Are Humans Polygamous?

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i-d3001ca5c2ca37fa00a08933390cc23f-image020.jpgThe nature vs. nurture debate will always be with us poor cultured apes. Only very rarely can we lay the blame for our behaviour on genetic programming. A typical issue is that of monogamy.

I happened upon two bloggers (here and here) who argue that humans are polygamous (“everybody’s built to screw around”), or at least polygynous (“men are built to screw around”), by nature. They base this assertion on the results of research showing that a) somewhere between a percent and a third of all babies show genetic evidence of having been sired by someone else than their officially alleged progenitor, b) the pupils at one high school proved amazingly promiscuous over a 6-month period. The bloggers also taught me a cute acronym for adultery: EPC, “extra-pair copulation”.

Now, I find all this very interesting, but as always with evolutionary psychology, I wonder what kind of truth claims these statements about human “nature” really are.

Humans are air-breathers, no doubt about it. Humans are diurnal creatures. Humans are omnivores. All these are reasonably uncontroversial biological claims about humans. But can we say with the same kind of certainty that humans are polygamous? I think that’s pretty close to saying that humans are Mozart fans by nature or that humans like hamburgers by nature. Beyond the basics, it’s actually very hard to disentangle nature and culture.

Humans choose, and that means we’re responsible. Very few wives would accept “My genes made me do it” as an excuse when they catch their husbands cheating. And the research I mentioned suggests that most women actually choose to get impregnated by their steady partners, no matter how friendly the mailman is. It strikes me as an odd interpretation to suggest that the reason that most babies are sired by their mom’s steady partner is that culture conditions women (against their nature) to turn down the friendly mailman. I’d like to suggest another interpretation: humans have free will, and some screw around a lot, some very rarely, and some not at all beyond the officially sanctioned serial monogamy that most cultures cultivate.

I’m a happily married man myself — second marriage. I still look fondly at women in the street, but given all the grief and hassle an EPC would cause, I limit myself in practice to frequent and enthusiastic IPC. Does this mean that I am a polygynous ape acting against my nature? I’d say it means I’m a human who’s pretty happy with the social mores favoured by his culture. But culture isn’t forcing me to be monogamous, and my genes couldn’t force me to be polygamous. I choose. And if you saw my wife, you’d realise that my choice is a pretty easy one.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    May 18, 2007

    Second marriage? You are serially monogamous, which is a type of polygamy usually ascribed to the human species. The claim of human polygyny is actually quite non-controversial in behavioral biology and, of course, as in many other traits, we can choose to organize societies differently than what our biological impulses may be.

  2. #2 Martin R
    May 18, 2007

    I’m afraid you’re missing my point. Human polygamy is, as you say, a fairly common empirical observation. And we may generalise from this to say that humans are, on some general level and to some extent, polygamous. But is this a statement about human nature or culture? Impossible to tell. It’s impossible to isolate either factor when observing human behaviour.

  3. #3 Jameson
    May 18, 2007

    I’m not sure how impossible it will be in some future time to disambiguate the source of our polygamy. Sure there’s a gap in our understanding now, but when you start in on the “always” and “never” statements, it’s just not a very scientific way to approach the problem.
    This isn’t my specialization, but might twin studies come in hand here?

  4. #4 Chris Hallquist
    May 18, 2007

    Perhaps we need to talk in more relative terms?

    It seems obvious that there are advantages and disadvantages, from an evolutionary point of view, to both promiscuity and monagamy. The potential for women to benifit from promiscuity is less, but my understanding is that there is some evidence that the females of at least some species do benifit from it. Men have a lot more to gain, and this almost certainly has resulted in stronger genetic programming for promiscuity than what’s found in women.

    With that ground work, we can ask whether humans have a greater tendency to use promiscuous strategies than other animals, without making over-simplifications about how inherently polygamous we are.

    One other point, what do they mean by, “genetic evidence of having been sired by someone else than their officially alleged progenitor”? 95% certainty they were? 50% certainty they were?

