Fiddle de dee, fiddle de dee,
The Fly has married the Bumblebee
Children’s Nursery Rhyme
Evolutionary psychologists tell us that monogamy is the most likely natural disposition of human beings when their mating patterns are considered. They draw this conclusion from the fact that whilst men are on average slightly bigger than women and generally somewhat stronger the imbalance is relatively small compared with other animal species. (There is another argument from evolutionary science regarding the size of the male testes which supports the thesis of human monogamy but I would prefer not to elaborate on that!)
In species where the male is considerably larger than the female, for example gorillas and elephant seals, it is normally the case that dominant males acquire harems. This ensures that the genes of the dominant male are given the greatest chance of successful replication. It is often the case also that on attaining dominance, the male will seek to kill the offspring of his predecessor to minimise the competition with the carriers of his own genes.
These differences in approaches to procreation (polygamy vs monogamy) are in fact evolutionary adaptations. It is instructive to compare chimpanzees and gorillas for example.
Gorillas are herbivores, eating the leaves and stems of green plants as well as some fruit. In the gorillas natural habitat plants are abundant but they are not very nutritious. Consequently, gorillas have a sedentary lifestyle and must spend a large portion of their waking hours eating. Hence groups of gorillas are stable and don’t wander far in their quest for food. As a result it is easier for dominant males to acquire and manage a harem. In such an environment male size matters because he has to try and monopolise a small harem of females and their immature young, driving away other males.
Chimpanzees on the other hand have a more variable diet. Not only do they eat fruit, but they supplement fruit with ants, termites and occasionally monkey meat. Now, in order to access such food chimpanzee troops must roam widely and keeping close control over a group of females would be impossible for a male. In this respect size is not such an advantage. Indeed because they spend a large part of their lives in tree, for chimpanzees agility is more important than size.
So amongst animals, for the reasons mentioned above, the dominant male in polygamous societies tends to be much larger than the females of his harem.
Anthropologists believe that our hunter-gatherer forbears were largely monogamous.
But ten thousand years or so ago, things took a different turn.
The development of agriculture, then farming communities and finally cities enabled some men to accumulate great wealth. These men were able to attract to themselves harems of women who, in exchange for their sexual favours, were offered protection and sustenance beyond that which they could obtain from their traditional households.
But polygamy seems to have been even more dominant in pastoralist societies. An owner of a large flock was compelled to keep on the move seeking out pasture for its constant nourishment. The flock constituted real wealth for its owner and it is probably not surprising that he (and it was always a male) picked up a few partners as he went. Now in human societies power does not necessarily come from physical size. In human polygamous societies, as they developed in recent millennia, power resulted from political and cultural influences and it wasn’t necessarily the largest man in the tribe that acquired the harem but the man of wealth – the owner of the flock.
These herders of sheep, goats, horses, cattle and camels dominated the history of much of Asia and the Middle East. They oversaw violent societies that competed for livestock, land and women. When they conquered new territory they would frequently kill all but the young women, who they would take as concubines. As a consequence of such tactics, Genghis Khan reputedly fathered thousands of children.
Polygamy in agrarian societies took a different form. By and large high status men had fewer wives than they did in pastoral societies. In some such societies, eg West Africa, a man of status would use his many wives not just to propagate many off-spring but as a source of labour to work his fields.
Anthropologists point out that the major beneficiaries of polygamy are the high status husbands who were able to access multiple sexual partners and low status women who gained some security and protection from the arrangement that they could not otherwise have accessed. On the other hand the principal losers were high status women, who struggled to woo a high status man who had his needs more than met by the easy access to multiple partners, and low status men whose ability to mate was severely curtailed by the profligate practices of the high status men.
Now while the main protagonists in the Old Testament practiced polygamy, most Christians believe that the New Testament forbids it. And whilst in Christian countries men of status often had many partners, by and large convention permitted them only one wife. The only exception has proved to be that aberrant sect, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called the Mormons. Even here polygamy was officially outlawed in 1890 even though it persists to this day in some fundamentalist Mormon communities.
