrease as women are more empowered. In other words, when a woman can expect to command enough (economic) resources herself to raise her children to adulthood, getting a mate who will invest himself 100% in her and her offspring is a higher priority for her than finding a richer or higher-status mate that she might have to share. (The flip-side is that an openly polygynous society -- for its very existence -- essentially requires that women have no power or status at all.)

So in conclusion I'd say that -- even though some degree of polygyny is normal and typical for our species -- as we move forward to a modern, sustainable society, the amount of polygyny will (and should) decrease. (Take this opinion with a grain of salt, given my female bias.) Some bloggers have claimed that since "one rooster in the hen-house" is an efficient reproductive strategy for chickens, it should be for humans as well, but that view fails to take into account some of the realities of human reproduction. Firstly, in the chicken example, part of the efficiency rests on the assumption that the extra males can be dealt with by serving them up on the dinner table. And let's face it -- having a family to support makes a human male more inclined to try to be a productive member of society and less inclined to want to fight other males to the death (in wars and terrorism, etc.). Secondly, human children benefit from having more dad per kid. As I discussed in fertility, mortality, getting parents to focus more effort on fewer kids is our best recipe for a happy and stable future.


** This is not meant as a slam on horny male scientists. Anyone who follows my blog knows of my great fondness for them. As far as I'm concerned, mathematicians and scientists are the sexiest type of humans, followed by engineers. I know I ought to put looks first (out of some feminist sentiment of "turnabout is fair play"), but what can I say? I like what I like. ;^)

Besides, it's not like looks are irrelevant to me. Ideally a guy should be beautiful in addition to being brilliant. For example, take my husband, who's all that plus great at taking care of the kids and the house. Actually, don't take him -- he's taken. :D


Christopher Smith said...

>>And let's face it -- having a family to support makes a human male more inclined to try to be a productive member of society and less inclined to want to fight other males to the death (in wars and terrorism, etc.).

Good point!! (Maybe this is why the Middle East is so darn screwed up. All those unmarried males sitting around...)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Chris!!!

Yeah, I don't want to single those guys out because they're not the only ones, but... yeah, that's part of the problem.

Matt said...

Honestly, why would a horny (and presumably secular) scientist care one wit about polygyny when he/she is not bridled by the fear that god will punish her/him should she/he have sex outside of eternal marriage?

Poor, poor FLDS religious wack-jobs. They're horny and religiously fucked-up. Polygyny is the only publicly acceptable solution ... just ask Joseph Smith.

Great post, chanson. As usual.

Matt said...

BTW, best book I've ever read on the subject is Matt Ridley's "The Red Queen". But I think Dawkins also covers it somewhat in "The Selfish Gene" ... certain species develop the means to trick other men/women (or other species) into raising their kids. What a trick, and the the best ones do it without any investment beyond the DNA.

Again, the polygamist start looking like a fairly backwards version of this (mostly due to the hobble of religioun as previously stated) ... but nevertheless, the progam includes getting the state to be a major player in footing the cost of raising children.

I can understand why Texas was getting pissed-off.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Matt!!!

I don't think (m)any secular scientists actually want to be polygamists. But I think that some of them are occasionally aroused by contemplating different mating strategies. It's all part of enjoying your work. ;^)

I've heard of The Red Queen but I haven't read it. It sounds interesting, I'll see if they have it in the bookstore.

As for the FLDS, I can think of lots of good reasons why the Texans wouldn't be happy to have them around. (Take the last bullet point on this list, for example.) However, I still think the raid was unconstitutional and it sets a dangerous precedent of the state being able to assume abuse just for being in the same community as an abuser (and, of course, this new power would only be used on minority communities, not on mainstream religions with rampant abuse...).

Unknown said...

Awesome analysis, Chanson.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Hellmut!!! :D

Unknown said...

Your post goes back to the point that even though we evolved in a natural world, we've moved past that to create our own "artificial" society. Even though we have a lot of issues yet to address, we're better of now than we ever have been as a society.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey O.G.!!!

