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What about polygamy?

In today’s world where the majority of developed countries tend to favor monogamous relationships, what should we think about polygamy? David P. Barash, author of Out of Eden: The Surprising Consequences of Polygamy, reveals a few facts about polygamy that’ll give you some food for thought.

Polygamy comes in two forms: polygyny and polyandry.

Polygyny is when a male maintains a “harem” of wives with whom he mates and typically produces children. Polyandry, on the other hand, is the mirror image of polygyny but with a woman maintaining a harem of males. Most people tend to associate the terms polygyny and polygamy as one in the same, mainly because of its overt occurrence in most social traditions. Polygyny is the more obvious and well-known phenomenon, but the evidence is quite clear that people practice polyandry, too; it’s just that women are more subtle about it!

In polygynous species, males are typically larger than females.

Depending on the degree to which a species is polygynous, male-to-male competition can be fierce, with physical altercations usually determining the dominant male and, thus, the size of his harem. Females, on the other hand, are able to achieve reproductive success without being as overtly competitive as men; they do not need to fight other females in the same way that males do. When considering monogamous species, males and females are pretty much physically matched. (Which provides yet more evidence that people are not “naturally” monogamous.)

Infanticide happens in some polygynous species.

Like with the Indian langur monkey (a polygynous species), when a male is overthrown as the dominant harem master, the newly ascended male will proceed to kill the still-nursing infants. Afterwards, the male mates with the bereaved mothers, which overall increases his own reproductive output while decreasing his predecessor’s. Sadly, there appears to be a parallel in our own species, since nonbiological parents (especially men) constitute a genuine risk factor for at least some step-children.

The Coolidge effect states that males ejaculate more sperm when with a new partner.

It seems that President and Mrs. Coolidge were on separate tours of a model farm when Mrs. Coolidge noticed that the one rooster was mating quite frequently. She asked if this happened often and was told “many times, every day,” whereupon she asked that the president be told this when he came by. Duly informed, President Coolidge asked, “Same hen every time?” The reply was, “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” The president answered: “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

Turns out, roosters do in fact ejaculate greater quantities of sperm when paired with a new hen rather than a familiar one, the findings of which were compiled into a report titled “Sophisticated Sperm Allocation in Male Fowl.” However, the effect can also be applied to a large number of birds and mammals, including human males.

The polygyny threshold model explains why females would actively choose a polygynous mate.

The polygyny threshold is the difference in resources between two competing males—one a bachelor and the other already mated— to make it worthwhile for a female to choose the latter. The underlying assumption is that from the female’s viewpoint, despite getting the divided attention of the already-mated male, it may still be more advantageous to mate with the one that is “wealthier”. On the other hand, evidence from anthropology shows that in most cases, women who are part of a harem are somewhat less successful, reproductively, than those who are monogamously mated.

Monogamy is actually more helpful to men than to women.

In a polygynous society, a relatively small number of men get to marry and produce offspring; most are left out, ending up non-reproductive bachelors. Monogamy is thus a democratizing institution, giving men who likely would be excluded the opportunity to marry.

Monogamy isn’t necessarily “natural” for humans.

The difference in sizes between genders is indicative of polygamous tendencies; men are generally 20% larger than women, which is within the range of other, moderately polygynous species. However, that isn’t to say humans aren’t meant to be monogamous either; in fact, we’re predisposed to pair-bonding. What’s most notable about humans is that we possess the unique ability to define ourselves by how we choose to live, and that despite our predispositions we can choose to enable or suppress them.

It’s important for people to understand the “natural” tendency to be interested in having multiple sexual partners.

Whether or not one chooses to indulge this tendency, it’s important to know that it exists. This protects people from being blind-sided by their own biology, or from misinterpreting the inclinations of one’s partner. Thus, its healthy and normal to be sexually tempted, and doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t love your partner, or that your partner doesn’t love you, or that either of you is an evil sinner, or that either of you “just isn’t cut out for monogamy.” No one is “cut out for monogamy.” But everyone is free to decide how to live his or her life … and we are all the more free when we understand our biology.

