Vox has recently launched a series of short documentary films called Explained, to be released weekly on Netflix. The first episode, which can be found on YouTube, explores the issue of monogamy. The ideological thrust of the film is fairly clear: the concept of monogamous marriage is a recent and unnatural invention, and one that we as a society should probably grow out of sooner rather than later.
As it happens, I have no problem with this message. I fully support the right of consenting adults to organise themselves into whatever wacky sexual configurations they feel like. I wish every one of the carefully-selected rainbow of racially and sexually diverse couples giving their vox pops on the show nothing but happiness in their chosen lifestyles.
What I do have a problem with, however, is intellectual dishonesty. The film cites evidence from evolutionary biology and anthropology, no doubt intended to lend the whole affair an air of scientific credibility in the mind of a layperson. I would contend that the account that they give of the field is so selective and biased as to be seriously misleading.
Early on, the film explains the argument that differences in the sexual behaviour and attitudes of the two sexes evolved as a result of unequal parental investment. For a woman to reproduce takes considerable time and energy, which imposes a rather strict cap on the number of children a woman can potentially have. Men, on the other hand, can have a virtually infinite number of offspring, and thus have a strong evolutionary imperative to be “randy bastards”. So far, so good. This is an entirely mainstream, uncontroversial concept in the field of evolutionary psychology.
But wait! “There's one big issue with that explanation of promiscuous possessive men and demure women,” the narrator tells us. Cut to Christopher Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn. He informs us that hunter-gather societies, in which Homo sapiens lived for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the dawn of civilization, were “fiercely egalitarian”. The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker has written extensively on “the myth of the noble savage”: the persistent but, he argues, inaccurate view that our ancient ancestors enjoyed harmonious and just societal conditions. But even if, for the sake of argument, we grant this dubious premise, Ryan then makes the considerable leap that “there's no reason to think our ancestors shared everything except sexual partners”.
The film cites two examples of sexually permissive indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples that continued to exist into modern times. The first is an account by a Jesuit missionary of his conversation with a member of the Nazkapi (a Native American tribe) who reportedly said that “You French people love only your own children; but we all love all the children of our tribe”. In the face of all the serious anthropological literature that exists, the fact that the film-makers saw fit to include an anecdote from the 17th century is surely enough to ring some alarm bells. The second example is better: the Bari tribe of Venezuela, who practice “partible paternity”, i.e. the belief that all of a woman's sexual partners share the fatherhood of her child. This account of their society checks out, and it is fascinating, but this kind of de facto polyandry (one wife, many husbands) is so vanishingly rare that it can be considered the exception that proves the rule. (That rule would be polygyny, but more on that later.) As far as we know, partible paternity is largely confined to a handful of tribes in the Amazon basin, though the idea may have independently popped up in ancient Hawaii too.
The documentary now takes a sojourn into the animal kingdom, accurately pointing out that our two closest relatives, the chimpanzee and bonobo, have sexually promiscuous societies. They oversell the case by stating that “true monogamy is virtually unheard of the animal world”, a claim that is undercut a couple of minutes later when their own diagram of our closest evolutionary relatives correctly identifies gibbons as monogamous. Monogamy is indeed rare among animals, but by no means unheard of.
Back now to humans, and to the agricultural revolution that brought about the beginnings of civilization. Until now, the film would have the viewer believe, we had been happily having sex with whomsoever we pleased. But now that it had become possible to amass property and thus power, marriage was dreamed up as essentially a transactional arrangement to trade wealth and dominance between families and ultimately empires. (In actual fact, marriage appears on anthropologist Donald E Brown's list of human universals: it exists, in one form or another, in every human society ever studied.) This situation persisted, so the story goes, up until the 1700s, when Western civilization came up with the radical concept of marrying for romantic love.
What then follows is a bafflingly distorted account of the work of Charles Darwin. Historian Stephanie Coontz sets up the contrived narrative by arguing that the notion of marrying for love was a threat to the powers-that-were, so for some reason they had to push the idea that “men were aggressive and protective, women were nurturing and demure; they were opposites who complete each other”. “Male scientists” (it's worth watching the clip just to hear the narrator's tone, “male” is delivered almost as an epithet) like Darwin propped up this view, using “their theories... to explain Victorian gender roles”. The film quotes from Darwin's The Descent of Man (written in 1871, over a century after romantic, monogamous marriage had become commonplace in Europe): “Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness … [man] delights in competition, and this leads to ambition”.
I think what they are trying to do with this quotation is to paint Darwin as some stuffy old white guy with hopelessly outdated views. However, I would argue that this is a largely accurate description of the differences in average temperament between the sexes. Darwin was writing long before the development of the Big Five personality trait theory. One of the big five is Agreeableness, explained by Weisberg et al (2011) as follows: “Agreeableness comprises traits relating to altruism, such as empathy and kindness. Agreeableness involves the tendency toward cooperation, maintenance of social harmony, and consideration of the concerns of others (as opposed to exploitation or victimization of others). Women consistently score higher than men on Agreeableness and related measures”. So, just as Darwin's evolutionary theory predicted the existence of genes a century before the discovery of DNA, it predicted the results of psychometric personality tests long before these tests existed. Interestingly, sex differences in personality traits are “most pronounced in European and American cultures in which traditional sex roles are minimized” (Costa et al, 2001). Thus, Darwin's observations are even more true of 21st century Western culture than the Victorian society in which he lived!
The film then concludes with a mention of polyamory, suggesting that this might be the way of the future. So, the take home message is that our natural, pre-civilization state was one of free love, then monogamy was imposed upon us for ten thousand years or so by, I guess, the patriarchy, and now it's time to rethink that. However, the film-makers do not once mention polygamy, or more specifically, polygyny; a Martian watching this would have no idea that societies ever existed where a man took multiple wives. I appreciate that this is an 18-minute documentary, but still, this is a startling omission. It's as if they made a show about the Windows operating system and compared it to - I don't know – Haiku, without a word about MacOS.
