May 29, 2002
9:04 AM   Subscribe

Polygyny vs. polyandry. Are we mildly polygynous? Rebecca considers the evidence. Although some feel polygyny is a divine right, wouldn't polyandry be the solution to overpopulation?
posted by sheauga (35 comments total)

 
Judging by the amount of serial monogamy we see these days, can there be any question?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:55 AM on May 29, 2002


Here's the most interesting part of the whole thing for me: If Barash is correct that the male impulse toward violence is a consequence of our being hardwired for polygyny, how can we use that knowledge to redirect those violent tendencies?

I'm not sure that creating a polygynous society is the answer -- if anything, I would expect that to just make matters worse, creating ever fiercer competition between males for an ever smaller pool of available females until we end up like the elephant seals: winner takes all, and most males remain hyperaggressive bachelors.

Similarly, I think polyandry would also further the escalation of violence, as men driven by polygynous tendencies seek to dominate and defeat the other husbands vying for a wife's attention. Crimes of passion and jealous rage would skyrocket.
posted by jjg at 10:07 AM on May 29, 2002


Next up after this break: Sky blue, pope Catholic, bear using woods for voiding.

Yes, humans are mildly polygynous as a species. Several social mechanisms have developed over time to keep that tendancy at bay, such as the often implicit belief that monogamy is somehow morally more acceptable than other mating arrangements. It's even difficult to discuss a matter such as this without either overwhelmingly emotional arguments or the misplaced detatchment of social science.

For what it's worth, polyandry likely wouldn't work well for me: Above and beyond sexual and emotional issues of territorialism, I simply don't like living around other men on a day-to-day basis.
posted by majick at 10:13 AM on May 29, 2002


The solution to overpopulation is wealth. Rich people don't bother with children for the most part.
posted by revbrian at 10:14 AM on May 29, 2002


an organism capable of polygamy and polyandry is also capable of monogamy. that makes evolutionary sense to me. even if you only need one kidney, you get two just in case. but it seems true to me that of most cultures in the world, the overwhelming majority of relationships are monogamous in intention if not in precise nature.
posted by moz at 10:14 AM on May 29, 2002


Great thread, Sheauga.

While my relationship is almost entirely monogamous (there is a tiny clause in our mutual understanding that allows for a rare exception) I tend to support the idea of polyamorous lifestyles. People are far to complex and varied in the kinds and configurations of relationships they find suitable to declare the human race "polygynous," "monogamous" or anything in particular. The Zell-Ravenhearts are a fascinating example. Sure, they're flaky, but they're never lonely or unfulfilled!
posted by Fenriss at 10:30 AM on May 29, 2002


Rich people don't bother with children for the most part.

The same can be said about true of education, which also has many other tangible societal benefits. At some level though isn't the overpopulation boogeyman a bit of a red herring, where the real issue is distribution of resources and reasonable access to health care and education [there's that word again] so that people can make responsible family choices? I thought Rebecca's essay on this was inspired, thanks for the link.
posted by jessamyn at 10:48 AM on May 29, 2002


Anyone interested in this topic should read Sperm Wars by evolutionary biologist Robin Baker. He suggests that there is a spectrum of male propensity toward monogamy and polygymy, and that any individual male is hard-wired to a spot somewhere on this spectrum. In fact, he says that by observing certain visible physical markers, you can tell whether a man is naturally a one-woman man, or if he is a natural strayer. There is much, much more in this fascinating book, a great deal of which, unfortunately, reads like pornography.
posted by Faze at 10:55 AM on May 29, 2002


Jessamyn: it's the same problem under two faces. Los Angeles does not have enough water/Los Angeles has too many people. The overpopulation idea looks at the planet and says: resources are limited, therefore we need to stop making more people. An opposing approach might focus on improved education and better distribution of wealth, expecting population growth to slow as a natural consequence. But no matter how you look at it, the planet's human population has to stop growing someday.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:02 PM on May 29, 2002


Above and beyond sexual and emotional issues of territorialism, I simply don't like living around other men on a day-to-day basis.

if i had to live with more than one male at a time i'd frigging go crazy... one is way more than enough to stretch my sanity to the limits, and i suspect that puts me with the majority of women. sacrificing the well being of 51% of the planet's people is an absurd solution to overpopulation.
posted by t r a c y at 2:39 PM on May 29, 2002


if i had to live with more than one male at a time i'd frigging go crazy... one is way more than enough to stretch my sanity to the limits, and i suspect that puts me with the majority of women.

why? I don't get this. I mean, if they were cute, and had interesting / cool personalities, it would be pretty fun. wouldn't it? I wouldn't want to live with a bunch of frat boys , but that's a subset of "men". (p.s. you all would be doing the housework, by the way. I suck at that.)