  5. #5 Martin R
    May 18, 2007

    What I’m trying to stress here is that at least for the past 2.5 million years, since Homo habilis people started making tools, humans have not been purely natural beings. Nothing that has happened to us since, including the speciation events of H. erectus and H. sapiens, can be seen purely in the light of evolutionary fitness. Nor, should I hasten to say, can anything we do be seen purely in the light of cultural conditioning.

    So saying that sea elephants are polygamous and that humans are, respectively, are two very different claims truthwise.

  6. #6 windy
    May 18, 2007

    Humans are air-breathers, no doubt about it. Humans are diurnal creatures. Humans are omnivores. All these are reasonably uncontroversial biological claims about humans. But can we say with the same kind of certainty that humans are polygamous?

    Perhaps not, but what about the claim that humans are predisposed to pair-bonding? That would seem less controversial. But then we can ask, what is the nature of this pair bond? It does seem to differ from what swans have, for example (although latest results suggest they get around a bit, too)

    Humans choose, and that means we’re responsible. Very few wives would accept “My genes made me do it” as an excuse when they catch their husbands cheating.

    I think this is a false dichotomy. Humans have a biological preference for sweet foods, but this doesn’t mean that I am powerless to choose what I eat.

    Chris:

    One other point, what do they mean by, “genetic evidence of having been sired by someone else than their officially alleged progenitor”? 95% certainty they were? 50% certainty they were?

    Modern paternity testing can do considerably better than 95% (at least in humans and in other species where a lot of markers are available), but if they were talking about the percentage of offspring deriving from “EPC”, extrapolating from the sample to the general population has its own uncertainty.

  7. #7 windy
    May 18, 2007

    What I’m trying to stress here is that at least for the past 2.5 million years, since Homo habilis people started making tools, humans have not been purely natural beings.

    In that case, chimps aren’t either, but we have no problems making pronouncements about a biological basis to their behaviour. Or rather, importance of learning should be considered a scale

    sea elephants — chimps — humans,

    not a fence with “animals” on the other side and “cultural beings” on the other. (but one might make a case for making the gaps wider, especially if other than reproductive behaviour is concerned)

  8. #8 Kapitano
    May 18, 2007

    This is one debate that tends to be unhelpfully polarised. One one side there’s the claim that “All humans are naturally serial monogamists, and the series tends to be small, even one”, and on the other “People are as capable of as many simultainious sexual/romantic relationships as they are capable of any other kind.”

    (I don’t think anyone except the completely ignorant and slightly loopy makes the claims that “Humans are designed for lifelong monogamy” or “All committment is a repressive illusion”.)

    However, there’s two ways out of the dichotomy between “Humans are naturally paired” and “Humans are natually sluts”. The first way out it to say the truth lies at some point on the continuum between the two, and furthermore the range of where any individual fits on the continuum is very broad.

    The other way out is (IMO) to ask whether the question is even meaningful. Humans aren’t preprogrammed to have particular taste in food, or to be serially monogamous to the breakfasts of cornflakes, poached eggs and grapefruits in series, or develop a mid-life crisis where they eat lots of curry, or settle down till death with their one-true-beverage. So why should they be preprogrammed to have the same patterns as regards sexuality?

    Some will say that other primates, like gibbons, are monogamous, therefore so fundamentally are humans. Other will say bonobos are highly polygamous, and closer to humans than gibbons, therefore humans are like bonobos.

    But are bonobos actually polygamous, or in truth outside the categories of monogamous and polygamous? They have sex more or less when they feel like it, but they don’t feel like it all the time, because each one is different. Sometimes they form partnerships, sometimes menage a trois, sometimes without a main partner but with lots of minor ones, and some are just loners.

    I suspect the reason humans are so variable in their sexuality is not that they somehow resist their true natures, but rather they don’t have much of a nature to begin with.

