Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Would Modern Polygamy Be Like?

Responses on G+ to some of what I posted on polygamy raise an interesting consequentialist argument against it—that wealthy men would "buy up" too many wives, leaving a surplus of unmarried single men likely to cause social problems such as increased levels of crime.

The argument takes it for granted that polygamy mostly means polygyny, multiple wives rather than multiple husbands. Historically that has been the pattern. Monogamy is the most common marital arrangement, polygyny next, polyandry rare. But it raises the question of why that pattern existed and whether it would persist in a modern society where polygamy was legal and common enough to have a significant effect on the marriage market.

One answer is that men, for reasons probably hardwired by evolution, want to know which children are theirs in order that they can avoid spending their scarce resources on other men's children. Prior to modern times, maternity was an observed fact, paternity a conjecture. The obvious way of strengthening the conjecture was to arrange matters so that a woman had sex with only one man, a condition satisfied by monogamy and polygyny but not by polyandry. Modern paternity testing, which I like to refer to as the stealth reproductive technology, changed that. It no longer requires a wise child to know his father, merely a properly equipped lab.

A second possible answer is that under pre-modern conditions, with high rates of both infant mortality and death in childbirth, one woman could not be counted on to produce as many children as several husbands would want. That again has changed. In a world where infant mortality is close to zero, a fertile woman who enjoys producing and rearing children, supported by the income of multiple husbands, should be able to produce enough offspring for all of them. And it is worth noting that a second function of marriage is sex, and women are less limited in that regard than men.

All of which suggests that, in a modern context, polyandry might turn out to be as common as, or more common than, polygyny, in which case the objection vanishes or even reverses, becomes an argument in favor of polygamy rather than an argument against it.

How could one find  data to test the theory? One possibility would be to study modern polygamy not in contexts such as the FLDS, where it represents the survival of old marital patterns, but in the context of  polyamory, where it appears as the growth of new ones. I do not know if anyone has attempted a census of polyamorous households—there are obvious difficulties, since many have reasons to keep a low profile—but the results would be interesting.


Anonymous said...

Men care less about having children than about having sex. Men care less about proving paternity than about being the only man having sex with the pertinent woman. The former are evolutionary goals; the latter how we are bred to further those goals. Polyandry will never be be nearly as popular as polygamy -- polygamy accords with our breeding better than polyandry, even if today both would achieve our ultimate evolutionary goals equally well. This should be obvious to someone who understands evolutionary psychology and can observe human nature.

Shava said...

Maybe you should look into resources on polyamory. Polyamory, in all likelihood, is a modern form of polygamy in the sense you are seeking, although you don't really seem to be bounding your definitions.

In polyamory the definitions of relationship tend to be libertarian, in that they are negotiated by the people involved in the relationship. They can involve multiple people of whatever gender, and the relationships can be sexual or non-sexual (this is to say, a household can consist, say, of several couples where some of the couples are sexually mated, with some sexual relationships crossing couple lines but not all, say).

It is not necessarily dominated by either gender, or by financial interests. Child rearing is often shared by adults who are not the "natural" parents. Legal paperwork is often involved in parental, support, and property interests, since obviously those institutions aren't there legally by default.

It's not what I'm doing but I have friends, and it seems to be about as stable as modern monogamous marriage. Which is to say, I can't say much for it, either way, but it seems to be dependent on the people involved.

Jon Kalb said...

An anonymous commenter states that "Polyandry will never be be nearly as popular as polygamy." Perhaps this is true. But I notice that almost all the books about modern polyamory are written by women. While the leaders of the Free Love movement in the sixties and previous non-monogamous systems tended to be men, this doesn't seem to be the case for the modern polyamory community.

The values of this community seem to be more focused on relationships than sex. (It's not just about the sex! as Minx would say). Perhaps this is a more women-friendly approach. (Add stereotypical joke about women talking about relationships here.)