I guess living with anyone can be a strain, and living with more than one person even more so, but their gender is less important than other parts of their personality. I'm all for polyamory; not for polygyny / polyandry specifically - that is, to each couple, their own, but for me, it'd only be fair if both partners could bring in lovers, & obviously both partners would have the right to veto if they didn't feel good about someone. I know some successful open "marriages", (some are not official marriages) though it does take a lot of social energy to find new interesting people. I imagine if i ever committed to a lifelong relationship (i.e., got married in some sense or other) that it would be open in theory and only occasionally so in practice. I'm just too lazy.
posted by mdn at 3:00 PM on May 29, 2002


I'm a little disturbed by the end of Rebecablood's blog entry.

"The world says polygamy makes women inferior to men--we think differently. Polygamy gives women more time for thought, for mental culture, more freedom of action, a broader field of labor... and leads women more directly to God, the fountain of all truth."

Err, actually God (the fountain of all truth) says women are inferior to men.

Ephesians 5:23 - For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.

God leaves no doubt as to who wears the pants in his religion. I think Rebecca sacrifices some credibility by quoting from such a fruitcake.

Also, she starts off by discussing the underrated sexual aggression of women ("ovulating women predictably search their environment for better mates"), then concludes by insinuating that sex really isn't that big of a deal to women and that polygyny would lighten their sexual load ("in a polygynous household, amour is spread around--perhaps a woman might expect longer breaks between children" no babies+no birth control=no sex=no big deal?)

I'm not trolling, just confused. I know Rebecca's a MeFier so maybe she'll explain.
posted by tcobretti at 3:40 PM on May 29, 2002


why? I don't get this. I mean, if they were cute, and had interesting / cool personalities, it would be pretty fun. wouldn't it?

you sound fresh and new and untested :-) not said in any sort of condescending way, just an observation.

I guess living with anyone can be a strain, and living with more than one person even more so, but their gender is less important than other parts of their personality

gender only matters in my statement because i'm hetero and therefore it's men that i've lived with/been married to. if i were a lesbian it's possible that living with women would drive me just as crazy. altho' my lesbian friends seem a lot happier and or saner in their committed relationships than my straight friends and i do. my personal experience has shown me that men and women are not very much alike (no matter how many people like to say they are for the purposes of supporting this or that sociopolitical argument) and that makes living with one another extremely difficult from time to time. which is fine, if you really want to be together you work thru' things. but to voluntarily compound those issues by way of concurrent intimate relationships under one roof...? nuh uh, no way.
posted by t r a c y at 5:09 PM on May 29, 2002


revbrian

The solution to overpopulation is wealth.

Partly true, but I'd say that the real solution is access to cheap and effective birth control, removed from moronic religious institutions like the Catholic church and a change in attitude of cultures that only value women as baby making machines.

The fact that our idiot commander-in-chief is doing everything he can to stop this to boost his pro-life street cred doesn't exactly help matters.
posted by mark13 at 6:22 PM on May 29, 2002


you sound fresh and new and untested :-) not said in any sort of condescending way

sorry, hard to take it any other way. Look, i'm not saying living with multiple people is simple, but I really think there are traits beyond gender that are more important to making people habitationally compatible. I went to boarding school, then lived in a college dorm, and then, living in new york, i've had many roommates, male and female. I've only lived with one lover, and that was kind of accidental, and she was female, but the main reasons that living with people can be complicated are generally worse with roommates, since you don't automatically have an emotional connection to want to work things out - I probably got into more fights with female roommates than with my ex girlfriend. I've dated guys that I've stayed with for weekends etc, and I don't see an obvious difference that would make living with them worse (for me, it might be easier, as my male roommates tended to be more easy going - could be coincidental of course).