  9. #9 Bryan
    May 18, 2007

    So, are you arguing that humans are NOT polygynous or polygamous? Your own experience of serial monogamy, as pointed out above, clearly shows that you are not a truly monogamous organism. I understand that your argument revolves primarily around the “choice” that we have, that we can give in to our urges to have sex outside of our relationships, but isn’t the fact that we have those urges in the first place rather suggestive? And of course you’re right, it is extremely difficult to disentangle culture from nature, but when you look across a wide variety of cultures, you still see cheating (by both males and females). Again, I see this as being indicative of our polygamy. Which isn’t to say that we can’t get along in a monogamous society: you’re absolutely right in saying that we can choose to not have the mailman (or mailwoman) over for a clandestine encounter, but the simple fact that we would want to tells me that there is a deeper need to engage in this sort of thing.

    Having said that, I know so many men and women that are much MUCH happier when they have partnered with someone. A good, caring relationship can be an immensely satisfying, healthy thing. But again, even within that, some men (and women) will still enjoy the occasional EPC. It’s a tough question, and i’m not typically a fan of Ev. Psyc. (too many of those people in my school), but we are organisms, we are very closely related to many others that are polygamous or polygynous, and I think it would be rather odd to see one species evolve that suddenly is not subject to the same biological drives…

  10. #10 Martin R
    May 18, 2007

    Windy used a pretty good expression: “biological preference”. It seems that humans have such preferences both for pairing and screwing around. To complicate things, many cultures also offer templates both for pairing and screwing around. So I agree with Kapitano’s suggestion: the question isn’t really meaningful. We’re too complicated and flexible to classify like finches or stoats.

    Bryan, I thank you for your flattering suggestion that my own behaviour and experiences might be generalised to classify all of humanity. (-;

    But I’m not saying that we’re not at all subject to biological drives (mono or poly ones). I’m saying that humans never exclusively act on the spur of such drives.

  11. #11 windy
    May 18, 2007

    So I agree with Kapitano’s suggestion: the question isn’t really meaningful. We’re too complicated and flexible to classify like finches or stoats.

    Nooo! Finches and stoats are really complicated too! :)

    And I’m not sure about finches, but many birds like flycatchers also seem to have strong templates for both pairing and screwing around. Plus a high component of learning in behaviour, if male songs are any clue. So a capability for many types of behaviour does not clearly separate humans from animals, either.

    We might have to agree to disagree on this, but I would recommend Frans de Waal’s The Ape and the Sushi Master for some interesting views on animal culture. He had some nice examples of how behavioural differences between related monkey species that *seemed* biologically set in stone were actually highly “cultural”. I could try to find it if anyone’s interested.

  12. #12 Martin R
    May 18, 2007

    I’m no biologist, although unusually open to partly biological explanations of human behaviour for someone out of the arts wing. But I do feel that it would be too radical to stop ascribing natural behaviour to animals, including “higher” ones. Animals learn, sure, but it would be no problem to re-establish a blackbird population from eggs out of an incubator. The birds have culture, but they aren’t dependent on any of it.

  13. #13 jeffk
    May 18, 2007

    Whatever the outcome of this nature vs. nuture debate, I claim that our society is needlessly archaic and inflexible, and does not allow us to deal with our various (biological or not) preferences in mature and honest ways.

  14. #14 Kimmitt
    May 18, 2007

    I think you’re proving others’ point — that, whether or not people choose monogamy, our drives are at least somewhat toward multiple partners. One would have to expect that some of us would have stronger multiple-partner drives, and/or weaker single-partner convictions (based on culture). But the very existence of a desire to do something which you know would cause grief and suffering, a desire which remains for years, however easily swatted down, implies the existence of a basic drive.

  15. #15 Tor
    May 18, 2007

    Are current human promiscuity patterns to some degree causally reflective of the extent to which, in recent eons, a modicum of fooling around proved conducive to the production of viable offspring? Presumably.

    So does this mean we’re “polygamous by nature”? In one perfectly reasonable sense of that phrase, sure.

