Wife Economics and the Domestication of Man (Part I)
Man is born polygamous yet everywhere he is monogamous
This is Part I of IV, and includes the preamble which summarises what the series is about.
Not long ago I had my own Fermi moment. I looked at the world around me and asked: Where are all the polygamists?
Consider almost any past empire or civilisation — Mongol, native American, Chinese, Indian, African, old European — and you will find powerful men with many wives. It’s all over the Hebrew Bible. 90% (!) of hunter gather societies around the world practice some degree of polygamy.1 Yet we look around today and… zilch?
I guess you might say our culture has gone down a different route, developed different norms. Slavery too used to be ubiquitous, and is now universally condemned as evil. (Slavery is a salient analogy, and I consider it in more detail in this series). But polygamy has been so thoroughly vanquished it’s not even considered evil, it’s simply not there.
I’d have expected some powerful people to practice it? If it was ubiquitous in the past, surely it suits the preferences of some of the population? 10%? 5%? 1%? The question seemed to resonate on Twitter:
It turns out this is no accident. The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich (I’ll call it WEIRD from now) traces how Christianity exterminated the practice over centuries and forged modern, cousin-free, monogamous marriage in the West (hence WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). In light of Christianity’s now millennia long clamp down — occasionally literally hounding kings over successive popes until they submitted — it’s not so surprising world leaders and billionaires today seem about as monogamous as anyone else. It’s remarkable how potent culture is: what was once as natural to a powerful man as eating is unthinkable to such a man today.
Yet that’s not quite right: we do see the whispers of polygamy everywhere — just as slavery lives on in the shadows. Elon Musk and his successive wives and mothers to his children, open-secret billionaire “arrangements” with wives for girlfriends on the side that last decades, extra marital affairs and offspring, the backwaters of wherever the Tiger King lives. But still — where are today’s patriarchs?
Despite these whispers of the polygamist instinct, my initial observation that polygamy has essentially been vanquished seems correct. And the fact there is not even 10% or 5% or 1% polygamy may not be an accident. Polygamy might be like poison: a little bit is enough to define the lot. 100% of elite men practicing polygamy is a society with only a bit of polygamy. I’m not even sure what a 100% polygamous society looks like — presumably one reliant on captive wives from helot populations. Which explains why you see ~zero today: you are either a polygamous society (>~0%) or not (~0%).
I’ll also explore the ancient phenomenon of bride inflation and the deranging, violent effects on society — and how we are seeing the same phenomenon returning today. The price of brides has risen with their emancipation, and the injection of near-infinite liquidity into the mating market via modern dating apps has exacerbated these effects. Yet, for a range of reasons I discuss, the incentives in the system align to keep disaffection brewing and escalating in silence. Yet we see its effects all around us: delayed family formation, lower birth rates and spiritual dissatisfaction. Remarkably, these apps — the apotheosis of hook up culture and the “emancipatory” zeitgeist over the last few decades — may be untangling Christianity’s grip on monogamy, fueling a rise in polygamy in a reversion to our atavistic past. In one sense, this wouldn’t be surprising in the least: we’ve already smashed so much of Christian marriage. If modernity will unwind the Protestant peak of the nuclear, heterosexual family, why shouldn’t it break monogamy? Perhaps then we might also remember the inequality, violence and instability that accompanies such societies, and regret unleashing the chaotic energy that monogamy successfully harnessed to create our modern, feminised West.
This became a long piece (before I broke it into parts) partly because I extract liberally from a range of texts I’ve enjoyed. The first time I read (well, listened to) these extracts I was mesmerised by them, and I want to share their charm and wonder. For Pekka Hämäläinen’s tomes on the Comanches and the Lakotas, it’s the detailed picture he draws of the crucial role of wives in the economic and social order of those nations and how their economic function was distended over time. Empire of the Summer Moon paints an idyllic life of freedom for young Comanche boys and a deep sadness for a life on the Great Plains now lost, alongside the shocking brutality of warfare on the frontier. The magic and sense of belonging that some white women found in their captor’s societies, after being brutally captured amidst the rape and torture and murder of their families, speaks to the complex realities of those societies and the human condition. I’ll dwell on some of these stories.
I extract liberally also from WEIRD. This may be the most important book I've read to understand the modern world.2 It struck on ideas that for me have been percolating for a while. I previously kvetched:
What is Civilisation if not the domestication of man and harnessing of his talents away from violence to productive means?
