5/27/08 - the mystery of monogamy

In today's excerpt - from Robert Wright's groundbreaking and controversial book The Moral Animal, the background on monogamy versus polygyny (multiple wives), which he discusses as a precursor to his discussion of the logic of monogamy, contrasted against the historical predominance of polygyny:

"A huge majority [of human societies] -- 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. ...

"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. ...

"[For] societies that have hovered right around the subsistence level ... 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. And even if he were willing to gamble on a second family, he'd have trouble attracting a second wife. ... The general principle is that economic equality among men -- especially but not only if near subsistence level -- tends to short-circuit polygyny. This tendency by itself dispels a good part of the monogamy mystery, for more than half of the known monogamous societies have been classified as 'nonstratified' by anthropologists. What really demand explanation are the six dozen societies in the history of the world, including the modern industrial nations, that have been monogamous yet economically stratified. These are true freaks of nature. ...

"Laura Betzig has shown that in pre-industrial societies, extreme polygyny often goes hand in hand with extreme political hierarchy and reaches its zenith under the most despotic regimes. ... In Inca society, the four political offices from petty chief to chief were allotted ceilings of seven, eight, fifteen, and thirty women, respectively. It stands to reason that as political power became more widely disbursed, so did wives. And the ultimate widths are one-man-one-vote and one-man-one-wife. Both characterize most of today's industrial nations."


Robert Wright


The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life


First Vintage Book Edition


Copyright 1994 by Robert Wright


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