Monogamy, polygamy and social chaos

So I am under the impression that in polygamous cultures, the most wealthy and powerful men monopolize all the women, which makes all the men at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole have more to gain and less to lose by acting crazy and doing things like committing crimes or trying to overthrow the social order in an effort to gain status, power and income which can be used to attract a mate. They don’t have wives or kids to help them feel they have as much to lose as someone with a family would.

Whereas in monogamous species, that isn’t as much of a concern because most everyone has a mate.

This may have been a motivation for some religions implementing monogamy.

In animal species or in human history, is this borne out? Do cultures or species where an alpha male monopolizes all the women cultures where all the beta males are more violent and unstable than more monogamous species and cultures?

Does monogamy lead to more social and political stability among males? Does polygamy lead to more chaos, creativity or achievement among males (however you define achievement and creativity in historical societies or other species)?

What? I mean, seriously, what?

I’ve always heard it the other way around: In a violent culture, a lot of men get killed off in warfare or other fighting, which leaves a lot of widows who have to be cared for. So polygyny is instituted to make sure all the excess women who are left can have someone to be married to.

In other words, the violence is the cause of the polygyny, not the polygyny of the violence.

I’ve always heard it put the way Wesley Clark does. For example, I’ve heard that idea used to predict general unrest and possibly warfare in China and India thanks to the gender imbalance they’ve inflicted upon themselves.

As I’ve heard it put in the past, polygyny is more a matter of natural human inclinations, especially female ones; women tend to flock to the dominant males. Polygyny isn’t so much “instituted” as it is formalized; polygyny is the human norm as much as anything is. Monogamy is more artificial, designed to make sure that the great majority of men have access to a woman.

Mild polygamy is the norm for the human species. This means the small number of men with power and resources have multiple wives, most men have one or maybe two, and some men (probably a few more than in a monogamous system) never marry.

The second part of your sentence doesn’t follow from the first. Males flock to the most physically attractive females, just as females flock to dominant males. Neither trend is evidence that polygamy is more natural than monogamy.

If I had to guess as to which is the most natural, I’d say serial monogamy.

polygamy can work “fine” in an open system. I.e. when you can import (most likely by capture/enslavement) women from neighboring groups whose welfare you don’t care about. That way the frustration of the poor young men without wives can be channeled into the aggressive warfare abroad that will, among other things, lead to the capture of the additional women. So in a sense there is still a lot of chaos, but it is chaos inflicted on other people, not on your own society, at least in the ideal case. Perhaps something a lot like this was (or is) happening as part of the Darfur genocide.

Of course the problem with the above is that when young men are engaged in wars of conquest they are not engaged in productive work which is what drives the long term prosperity of the nation.

Well, and it can also work on purely consensual basis if the polygamous society is richer or has other ways to attract female immigrants from poorer ones (this screws the donor society too, if not as intensely as war). I don’t have the stats available to argue for or against the proposition that the early Mormons had many more female converts than males, hence making polygamy make at least some sense, but I have seen this claimed.

My though is this:
The underlying purpose of religion and even social mores is to maintain social order.

A big problem with sex is of course that until the last few decades, it had the regular possibility of resulting in children - so the need was to have someone provide for that children. Shotgun marriages, and the strong social pressure for women to abstain outside of marriage was specifically to try to prevent such problems.

The other problem, as anyone who’s spent an evening in a rowdy bar can attest, is that women cause fights just by being there. When males flock to attractive females, absent serious social controls, fights follow. (I suppose to some extent catfights follow flocking females…)

As a result, most societies have a set method of saying “this woman belogs to this man”. It solves several problems - men who go after someone else’s woman have been fair game; in places like Spain, IIRC, it was common to escape conviction if you shot your wife’s lover and even the wife . The husband was presumed to be the parent of any child born in wedlock, and obliged to support them.

