Sunday, July 17, 2005

The paths of polygyny....   posted by Razib @ 7/17/2005 11:19:00 PM

From page 332 of After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC:

Lloyd Warner argued that warfare and killing within the Murngin was a consequence of their marriage system. This was polygyny, which allowed men to have several wives; most middle-aged Murngin men had at least three. As the number of Murngin men and women were approximately equal, and as women married just before puberty, there were simply too few women for the young men to marry. And so, in Lloyd Warner's words, there was a 'seasonal slaying' of young men who had passed into adolescence.15 This culling of the young and eligible was presumably in the interests of the older members of society who were happy to encourage the younger men to fight.

A week ago I excised the comments of an Islamic scholar who argued that neo-Darwinian gene-centered thinking illustrated why polygyny was a "natural" social arrangement. Not only did he present the ultimate level justification, that successful alleles induce male preference for a great number of sexual partners, he added the proximate realities of male compulsion toward sexual satiation with multiple females. Most proponents of polygyny do not offer the ultimate neo-Darwinian explanation, though generally they present a correct diagnosis of the proximate behavioral biases that males are prone towards. Additionally there is the other justification that polygyny allows all women to enter into marriages, because there is a mysterious excess of females. Truthfully there are cases where this does occur. Mormons explain away Brigham Young's polygynous marriages as good deeds because so many Mormon men were killed during the early years of the community (they have a more difficult time explaining away Joseph Smith's preference for this sort of marriage in utilitarian terms). Muslims have offered similar justifications for Muhammed's many marriages, in addition to the banal one that they were simply a means to an ends of cementing alliances with the various tribes of Arabia. But of course, these are atypical circumstances, so the persistent use of this argument strikes me as rather peculiar.1

But in any case, note that I emphasized that the hypothesis above suggests that warfare is a consequence of the marriage system. Of course, once warfare ensues, an there will be a deficit of older males who are suitable for marriage! So the argument for polygyny as a solution to male shortages is empirically justifiable in the most narrow of readings. That is the problem with many of these sociological models, they need to evaluated over a period of time, and the dynamic interplay of "cause" and "effect" need to be smoked out. One generation of enforced monogamy might leave many females without partners, but the subsequent one will have passed the threshold to a new social equilibrium.

Additionally, as to the ultimate and proximate arguments of the Islamic scholar on the merits of polygyny, I would argue that he is being disingenuous, because I doubt he views neo-Darwinian genic imperatives as the sum of all things. Rather, he sees the edicts of his God as the ultimate Ground of Being. The neo-Darwinian argument is a tool to convince those who do not share his religious convinctions, or believers who doubt the norms of the faith tradition, but it is in the end an secondary consideration, a bullet point rather than a thesis. Similarly, the sexual appetite of males is also not an important consideration, as his religion in other circumstances enjoins a great deal of restraint upon true believers (alcohol, Ramadan, etc.). The circumstances where appetites are restrained or accommodated are based on religious norms, ostensibly derived from God (I have argued many a time that religious norms are socially mediated more than they are transparent inferences from divine edicts, ergo, the modifier). The situations where appetites are constrained or accommodated may shed light on norms, but their constraint or accommodation is contingent upon the axioms of the religion, not on Nature.

Personally, I find ultimate genetic imperatives uncompelling beyond what my intuition suggests (I have had the capacity to produce many copies of my genes which are carried by other bodies for the past 15 years, and yet I have not). As for my proximate biases, they are constrained by my values and long term utilitarian calculations. All sociological models derived from a mix of genetic and environmental parameters will be aproximations, they are rough and ready guides as to the difficulty of a given project (or the possibility of a given project). To illustrate the issues with a more prosaic example, the most efficient (in terms of expenditure of resources) path to build a road between points A and B may take an arc around a mountain, but, because of other constraints one may still have to choose the "suboptimal" route of building a tunnel directly through the barrier. Perhaps the periphery of the mountain is controlled by hostile states. Perhaps the periphery of the mountain is ringed by religiously sacrosanct locations. Or, perhaps the long term savings in fuel by taking the shorter straight line path will recoup the short term costs and dangers of constructing a tunnel (you may object that maintenance will consume the savings!).

All too often people will point to nature and declare, see, it should be as it should be! The Naturalistic Fallacy is one reason that many reasonable people shy away from, in my view, a fuller and richer description of reality. The problem is that people confuse science and engineering. Science refines a model, ideally it is "objective" and individual bias or preference is subtracted from the system. But engineering (social, biological or physical) is contingent upon your specifications and ultimate goals (in the case of social engineering, your values), its methods may derive from science, but its rationale is often2 extra-scientific. Prometheus gave us fire, for good or ill, do with it what you will.

Addendum: Terms like "polygyny" are often an idealized description a far more imprecise reality. For example, the geriatric polygyny practiced by some Aboriginal peoples (the Arunta of Central Australia I believe for example) in practice is characterized by a great deal of toleration for dalliances on the part of the young wives with single young men of the tribe. In a strictly monogamous society, serial monogamy on the part of high status males may result in a shortage of age appropriate mates for young males and older females, in the former case mimicking aspects of polygyny (in most populations there are more males than females born, so until the the late 20s in most modern nations there are more males in any case).

1 - In Why Sex Matters Bobbi S. Low argues that polygyny in regions like Africa is due to high pathogenic load the environment, which puts a premium on genetically "fit" males. Low also uses a populational definition of polygyny, it is defined by a high ratio of male reproductive variance to female reproductive variance (this results in a constant offloading of genetic load).

2 - I say often because the engineering department at NASA is at the service of science. But is it? The reasons given for the manned space program are often scientific, but talk to many scientists and they will assert that it is a waste of money and its actual (as opposed to stated) reason for existence is non-scientific (national pride, emotional considerations and most ironically, jobs for engineers ). Reasons within reasons.