For those that wish to follow up on Shava's recommendation of looking into polyamory, an often recommend first read is the book "The Ethical Slut." If you guessed that it was written by a woman you would be wrong. It was written by two women.

The Ethical Slut:

Polyamory Weekly Podcast with Cunning Minx:

David Friedman said...

"This should be obvious to someone who understands evolutionary psychology and can observe human nature."

Only if he knows more than I do, possibly more than anyone does, about the technology by which the genotype controls the phenotype. Absent that information, we can't tell whether what is hardwired in is the desire to know paternity or sexual jealousy.

A point I discussed some years back in my Future Imperfect. As I reported there, people in the polyamory community claim that male sexual jealousy is not a problem for them—but of course, they are not a random sample.

Shava said...

On polyandry: Actually I find as many polyandrous households, in my casual observation, and more men in multiple partnerships that may or may not involve householding.

This is to say, often one female will find it very advantageous to have several males support her in childrearing, whether or not they have outside sexual interests (or sexual interests in one another). Whether or not we care to admit it, a lot of childrearing and household tasks tend to fall to women still, and this seems to be a comfortable combination of traditional and disruptively new problem-solving structure for a nice environment for a household.

Polygyny is usually a financially based marriage form in cultures where women are pretty much chattel. I should invite you to consider that those days may be over -- or at least we should support that they should be. And indeed, if they are not, that there are certainly women who can afford more spouses also, and further, that 10% of the population might want to mix up their harems.

This is a much more complicated question than you seemed to have taken it to be. In fact, just from the article, it seems like it could have been written before the sexual revolution and without the input of a single female voice or any person of anything short of the perfectly straight end of the male/straight end of the Kinsey scale.

Polygyny is often pointed out as a "natural" structure in the wild (outside of hyenas) in higher social mammals, by Western civilization (read: straight white male academics) but my dad, who was both incisive and bitter wicked funny, pointed out to me as a young woman that a pride of lions was misinterpreted in his opinion by a bunch of tweed suited brits with sticks up their collective asses.

He pointed out that a pride of lions consists of the mothers and the juveniles and cubs, and a single male lion who is lazy and barely hunts. He tends to defend the pride mostly from interloping male lions -- this is to say, potential rival breeders. And when one of them bloodies his nose and drives him off, the females collectively shrug and go on with life because ultimately, he's a sex object. (really he's a sperm bank, but my dad said sex object)

The adult males barely matter, and the young males are driven off as they mature. They wander alone or in small bachelor bands sort of wishing they could go back to mom.

So, what is heralded (literally on so much of European flag and shield) as the king of beasts is really not much use other than a disposable sperm bank, replaceable as soon as he can't prove himself fit enough to defend his place in line for his free sex and meal ticket.

Not much of a model to base "natural polygyny" on, but even muslim and animist tribes in North Africa lean on the archetype.

I asked a friend from Kenya about this some years ago, and he said, "Well, of course, it's true, but every man wants that, you know, to have a house full of women working for his wealth, comfort and pleasure! Isn't that what having many wives should be about? But if we do not support them, also, there will be a younger lion. That's true also. So we honor our wives too, and some men also beat them, so they will remember we are not just some beast."

It was...backwards a bit. But then the Europeans had gotten it backwards first, eh? Lions do not beat their lionesses, but men beat their women. Sad.

Maybe in that, the the lioness is the queen of the beasts, and the lion can go hang it up. We won't start in about men and women...:)

Anonymous said...

Angling for Mrs.Friedman number 2?

Randall Parker said...

Modern polygamy (at least in its polygynist form): It would be like the Warren Jeffs compound and similar communities. Highly controlled women, guys kicked out of communities in their teens, inward-looking groups.

The women would be happier if they were genetically engineered for their roles. That'll happen eventually.

Unknown said...

Fun fact: the early Mormons were polyandrous.

It ended up being worse for women than polygamy. In early Mormon polyandry, several men would jointly marry a woman and pass her back and forth.

Polyandry isn't synonymous with female empowerment.