    So does that mean you can cheat on your wife? Of course not. Normal people are perfectly capable of resisting natural inclinations if they put their mind to it — if not in the case of air-breathing, certainly when it comes to things like omnivory and promiscuity. And if you’ve made a promise to someone, and it’s in your power do what you promised, then that’s your duty. Called morals.

    (By the way, I’d be curious to know how your wife takes to the fact that, by your own account, your fidelity comes from an aversion to distasteful consequences in the event of your getting caught, as opposed to a sense of personal obligation.)

  16. #16 Martin R
    May 18, 2007

    Jeff K, if you are referring to society’s monogamous ideals, I think the main problem isn’t on the societal level but on the individual one. A lot of people want to screw around, but few of them would be happy to let their spouses do so. I believe that jealousy is an adaptive trait.

    Kimmitt, that drive may simply be formulated “if it moves and you haven’t bonked recently, then bonk it”. If so, then an active marital sex life would be all you needed to feed the monkey. As many paired people seem to find.

    Tor, you son of an astrologer and a psycho, when I said “grief and hassle” I wasn’t just referring to my own emotions and convenience!

  17. #17 jeffk
    May 18, 2007

    Ah, I think it is societal. Think back 50 years, (or sadly even now), when we had mysogynistic laws on the books that very explicitly made women the property of their husbands. It’s that mindset that creates the jealously we have, I think – and when things between the sexes began to equalize more recently, rather than do away with the whole “this person’s body is my property” thing, it was just adopted in kind by women. So now it’s equal, at least very roughly speaking, but in the wrong way.

  18. #18 windy
    May 18, 2007

    But I do feel that it would be too radical to stop ascribing natural behaviour to animals, including “higher” ones.

    Nobody wants to do that! I think you are still thinking in the terms of a nature-nurture dichotomy. It’s a scale of different amounts of learning and offspring care required, with humans way on top.

    Animals learn, sure, but it would be no problem to re-establish a blackbird population from eggs out of an incubator. The birds have culture, but they aren’t dependent on any of it.

    “No problem”? Konrad Lorenz had no trivial task in playing goose mother! :) If you hand-feed the birds until they fly (which is already cheating slightly) and then kick them out, enough would probably survive but the resultant blackbird “culture” would be substantially impoverished at first, as offspring care, song, migration etc. have learned components.

    Now if you would instead want to establish chimp, elephant or killer whale populations from scratch, with individuals raised without contact with older members of the species, I would predict enormous difficulties. (The experiment would have to be done without teaching them anything about what kind of food to gather, how to interact with others, and so on)

  19. #19 bryan
    May 19, 2007

    This whole nature-culture thing is rather interesting: it seems to me a reformulation of the nature-nurture debate, really. The fact is that humans have thrived due to our ability to manipulate our environments, and in so doing, we have created cultural norms, mores, etc. However, many of these are, ostensibly, predicated somewhat on behavioural patterns, which are determined by that wonderful interaction between biology & environment. Culture, I would argue, has evolved as a way of dealing with human behaviours, and as such, is based on both nature & nurture.
    Suggestions have been made recently about the amount of “culture” exhibited by other primate species. I would think that this also argues for it being rather biologically informed.
    But, to get back to the original intent here, I think that our culture’s sanction of partnering is an attempt at some measure of reproductive equality, in a weird way. And as such, it (originally) recognized the prediliction that many humans have to sow wild oats and whatnot. And yes, as Tor suggested, and was discussed in the original post by Martin, choice comes into it, so morally (or ethically, pick your poison), if you choose one partner, you suffer the consequences should you decide to live out those (potentially biological) urges to dine out from time to time. And whatever Martin’s reasons for staying home at nights, the consequences alone are certainly reason enough! (taken, of course, from observations, as opposed to personal experience. I Swear!)

  20. #20 JG
    May 19, 2007

    I do agree that nature-culture things often can arise much interest and curiosity. Humans seem to like and/or dislike many things and when it is connected to sex most of us seem to be interested. As a result the human population of our dear globe is now so large that the atmosphere cannot stand that we all use the nowadays normal everyday technology of the developed countries.