WEIRD ties it all together in a neat bow. WEIRD traces Christianity's march through history to harness powerful men to the yoke of civilisation to forge our modern world. Within that frame lie some even more transgressive nuggets. Marriage literally sedates men — changes their physiology — and puts them to productive use providing for children. Breaking clan ties through the abolition of cousin marriage and the rise of female independence freed the Western man from mediating the world mainly through relationships, allowing him to deal in abstractions (reason, law, systems). This led to an explosion in innovation. In some ways it’s a bleak portrait: the dissolution of family ties and the beginnings of the Anglo age of social atomisation. And yet, maybe it’s Caroline Ellison — the boss of Alameda Research, one strange part of the now defunct multi-billion dollar fraud and criminal polycule — who said it best on her blog:
What does this all mean?
It speaks to the heart of feminism and patriarchy.
The progression of theses might go something like this:
Men are in positions of power and so society is run by men.
Actually, just like man domesticated beast (dogs, horses, oxen, etc), women domesticated man (via monogamous marriage). As the ox ploughs the field, so elite men’s energies have been channeled away from war making and wife collecting to civilisation building.
Actually, monogamous marriage is a powerful cultural phenomenon that solved a civilisation-wide coordination problem of individual men maximising wives and individual women selecting for powerful men. It unleashed a civilisation winning configuration — against the individual interests of both elite men and women — to break clan ties, distribute wives and harness man to build civilisation. It shifted men and women away from their local maxima to a global maximum.
In meme form:
Okay, another one:
One big caveat! William Buckner argues convincingly that Henrich overstates the extent to which polygamy is in women’s interests and that it’s meaningfully more prevalent in patriarchal cultures where arranged marriages are used to broker power, wealth and influence among men. So it’s essentially coercive. This is consistent with Hämäläinen’s portrait of the Lakota and Comanche worlds: polygamy grew with the economic value of women’s work, which accrued to their husbands and fathers. So to the extent polygamy is not, in fact, in women’s interests, then we can dump the “coordination mechanism” analogy and stick to the simpler thesis that monogamous marriage is indeed about the domestication of man and harnessing his energy to civilisation building. On the one hand, we’re pack animals. On the other, we get modern civilisation ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Lastly, I’ll run through some observations on polygamy in Judaism. Observant Kvetch readers will note I’ve discussed this before. But with the beginning of the new year, the recent parashot have been from the wonderful Book of Genesis, and so it’s a nice opportunity to expound on some of these stories.
Part I (this Kvetch):
Man is born polygamous
The Church destroyed polygamy and spurred innovation
When Christian men go native
Slavery and polygamy: collapse of twin institutions
White Squaws and life under the stars
Bride inflation, Tinder and modern dating
Polygamy in Judaism (or, Love in the Time of Gomorrah)
1. Man is born polygamous
Man is born polygamous (from WEIRD):
In the most comprehensive study, 90 percent of hunter-gatherer populations around the globe had some degree of polygynous marriage, while just 10 percent had only monogamous marriage. Of the societies with polygyny, about 14 percent of men and 22 percent of women were polygynously married.
No primate species that lives in large group has only monogamous pair-bonding. There are biological reasons for this:
Our “polygyny bias” arises in part from fundamental asymmetries in human reproductive biology. Over our evolutionary history, the more mates a man had, the greater his reproduction, or what biologists call his “fitness.” By contrast, for women, simply having more mates didn’t directly translate into greater reproduction or higher fitness. This is because, unlike men, women necessarily had to carry their own fetuses, nurse their own infants, and care for their toddlers. Given the immense input needed to rear human children compared to other mammals, an aspiring human mother required help, protection, and resources like food, clothing, shelter, and cultural know-how. One way to obtain some of this help was to form a pair-bond with the most capable, resourceful, and highest status man she could find by making it clear to him that her babies would be his babies. The greater his paternal confidence, the more willing he was to invest time, effort, and energy in providing for her and her children. Unlike his wife, however, our new husband could “run in parallel” by forming additional pair-bonds with other women. While his new wife was pregnant or nursing, he could be “working” on conceiving another child with his second or third wife (and so on, with additional wives).
Polygamy serves the interests of the most powerful, higher status men (“elite men”):3
Not surprisingly, across all groups, it’s always the prestigious men—the great shamans, hunters, and warriors—who attract multiple wives, though few marry more than about four women. Polyandrous marriage [multiple husbands], by contrast, is statistically invisible, though many isolated cases have been reported.
[N]atural selection has shaped our evolved psychology in ways that make men, particularly high-status men, favorably inclined toward polygynous marriage.