Anyway, yes on average perhaps you could argue men and women are different enough that men would want multiple women to dominate while women wouldn't want multiple men because communication is more important than domination to them, etc, but really i think that argument - which is the basis of this general agreement that polygyny is natural to humans - is severe oversimplification.
posted by mdn at 6:42 PM on May 29, 2002


I don't think anything is really "natural" to humans. The point of humans is that they work well with almost anything. Humans can most of the time do monogamous or polygamous relationships pretty well, or at least without murder. What it all depends on is the people's personalities.
posted by stoneegg21 at 8:47 PM on May 29, 2002


yes on average perhaps you could argue men and women are different enough that men would want multiple women to dominate while women wouldn't want multiple men because communication is more important than domination to them, etc

erm, i did not argue these points. i was just saying that men drive women crazy (and vice versa claims my s/o as he reads over my shoulder) and that not one of the women i know would choose to have more than one "husband", under one roof. i was not considering roommates or short term lovers, as the dynamics of those relationships are radically different than those of a long term permanent spouse/significant other.

sorry, hard to take it any other way.

the way you said it reminded me of when i was in my 20's and 30's. it gave me a positive vibe and made me want to give you a hug, especially after i visited your site and saw your face. it was a maternal thing basically, which i don't feel bad for having responded to. it would be cool if you resisted the urge to be insulted but if not, i leave you to it.
posted by t r a c y at 9:20 PM on May 29, 2002


"The solution to overpopulation is wealth."

"Partly true, but I'd say that the real solution is access to cheap and effective birth control, removed from moronic religious institutions like the Catholic church and a change in attitude of cultures that only value women as baby making machines.


Maybe the solution to Catholicism and misogyny is wealth...
posted by five fresh fish at 9:24 PM on May 29, 2002


tcobretti: "The world says polygamy makes women inferior to men--we think differently. Polygamy gives women more time for thought, for mental culture, more freedom of action, a broader field of labor... and leads women more directly to God, the fountain of all truth."

Err, actually God (the fountain of all truth) says women are inferior to men. Ephesians 5:23 - For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.


Wells isn't saying anything about God's view of the relative places of men and women; she says that the world views polygamy as a system that automatically subjugates women. she's arguing that, in fact, polygamy (as practiced by the mormons) gives women more time to develop themselves mentally and spiritually, and that it gives them opportunities to do things outside the home.

Also, she starts off by discussing the underrated sexual aggression of women ("ovulating women predictably search their environment for better mates"), then concludes by insinuating that sex really isn't that big of a deal to women and that polygyny would lighten their sexual load ("in a polygynous household, amour is spread around--perhaps a woman might expect longer breaks between children" no babies+no birth control=no sex=no big deal?)

let me put it this way: pregnancy is a big deal. a baby a year is a big deal. a baby every two years is a big deal. a baby every two years for 18 years is a very big deal. I think lots of women (especially if they were nearly always caring for an infant) would feel that less-frequent sex was a fair trade for less-frequent pregnancies.

I might as well say that I'm not making any great claims for the accuracy of my views. I'm not an anthropologist, I just started down a line of thought and came up with some ideas I thought were interesting. I found the initial article's premises to be very interesting. the whole business about males and violence is as interesting (or more interesting) as the direction my post took.

but polygyny is often presented (as wells points out) as sort of advantageous for the male and subjugating to women. going on the premise that species usually thrive in the conditions for which they were built, so to speak, I started trying to think of whether polygyny might offer any advantages to the female. I was interested in the fact that I could come up with some very concrete advantages, and equally interested that those ideas were echoed by a mormon suffragette who practiced this way of life.
posted by rebeccablood at 10:25 PM on May 29, 2002


Has anyone considered combining polygyny and polyandry into cluster families, of multiple husbands and wives in various pairbonds-troikas-what have you? Considering the high level of task specialization among us (how many people do you know that can wire a home network, cook Thanksgiving dinner, change the oil in the car, do the laundry and build a level bookshelf?), wouldn't it be sensible to create families of 8-15 men and women (a pseudo-clan of sorts) thereby creating a large pool of skills from which to run a household, as well as creating a larger potential for income, having adequate personnel for home child care, home/vehicle maintenance, etc.?
posted by UncleFes at 10:29 PM on May 29, 2002


My mom frequently cites a study that said in WWII America, city people generally married someone who lived within 15 blocks or so. Thus your "cluster family" was almost automatic. My suspicion is that the "polygamy - polyandry" question was often solved by simply looking the other way. As Vronsky said in "Anna Karenina," "My wife is above reproach."