However, polygamy continues to be practiced in many Muslim countries. Muhammad himself was reputed to have twelve wives. Many Muslim scholars interpret Islamic law such that a man may have up to four wives. Contemporary Islamic scholars argue that whilst up to four wives are permitted, one is preferred.
It is fair to say, however, except for fundamentalists, the overall tendency in history has been a move towards monogamy. Evolutionary psychologists point out that monogamy provides societal benefits.
It is believed that societies that moved towards monogamous marital relationships tended to:
- Improve social cohesion,
- Balance the sex ratio,
- Reduce the crime rate,
- Improve the lot of women, and
- Encourage men to work rather than fight.
These are all factors which enable societies to be more productive and less destructive. (One might argue that this is one of the reasons why fundamentalist Muslim societies have fallen behind in their material progress! Christians should perhaps be grateful that their Messiah never married even one woman let alone multiple partners!)
As has been pointed out by many scholars, culture, like most things is subject to evolutionary pressures. As human societies have developed there has been a movement towards monogamy because of the benefits related above. But monogamy as a cultural institution was based on some assumptions that are now being questioned.
Monogamy thrived in an environment where the male was the so-called “breadwinner”. In such societies men were paid a “family wage” in anticipation that they would have to provide for a family. Women were consequently paid less. It was also the case that some employers required women to give up paid employment on being married. Social reformers, far from wanting women to join the workforce, favoured the opposite. If their husbands were paid sufficiently well the wives and mothers could spend more time with their children. In essence they were trying to allow the wives of working class husbands to emulate the practice of middle-class women, who largely stayed at home to care for their children.
In more recent times three factors have arisen to threaten conventional concepts of monogamous marriage.
Firstly women have rightly demanded access to paid careers equivalent to men. As a result women’s remuneration has risen so that they are less dependent on men. In fact in many households wives earn more than their husbands.
Secondly the rise of the welfare state has also ensured unmarried women and their young dependent children are basically provided for. A husband is not needed for material support.
Thirdly the availability of contraception has enabled couples to enter into sexual relationships without the concern of being encumbered with offspring.
Many women resented the fact that monogamy was a virtual form of indentured servitude. The feminist movement challenged many of these traditional ideas.
Consequently, fewer women (and men) are committing to marriage. As well, with divorce now a far easier option than it was a generation or so ago, many more marriages are dissolving. The concept of marriage is now under threat.
Our marriage model is evolving. In some parts of society marriage has been abandoned and the practice of single motherhood adopted. These women are serviced by wandering polygamous men.
Some have speculated that this trend has been accelerated by the fact that many women in raising children see the support of other women – mothers, other family members and friends – as more helpful than having a man around. Or with these changing social mores, men no longer believe they have to hang around to support their children.
There is no doubt that the importance of marriage as a social institution is waning.
Monogamous marriage, to begin with, was a reasonably effective way of ensuring procreation with its ensuing responsibilities was suitably managed. In days gone by mothers, in general, did not have the resources to bring up children alone. It could be argued that the principal beneficiaries of marriage were women and children.
Today, with marriage on the decline and little indication that anything is evolving to effectively replace it, we see the proliferation of dysfunctional households.
By and large, the nuclear family was a pretty good model. Whilst we all know of exceptions, it seems logical that the family unit consisting of a mother and a father and their children, provided ongoing support and nurture which was reasonably satisfying to the parents and helped nurture the physical and psychological development of the offspring.
Marriage has been a central plank of our society for many centuries. As is usually the case with important institutions, committing to marriage has attracted grand ceremonies which not only serve to highlight its importance but also to commit the participants to its obligations. One is often tempted to surmise in modern society the attraction of the ceremonial aspects has often become more important than commitment to the attendant responsibilities. In serving to protect the likely progeny of such a union, such commitment is very important.
But it is difficult to see that the marriage commitment provides a societal benefit in situations where there are no progeny. It seems to me to be a rather strange development that now same-sex couples are clamouring to “marry”. It is as though they too want to share the ceremonial aspects even though the main reason for marriage, the support of ensuing offspring, will not be a factor in their union.
Nevertheless there is no doubt that the social institution of marriage is on the wane. What it evolves to is very difficult to predict. And who knows at the end there might not only be same-sex marriages but the fly might indeed marry the bumblebee.