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Social Problems Associated with Polygamous Vs. Monogamous Marriage

Social Problems Associated with Polygamous Vs. Monogamous Marriage

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Professor Joseph Heinrich on the social problems associated with polygamy vs. monogamy.
Professor Joseph Heinrich on the social problems associated with polygamy vs. monogamy.

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Published by: borninbrooklyn on Jan 25, 2012
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doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0290, 657-669
Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 
Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson
The puzzle of monogamous marriage
Supplementary data
mlhttp://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/suppl/2012/01/18/rstb.2011.0290.DC1.ht "Data Supplement"
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The puzzle of monogamous marriage
 Joseph Henrich
, Robert Boyd
and Peter J. Richerson
Department of Psychology, and 
Department of Economics, University of British Columbia,British Columbia, Canada
Department of Anthropology, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis, Davis, CA, USA
The anthropological record indicates that approximately 85 per cent of human societies have per-mitted men to have more than one wife (polygynous marriage), and both empirical andevolutionary considerationssuggest that largeabsolutedifferencesinwealth shouldfavour more poly-gynousmarriages.Yet,monogamousmarriagehasspreadacrossEurope,andmorerecentlyacrosstheglobe,evenasabsolutewealthdifferenceshaveexpanded.Here,wedevelopandexplorethehypothesisthatthenormsandinstitutionsthatcomposethemodernpackageofmonogamousmarriagehavebeenfavoured by cultural evolution because of their group-beneficial effects—promoting success ininter-group competition. In suppressing intrasexual competition and reducing the size of the pool of unmarried men, normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robberyandfraud,aswellasdecreasingpersonalabuses.Byassuagingthecompetitionforyoungerbrides,nor-mativemonogamydecreases(i)thespousalagegap,(ii)fertility,and(iii)genderinequality.Byshiftingmale efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, normative monogamy increases savings, childinvestment and economic productivity. By increasing the relatedness within households, normativemonogamy reduces intra-household conflict, leading to lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidentaldeath and homicide. These predictions are tested using converging lines of evidence from across thehuman sciences.
cultural group selection; monogamy; polygyny; marriage; norms; institutional evolution
Approximately 85 per cent of societies in the anthro-pological record permit men to marry multiple wives[1]. Taking wives is always positively associated withstatus, wealth or nobility [2], even among highly egali-tarian foraging societies [3]. After the origins of agriculture, as human societies grew in size, complex-ity and inequality, levels of polygynous marriageintensified, reaching extremes in the earliest empireswhose rulers assembled immense harems [4,5]. Today, however, with absolute wealth gaps greaterthan any seen in human history, monogamous mar-riage is both normative and legally enforced in mostof the world’s highly developed countries. While theroots of the package of norms and institutions thatconstitute modern marriage can be traced back toclassical Greece and Rome [6,7], the global spread of this peculiar marriage system [6] has occurredonly in recent centuries, as other societies sought toemulate the West, with laws prohibiting polygynyarriving in 1880 in Japan, 1953 in China, 1955 inIndia and 1963 in Nepal. Given its historical rarityand apparent ill-t with much of our evolvedpsychology, why has this marriage package spread sosuccessfully? Historically, the emergence of monog-amous marriage is particularly puzzling since thevery men who most benefit from polygynous mar-riage—wealthy aristocrats—are often those mostinfluential in setting norms and shaping laws. Yet,here we are.This paper develops and tests the hypothesis that themodernpackageofnormsandinstitutionsthatconstitu-tes monogamous marriage has been shaped by culturalevolution driven by inter-group competition—a set of processes termed cultural group selection [8]. Theidea is that competition among communities—such asnations, polities or religious organizations—favoursthose norms, values, beliefs, practices and institutionsthat most effectively harness, reinforce and shape ourmotivationsandbehaviourinwaysthatgeneratesuccessin inter-group competition. Over centuries, theseprocesses can lead to the spread of social norms andinstitutions (formal and informal) that create societal-level benefits and reduce aggregate societal costs,thereby giving an edge in inter-group competition.Inter-group competition need not result in violentconflict as such processes can produce a differentialdiffusion of beliefs, norms and institutions frommore successful to less successful societies [8,9]. This aspect of cultural group selection may be particularlyimportant for spread of normative monogamy.Researchers from biology to history have long notedthe puzzle of monogamous marriage, and suggested
Author for correspondence (joseph.henrich@gmail.com).Electronic supplementary material is available athttp://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2011.0290or viahttp://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org. One contribution of 12 to a Theme Issue ‘The biology of culturalconflict’.
Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B
, 657–669doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0290
This journal is
2012 The Royal Society
 on January 25, 2012rstb.royalsocietypublishing.orgDownloaded from 