So how is it that "On average, men have more sex partners than women"?

"A 1995 World Health Organization study showed that in all of the 18 countries surveyed men had more sexual partners than women. This behaviour appears to be true of every culture ... In any given year, the vast majority of women – 90% or more – report that they are either abstinent or faithful to one sex partner. Most men follow the same pattern, but the percentage is closer to 70%" - UN AIDS.org .pdf
posted by sheauga at 11:29 PM on May 29, 2002


So how is it that "On average, men have more sex partners than women"?

Keeping in mind that intercourse is generally a zero-sum game cross-gender (the "It Takes Two To Tango" hypothesis), I would suspect the prodigious capacity of the male of the species to (ahem) be less than accurate concerning their sexual prowess, which many prefer to measure in raw quantity rather than in performance quality :)

This is also why the "24-34" age category on surveys is invariably the most populous.
posted by UncleFes at 6:54 AM on May 30, 2002


"A 1995 World Health Organization study showed that in all of the 18 countries surveyed men had more sexual partners than women. This behaviour appears to be true of every culture ... In any given year, the vast majority of women – 90% or more – report that they are either abstinent or faithful to one sex partner. Most men follow the same pattern, but the percentage is closer to 70%"

Fes is right, i think. when i took psychology in college, i learned that men often overreport on sex-related studies whereas women often underreport. an off-hand stab at true accuracy might put the percent for both at about 80.
posted by moz at 8:23 AM on May 30, 2002


men often overreport on sex-related studies whereas women often underreport.

I believe that, but I don't agree that sex is a zero-sum game. given that the costs are higher for women in a society that doesn't use birth control, it makes sense to me that under those circumstances, many women will limit their sexual contact.

those who have decided to take their chances, do; those that are not willing to deal with the social/biological consequences of extra-marital sex and pregnancy abstain or limit their partners.
posted by rebeccablood at 10:01 AM on May 30, 2002


I don't agree that sex is a zero-sum game

In purely heterosexual intercourse, it IS a zero-sum game regardless of anybody's opinion on the matter. Sometimes the exactness of mathematics can be pleasant. :)

Keep in mind the statistic is *average* number of sexual partners. If it were something else like "percentage of men who have had more than one partner" vs. the same for women then it is not zero-sum. The first statistic is intended to reveal that men, because of their more frequent contact with other people (men and women) are significant disease vectors. The latter statistic would reveal imbalances such as an extremely hypothetical situation where it is one woman that is having sex with all the men (e.g. the village prostitute)

There may be under/over-reporting going on but I think the obvious explanation for the statistic (even mentioned in the article sheauga linked to for those who read it) is that there is more male-male sex than there is female-female sex.
posted by vacapinta at 10:23 AM on May 30, 2002


erm, i did not argue these points.

"polygyny" means multiple women, one man. This thread is claiming that's beneficial & natural to humans, while polyandry - multiple men, one woman - or polyamory - multiple whoever - are not. Your initial statement was in response to a man who said he didn't want to live around other men on a day to day basis, and you agreed, so i thought you were agreeing that polygyny would work but polyamory would not.

i was just saying that men drive women crazy (and vice versa claims my s/o as he reads over my shoulder)

but it looks like you're just saying poly-anything is doomed. That's probably true for most people. I don't yet & may never know if it's true for me, but I do know people for whom it seems to work.

i was not considering roommates or short term lovers, as the dynamics of those relationships are radically different than those of a long term permanent spouse/significant other.