Similarly, countries with legal polygamy have the concurrent obligation that the husband must support all those wives. I would suspect it is less about women wanting to flock, since in a lot of those countries the woman has little choice. More likely it is about prestige and position. and supporting family. Marriage has always been a way to cement relationships between families and clans; it conveniently unloads those girls old enough to leave the nest on someone else who can better make use of them. Sadly in all this, women in many societies have been treated as property.

Whether they are called wives, concubines, or mistresses, most societies have had a way for a man to indulge himself to the extent he can affford and get away with.

I’m not sure the imbalance or shortage of women leads to that much social unrest; after all, the average wifeless Joe can always aspire to become a married man eventually, and that’s a social restraint; for every Sultan with 300 wives, there are probably a million who can only afford the one wife. Society is full of large groups unmarried, unattached aggressive young men regardless of the social norms - sailors and soldiers are legendary for their behaviour on and of duty. Society has evolved various means, such as strict discipline, to handle them.

The social norms are full of means to handle unattached women. The early Isrealites, for example, could have multiple wives; had to marry the dead brother’s wife i.e. support her, whether you wanted to or not, Onan! Joseph similarly was obliged to take in Mary for some reason. Solomon’s problem wasn’t dividing up babies, but finding time for wives…

I also wonder about social inclinations to monogamy. You find interesting variations through history; even many primitive societies had the multiple wives for the chief or others. That way, one single widow was not left unsupported. (Although there is the scene in “A Man Called Horse” about the old lady whose husband dies; they take all “his” things and leave her to die in the snow, since what good is an old woman?) Rome, IIRC, had one wife in Rome and one foreign wife? Wasn’t that the Cleopatra story? They also had a much more free divorce system, provided the wife was supported.

I’m not sure where our Christian monogamatic heritage came from, although I once heard some comments in college about St. Paul and his dislike of women and admiration of the Greek lifestyle - the Greeks, IIRC did have a more monogamatic inclination.

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. There is plentiful evidence to support these conclusions from anthropological studies of various cultures. (There’s grounds to dispute the political leanings in that article, but I don’t know anyone who disputes the empirical evidence.) Polygamy is a bad system that lets a handful of men at the top of the social ladder exploit women and denies most men the chance to get married. The consequences are exactly as you describe.

No it isn’t. It may have been the norm in the distant past, when humanity was divided into primitive tribes, but monogamy is the norm now.

At least in some societies, polygamy is used to enforce the social order, by creating a stranglehold on the supply of females. As in, if you (young male) support and work with the system, you will eventually get to be a patriarch with multiple wives. If you rebel, you’ll remain wifeless forever. Note that polygamy doesn’t change the fundamental sex ratio: it simply means that young males go wifeless until they’re old and grey, and then if they’ve “made it” in society get to have multiple wives. And presumably when patriarchs die they often leave younger widows. In other words it concentrates the supply of available females in time as much as in distribution.

But most women don’t accept multiple partners, and those that do are sanctioned with the epithet of “whore”.

It’s the cultural norm “now”, but what about the biological norm?

Which can easily be attributed to societal mores, not necessarily biology.

Why do so many women get murderously jealous when men lust after other women, if polygamy is our natural inclination? You could blame it on our social programming, but that only validates my point.

While culture is certainly part of it, there are biological reasons behind it. Biologically speaking, reproduction is the primary purpose of sex. From that point of view, a single man can productively have sex with multiple women, even in rapid succession, but a woman can at most productively have sex with about one man a year (allowing for a period of reduced fertility shortly after birth).

There’s a couple of ways of telling whether a species is poygynous (one male mates with multiple females) or polyandrous (one female mates with multiple males) or both. For example, one metric of polyandry is sperm competition, which is selected for when females habitually mate with multiple males during the same fertile cycle. From those metrics that have been reasonably well studied in humans, we can deduce that over evolutionary time humans have been both weakly poygynous and weakly polyandrous, but to a lesser degree than most primates and, indeed, most other mammals. The preponderance of evidence is that humans are designed to pair-bond (and also to breed cooperatively, i.e., with other relatives and older children helping out).