Very true, and that's a good point. Natural selection is amazing, but it's blunt and slow compared to how we can use our brains to adapt to new challenges.

Rebecca said...

One rooster for a henhouse also doesn't apply well to humans because of the genetic problems that often arise from mating with people who are too closely related, as would tend to happen if all the children in the world were fathered by 1/3 of the men. We can see this in our society within communities encouraged to intermarry for relgious (or other) purposes; for example, the much higher incidence of Tay-Sachs within the Jewish community (of course, I also read that the average IQ for Jews also tends to be higher, so...).

Also, my completely non-scientific opinion is that, at least in this society, a mistress doesn't tend to have many - if any - children within her affair because 1) The man doesn't want her to, and 2) She has no guarantee that she and her children will have continual access to his resources. So that doesn't seem like a very effective way to propagate the species.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

If all the children were fathered by 1/3 of the men throughout society, I don't think it would be that much of a problem genetically since that's still quite a bit of genetic variation. However, women basically have to be raised from a young age with the idea of open polygyny in order to tolerate it (being expected to accept your mate's infidelities in your own home with a smile). Since it's rare to find such women (and they're concentrated in certain communities) we end up with situations of massive inbreeding and borderline incest like you see in the various fundamentalist Mormon communities, with a lot of genetic defects as a result.

Anonymous said...

A few thoughts from my male POV:

I agree with you 100% CL, however, I also think that since you brought up the micro/macro scenarios, they should both be given separate time.

In the dating scene, where women are typically socio-economically equal (talking modern societies), polygyny with the top 1/3 is the MO that women choose. The macro polygyny, so to speak.

The micro polygyny is the old patriarch type BS, and all that's slowly going away with women's lib.

I see the macro case still happening, and becoming more & more reinforced as more & more women become equal, since they can be more & more selective with partners.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MxRacer652!!!

That is a fascinating point that I hadn't really considered. Let me see if I understand what you're saying:

You're suggesting that since women can have "no strings attached" sex with various guys (with no serious social/economic repercussions), naturally they all choose to have sex with the top guys, since who wouldn't rather have sex with an alpha, given the option? So the few guys at the top get all the sex, leaving little or none for the average straight guy. (If that's not you point, please correct me.)

To that I would say yes and no.

One thing to keep in mind is that -- while many straight women enjoy NSA sex -- on average men are a lot more interested in NSA sex than women, while women are more likely to prefer to have sex in the context of a relationship. Therefore, if you're a straight guy and you want lots of NSA sex with various women, then you'd better be rich or very handsome or exceptionally charming/funny, or you'll fail. Yet, unsurprisingly, women often get tired of having NSA sex with guys who just want to do everyone, even if the guy has lots of desirable qualities. Therefore, straight males can increase their overall desirablilty by seeking a committed relationship and demonstrating affection and fidelity.

Also, keep in mind that women today are a whole lot more willing to have sex in general then they were a mere few generations ago, so there's a lot more to go around. Even if it seems unfair that the super-handsome guy with the obscenely expensive car gets laid by a different gorgeous babe every weekend, in reality -- wherever you are on the desirability spectrum -- you almost certainly have a lot more opportunity for sex than someone at the equivalent spot on the desirability spectrum did a few generations ago.

Rebecca said...

True - with 1/3 of the male population being pretty large, in a global sense there might not be much of a genetic problem. However, (and I should have written this in my initial comment) I think the problem is that the genetic material from 1/3 of the world's male population wouldn't be spread out over the whole world. Each community would have its handful of men who father all the children - and the smaller the town/city/community, the more likely that there would be a problem with breeding too closely. In a large city this might not be such a problem, but in even medium-sized cities I think it could get to be one.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that I'm totally wrong.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that I'm totally wrong.

lol, I usually like to include this caveat as well. ;^)

But seriously, I think you're right that in practice human polygyny tends to be associated with inbreeding...

