A Mildly Polygynous Species

Feminist writers have seen human history in terms of a battle to control reproduction. In consequence, perhaps, this crucial perspective has been unduly ignored by non-feminist historians. For history need not be approached with the Manichaean sensibility that treats male reproductive ambitions as automatically bad and wrong and female reproductive ambitions as automatically good and right. Moreover, the feminist writers have accustomed us to thinking of “the battle to control reproduction” in terms of whether a given woman is obliged to bear and raise a child that a given man has gotten upon her; but which man begets that child at the expense of which other men is equally crucial, and probably more so in terms of historical development.

The vestiges of Man’s somewhat polygynous past are easily visible in who he is today: we are a mildly dimorphic species, that is, men are on average 15% larger than women. This difference is not found in primate species that are monogamous. Male gorillas, on the other hand, are twice as big as the females. For polygyny requires physical domination of both wives and challengers. Human males also mature later and grow old more quickly, which is a sign of the intensity of reproductive competition and the proportion of the total energy budget devoted to it. Finally, in all cultures men take far greater risks than women, generally in order to obtain the currency of reproductive success – not only economic resources but also status. If we were truly evolved to be like Papageno and Papagena, everyone with his or her natural mate, none of this would apply.

In a Hobbesian state of nature, with no one doing any controlling of human reproduction, it is likely that aggressive and powerful human males would strive to monopolise the available women. That is, the alphas would keep harems in the manner of bulls and sea-lions. Or, more probably, to a smaller degree, since in primate species the individual strength of the big male can be offset by coalitions of the weaker. In 1967 Peter Murdock sampled 849 human societies, finding that 137 mandated monogamy, 708 permitted polygyny and only four were polyandrous. In ethnographic terms, therefore, monogamy is by no means the rule, and if there is such a thing as “human nature”, then it seems to be at least mildly polygynous.

That a society permits polygyny is not to say that every man can afford it. There is good reason to believe that very few men – only the crack hunters – could afford more than one woman until the invention of agriculture (that is, hoardable resources) and the state (that is, coercion in defence of hoarded resources). It was, therefore, “civilisation” and its vastly increased economic stratification that facilitated a more intense polygyny than among the hunter-gatherers. The contribution of civilisation was, in fact, to arrange for reproductive systems unthinkable before, such as among the Inca, where the elite were assigned from between 1,500 to 5 women according to rank, with none whatsoever for the common men, or among the Dahomey, where everyone was descended from royalty because no one else got to breed at all.

In the 1980s Laura Betzig set out to test the prediction that men would treat power primarily as a means to reproductive success. This thesis was wholly confirmed for all civilisations until the Renaissance, which employed identical methods of creating and maintaining harems, to the end of “industrial” production of imperial progeny; the Christian Middle Ages did much the same thing while pretending not to. The odd thing is that the correlation ceased to work in modern times, where we see men striving to become dictators without always showing any interest in organised, or even disorganised, access to women. It is almost as if such men as Lenin and Hitler really do strive for power solely in order to implement their ideas. This may be a version of the religious warfare that began around the time when Betzig found the correlation between power and reproductive success broke down. If this is so, we may be the first culture to create a wholly mental reward for seizing the reins of the state, one that Inca, Indian, Chinese and other emperors would probably not have understood.

Posted on May 5, 2009 at 07:40 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: AGAINST NATURE, "Love" Contra Social Stability

3 Responses

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  1. Written by Cranky Ashley
    on May 6, 2009 at 01:26

    I wasn’t wondered if it was possible to have a true polyamourous relationship. I may decide to do a study on it some day.

  2. Written by Cranky Ashley
    on May 6, 2009 at 01:27

    Correction: I always wondered

    Wow, I must be asleep

  3. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on May 6, 2009 at 08:22

    What would your criteria for a “true” relationship be, as opposed to a false or ordinary one?

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