Anonymous said...

when one of them bloodies his nose and drives him off, the females collectively shrug and go on with life because ultimately, he's a sex object.

Females also engage in those power battles. Females without cubs are very receptive to a younger/stronger suitor, while females with cubs are adamantly opposed. Remember: the victorious male will kill the cubs. There are bitter battles involving the females, many times between themselves, when lions dispute the throne.

And males also contribute to the tribe: mainly at night, keeping other competitive predators off, especially hyenas that come for the left-overs. Females usually don't want to risk skin to defend the tribe (it's a public good for them), and you can tell, for instance, hyenas know it, because they are way more frisky when females are around than a male (hyenas get scared to death by a male). The male can't realistically hunt for the entire tribe, but they also engage in hunting too.

elsa said...

I don't really see the point of the government sanctioning these relationships to begin with.

What is the difference betw. marriage and people just taking whomever they want, whenever they want? That's what we have now. People are going at it with whomever, whenever.

My point is, in regard to your blog-title, we already have modern polygamy. And everything else thrown in to boot.

Marriage has already been basically rejected. Some still take part for-- maybe the romantic ideal of it?

Elsa, missing the old-fashioned way :(

Anonymous said...

If you watch daytime TV you will see we have a very common form of polyandry in the U.S.: a woman with several children sired by several men. Typically the women's households are supported by a combination of child support from the fathers and various government subsidies. Often, the mother maintains irregular sexual relationships with more that one of the fathers.

Full Marriage Equality said...

A woman with two husbands and an excellent blog can be found here:

Leonard said...

I don't doubt that a tiny minority of men can be successfully polygynous or polyamourous. People have all kind of strange kinks. I do doubt that these men are anything more than an insignificant minority.

In my experience, most women don't want to be polygynous. Young women have every opportunity these days to be sexually polygynous, but few of them do. Serially, yes, but concurrently, no. They take one boyfriend at a time.

Normal men won't accept polygyny. Many men will accept our modern quasi-polygyny, namely, a woman married to the state who has sex with multiple men. But this falls into the category of the virgin/whore dual standard. The promiscuous woman is sought after for sex, not commitment. Few man are willing to marry such a woman, and if one does, he will expect her to be monogamous. Probably much to his chagrin.

One other problem with polygyny that I expect would cause problems is that men want sex more than women. Even in monogamous marriages, many men feel like they don't get enough sex. Now imagine waiting twice as long, or thrice, to get your "turn". Ugh. Give me monogamy.

Milhouse said...

men want sex more than women.

Really? Where did you get that assumption?

sconzey said...

Interesting thesis. I'm not entirely convinced by your argument about children. The maximum total fertility as birth-spacing and infant mortality tends towards zero is limited by the woman's nine-month gestation period, not by the man.

As infant mortality has fallen, women have responded by increasing birth spacing rather than by having more children. I think most women would regard the decreased birth spacing in polyandrous relationship where each father wants his own kids to be a step backwards, not forwards.

Furthermore, I strongly suspect the evolutionary hardwiring is towards sexual exclusivity rather than known paternity, as even in this age of readily-available contraceptives, most men choose monogamous or polygynous (the PUA "harem") relationships, rather than polyandrous ones.

Leonard said...

Milhouse: I am tempted to say, "common sense". However: link.

Milhouse said...

Leonard, it's certainly not "common sense". The traditional assumption in every culture I'm aware of is the opposite. (AFAIK Western culture adopted your assumption in the 19th century, and started indoctrinating women not to want or enjoy sex; before the 19th century it shared the common assumption that women's desire was stronger than men's.)

At any rate, one article on webmd is not enough to convince me.

Leonard said...

Ah, webmd is not enough. But that's why you should google -- I am not suggesting you accept one paper chosen by me. Webmd was just hit #1 for a neutrally phrased search. I also think you should look at hit 4 and particularly #12 (Baumeister et al), which appears to actually be scientifical. Their conclusion:

All the evidence we have reviewed points toward the conclusion that men desire sex more than women. Although some of the findings were more methodologically rigorous than others, the unanimous convergence across all measures and findings increases confidence. We did not find a single study, on any of nearly a dozen different measures, that found women had a stronger sex drive than men. We think that the combined quantity, quality, diversity, and convergence of the evidence render the conclusion indisputable.

