“Can’t find a better man” — An EP take on polygamy

December 16, 2008    By: Geoff J @ 7:41 pm   Category: Evolutionary psychology

As the next in my series on evolutionary psychology I wanted to highlight the unusual take that Satoshi Kanazawa gave on the subject of polygamy over at his blog. Here are some excerpts:

Contrary to popular belief, most women benefit from polygynous society, and most men benefit from monogamous society. This is because polygynous society allows some women to share a resourceful man of high status. George Bernard Shaw (who was one of the founders of the London School of Economics and Political Science where I teach) put it best, when he observed, “The maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one.”

In contrast, most men benefit from monogamous society. Given a 50-50 sex ratio, monogamous society virtually guarantees a wife for every man, even a third-rate one. Under polygyny, some third-rate men may not find a wife at all, or, even if they are lucky enough to find one, their wife will not be as desirable as the one they can secure for themselves under monogamy, because under polygyny more desirable women would have become the second, third, or tenth wife of more desirable men.

The exceptions to this rule are highly desirable women, who benefit from monogamous society, and highly desirable men, who benefit from polygynous society. A highly desirable woman can marry a highly desirable man under any circumstances, but under polygyny she’d have to share her desirable husband with other women, whereas under monogamy she can monopolize him. A highly desirable man can acquire multiple wives under polygyny, but must confine himself to only one wife (albeit a highly desirable one) under monogamy.

When men imagine what living in a polygynous society might be like, they imagine themselves married to several wives. What they don’t realize, however, is that, more than likely, they would be left without any wife in a polygynous society. Polygynous marriage in a polygynous society is always limited to a minority of men. If 50% of men have two wives each, then the other 50% cannot have any wives. If 25% of men have four wives each, then the other 75% cannot have any wives. When women imagine what living in a polygynous society might be like, they imagine themselves having to share their current, no-good loser of a husband with other women. What they don’t realize is that they could be sharing Matt Damon or Bill Gates with other women.

Well alrightee then.

You have to admit, this guy is nothing if not provocative. (See here for his claim that we in America are already effectively a polygamous society in many ways.)

The first problem I see with his post is that he doesn’t describe the details of the polygynous societies he has in mind. Does he envision women freely choosing their husbands? If so that is a lot different than women being assigned to a husband as a young teen or something. Whether a polygamous society benefits women overall depends a lot on these sorts of issues.

Also, if polygyny suddenly were to become legal in the U.S. I don’t imagine it would gain much traction even if there were no social stigma associated with it. For one thing Kanazawa himself says that the most desirable women in a society would be hurt by polygyny, so they would work hard and probably effectively to block their highly desirable husbands (or future husbands before they are married) from participating in the practice. On top of that, legal marriage currently carries all kinds of legal and financial responsibilities for men so multiple legal wives would be and unlikely choice even for affluent men to begin with.

But what do you think of his thesis? Is Kanazawa totally out to lunch on this subject or do you think he has a point?

[Associated song: Pearl Jam - Betterman]

30 Comments »

  1. Great song!

    Comment by klear — December 16, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

  2. Every plural wife I know chose her husband. I must admit that I do tend to hang with the more liberal fundamentalist, but I know plural wives from several different groups, and agency is a common trait in all those marriages.

    I’d also like to add that it was when polygamy ended that much of the authority that was given to women in the church was taken away. Who do you think exerts more influence on a husband, 1 wife or 5?

    Comment by Amanda — December 16, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  3. You know polygs Amanda? Wow.

    Who do you think exerts more influence on a husband, 1 wife or 5?

    Probably 1. She doesn’t have any committee of women to bark her down in her running the show in the marriage after all…

    Comment by Geoff J — December 16, 2008 @ 10:05 pm

  4. The writer assumes exactly 50/50 split of men women. He must of never been to BYU or Ricks.

    I saw a piece on TV that outlined a remote mountain society where all of the brothers would share a wife or face having to leave and loose any claim on the family property. This was intended to preserve farming units large enough to support a small family. They have lived this way for centuries.

    A close friend of my mothers was living as a polygamist. They were fundamentalist Mormon but not connected with any of the Utah groups as far as I know (they lived in Idaho). She stayed because of her faith in the gospel they chose to live but it was not without some emotional pain throughout the years. The second wife was somewhat younger and she was assigned to them which led to some tension.

    Comment by Jerry — December 16, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

  5. When men imagine what living in a polygynous society might be like, they imagine themselves married to several wives. What they don’t realize, however, is that, more than likely, they would be left without any wife in a polygynous society.

