Monday, March 01, 2004

So why is polygamy illegal?

One possible answer is that it in some way is protective of woman. But given that polygamy has been illegal in Europe during long periods where women had few rights this seems unlikely.

So does it benefit men? Evolutionary psychology would lead us to think so. The pattern of mate selection in our closest primate relative, the chimpanzee, is one where a dominant male monopolises sexual access to females. They run a harem, and if they had marriage contracts we would call this polygamy. Many mammals organise access to reproductive potential this way, gorillas and elephant seals are other examples.

One consequence of this is that for the majority of males there will be no opportunity for reproducing. So what better way of increasing one's reproductive chances than by ganging up on the alpha males and restricting their access to females? Chimpanzees have a rather limited set of social tools and this ganging up takes the form of temporary alliances which result in the replacement of one alpha male with another. Humans have recourse to far more sophisticated social tools such as laws. (Democracy could be seen as one way in which males - and now women - form allegiances to curtail the power of dominant males).

It is unlikely that this somewhat counter-intuitive argument, that anti-polygamy laws benefit men rather than women, would be readily accepted by most people. The polygamy issue has become moralised - we accept polygamy as being somehow morally wrong and have lost (or never had) the conscious connection to why it was originally proscribed - much like eating restrictions in some religions.

But this shifting of the issue to the moral mode is a very strong dynamic. Which goes some way to explaining why there is such strong opposition to gay marriage. Polygamy shows that we are very susceptible to placing restrictions on how marriage operates. What is happening now is that some are applying this restrictive tendency out of context, as it were, to gays. A not uncommon phenomenon.

If you feel like a little exercise in thinking through evolutionary theory try debunking this seemingly seductive article Homosexuality: Evolution of the human race?.

(One interesting point to note is why is it not possible to produce a human from two sperm or two eggs and is this claim actually true?)


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