However, at equilibrium, it may be the optimal choice for women too:
The best move for a particular woman in a hunter gatherer society might be to become the second wife of a great hunter instead of being the first wife of a poor hunter; this helps guarantee that children get both excellent genes and a steady supply of meat (a valuable source of nutrition). Moreover, by joining a polygynous household, a woman might learn from her older co-wives, share resources like tools, honey, and cooking fires, and get help with babysitting or even nursing. Of course, in a perfect world, such a woman might prefer an exclusive arrangement with the great hunter; but, faced with the real-world choice between marrying polygynously for a better overall deal with the prestigious guy or marrying monogamously for a worse deal, she’ll often prefer to marry a married man. Thus monogamous norms constrain women’s choices as well as men’s and can prevent people from marrying whom they really want. As a result, polygynous marriage will appeal to both men and women under many conditions, including in societies in which women are free to select their own husbands.
Henrich doubles down on the first highlight point in what may be the most radical notion I have read anywhere ever:
[B]y becoming the second, third, or fourth wife of the richest men in their society, women are doing what’s best for themselves and their children. By contrast, women in the monogamous society are prevented from becoming plural wives—even if they want to—and are thus effectively forced to marry lower-status men. Interestingly, because of how monogamous marriage influences social dynamics and cultural evolution, inhibiting female choice—by prohibiting women from freely choosing to marry men who are already married—results in both women and children doing better in the long run (on average). This occurs because of how the social dynamics unleashed by polygyny influence household formation, men’s psychology, and husbands’ willingness to invest in their wives and children
It’s kind of wild that a dude in 2020 can write that inhibiting female choice is pro-social (in this case). It runs against every Western zeitgeist in the last 60 years. If monogamous marriage is an inhibitor and female choice (as well as elite male preferences) — what other constrains on female choice are pro-social and even good for women? (As noted earlier, William Buckner has convincingly argues that Henrich overstates women’s interest in polygamy, and that it’s mainly a coercive institution as it’s practiced largely with arranged marriages.)
So… what the heck happened?
Before we get to that — let’s look at what polygamous marriage really looked like. Let’s take the Lakota and Comanche native American nations as examples. Aside from just being inherently fascinating, they’re interesting examples because polygamy became exacerbated in these societies due to outside economic forces.
The worlds of the Lakotas and the Comanches aren’t just similar to other horse-borne warrior peoples,4 but represent the natural state of powerful men in history: warring, enslaving captives and accumulating wives.
These empires rose and fell over the span of a couple hundred years — and so the change in their social structures and downstream effects are visible over a relatively short period of time, and relatively recently.
2. The Lakotas
The Lakotas were a patriarchal nation, which is always more nuanced in practice than in name (from Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power by Pekka Hämäläinen):
Men were the public face of the Lakota nation, but by custom and practice they consulted wives and mothers before taking major decisions. Women knew intimately the material, psychological, and spiritual needs of their families and relatives, and they counseled and challenged their husbands and sons who voiced the family consensus. Sitting Bull’s closest councillor was his widowed mother, Her-Holy-Door, who lived with him and offered him affection and advice into his early fifties.
Women’s roles in buffalo robe production meant they became the economic bottleneck with the buffalo robe boom, raising the value of wives as instruments of production. This led to a cycle of rising inequality: wealthier men could afford more wives, who could then generate more wealth and accumulate more wives.
They did not belong to their fathers or husbands. But the commercial boom that washed over Lakotas in the 1830s and 1840s brought dramatic changes to women’s lives and relations with men. Women’s sphere began to narrow around the indispensable buffalo robe. The making of a robe began with the slaughter and skinning of a beast, but someone had to transform the bloody, gristly hide into a supple, water-resistant robe that could warm a gentlewoman’s back, soften a baby’s bed, or keep a workingman’s feet dry and warm somewhere in the East. That task belonged to the women. Women scraped all the flesh and fat off the skin with a sharpened bone, rubbed boiled buffalo brains on it to soften and tan it, and soaked and stretched it several times over. Women also raised and dismantled tipis, hauled water and fuel, collected wild plants and salt, dug food caches, cooked and cleaned, manufactured household utensils and garments, and tended the young and old, providing the all-important labor that made Lakotas dynamic and powerful. When the fur trade began to boom, women’s work increased exponentially. By a long tradition, Lakota men were hunters and warriors and could not be employed in fur dressing, which meant that women would have to process the tens of thousands of robes Lakotas brought to market each season. A skilled tanner could finish twenty-five to thirty-five robes in a year—which fetched three to six guns— whereas a skilled hunter could bring down ten bison in a single chase. This made women’s labor the most critical resource of the robe trade, which, in effect, was a mechanism for connecting western female labor and expertise to eastern demand for furs. Women’s labor was the bottleneck in