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March 05, 2004


Steve has been talking talking about polygamy recently. A few quick notes:

1) I titled this entry "polygyny," because Steve means men with multiple wives, not women with multiple husbands (polyandry). The latter practice is very rare, and tends to occur in resource deficient circumstances (eg; Tibet).

2) In the United States, polygamy would really mean polygyny. This is an issue that would probably ally feminists with cultural conservatives, because a cursory study of openly polygamous cultures (today, that basically means very isolated tribal peoples, some African groups and Muslims) would show that they aren't paragons of gender equity.

3) Monogamy has costs as well. In monogamous societies high status men are precious because the chance to "hook up" with them is limited to very few women, though it is usually more than one because of adultery and serial monogamy. In any case, the high caste Hindu practice of dowry is the result of enforced monogamy of desirable males. Where men of high status can have multiple wives, bride-price is more common, women are a more precious resource in this case. Excess males are obviously discardable.

4) To Steve's point about the battle-readiness of monogamous vs. polygamous societies, I think the my posts about "conscripts vs. professionals" (see here and here) might be relevant.

It is true that polygamy has been common in many ancient societies, but the Classical Greeks and Republican Romans were traditionally both monogamous. Historians like Victor Davis Hanson would argue that these citizen soldiers, many married stake-holders, were better fighters than the mercenaries of the Orient (of course, the later Roman army became professionalized) [1]. So if you want citizen soldiers, stake-holders, I think a monogamous society is what one should aim for. If you want a professional caste, I think polygamy would do OK, since many of the professionals might kill themselves off before the time they retired and settled. Note that during the High Pagan Empire, Roman rankers could not marry until retirement, so they formed quasi-official bonds that they solemnized after discharge. But, because so many died before their tour was complete, their possessions reverted back to the state (the army).

The current United States military is professional, but family life is preserved. Of course, one wonders at the stability of military families during the long term overseas deployments of large numbers of males in a society where legal & social constraints on adultery are relaxed....

I know one thing, if a bunch of rich fuckers monopolized all the play, I'd want to kill them-or at least kill someone! As for Steve's contention that men are hard-wired to think we'll be at the top of the pack, well, we are the sons of history's genetic winners, by definition (or as a friend in 8th grade would always say, "I'm super-sperm! One in a billion!").

1. My more nerdy readers might recall though that Lord Frey "could field an army out of his breeches".

Posted by razib at 12:55 AM