Polygamy: Bachelor Herd Problems

Thursday, March 23, 2006
From William Tucker's article entitled "Polygamy and Me" in today's American Spectator:

"Both high-status men and low-status women are liberated by polygamy. As the old saying has it, men "date down and marry up." With polygamy you can do both. Meanwhile, the losers are: 1) high-status women, who must share their mate with lower-status females, and 2) low-status men, who don't get to mate at all.

It's that last one that causes trouble. Every society and species that practices polygamy is plagued with a "bachelor herd" of unmated males who are very unhappy with their lot. Competition among males becomes much more violent because the stakes are so high. You either score with a couple of females or you don't mate at all. Male fruit flies artificially bred to be monogamous have proved to be much less aggressive with other males. Take away that monogamous contract and your peaceful society disappears with it."


Seneca the Younger said...

If this were true, you'd expect polygamous countries to have higher murder rates than monogamous ones.

According to this the top 10 countries in terms of murder rates (by a good bit, it's another powerlaw distribution):

#1 Colombia
#2 South Africa
#3 Jamaica
#4 Venezuela
#5 Russia
#6 Mexico
#7 Estonia
#8 Latvia
#9 Lithuania
#10 Belarus

Of the top ten, only one (South Africa) is polygamous.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Well, your conclusion doesn't necessarily follow Seneca. Because there are other factors.

Seneca the Younger said...

Doesn't necessarily follow, no. On the other hand, it doesn't do the argument a helluva lot of good.

It just always seems to me to come around to the same argument: polygamous societies are unstable. Well, actually, polygamous societies have lasted as long as ours have, and seem to be holding up fine; in fact, it's certainly only been within the last hundred years or so that polygamy wasn't by far dominant (since polygamy is legal in India and was in China).

Polygamous societies are more violent: except that they aren't. Sure there are other factors, but, well, polygamy sure doesn't seem to be a good predictor, does it? (And what's up with the Balts for God's sakes?)

Polygamy puts us inevatibly on the slippery slope to the end of monogamous marriage --- except, apparently, in all the places, over all the years, in which it's been tried.

It comes down to "polygamy is icky". But lots of people think eating snails is icky. Me, I love snails.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Well, murder rates seem to be highest in relatively monogamous nominally Christian societies. How about different forms of violence, such as suicide bombings? What are the stats in that case?

truepeers said...

From Seneca's link: "DEFINITION: Total recorded intentional homicides, completed. Crime statistics are often better indicators of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report crime, than actual prevalence."

And what percentage of homicides in say, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or even India should we guess go reported? Especially when the victim is angry wife number three, the dirty Indonesian maid, or that loser brother of dad's fourth wife who no one liked anyway?

In a polygamous tribal society, men are controlled by their uncles, cousins, etc. The clan polices its own, with whatever violence it deems necessary. If I live in sufficient fear of my clansmen so that I kill no one (and if I do they take care of the matter, far away from the eyes of any kind of modern state recorder) but i instead bugger the smaller kids, go to war, rape, or thievery with my brothers against the neighboring tribe, sect, etc., does that mean I am living in a less violent culture than Columbia's where a modern state exists to record its own dismemberment? How on earth can one really measure levels of violence in its many forms? Consider, for example, that many internally relatively orderly societies are also the most violent in respect to their capacity to wage war.

In a seriously polygamous society, there can be no state anything like the western state with its supposed duty to monopolize violence and punish murderers, because such states depend on the sovereignty of the extended family giving way to the state. The Roman church battled the extended family in western Europe for a thousand years to make the modern western state eventually possible.

Can Seneca name one seriously polygamous country that has ever had a highly productive public life - a civil society marked by a high degree of co-operation and freedom - or an economy in which most of its members (not just a privileged elite) work together in any kind of integrated way, the way that industrial or communications-intensive modernity demands? I can think of none.

It doesn't come down to polygamy is icky. It comes down to common sense about which kinds of society evidence the greater degrees of freedom and consequent social, economic, political, industrial, and scientific complexity. Which kinds of society are the most successful, powerful, creative? Just name one, but one, polygamous society that has proven effective in the laboratory of history since the rise of the west with its distinctive nuclear families, a model that every economically ambitious country is presently copying.