thatsuchnormsspreadbecauseoftheirgroup-beneficialeffects [6,10]. While historians considering the puzzle have shown how the European historical record is atleast consistent with a process driven by cultural groupselection, little work has focused on developing andtesting predictions regarding how normative monogamyimpacts individual psychology, or how (if at all) thoseeffects aggregate up to impact groups (though seeMoorad
et al 
.[11]). Thus, our effort here focuses in developing the broader theoretical and empiricalissues, rather than in detailing historical cases.We pursue this hypothesis as follows. First, we dis-tinguish
mating strategies
marriage systems
, andclarify which aspects of our evolved psychology canbe harnessed or reinforced by cultural group selection,and which aspects need to be suppressed. Second, wedevelop a set of testable hypotheses and their empiricalimplications. We predict that imposing monogamousmarriage reduces male reproductive competition andsuppresses intra-sexual competition, which shrinksthe size of the pool of low-status, risk-oriented, unmar-ried men. These effects result in (i) lower rates of crime, personal abuse, intra-household conflict andfertility, and (ii) greater parental investment (especiallymale), economic productivity (gross domestic product(GDP)
per capita
) and female equality. We draw onboth longitudinal and cross-sectional evidence fromdiverse disciplines. In some cases, we provide solidempirical tests of specific predictions or implications.In other cases, the available evidence provides onlyqualified support, basic consistency or prima-facieplausibility. As usual, future work may find the theorywanting and specific hypotheses wrong. In closing, we(i) contrast the conditions favourable to the spread of monogamous versus polygynous marriage, (ii) consideralternative hypotheses for the spread of monogamousmarriage, and (iii) speculate on how marriage systemsmight be linked to the rise of democratic institutionsand industrial economic growth.
It is crucial to recognize that marriage norms are notthe same as our evolved mating psychology. Humans,like all primates, possess an evolved psychology thatinfluences our choices regarding mates, mating, repro-duction and parental investment. For establishedevolutionary reasons, male and female mating psychol-ogies differ in important ways. As in other primates,these different mating strategies yield a mating system(or range of systems), as individuals cooperate andcompete under different ecological and economic cir-cumstances (see electronic supplementary material).Here, we first summarize key points about humanmating strategies, and then discuss marriage systems.Our approach considers how specific marriage systemsmight be favoured by cultural group selection becauseof how they harness aspects of our evolved psychology.(
Mating strategies
There is much evidence that the mating strategiesof men and women differ. Like many mammals,human females invest more heavily in their offspringthan males. Humans also pair-bond [12,13]—both monogamously and polygamously—in collaborationsthat encourage more extensive male parental invest-ment and a division of labour. This means that mengenerally have higher variance in fitness than women[14]. When competition for mates is fierce, less-attractive low-status men risk being shut-out entirelyfrom mating. Since the fitness difference betweenhaving one long-term mate and zero mates is—onaverage—large, low-status males should often pursuerisky, high-stakes, strategies that provide somechance of avoiding fitness oblivion [15]. This meansthat cues that indicate intensive intra-sexual selectionshould spark competitive motivations, steep temporaldiscounting and risk proneness. Low intra-sexualcompetition means that nearly all males can find atleast one mate, and status gains do not lead tosteep increases in reproductive success. Here, pursu-ing safe, long-term strategies like pair-bonding isfavoured—that is, men will be more risk-averse andmore patient. All fathers must decide whether toinvest in their offspring or in seeking additionalmates. This decision should depend on paternity cer-tainty, and on the marginal payoffs to investing inoffspring versus additional matings. When the richhigh-status men cannot easily gain additional mates,they should invest more in offspring (see electronicsupplementary material).Women also possess flexible mating strategies.However, their direct fitness is limited to the numberof children that they can bear and rear. For our pur-poses, when males vary substantially in status (basedon skill, resources, power, etc.), women prefer higherstatus males as long-term pair-bonded partners,though they may also seek ‘good genes’ via extra-paircopulations when pair-bonded to a low-quality male.Polygynous pair-bonding is more acceptable towomen than is polyandrous pair-bonding to men.Polyandrous men face paternity uncertainty—theyare rather uncertain about which children aretheirs—and must compete for their mate’s limitedreproductive capacities (gestation, lactation, etc.).Polygynously mated women face neither maternaluncertainty nor (usually) competition for their mate’sessentially unlimited sperm. This implies that underconditions in which men vary substantially in status,polygynous pair-bonding is a likely outcome of bothmale and female mating choices. The electronic sup-plementary material further details and supportsthese points.(
Marriage systems
Marriage systems are distinct from mating strategies.Humans, unlike other species, are heavily reliant oncultural learning for acquiring all manner of behav-iours and practices, including social behaviour.Because humans also acquire the standards by whichthey judge others as part of this process, cultural evo-lution gives rise to social norms. Failure to conform tonorms results in reputational damage, loss of statusand various forms of sanctioning [16].Different societies have evolved diverse sets of norms that regulate pair-bonds. Such marriagenorms influence people’s long-term pair-bonds, and658 J. Henrich
et al. Review. Puzzling monogamy
Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B
 on January 25, 2012rstb.royalsocietypublishing.orgDownloaded from 

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