Lakotas’ quest for goods and wealth, and like many other Indigenous societies enmeshed in colonial markets, they widened that bottleneck through polygamy. The practice was ancient among the Lakotas, but it grew dramatically with the robe trade. Prominent hunters, warriors, and providers with the means to offer the generous gifts that validated a marriage were in a position to acquire multiple wives whose collective labor made their households rich. When a man acquired a wife by “purchase”—paying a bride price—he gained the right to marry her sisters as well, and a highly successful man could have several sister wives sharing his lodge as well as a number of other wives living in separate tipis outside the camp circle. When Maximilian noted that “wealthy people sometimes have eight or nine wives,” the emphasis on wealth was well taken: as women’s value as robe processors increased, so too did the bride price, for fathers demanded to be liberally compensated for the loss of their daughters’ labor. Red Cloud, an eminently gifted man of a middling lineage, paid twelve superb horses for the right to marry his first wife, Pretty Owl, and married his sixth wife when he was twenty-four… The number of wives became a key measure of male success. Wives elevated men by making them wealthy through their labor and by embodying their husbands’ martial and commercial prowess… Many were harnessed in the arduous task of processing robes, but the products of their labor no longer belonged to them. At some point in the early nineteenth century buffalo robes became men’s possession, a commercial product they could trade as they saw fit. The proceeds, excitement, and prestige of trading was men’s alone. Like trade itself, polygamy was a mixed blessing for Lakota women…
A mixed blessing for women — as Henrich noted, sure in such a society women share higher quality men, but those men are higher quality. Yet you will note that the value of the women’s work accrued to husbands and fathers. So, mixed. As we’ll see below, some white women preferred that life to what awaited them in the West.
The accumulation of wives by elite men led to a bride deficit. There were fewer brides to go around for under-performing males. This heightened intra-male competition.
Polygyny was becoming an investment that helped some men accumulate extraordinary wealth through female labor and climb the social ladder. Prosperous married men came to dominate the marriage market—the majority of “purchased” marriages were for second or third wives—and soon the demand surpassed the supply: there were not enough women for all. The more successful some men became, the larger the pool of men who struggled to marry at all. It was a dangerous social pathology that threatened to divide the Lakota men into fully franchised and marginalized individuals. When polygyny became essential for social ascent, it drove Lakota men to see one another as rivals rather than comrades.
What’s more, the economic and status advantages of polygamy persisted over generations:
In the early nineteenth century Lakota men were born into an increasingly competitive world with an uneven playing field. Boys were raised to be brave and ambitious in war, hunting, horsemanship, and courtship, and aspiring young men had to participate in several raiding expeditions to accumulate enough horses for a dowry. Many accomplished this in their late twenties after which they could settle down to family life, gradually give up raiding, and assume the role of an elder. As their families grew, they could marry off their daughters to other prominent men, receive handsome bride prices, and embed their families into expansive kinship networks that brought prestige, prosperity, and security. The most successful men—those who had become wiča, complete men—could sponsor extravagant feasts and giveaways in their sons’ name, paving their way within the fiercely competitive male sphere.
Many celebrated Lakota leaders were born into this kind of privilege and were in turn able to bestow their sons with similar benefits. If competent, their sons could succeed them as hereditary chiefs and assume their names. They Fear Even His Horses the Younger and American Horse the Younger belonged to old and highly esteemed lineages, their names both a privilege and an obligation. If not quite aristocracy, such men nonetheless possessed decisive advantages over others.
Without monogamy, successful men hoard wives and sire more children and there are more men with neither wives nor children. A society with fewer disaffected men is more stable. Such disaffected men benefit from volatility: they’re willing to take bold bets to win status and wives. Crime, revolutions. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
To be continued…
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90% is what Henrich cites in WEIRD. William Buckner argues this overstates polygamy’s prevalence: in most these societies, monogamy was the dominant form of marriage, which suggests it’s not quite the natural state of man. As I argue later, this may still be consistent with it being the natural preference of elite men.
I loved his previous book The Secret to our Success, and WEIRD is the self-appointed and deserved successor to Jared Diamond’s excellent Guns Germs and Steel. Whether you agree or disagree, their power is in setting the terms of debate and subsequent disagreements.
I wrote about Hitler’s charisma here, and the way women literally killed themselves over him. Stalin had similar devotion from women (from Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore):
Whether they were the wives of comrades, relations or servants, women buzzed around him like amorous bees. His newly opened archives reveal how he was bombarded with fan letters not unlike those received by modern pop stars
It is good to be the king.
I presume someone has written about the similar battle tactics and methods of social organisation that arose independently across horse-borne warrior empires across the world. It would fill a Kvetch at least.