    Therefore I think that it is often nice to study old human low technological habits, some of which are surprisingly well spread to most continents. Whether we all are more or less interested in promiscuity can be a matter for discussion. But it seems obvious that all mankind is interested in pictures and graphical representations. I think that http://www.flavinscorner.com/reviews.htm illustrates this fact in an interesting way. – Does any reader of this text know if there are any sexy messages known, which were written in ogham?

  21. #21 Christopher Ryan
    May 19, 2007

    There is another way of looking at this, rather than just going around in circles with the nature/nurture (biology/culture) debate. We can look at the human body and see what it tells us. It turns out that the testicular/body mass ratio is a nearly perfect predictor of female promiscuity in mammals. We can also look at a range of cultures and see how they handle these questions. I’ve done this in a book currently in press (What Darwin Didn’t Know About Sex: The Orgiastic Origins of Human Sexuality). I guess the title tells you where I come down on the question.

    My position is that human beings are clearly promiscuous by nature (careful with the terminology: not polygymous or polygynous. I’m arguing that both men and women evolved to enjoy sexual relations with many lovers).

  22. #22 Martin R
    May 19, 2007

    My position is that humans are air-breathers by nature, but very little else. Finding a correlation with animals in e.g. testicular/body mass ratio would be a clincher if we were as smart as cats and dogs. We are far smarter and so cannot be classified in that manner.

  23. #23 Tor
    May 20, 2007

    My apologies, Martin, that was unfair of me. I tend to find purely consequence-oriented ethics repugnant even when other people’s feelings are taken into account, but it’s certainly better than the sort of calculating egoism my wording suggested. My bad.

  24. #24 eleanora
    May 20, 2007

    Humans are certainly not polygynous. There are roughly the same number of males as females, so for every male that’s out sampling potential mates or having an affair, there is a female doing the same thing. Certainly the balance has not hisorically been even as “decent” women didn’t do that and men were limited to lower class women.

    Monogamy appears to be very much a cultural thing, with the males wanting to ensure patrilinearity, and hence controlling their women’s choices. (It would be interesting to compare the attitudes of patrilinear societies with matrilinear ones.) It was very much a control over women and not over society as men were still considered free to go chasing whatever they could get and it has only been in the last few generations that the term “adulterer” has been applied to men. From memory, as recently as Victorian times an Englishman could divorce his wife for adultery, but not the other way around. Female monogamy is still enforced in many parts of the world, often violently, by prevention (mutilation) or retribution (death penalties).

    In Western Christian culture it is controlled more by brainwashing and fear. I was raised in a family where my mother truly believes that women cannot enjoy sex, or only women of a certain (unspeakable) class can, that sex is terrible and something that must be endured for the safety and security of marriage. As an adult I look at that logic and have to ask ‘who is the prostitue here?’ Eventually nature took over and I discovered that sex is a good thing (as have both my siblings, and my mother is still asking what she did wrong for us to have turned out so badly). I had quite a number of partners over about five years, mostly serially, some relationships were expected to be monogomous, others were not.

    I think we have the need for both promiscuity and exploration, and for the love and commitment of a long term relationship. Most people alternate between the two while others want both at once.

  25. #25 funman
    May 20, 2007

    “And if you _saw_ my wife, you’d realize that my choice is a pretty easy one.”

    Hey, I’m much smarter than a cat or dog, alas I don’t judge “beauty”(=sexual attractiveness) based on the looks of a female. By flipping the small switch behind my left ear I just shut down the algorithms in my brain that were selected for by natural/sexual selection in the course of tens of thousands of years and wooaah, I suddenly prefer a woman with a high waist-to-hip ratio and asymmetrical facial features!

    Seriously, you need to do some reading :) A great book on the subject at hand is Matt Ridley’s Red Queen.

  26. #26 Martin R
    May 20, 2007

    Eleanora, sad and scary stuff about your mom!

    Funman, I don’t deny that my critera for selecting a mate are most likely biologically determined to a great extent. But I do believe that my decisions regarding how many of these attractive individuals I try to nail is to a large but indeterminable extent culturally grounded, and that in the end I’m personally responsible for them.