The film describes our third-closest relatives, gorillas, as having a “promiscuous” society. In fact, high-status male gorillas have harems, with exclusive sexual access to several females. If we look at extant human hunter-gatherer societies, we see a mixture of lifelong monogamous marriage (either through courtship or arranged by others), serial monogamy (as one could argue is practiced today in Western culture), and polygyny. To give just a handful of examples, the Dogon of Mali, the Kipsigis of Kenya, the Xavante of Brazil, and the Yanomamo of Venezuela are polygynous. However, it's not until after the agricultural revolution that we see polygyny taken to extremes, with kings and emperors enjoying harems of hundreds or thousands of concubines. While the heyday of polygyny is behind us, polygynous marriages are still legally recognised in several African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian countries to this day. One wonders why they did not choose to include a Cameroonian or Pakistani man and his multiple wives in their vox pop lineup.
There is actually an interesting discussion to be had about the conditions that lead to a society being monogamous as opposed to polygynous. One can calculate how sexually egalitarian a society is by measuring the “reproductive skew”, which is the variance in the level of reproductive success between individuals of the population; think of the Gini coefficient, but for offspring. For the biological reasons discussed above, there tends to be greater variance for males than females. The highest male skews are found in polygynous societies: for men, there is a big gap between the sexual haves and have-nots. Modern European societies have among the lowest skews observed in the world (Brown et al, 2009). Viewed this way, monogamous marriage can be seen as a kind of sexual socialism for men.
Admittedly, this discussion is probably beyond the scope of an 18-minute documentary. Nevertheless, I think it's reasonable to hope that this film could act as a jumping off point, giving interested viewers the required background to explore issues like this further. Unfortunately, any layperson watching this would come away with a hopelessly distorted view of the field of evolutionary anthropology. Through dishonest cherry-picking and misrepresentation of the literature, this show has, in my view, completely failed in its titular mission: to explain. Rather, its purpose appears to be to persuade the viewers of the merits of a particular worldview.
 

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Great post! I think the importance of monogamous marriage to civilised societies is not adequately understood by most people. The frequent argument that non-monogamy is somehow more enlightened or better for society than monogamy is not supported by any evidence. Another thing to consider is the marriage premium - that married men earn more than comparable unmarried men, and the fact men are less likely to commit crimes when they are married.
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   5mo ago
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Thanks for the comment. I'd be wary of potentially confusing correlation with causation when it comes to the marriage premium though. While it's plausible that getting married makes men more law-abiding and productive, it seems just as likely that being law-abiding and productive makes a man more likely to find (and keep) a partner.
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Scientifically accurate. Factual. Not rosy.
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Monogamy and polygamy are favored in different specific environments:
1) Polygamy is possible only where mothers take all or the greater majority of the burden of rising the offsprings. Males are just preoccupied to inseminate them and chase away competing males (bacause they would inseminate the females and kill his offsprings) 2) Monogamy is possible only where the mother is unable to take care alone of her offspring. The father MUST cooperate with the mother and "provide" food. (1) is very popular in Africa, where females can raise food alone without the help of the dominant male. In that society males are more occupied in war, dominant males capture the vast majority of the females, not dominant males try to attack nearby tribes and rape womens. Paternity is very uncertain, so there can not be a large paternal investment. Men are selected to be mean, strong, ruthless. Young females are assertives and keep young males at bay, bending to the will only of the older, stronger dominant ones. The society produce a surplus of young males. They are disposed off with war, enslaving them and often selling them away as slaves. (2) is popular in Europe and more north you go, more popular it gets. Hunters there hunted large animals, a dangerous job, not suited for women and needing a large degree of cooperation (more interpersonal trust and so on). Males are away from females for a long time hunting. Females evolved under selective pressure to attract male attention at young age (hair color, eyes color, submissiveness, fealty). Female evolved to be monogamous. Falling for a male not willing or able to provide would cause the death of her offspring or her offsprings' offsprings (because providing is a mainly hereditary feature). In this environment there would be a surplus of females and only the most attractive would be able to secure a good provider. Males would be selected to be cooperative with other males and respectful of other property. In a seasonally harsh environment, males and females would be selected for accumulating resources in the good time (spring/summer) cooperating with others and would have large advantages planning for the distant future. In tropical environments, accumulation of food would be difficult (it would rot easily) and dangerous (would attract other males attentions). Not being burdened by the need to defend your possessions and family from continuous attacks would allow civilization to form and enlarge. If every male has a female to reproduce with, he has the incentive to provide to her and their offsprings and no time or reason to attack other males and rape other females. Women are attracted by polyandrous societies because they appear to get a lot of resources for their offsprings, no matter who is the father. And the women choose the father. For this reason, no polyandrous society can scale, because bigger it get, smaller is the share of males able to reproduce with the females. A woman can have just many children. If she can choose whatever male she prefer in a group of ten, a share of them get laid. But if they can choose in a group of hundred, the same number will get laid and the other will end childless. The exploited don't reproduce. In a polygamous society, women are monopolised by a small number of dominant males (usually dominant with force) and the men able to reproduce are the most violent and vicious that are able to chase off the less dominant. And they keep women closed up and warded off to prevent other males to steal them. Any advanced and sophisticated civilization MUST limit to the bare minimum the polygamy and the polyandry. And many did with religion and harsh punishment. Otherwise the males are too prone to infight and mistrust or they have no real stake in defending the females at all. It is all about incentives and what you want to get with the incentive structure.
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