Human polygamy has a number of surprising results.

For example, it makes men much more violent than women, women more parentally inclined than men, and it may even have consequences for male-female differences in “genius,” as well as helping explain the adaptive value of homosexuality. It could even predispose human beings to monotheism.

Headline Image: Image by Keoni Cabral. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Anonymous


    I live in a strictly monogamous relationship mainly guided by religious values. However, the concept of polygamy seems to make more sense as time goes on to me for several reasons. I have not studied the topic, but the follow come to mind.

    My observation is that women are more social creatures by nature, than men. I believe a woman would feel more supported if there was another woman in the home. I could see an ideal polygamous relationship to be two or three women. I have heard that a good polygamous situation creates a type of sisterhood in the home. A woman would have someone in the home that truly relates to her, inclined to assist in her tasks, someone to talk to that relates, some interested more in her hobbies and interests, etc. This woman to woman social companionship seems natural and beneficial.

    My four children are now out of the home or essentially busy and out of the home. Now I see my wife largely alone and yearning for more companionship. More attention than I can provide or inclined to provide as a male that naturally seeks less social interaction. Needed is more constant companionship that satisfies her specific needs. I think this is very sad and I either bring in foster children to draw on her need to care and nurture others, get involved in service, wait for grandchildren to rush through the home from time to time, bring in another woman who would relate and need the same companionship, or something. Probably the best of these situations would be to have another woman in the home to make her life happier from a companionship, friend, and like-minded point of view. This would be important to accomplish, even if it was more of a wife-husband and other woman, sister, or friend renting a room situation with no marriage or sexual association.

    I understand there are probably more single women than men generally. I believe that a woman would rather be in a polygamous relationship than no relationship at all. They would not mind being in a polygamous relationship for the reasons mentioned above, and to simply become part of a unit or family, have the opportunity for children, benefit from temporal sustenance and security, etc. rather than go through life alone. Over the ages, I could see this as a reason for polygamy. As our current society turns back to the need for more individual support due to less government aid, higher costs of living, more complexity, etc. having a family unit like this makes more sense.

    I believe a polygamous relationship would help bring about fulfillment of each woman. One may wish to be more of a homemaker, the other may wish to be more of a professional, etc. One cares for the home, run their errand, and supports the working woman and her children. The working woman supports the homemaker and her children with added income. A third may bring honor to the family by service in the community because she can reach out to others as her time is freed by other women in the family and she is emotionally and temporally secure herself. This could extend to other aspects of life, as well. Of course I am expecting the male to be working as well. We often associated polygamy with families heavily relying on the government, but this need not be the case.

    A last main topic in this discussion is the sexual aspect of polygamy. The summary of the book and by listening to you on the radio, this did not seem to be fully addressed. I believe a male is built for more than one or two sexual interactions a week, not to consider the possible variety sought by male nature. I do not say this from a purely sexual point of view, but to satisfy core male physiological cycles, male emotional connections to sex, how not having sexual encounters affects male demeanor, etc. It is more than we usually ever consider. In contrast, I believe most middle aged females would be fine with no sexual interaction for weeks.

    Ultimately, I do not believe that a woman has much need or desire for a male beyond child bearing interests, being provided for with sustenance and shelter, male strength from time to time, possible occasional handyman aspects, and benefiting from a male’s presence for security and protection. Ultimately, the less a male is around the more peace there is in her life. Being surrounded by more women provides all the benefits listed above and less specific male demand upon her. This would be a quality of life improvement for the woman. She does not want to be without a male, but the less constant demands upon her by male the better.