In fact, societies with small nuclear families (and consequently much greater individual dependency on the national "family" or culture) are so effective in the modern marketplace and military-industrial games, that the most powerful societies today cannot even produce enough children to sustain themselves without immigrants. And it is only because of this Achilles heel, which begets a loss of faith in ourselves and our culture, that people are foolish enough to romanticize less developed cultures and construct moral equivalencies where none can be seriously shown to exist, from the perspective of any truly held ethical position, whether this belongs to a monogamous or polygamous culture.

Only if western society collapses, as it may, can a serious economic or political argument - judging degrees of freedom in the system - be made for polygamy. And I can't help but wonder if those who would defend polygamy want such a collapse to happen. I'm not saying Seneca is defending polygamy, but he's not exactly defending monogamy either. But if this is so, what Olympian ethical neutrality does he claim? Perhaps he defers to further scientific investigation? But such an attitude, along with the relativizing liberal attitude that so often goes with it, is not really an ethically neutral stance, despite what some of its believers hold; it is merely a temporary deferral of judgment according to the rules of a world that allows such deferral; and i would dare say, with all due respect, that this attitude is an outgrowth of the kind of western culture that first emerged by teaching its followers to shun their extended families in favour of a family in Christ. To quote one of several applicable Biblical passages:

"But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.

And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.

But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.
(Matthew XXIII)

terrye said...

I have to admit, as a woman I could care less. I think people make too big a deal out of something like this. My cousin only had one husband at a time but she married the first one when she was 14. That bothers me more.

Eric Blair said...

"or that loser brother of dad's fourth wife who no one liked anyway?"


David Thomson said...

"Can Seneca name one seriously polygamous country that has ever had a highly productive public life.."

This is the key question. The answer, of course, is an unambiguous no. No viable society is possible if polygamy is the norm. Only the much derided nuclear family can accomplish this goal.

Senaca seems to imply that opposition to polygamy is merely a matter of personal preference. This is not even slightly accurate. Many studies conclude that polygamy leaves much to be desired for the children brought up in such an arrangement.

Seneca the Younger said...

Um, truepeers, I don't think I'm the guy you're gonna convince with biblical arguments.

Okay, let's see. MHA, actually, by far the most suicide attackers came from an officially monogamous country. More than 2500 suicide attackers died. Different war though. Sure, the kamikaze didn't walk into bars, but how far can we define the question before we're forcing a particular answer?

Back to true, yeah, I can name several pretty successful polygamous societies, the most obvious one being China: 5000 years of continuous history, for most of that time the most advanced civilization on the planet. "Conquered" several times, with the interesting effect that within a generation or two, the "conquerors" had adopted the Chinese culture. Tells us that culture was pretty enduring.

As far as statistics, okay, you don't like my statistics, let's look at another one: there are about 5 percent of marriages that are polygamous. But there are, eg in Saudi Arabia, 12 males for every 10 females. Even if the unavailability of breeding opportunities is the issue, polygamy isn't causing it.

The thing with all of these arguments is that we start saying things like "can you name a successful society that..." without defining a "successful" society. A whole lot of the measures that you might choose (and that I might even agree with in some discussions) are measures by which there's only been one successful society in human history.

Peter UK said...

One result of large extended families,is that young unattached males are expendable,in fact,it is a positive good to the tribal unit that surplus unproductive males can be disposed of in warfare.
This is the ancient model whereby slaves,especially women,could be captured from other tribes if need be.
The system does depend on the subjugation of women since they have to be kept away from the unattached males,this result in restrictions on social interaction.

Seneca the Younger said...

This is the key question. The answer, of course, is an unambiguous no. No viable society is possible if polygamy is the norm. Only the much derided nuclear family can accomplish this goal.

Tell it to the Chinese.

Come on, David, do you think history started in 1900?

loner said...

The Roman church battled the extended family in western Europe for a thousand years to make the modern western state eventually possible.

That's not why they did it. Would the Roman Catholic church mind, provided it wielded its former power, if the great masses of its believers remained in the thrall of those evils represented by two childen in Kirwan's Again & Again and Dickens' A Christmas Carol:

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

'Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!' exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be a party to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

'Spirit! are they yours?' Scrooge could say no more.

'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!' cried the Spirit, stretching out his hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!'

'Have they no refuge or resource?' cried Scrooge.

'Are there no prisons?' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. 'Are there no workhouses?'