  27. #27 eleanora
    May 21, 2007

    My point about Mama is that she is entirely a product of culture, and so just as rare and freaky as the cave man who just follows instinct and rapes every woman he finds attractive. Most of us are a mix of nature and culture, can you imagine what society would be like if we were all one extreme or the other?

    A while back a friend was talking about a thing he had seen in a second-hand/ antique shop. It was a pedal powered vibrator, not for home use, it had come from a doctor’s surgery. My Mum’s attitude was fairly common in Victorian times, and often resulted in diagnoses of hysteria (lets face it sex is great for relaxing and stress relief, if you don’t believe you are allowed to enjoy it, you’re bound to get pretty uptight). As Simon put it, all these Victorian men were PAYING a doctor to get their wives off! English/ Australian society had become so “cultured” that married women were literally becoming hysterical and short tempered from sexual repression. Everyone lost – except the doctors and the hookers.

  28. #28 John Saxon
    May 21, 2007

    “Very few wives would accept “My genes made me do it” as an excuse when they catch their husbands cheating.”

    It seems to me that most men (and women?) won’t risk an EPC probably because they are afraid of being caught and that would ruin their steady relationship which is more of a priority. That risk is too great.

    Obviously, it suits the females interests to have the male giving most of his energy and resources to her and their potential offspring, so laying him on a guilt trip for eyeing out other women and checking up on him is a strategy.

    However, what if you knew for a fact you couldnt get caught? Then what would your “choice” be? Basically, I’m trying to get at what this “choice” is motivated by and if its really something so enlightened and moral or just a simple matter of weighing up of risk/reward.

    This is quite a difficult question to answer honestly I think, especially if your wives or girlfriends might happen upon your online posting! Post anonymously!

    There is also a matter of *opportunity*. How easily do you attract women? If you are unpopular or unnattractive it would make sense to stay more monogamous (especially if you got lucky with a halfway decent girl) because generally you would find attracting a variety of good women very difficult, so you’d tend to cling to what you got. Qualifier: My speculation.

    If you analyze it further, it’s less a matter of exquisite morality and choice and more a matter of risk management. IMHO. Just a thought.

  29. #29 Martin R
    May 21, 2007

    Eleanora, yeah, I wouldn’t have wanted to live in Victorian England. Somebody once wrote that the reason that women are so often portrayed as childish and immature in Victorian literature (and political discourse!) was that bourgeouis marriages regularly entailed an age difference of many decades. The 50-year-old men writing and talking about women were married to teenagers.

  30. #30 Martin R
    May 21, 2007

    John, I follow your reasoning, but what in your opinion makes people value their steady relationships enough to not want to risk bonking around? Nature or nurture or both? You can’t get around that conundrum.

    As for “who would be monogamous if there were no downsides to promiscuity”, it’s hard to gather good data. Anecdotally, let’s look at the Rolling Stones, who have had unusually good opportunities to bonk around.

    The bass player and the original rhythm guitarist were hugely promiscuous. The drummer was monogamous. The remaining three members were somewhat promiscuous. Who was following his nature?

    Or look at 1970s gay men. In certain subcultures and certain cities, they were ridiculously promiscuous, industrial scale, inadvertently giving HIV a vector. But most gay men at the time did not gravitate to that subculture. Who was following his nature?

  31. #31 John Saxon
    May 21, 2007

    Martin,

    There is no doubt that more secure relationships are something that is hugely beneficial and something you would want to keep. It’s not something I’d want to lose.

    The question for me is really what is motivating that “choice”. Is it a natural orientation and desire towards monogamy or is it actually more a type of risk management and opportunity, generally speaking.

    In my perfect paradise I’d have one steady girl and multiple sexual partners on the side. Of course, the steady girl doesnt quite like that idea as much as I do, so I don’t engage in that, but only for that reason, not because I’m oriented towards monogamy, nor do I find it ideal. Speaking for myself, of course.