Maybe the dynamics are inherently different but i don't know that the differences are necessarily radical. And often those differences make living together easier. It's true I don't have extensive personal experience in this area, but it's also true that we all have different experiences - that is, even if it seems clear to you from your experience that something is a certain way, that doesn't mean everyone else will eventually come to the same conclusions.

but I think the obvious explanation for the statistic ...is that there is more male-male sex than there is female-female sex.

the "obvious explanation" I always heard was that these were median figures, not means, and that women were divided into mostly "nice girls" and a small number of extremely active sluts/pros. But I never really bought it.
posted by mdn at 11:31 AM on May 30, 2002


it would be cool if you resisted the urge to be insulted but if not, i leave you to it.

was going to email, but can't find yr address: just wanted to say, don't worry, I'm not insulted, didn't mean to overreact, hope we're cool.

posted by mdn at 11:34 AM on May 30, 2002


vacapinta: In purely heterosexual intercourse, it IS a zero-sum game

well, I guess I don't understand what you mean by zero-sum, then.

[presuming heterosexual sex] [and, you know, never do that] I thought that fes meant that because a man must have a partner with whom to have sex, for every man who has sex, a woman must also, and was thereby inferring that the numbers would logically be roughly equal.

but of course, one man may have sex with six women, one woman may have sex with six men, or six men may have sex with six women. so the number on either side doesn't tell you enough to extrapolate anything about the number on the other side. and none of this takes multiples into account....
posted by rebeccablood at 12:11 PM on May 30, 2002


Rebeccca: that's exactly what I meant by zero sum; making an admittedly gross generalization by assuming only heterosexual sex, for every man having one incidence of intercourse, there must also be a woman having one incidence of intercourse. Even if one woman is having sex with ALL the men, the number of incidences remains the same. However, the male reportage would seem to indicate a significantly higher number of intercourse incidences (ii's?) for the men than for the women. Being a man, I am somewhat familar with the idea that men will lie about sex :) Taken together, they do seem to provide an explanation for the disparate reporting of ii's... oh hell, I see what your saying, and you're right.

But the numbers of ii's should still be the same, and if the gender populations are roughly equal, should similarly be near-equal, right?
posted by UncleFes at 12:34 PM on May 30, 2002


rebecca, I was pointing out that the average (yes, the mean) will be the same regardless of how the coupling occurs.

Simple example. A village with ten men and ten women.

1) All are monogamous. Average number of partners=1.

2) All men have sex with the same woman. No women have sex except that ONE woman. Average number of partners for a man=1. Average number of partners for women=(10+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0+0)/10=1

That's all I meant. As you correctly point out, this bit of info tells you very little about the social dynamics.
posted by vacapinta at 12:43 PM on May 30, 2002


II's (as Fes refers to them) are much more interesting, of course, as a small-world network. The transmission of diseases through this network follows a path like the six-degrees of separation concept - that you are more closely connected to others than you think.

Depending on your habits, it is not too unlikely that you sleep with someone who has slept with someone who has slept someone with AIDS. It's a small and scary world.
posted by vacapinta at 12:58 PM on May 30, 2002


i didn't really understand what zero-sum means either, off the bat. it makes sense to me, however, that sex tends toward equality in number of partners.
posted by moz at 1:46 PM on May 30, 2002


(i was mainly agreeing with fes about the overreporting of men.)
posted by moz at 1:46 PM on May 30, 2002


Not to be all nit-picky, but this isn't exactly what zero-sum technically means, is it? It's a game-theory term used to denote a game wherein what one player wins, the other player must lose. Sex is not that kind of game. No, please don't ask me what kind of game it really is - I must plead ignorance.

The symmetry of heterosexual intercourse does hold, in the very limited way that vacapinta mentioned above. However, the WHO study cited above by sheauga does not report averages (total 'intercourse incidents'/number of persons of each sex), but the reports of discrete individuals on their own individual experiences. So to use vaca's village examples (and assuming accurate self-reporting): in Village 1, the WHO methodology would yield 100% abstinent or monogamous behavior for both men and women. However, Village 2 would yield a result of 90% female abstinence/monogamy (9 abstinent women), 10% female nonabstinence/monogamy (the "party girl"), and 100% male abstinence/monogamy (because each man has only one woman as a partner, no matter how much she herself gets around). It's easy enough from here to change things so that the hypothetical village matches the WHO study's actual statistics, if not the reality that it's trying to describe.
posted by skoosh at 4:47 AM on June 1, 2002


Earlier thread on polygamy case in Utah contains related material.
posted by sheauga at 8:11 AM on June 26, 2002


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