The bell struck twelve.

I think not.

I make no argument for contractual polygamy in opposition to contractual monogamy. At the same time, I don't see contractual polygamy as any more a threat to "civilization" provided that, like a great many other contractual societal relationships, it is confined to consenting adults.

I don't reccommend it, but Our Lady of the Assassins is set in the Roman Catholic country which heads Seneca's list. It's fiction, but...

Seneca the Younger said...

Peter, the thing I don't understand is something I noticed while looking at polygamous countries in the CIA factbook: the Arabian countries seem to have sex ratios of 1.2:1 to 1.3:1. Its not polygamy --- other polygamous countries have sex ratios in line with the usual, ie, about 0.99:1.

The "lack of breeding opportunities" hypothesis may have something to it, but polygamy isn't what's causing it.

Syl said...

Why do you assume polygamy = man with several wives?

If so I'm totally agin' it.

However, if women could have several husbands, well, I might give it a second look.


terrye said...

I am with Syl. They could run in shifts, everybody gets some time off. Everybody is happy.

I don't know if you guys read much fiction but I recommend Anita Diamont's 'The Red Tent'. It is a very interesting account of polygamy [among other things] in biblical times. I found it fascinating and very well written.

truepeers said...

lol Terrye, i can't quite imagine you being a happy number three wife, if it meant being told what to do by number one. What makes you think all the wives would/could co-operate and be happy? Where would they get the idea to do that, let alone the will and the patience, if not from a culture that had long played down familial hierarchies and rights in the first place?

When you are all equal and co-operating, how are you going to divvy up hubbie's time, affections and presents? Realistically, if happy threesomes and foursomes could readily exist, without submission, they would be much more common in our society, whatever the law. But love triangles, so tempting to begin with, almost always fail, according to those who live to tell the stories. At least that's what the movies say ;)

truepeers said...


I think it's inevitable that history's winners get to write the history that makes them into the exemplar of a successful society. Even today's academic historians, so keen to remember the victims of history, are the exemplars of a culture that has won out by struggling to move beyond the sacrficial violence of its forebears, by respecting victims (to the point now where we cannot take claims of victimhood at face value).

In time, nothing is permanent and there will be new winners and new stories, so of course no one has the final word.
But even if we want to be highly liberal and remember all the things that could have turned out differently, all the losers who could have been winners if not for the small matter of xyz, all the roads not taken, we remain stuck with the fact that humans will mostly choose proven success for their models. We can only know for sure what has worked, not what might have been. The freer societies tend to win out in wars and so one's survival depends on copying them. And making an idol of freedom usually can't hurt.

Of course, i'm not saying there has only been one successful society in history. My question was what society has been able to compete with the west since the rise of the nuclear family (which I admit has been, until very recently, more the exception than the rule in human society.) It's not that I'm confident the west will remain dominant forever; i suspect it may be on its last legs. But if CHina, e.g., rises again to take a dominant place, i rather think it will be with a hybrid Chinese-western (Buddhist/Daoist/Christian) culture, featuring, among other things, a widespread preference for nuclear families.

In the past, CHina may well have exemplified the degree of success possible in a society that practiced polygamy. But when in ran into a handful of western traders, missionaries, and soldiers, it began to fall apart. And in struggling to recover from this shock at its relative weakness, it has, among other things, embraced the nuclear family. Why did they make this choice?

In the future, CHina will have many obstacles to overcome. It is still much more a land of regional war lords and cronyism where big men rule, where the economy remains largely focussed on exports, since a well-integrated domestic market has yet to evolve, lacking the rule of law and political democracy that would ease such development. Arguably, China's domestic problems remain part of the legacy of polygamy that they have yet fully to overcome.

truepeers said...


I'm still struggling to fully grasp your point. True the church could not have had the modern state fully in mind when it encouraged such things as officially celibate priests, inheritance laws that favored the church, banning marriage of cousins, etc. The modern state was only made possible as a not entirely predictable outcome of the church's struggle against the extended family.

Obviously in accruing wealth and power at the expense of families the church became an instrument for both much evil and good. You can point to neglected children, or you can point to the countless social welfare institutions that arose under the church. Or, you could point at the good or the evil in polygamous cultures, to the cows come home. But, at the end of the day, would you rather live in Saudia Arabia or Italy?

Peter UK said...