Anonymous said...

Hi C.L.,
I was using 'dating' as a catch all, NSA, looking for sig other material, eye candy for a reunion, etc. Should have used mate instead of partner, it's more relationshipy.

I guess what I was getting at is that women can (and do!) afford to live on their own/be comfortable with it/etc, not needing a SO, they can choose to be more picky with whom they choose to get involved with. A less willing "to settle for good enough" rung on the economic ladder, so to speak.

You did forget one thing though, Professor Scientist learned well before grad school that he's never going to be surrounded by nubile babes. So his research is always serious & unbiased. :P

I'm an engineer and I know first hand why this sterotype exists. LOL!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MxRacer!!!

More good points!!!

I guess what I was getting at is that women can (and do!) afford to live on their own/be comfortable with it/etc, not needing a SO, they can choose to be more picky with whom they choose to get involved with. A less willing "to settle for good enough" rung on the economic ladder, so to speak.

Again -- given my female bias -- I see it as a good thing that a male has to make an effort to demonstrate his utility rather than expecting women to put up with anything because they have no choice (see my post on traditional marriage vs. modern marraige). But in practice, I think this generally translates to expecting more quality attention from individual mates all across the economic spectrum rather than the odious situation of being one of the harem of some self-important top dog.

Professor Scientist learned well before grad school that he's never going to be surrounded by nubile babes.

lol, true, but you know very well that I tease out of affection and not malice. After all, it doesn't hurt to dream. ;^)

(For more on that, see the mating habits of mathematicians and of course my nerd sex scene ;^) ).

Felicia said...

Umm... but scientists don't say that humans have probably been polygynous during our evolution. We're most likely polyamorous - both women and men have extramarital relations occasionally. This is supported by the fact that, err, it happens, and the size of testicles/sperm-loads, among other things. (The "evolutionary reasoning" is also quite simple - men get more babies by having sex with more women, and women spread their genetic risk by having babies with different men.) So I think your caricature of a nerdy scientist rubbing his hands gleefully was rather ... offputting, as it's just wrong. Otherwise, this is a very interesting topic. Blog more about it! ;)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Felicia!!!

I haven't said anything here about extramarital relationships. What I'm talking about is the existence of marital-type relationships (a necessary prerequisite for "extramarital" ones). The thing is that humans do tend to form long-term relationships in which there is some hope or expectation of exclusivity, and that males humans do have some tendency to try to monopolize multiple females throughout their prime reproductive years (whereas the same isn't really true in the other direction). The fact that the hope of exclusivity often isn't realized -- as well as the existence of other types of mating/relationship strategies in humans -- doesn't negate what I've said here (or make it "just wrong"). It merely adds some more details and perspective to the portrait of human mating and reproductive strategy.

Paul Sunstone said...

Excellent post, Chanson!

So far as I know, there are several indications that both men and women had multiple partners during our evolution. For instance: The size of male testicles and the quantity of sperm they produce seems to indicate that human females, in general, were not entirely monogamous through much of our evolutionary history. In more monogamous primates, both the size of the testicles and the quantity of sperm produced are significantly smaller than in humans.

So, for many reasons, I think it can be safely said that humans do not have just one locked in mating strategy, but evolved various strategies -- including an ability to be polygamous in both genders.

As for the more pressing question of whether science nerds are sexy or not -- female science nerds rule!!!! :D

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Paul!!!

That's a good point. I shouldn't have been so dismissive of Felicia's comment (and I only was because, y'know, she started it with the dismisiveness ;^) ), but it looks like it's true that taking multiple partners has been an important part of our evolution for both males and females (though females don't tend to try to hoard exclusive mates...).

Humans show impressive malleability in terms of mating strategy (as I've discussed in some other primatology posts). Lately -- with cheap and effective birth control and females able to support their young economically to adulthood -- people in developed countries seem to be moving closer to a chimpanzee-style mating strategy (less exclusivity overall).