    These are not scientific statements, but just observations. It goes back to the chicken and rooster example. Roosters are so menacing, that I only raise chickens to give the chickens peace. I believe a woman would feel more respected generally and would have her timing of sexual and physical interaction met more ideally with more limited sexual interaction. The best way for everyone to accomplish this is more women to share the burden of the expectations and nature of the man, while meeting all the needs of the woman for companionship, support, etc. as discussed. Women need physical interaction, but not necessarily sexual interaction. The close companionship, the relatable conversation, a touch on the shoulder or hand, a hug, etc. would go a long way in fulfilling what a woman wants and needs from either a man or a woman. Whether or not the women in a polygamous relationship also have their own sexual or intimate relationship is something that may or may not occur, but even that may be a more relatable experience with or without the male.

    I have not studied the topic, but two main concerns arise about polygamy. One is the proper nature of the male to be kind, aware of the specific needs of the individuality of the woman, be literally or situationally equal, etc. In general, a good polygamous experience would depend upon a properly behaving male. A male that outwardly treats all women equally. This can mean equal attention, equal physical space in a home, equal time alone in non-sexual and sexual scenarios, equal physical proximity (sitting next to you, then you, then you, etc.). The other is the sense of equality among the women or the absence of competition and comparison. This may arise from the women, such as sensing one being more or less physically attractive by their definition, more or less slender or heavy, more or less educated, more or less outgoing, more or less favored by children, more or less socially involved, believing more or less attention from the male, etc. This area of competition among the women would be one of the more challenging aspects of polygamy, and probably the only truly negative consideration. I do not believe that sharing a man sexually would be an issue at all, as this is not one of the primary issues of importance to the woman, except more or less personal attention. Men and women feel that a sexual relationship with another woman or man is a sever breach of fidelity. However, when there is agreement and understanding that sexual relationships will be limited within the polygamous bonds, etc. I do not believe this is an issue or risk to anyone’s emotional or physical health. For the man, polygamy would be sexual beneficial and for the woman it would be neutral or sexually beneficial to have access but with less regular expectation.

    I am replying because I have done some thinking on the topic and David you have presented yourself as informed and even an expert on which to reflect my thoughts. I have not read the book, but the summaries and commentary seem to show the apparent topics of the book to be a typical scientific treatment in today’s scientific culture. That is to get scientific results that support a desired outcome. The book seems to include worthy topics, but not all the relevant topics, and then seems to result in the socially acceptable interpretation, even though the evidence does not really support the conclusion, let alone strength of the conclusion. That is polygamy is not beneficial to society. Actually, I believe polygamy would be hugely beneficial to society in using the family unit to include and care for more members of society that do not have an emotional or temporal net in which to be caught. This will become increasingly important as costs for services rise but incomes stagnate, among other emotional, developmental, lifestyle, etc. reasons.

    Polygamy is often associated with lots of children, very large families, young brides, religious zealotry, etc. Much of this is because polygamy is practices in the shadows and is associated with a religious context. Moving polygamy from the religious realm to the secular and social realm will result in families with appropriately aged men and women. It will result in a woman still having 2.5 children on average, simply making a household of 5 to 7 or 8 children, if that. Really not adding any more to the total population, other than more women will have access to having children. This is not a bad thing as maintaining a replacement birthrate is a serious social issue facing many countries. Many women and men may be satisfied with one or two children per woman, or a woman may not feel a need to have any children due to others in the home and she may not need or want the personal experience. I can see households still of 2, 3, or 4 children with two or three women and a male. Again, the main point here is to move the issue into the secular realm.

    The difficulty with polygamy is simply the stigma placed against it, either by discussion or by laws. When observed objectively it makes all the sense in the world. It really comes down to creating traditional homes that are self-sustaining, hoping for properly behaving males, and concern for competition and comparison among the females. If all agree to work through these simple, but important issues, then polygamy would actually be a benefit to society and fit within all current social norms, even support feminist norms. Laws should support the practice and public policy should recognize the favorable emotional and temporal benefits of polygamy for the individual and for the society.

    This is all just an opinion with a personal preference to practice polygamy for all the reasons stated above, particularly for the social, emotional, and personal fulfillment benefit of my current wife.


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