This overlooks the fact that simply getting a woman pregnant was not sufficient for reproduction over evolutionary time. Humans are not self-supporting until about age 15 (in primitive cultures), and need more than one adult to provide resources for them (especially during the mother’s late pregnancy and the child’s infancy, when the mother’s motility is restricted). Successful reproduction, for the majority of men over the majority of human existence, has involved either significant parental resource investment or cuckolding another man who will unwittingly provide that investment. This limits sucessful polygyny to the most resource-rich or appealing men. For women, on the other hand, being able to command resources from multiple males is highly beneficial; the most straightforward way is to keep the parantage of children ambiguous, such that several men will believe themselves the father and contribute. Men have historically sought to discourage this, for obvious reasons.

I think significant disparities in wealth is a relatively recent phenomenon in mankind’s history. A dominant male distinguishes himself from others by the amount of resources he has or potentially has. But distinguishing himself in that way would have been difficult to do in the days of hunting and gathering, because bringing down that buffalo or wooly mammoth required a lot of help from others. Even if a man was somehow able to kill more animals than his tribemates, having to share his kill with multiple women would mean it’s highly these women would get less meat than those being courted by a less skilled, monogamous man. The amount of work necessary to keep multiple women happy would probably not be worth the hassle.

The size of human communities should also be considered. I’m not an expert in this area, but it seems to me the “tribes” of most polygamous animals (like lions) are very small. You don’t have a whole bunch of single males coexisting with multiple alpha lions and their harems. You mainly just have a male and his females. This arrangment would not work with humans for the same reasons pointed out above: multiple males are needed for hunting and community security.

But the spoils from such hunts are not equally distributed; the high-status males get a disproportionate share, and the lowest-status males may get little or nothing. On the other hand, big-game hunting is probably a relatively small contributor to human evolutionary biology. In modern primitive societies, the amount of food gathered by individual adults can differ by 2 or 3-fold, depending on skill, and an even larger degree dependent on status and personality (other men are more likely to cooperate in hunting or farming with men who are skilled, liked and respected).

Lions prides are family units, not social groups. Most primates are social, and most primates are polygynous; the dominant males mate with as many females as they can and the lowest-ranking males won’t mate at all (unless a female decides to sneak off with him to where the dominant males can’t see them).

In general, the degree of monogamy/polygyny depends on parental investment by the male, not on living arangements; wolves live in family groups and are (largely) monogamous, lions live in family groups and are polygynous, chimps live in social groups and are polygynous, humans live in social groups and are (comparatively) monogamous. The difference is that male wolves and humans contribute substantially to the care and feeding of their offspring, male chimps do so only slightly and lions pretty much don’t at all.

The Straightdope shows its weaknesses, an overwhelming reliance on theory again.

Lets take a look at countries where polygamy is not verboten, even there the majority of marriages are monogamous, and by majority I mean something like 98%.

Practically speaking, there are’nt many women who want to be a second wife of a man, and even fewer married women who wish to see there husbands get married off.

Not to mention family pressures; on both sides, taking a second wife means you have just made yourself persona non grata with your wifes family; and are not probably that popular with the second womans family.

In addition very likley your own family won’t like you much either.

So unless you are super rich and powerful; not bloody worth it.

The typical patterns for polgynous groups - take the horse as an example: thre is the typical “harem” herd, with one male and his females and their young offspring; then there are the herds of unattached males, waiting for a chance to knock off some old stallion and take his herd.

The local mores (European, Christian heritage) may be mongamy, but many other cultures do have polygamous traditions - not just primitive ones. I have heard that some muslim countries enforce a 4-wife limit. Others have unlimited wives. Some places, like China, seem to have embraced the monogamy concept recently.

Regardless, psychologically we are better prepared for single-pair bonding. It is usually the imbalance of power that allows multiple wives; the women tend to have limited say in what happens.

The other question I have is economic- although multiple wives are permitted, to what extend does anyyone other than the very top group in society manage to afford multiple wives?

And yes, good point, if the 60-yo keeps marrying, there will be a large number of young widows available.