    Oh snap. I’ve been served.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 16, 2008 @ 11:00 pm

  6. This article assumes some form of scarcity of first rate men and an abundance of third rate men. MY question is what criteria does it genericly apply to all men in order to rate them. When I was an eligible bachelor, I was probably of a different rating than I am now, 6 years later.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 17, 2008 @ 7:46 am

  7. Mr. K’s thesis is “as false as the hinges of hell,” as the saying used to go: A highly desirable woman can marry a highly desirable man under any circumstances.

    If this were true, why am I single?

    :)

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — December 17, 2008 @ 8:14 am

  8. Matt — I think he means “rich and powerful and likely to stay rich and powerful” by when he says “first rate” .

    Ardis — Clearly you are right. Case closed!

    Comment by Geoff J — December 17, 2008 @ 8:31 am

  9. #6 MY question is what criteria does it genericly apply to all men in order to rate them.

    #8 I think he means “rich and powerful and likely to stay rich powerful” by when he says “first rate”

    Actually, for Kanazawa’s assertions to be valid, it doesn’t matter what criteria he has in mind. It only matters that women collectively have some sort of fairly universal criteria for rating men. Logically, in an evolutionary framework, those criteria would involve an ability to produce offspring and provide for them whatever the woman cannot. If women prefer men with wealth and power, it would be because those characteristics have proven to be good proxies for the underlying criteria. In any case, a man’s desirability is by no means static over time.

    Comment by Last Lemming — December 17, 2008 @ 9:10 am

  10. many Americans (and others) practice serial polygyny, through a series of marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

    Not to mention those with mistresses or who conduct affairs.

    But then, he does mention “Extramarital affairs …”

    BTW http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200811/the-50-0-50-rule-in-action-sociosexual-orientation-and-ris was interesting

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — December 17, 2008 @ 11:55 am

  11. Geoff, Amanda IS a polygamist who comments round the bloggernacle, and used to participate in the FMH email list. Hey Amanda, did your search to recruit a another wife succeed yet?

    And as for me, at least now I understand my campaign against polygamy is based on the fact I am a highly desirable wife. Excuse me, I think I’ll go monopolize my husband some more while I can.

    Comment by Johnna Cornett — December 17, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

  12. Johnna: Hey Amanda, did your search to recruit a another wife succeed yet?

    Holy crap!

    my campaign against polygamy

    You have an actual campaign against polygamy Johnna? I did not know that.

    I think I’ll go monopolize my husband some more while I can

    I can hardly express how much I like the fact that Kristen monopolizes me. (Does that mean I’m not one of those “first rate” men? I’m absolutely certain she falls under the “highly desirable” category…)

    Comment by Geoff J — December 17, 2008 @ 6:20 pm

  13. Oh no honey, you are deeesirable! Ladies you better step off!

    Comment by kristen j — December 17, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  14. #2: Who do you think exerts more influence on a husband, 1 wife or 5?

    #3: Probably 1. She doesn’t have any committee of women to bark her down in her running the show in the marriage after all…

    Well, Geoff, the same could be said for the husband.

    An individual female in a polygamous marriage has less power than her monogamist counterpart–but, barring an absolutist “priesthood trumps all” outlook–so does an individual male. Both have had their partnership shares diluted from 1/2 to 1/6.

    Comment by JimD — December 18, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  15. Both have had their partnership shares diluted from 1/2 to 1/6.

    I don’t think that’s so, JimD, because Wives 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 are not partners to each other. They may have to negotiate for resources (husband’s time, money, attention), but that isn’t the same as a husband and wife (whether monogamous, or one unit of a polygamous family) negotiating as partners. Wives 2 and 3 may have very different ideas about the education or discipline of their children. Each must have the support of their shared husband to teach their children as they see fit, but Wife 2 doesn’t need the consent or support of Wife 3. Wife 4 may have felt that pork violated the Word of Wisdom (many 19th century Mormons did), while Wife 5 has no such opinion. Unless they’re sharing a kitchen, neither has to agree with the other, although both probably have to have some kind of compromise with their shared husband. And on and on and on.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — December 18, 2008 @ 10:04 am

  16. Hi Ardis–

    I don’t think that’s so, JimD, because Wives 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 are not partners to each other

    I have no experience with the polygamous lifestyle, but I’m not convinced it would be possible to neatly parse out “this belongs to Wife 1, and that is Wife 5′s domain”. Take kids, for example: if Wife 5 is going to be tending Wife 1′s kids for any meaningful period of time (or if their kids are interacting on a regular basis), why shouldn’t Wife 5 get a say in how Wife 1′s kids are raised? Not an equal say to Wife 1 or the husband, perhaps–but a say nonetheless, that would dilute the “husband’s share” to some extent.