  32. #32 Knute
    May 25, 2007

    Monogamy/polygamy may be genetically determined by differences in the vasopressin receptors males have in their forebrains. The great world religions show similiar different affiliative and caregiving patterns. But of course there is no evidence of any connection with the ideological support for monogamy/polygamy from Christianity/Islam.

  33. #33 Jonathan Jarrett
    July 26, 2007

    I agree with some of what many people have said, and don’t think it’s really something we can solve by generalisations. Modern Western sexual ethics are in flux, as society ping-pongs from Victorian repression through the free love period, to what we have now where sex sells merchandise but can kill you thanks to AIDS. So I don’t think anyone is operating without a fairly heavy cultural influence, and that is very hard to experiment through. (However you want to take that…)

    Secondly, there are methodological problems with any observations one might make. As sexual practice is clearly down to personal choice in some cases, and what one would want to know is how many people in a population are making certain kinds of choices, you first have to decide what’s to odd to include as a useful result :-) Then the question is have you got a norm, and deviancies? Or have you got multiple norms, more and less popular? And if so, have you still got conceptual room for the abnormal? And then of course you have to interpret your data, and there can be few fields where one’s own experience can influence one’s perception so much. Look at Freud’s famous deathbed statement that the one thing he hadn’t figured out was what women wanted, after spending his life interviewing well-to-do women with problems!

    Lastly, Eleanora says as an aside:

    It would be interesting to compare the attitudes of patrilinear societies with matrilinear ones.

    I actually did a bit of reading round matriliny while working on the Picts, who are sometimes supposed to have had matrilineal succession to the kingship, and discovered work by Evans-Pritchard that observes, among other things, that `patrilineal’ and `matrilineal’ societies have hardly ever existed. Societies are patrilineal and matrilineal about different things. Some societies inherit land down the male line and household goods down the female line (I bet most of us can think of families that have done this). In some societies women are matriarchs but property is still transmitted down the male line; in others vice versa. If the Picts did have a matrilineal kingship, that doesn’t make any other aspect of their society necessarily matrilineal (though a certain sort of feminist scholar of the Picts would love it to be so). So I’m afraid even the sort of comparison Eleanor is envisaging would have the methodological complexities outlined above…

  34. #34 Martin R
    July 26, 2007

    Ah, the Picts, dodgy proto-historical muthas. Much like the entirety of 1st Millennium Swedish archaeology, where the lure of Tacitus, Jordanes and the Icelanders has led so many astray.

  35. #35 Jim Thomerson
    October 1, 2007

    I vaguely recall reading a Steven J. Gould column about a study of breeding structure as related to male/female body mass ratio in animals. Basically large female/small male means promiscous females. Large male/small female means promiscous males. If I remember correctly, the human male/female body mass ratio predicts that human males, on average, should breed with 1.28 females.

  36. #36 Martin R
    October 2, 2007

    I believe such predictions break down when you move from chimps to humans. We can’t blame our biology for the details of our behaviour.

  37. #37 Savon
    October 2, 2007

    I didnt see this before, and then I read another one about how to share money in a marriage…

    OK! If you have a woman(man) that independent with money and she(he) puts it in on her(his) surface, then it could be interesting to meet another woman(man) who puts her(his) money on something else?

  38. #38 Martin R
    October 2, 2007

    Whuh? Say again?

  39. #39 Martin R
    March 11, 2008

    I am testing some new configs for the character set. Hopefully this will allow commenters to use Swedish characters seamlessly.

    Båg bäg bög BÅG BÄG BÖG BÉG bég “beg” ‘beg’ uñefär

  40. #40 Shawn
    November 11, 2009

    You said in your post that you are on your second marriage. Well then my friend you are at least polygynous. Because you have mated with at least two females. That you chose to mate with multiple femeales one at a time is a matter of preference. If a man marries one woman produces a child, then marries another and produces a child and so on, you are having a divergetn effect on the gene pool.