I am sure if you keep looking you can find many papers in there of equivalent quality. And I will bet you none of them support your notion.

Incidentally, I see no evidence at all for your odd notion that women were ever considered to have a stronger sex drive.

Anonymous said...

Sex drive is highly dependent on testosterone levels, which are typically ten times higher in men. Any perceptions that sex drive is anywhere near the same in men and women are a result of feminist propaganda.

There's a reason lesbian bed death occurs, but you never hear about gay male bed death.

Will said...


I don't see the right of government to sanction, or refuse to sanction, any type of relationship.

PirateFriedman said...

"In a world where infant mortality is close to zero, a fertile woman who enjoys producing and rearing children, supported by the income of multiple husbands, should be able to produce enough offspring for all of the"

Man, this really went over my head. I'm sure I'm missing something, but still.

One man can produce thousands of children. One woman can produce, usually at most 20. So sex is not as important to women.

Plus hardwired genetic traits don't just change overnight. For the forseeable future, woman want that one really great guy, men want to do every woman they meet. (except their sister and mother).

PirateFriedman said...

By the way, I think a more interesting question would be:

Can straight, impoverished men live happy, celibate lives and be nonviolent? Should they engage in homosexual sex as a substitute?

Right now I'm pretty broke, so let me know what you think.

Anonymous said...

In my anecdotal personal experience, polyamory is basically an adaptation to a social community without enough women. So, while truly one-sided polyamorous relationships are rare (people typically find it unfair for one partner to be allowed outside sex if the other isn't) the average woman has more partners than the average man, and the people with the most partners are female.

Luke said...

We increasingly have polygyny right now in Western countries. That is, ever more each year, 40-70% of women pursue and have sex with the small percentage (like 1-5%) of men they find attractive, up until somewhere between age 28-44 (also known as "hitting the wall").

Then, they sigh, hold their noses, and try to find a man of their own Sexual Market Value to marry, whom they will almost certainly feel little or no sexual attraction. Those women subsequently routinely do one or more of cut their husbands off sexually, have affairs, or divorce for no real reason (called "frivorce"). In the latter case, the woman nearly always separate the man from his children, much or most of his assets, and much or most of his future assets.

This scenario makes sex, marriage, and family either undesirable or a disaster for the 90-95% of men at the bottom to pursue. Such a "winner-take-all" society results in most men being extremely unfulfilled, and at best unmotivated to produce, often prone to crime and violent insurrection.

Basically, a country can have widespread polygyny -- or a modern, peaceful, prosperous civilization. It cannot have both.

Randall Parker said...

The potential advantage of fewer men making babies with more women is that if the men are higher in status then they are probably higher in IQ and drive. They'll make more successful kids.

Of course, if it is the thugs that are knocking up multiple women per thug then the result is societal decay for multiple reasons.

David Friedman said...


If it is true that 40-70% of women only start looking for a husband between ages 28-44, the median age of first marriage ought to be pretty high--probably in the thirties, allowing for women who start looking earlier than that but take a while to find a suitable and willing candidate. A little googling shows the median age of first marriage in the U.S. to be 26.9 for women.

So I don't think your claim is consistent with the available data. The pattern you describe may well exist, but I don't believe it can be as common as you suggest.

Unknown said...

I read that polygamy or polyandry tends to occur in societies where there is a gender imbalance in the number of people who want to get married or have committed relationships.

I am a polyandress, and I currently have long-term committed relationships with two different men. They both know about each other and LIKE the idea that they can timeshare me, so neither one is fully responsible to me.

For example, both of them have jobs that take them away for weeks at a time, and they like that they know there's someone here for me back home while they're gone.