    Even if you could neatly isolate each of the “partnerships”, as the number of wives goes up the chances improve that a single wife will find a “sister wife” who agrees with her on a given issue. If Wives 1 and 2 believe in spanking and Wives 3 and 4 (and the husband) don’t, I would think that (even allowing for the support of Wives 3 and 4) the husband would consider wives 1 and 2 to be much more of a force to be reckoned with than Wife 1 alone.

    Comment by JimD — December 18, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  17. I don’t think that’s so, JimD, because Wives 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 are not partners to each other.

    Maybe not in your imagination of polygamy.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 18, 2008 @ 11:40 am

  18. groan

    Comment by Geoff J — December 18, 2008 @ 11:48 am

  19. “Unless they’re sharing a kitchen, neither has to agree with the other, although both probably have to have some kind of compromise with their shared husband.”

    But if the wives are smart, they WILL band together to pursue a joint agenda. One might generalize that women tend to have different priorities in life than men. For example:

    Husband: Wants to watch football game
    Wife #1: Wants husband to clean out garage, like he said last week he was going to
    Wives #2-3: Agree with Wife #1

    Comment by VeritasLiberat — December 18, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

  20. Johnna,

    I’m a practicing monogamist who believes in D&C 132. I would also never search for a sisterwife in a place where women “campaign against polygamy”. That would kind of be like a Mormon searching for a wife at a Southern Baptist Convention. I’m also sorry that you feel so threatened by my viewpoint that you must campaign against me.

    I am still a member of the Church, and I’m still interested in LDS issues, and discussion. That’s why I’m here. Polygamy just happens to be an issue that I know something about. I’ve studied it. I have many friends that are plural wives. Plural marriage is something I have a testimony of. That’s why I commented on this topic. Not to pick up women who have no desire to live the principle of plural marriage.

    Comment by Amanda — December 20, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

  21. re: 19

    I’ve seen that scenario first hand. What’s more likely to motivate a husband, 1 angry wife, or 3 angry wives? I just don’t see men in the church clamoring to bring back plural marriage. They don’t want to give up their power.

    Comment by Amanda — December 20, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

  22. Meh. Seems to me polygyny would work best if every sub-family got their own house.

    BTW — Three angry wives sounds like hell to me. The notion that polygyny is the order of the Celestial kingdom is somewhere between hard to believe and ludicrous to me.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 20, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

  23. Geoff,

    Does the notion of a man who is afraid of being held accountable to three wives seem a little more celestial, and a little less ludicrous?

    Comment by Amanda — December 21, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

  24. I don’t understand your question Amanda.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 21, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

  25. Amanda: I don’t think Heaven or Heavenly relationships are things I am supposed to have fear in. I don’t want my wife motivated by fear of accountability to me, nor do I want to be motivated by fear of accountability to her.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 21, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

  26. Matt,

    Why did Geoff state that he didn’t believe polygyny was a celestial principle? Didn’t he say that three angry wives sounded like hell to him?

    Women have greater leverage in polygyny, and that’s why many men fear plural marriage. In my view, a man that fears accountability is not on a celestial course.

    Comment by Amanda — December 21, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

  27. Amanda: Women have greater leverage in polygyny

    I doubt it. This would only be true if the women were unified completely. That way they can gang up on their shared husband. The problem is that it is like a cartel — all it takes is for one cartel member to break ranks and the leverage becomes greatly weakened. All these alliances and whatnot sound like a creepy season of “Survivor” to me.

    Anyhow, if the women needed to gang up on the husband then they all probably aren’t living celestial lives and thus shouldn’t expect to be sealed beyond this life even based on their belief systems (or at least I assume that based on D&C 132)

    that’s why many men fear plural marriage

    I suspect men fear the bills that would be associated with polygyny, not the so-called accountability. But then again in these extremist sects that practice polygyny I’d guess there are social and religious pressures that give negotiating leverage the women too.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 21, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

  28. here is why polygamy works…

    once you have more than one woman in the relationship, they then become confidantes of each other, leaving the man alone with his thoughts (or other pursuits such as fishing).

    thats why they call them sister-wives. soon, the man is just around to procreate and fix the occasional leaky faucet.

    all of the cycles sync up, and he takes that week off to go hunting.

    perfect system really.

    Comment by chris b — June 7, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

  29. I’m not sure I buy your assertion that polygamy works chris b. Seem like it tends to be a pretty disastrous experiment in modern America even in the cloistered compounds with the pioneer dresses and weird hairdos.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 7, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

  30. chris b, you must not be married. With only one wife and one house and two vehicles, and 4 children and 3 grandchildren, and a full time job, I have to extort time from my calendar to go deer hunting only 3-4 days per year and I never have time to fish. I cannot image how difficult it would be to manage a household of more than one wife and many children with conflicting schedules and needs!

    Comment by Craig Davis — July 6, 2013 @ 8:36 pm

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