  41. #41 Matthew
    February 19, 2010

    WOW! I love this forum… there is no bashing and everyone seems to be open to listen to what others have to say – congratz scienceblogs.com !

    Human’s have been designed with will power and I assume this is something that very few, if any, other creatures posses. Nurture/culture dictates the appropriate uses of this attribute and if we live in a place where monogamy is expected, than that is what we will offer, denying our weaker “animal brain”.

    Humans are designed for multiple partners, evidenced by a male’s sperm being mainly “attack” sperm with a small percentage being “fertility” sperm. This speaks to both genders 1. males will attempt to fertilize as many women to increase their odds against other sperm 2. women will be fertilized by the man with the strongest sperm (assuming more than one sperm competing for the prize).

    As both genders are capable of being polygamous, this in itself offers slight strength to the argument: “I” wouldn’t find other women appropriate “vessels” to carry my child if I wasn’t programmed to impregnate more than one woman. Nature is brilliant and it doesn’t allow loopholes; we were not intended to be a monogamous species if we have polygamous urges… now here is the catch: a man’s “plumage” is of a complicated nature. He must demonstrate to a woman that he is worthy of her 9 month sacrifice (and then another 18 years) not through dance or song but through the proper execution of social norms. A poor man in an affluent society will have a more difficult time impregnating a woman than in a poorer culture. These women (rightly so) expect nothing but the best for their child and in their experience, the best is a man with a job, car, etc. Again, add a little complication and realize that job and car are synonymous with anything of value in said society, and can be replaced with intangibles such as a great personality, humour, passion, etc. The less a man can offer a woman, the less likely he is to impregnate and therefore, the more likely he is to be monogamous (eye on the prize): it is my belief that women find this character trait valuable because it shows commitment and sacrifice (among others) and is a “lesser man’s” leg into the world of “viable” men.

    And lastly, the bond between a mother and child is not one that needs constant work to maintain, it is there no matter what; the bond between siblings is the same. I put forth that the bond between a male and female (couple) in a monogamous species is the same as a mother child bond in humans – they are completely blind to alternatives. No mother says “I wish that other child was mine but unfortunately I’m stuck with this one”. That bond is obviously not the case in human male and female pairing. Humans need to work at maintaining this bond; we are given the tools to work on this bond, and that is in fact what makes a human bond more beautiful than any other – we chose to bond rather than submit to nature.

    Being polygamous and choosing to be monogamous is one of the unique, beautiful gifts that humans have been given.

  42. #42 RRR
    February 8, 2011

    And if you saw my wife, you’d realise that my choice is a pretty easy one.

    Awww how sweet :)

  43. #43 Roobi
    March 1, 2012

    Great post Matthew.

    Very interesting discussion.
    I find it interesting that not much has been mentioned about the widely acknowledged benefits of a stable partnership on developing children. This surely is a factor in human pairing. It is in the interest of the species for men and women to stay together (when they have a child) until the child is able to self-sufficiently support themselves. This relationship will also form the template for the relationships the child will be likely to develop.

    I think promiscuity and infidelity should be clarified. I would self-identify as promiscuous, but faithful in relationships. I see no harm in having multiple sexual partners, or indeed in polygamy (although it’s not my cup of tea), as long as either partner is fully aware of the situation.

    The only problem I can see with an extended mutually polygamous relationship is that certain rules would need to be agreed…and inevitably those rules would be bent and eventually broken, I believe, since there are no stable social templates enforcing such behaviour. And it’s difficult for many, including myself, not to feel jealousy, or the sense that we are being taken advantage of.

    It’s a complicated issue, but the solution would seem to be, screw around while you’re young, if you want kids, find a long-term partner and be faithful. Once the kid can support themselves, it’s your choice. But it has also been proven that older people (especially men) experience increased stress, heart attacks and resultantly shorter life spans when they are single. Monogamy and long term bonding actually promotes health.

  44. #46 Fuckalot
    Universe
    October 20, 2012

    According to the author, since his wife is such a prize then the ugly ones have to settle for polygamous partners forever!

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