If there is a variation from the statistical norm,it is likely there is some other mechanism at work.For example the low status of women might lead to terminations and the infanticide of female, as in China.

Sorry ladies,the system is one man multiple wives lots of children,one wife and multiple husbands does not produce more children.That is why polyandry is less common than multiple wives polygamy.

loner said...


I would rather live in Monterey, California.

You got my point.

terrye said...


Well I would be cast aside anyway because I have no children.

I think we need to keep these kinds of things in the context of their time and culture. I am not getting all multicultural here, but the cultures like that of the Chinese obviously worked for them for many years.

truepeers said...

Terrye, i wouldn't cast you aside. There are many ways to serve in a society worth serving.

Seneca the Younger said...

Truepeers, your whole argument depends upon the continuing assumption that Chinese society (among others) has "failed", including the notion that Chinese society has "fallen apart" since it was confronted by Western ideas.

Other than the fact that they persist in talking funny and eating weird stuff, on what basis are you supposing that Chinese society has failed? And as far as the notion that the winners write the histories, I don't think the Chinese think they're the losers --- nor have they stopped writing their own histories.

truepeers said...

Other than the fact that they persist in talking funny and eating weird stuff, on what basis are you supposing that Chinese society has failed?

-a lot of internal war, revolution, famine and political failures, causing many tens of millions of premature deaths, not to mention massive social displacements. But of course we cannot speak of any total failure, only of a relative loss of world historical leadership.

It should be clear i wasn't dismissing the Chinese. After all, i said nothign is permanent and China may well be a dominant power again. The question of who or what is and isn't dominant globally is often not in doubt. There are objective facts of the matter. I've known a lot of Chinese, in friendship and business, and most are not prone as westerners to deluding themselves in these matters, which is one reason why the CHinese economy presently thrives by imitating market leaders, and producing quality at a lower price.

Since I speak some Chinese and like their food, i don't find them as a whole particularly funny. Nor do I laugh when Chinese tell me that they are in a process of catching up with the west, after a short nap, or that polygamy is something that only went on in some past dark age they have largely forgotten. Talking to CHinese people, it is common to find that they think China suffered some major crises in the last hundred and fifty years. They expect eventually to be back in the lead. Maybe they will, maybe not.

It may be worth reflecting on why I, a westerner, can have these historical conversations with Chinese people while there are some cultures with which I couldn't have such conversation. For example, I tend to feel this inability about the Muslim world, at least when it is being represented by hardcore Islamists.

History is not simply a series of meaningful events, but a means of narrating these. Our esthetic means of narration embody ethical values that can be exchanged in some contexts, but not others. One cannot readily exchange narrative and ethics with members of highly ritual-bound socieities, because the myths and rituals of such societies do not propose "values", i.e ideas that can be put in commerce, but rather strict rules that prescribe uniquely correct behaviour. Only if you live your life by the rules do you really "know" the ethic and the myths that go with it.

But in societies like CHina and Canada today, ethics and the esthetics by which they are represented are readily exchanged. A wide array of Chinese culture is for sale within minutes of my door; and so much of this reflects back to me western values that have found their way to China - as, for example, when I watch a Chinese pop music video.

There are Chinese histories, and today they engage in an international exchange of narrative forms and esthetic values. In this sense, Chinese history has to engage with the "winners" (or previous successes) of history, in order to render specific CHinese experiences in narrative forms that can be exchanged with the wider world market of which CHina wishes to see itself a leading part. Thus you can read Chinese literature that is classical, romantic, modern and postmodern. They have distilled ethical lessons from each of these forms, notwithstanding the western colouration that their emergence first took, and they intend to build the CHinese future on top of them.

Rick Ballard said...

Polygamy is not finished in China. When I worked for an Italian company I met the wife of my counterpart in Hong Kong. She was the third daughter of the fourth wife of a Chinese gentleman who passed on in '98. Two of her eldest half brothers had three wives each. She had a total of 17 between full and half siblings - all of whom addressed all the wives as 'aunt', including their mothers.

The caste system in China lives on, quietly to be sure, but it's going to last longer than Communism will in China.

terrye said...


Perhaps you would not cast me aside because you want more in a wife than a breeder. In our culture polygamy is not acceptable, whatever the law may say most people here will not want to live like this. But other cultures are different. That does always make them bad.