Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Freedom From Monogamy Comes at a Price -- The Masai as an Illustrative Example

by Chris Masterjohn

Andrew over at Evolvify just linked to a new review of Sex at Dawn, a book that challenges our cultural standard of monogamy.  The review has been submitted to the journal Evolutionary Psychology:
The Human That Never Evolved
Although Andrew's post and the review itself inspired me to write this post, this post is not a response to the review or to Sex at Dawn.  I haven't read the book and I'm not familiar enough with the relevant literature to critique the book or assess the strength of the review.  Since I've been studying the Masai, however, I have a few thoughts to share about this non-monogamous culture.

First, I owe an apology to the authors of Sex at Dawn because when I had initially written this post last night I included some unnecessarily snarky remarks that could easily be construed as dismissive of or disparaging towards the book, and I gave the post a title that could at best be described as a headline grasping for attention at the expense of treating the authors and the book with charity and decency.  I intend my re-posting this with a new title and introduction to constitute a formal apology in that respect. 

In any case, I think when we consider challenges to monogamy we have to acknowledge that just as a cultural standard of monogamy requires the imposition of certain sanctions and the inculcation with certain ideas, polygamy and polyamory come with analogous but different requirements.

Some may see the prospect of a polyamorous cultural standard as one that would encourage carefree relations between men and women, a minimum of jealousy, and a broader network of support for children as they become children of the society at large rather than of a nuclear family.  I won't claim that the Masai represent all non-monogamous societies, and I won't claim that it is impossible for non-monogamous arrangements to produce this type of result, but I will at least say that to describe the Masai in this way would certainly be a fantasy.  Non-monogamous culture at least in this case doesn't come without its price.

Among the Masai, most men at any given time have only one wife, but the ideal is polygyny, a form of polygamy wherein men have more than one wife.  Men obtain more wives as they grow older.  Men who live very long and prosperous lives may accumulate four to eight wives, but this is rare.  The legendary 19th century prophet Mbatyan is said to have had over 200 wives, but he is also said to have been able to summon wind and fell trees without lifting a finger, so he was exceptional.

Marriage binds the husband to provide for and protect his wives and their children and to be a generous friend to his in-laws. It entitles the wife to use her husband's cattle and to obtain ownership over their milk and hides.  But it does not define the boundaries of appropriate sexuality.

Men are required to share their wives with any other men of their age-set.  Women insist that they only feel obligated to accept the sexual advances of their husband and that any other sex is entirely consensual.  In some early accounts, women even had the right to initiate sex with other married men.

The expectation to share spouses is part of the collectivist social organization of the Masai that demands extensive sharing.  While the pursuit of cattle and  large families is an individualist pursuit, it is only possible to Masai men who voluntarily submit to these collective expectations.  As Paul Spencer noted in Time, Space, and the Unknown: Maasai configurations of power and providence, "[a]ccording to the Maasai stereotype, a sorcerer is a nefarious individualist, creeping through the bush and bent on his own eccentric course in a society that constantly demands gregarious sharing."  The sorcerer, of course, is generally an unobserved bogey-man, but this stereotype demonstrates how Masai view men who aren't interested in conforming to social expectations of sharing.  They certainly aren't going to give away their daughters in marriage to such a man.

Is this spouse-sharing carefree, unencumbered by any jealousy?  Hardly.

Masai women suppress sexual jealousy by telling and retelling stories of women who have gone insane because of their sexual jealousy.  The women in these stories are invariably foreigners, because no Masai woman could be so unwise as to let herself be overcome by such jealousy.  For men, the expectations are more stringent.  If a man complains that his wife has had sex with another man, his age-mates will collectively punish him with a fine of nine head of cattle.

In installment two of part 1 of my ongoing Masai series over at Mother Nature Obeyed, I described a situation in which a man beat his three wives.  One of his wives, Kisaru, explained that he accused them of beating the children, but used this as a cover for his suspicion that they had slept with other men while he'd been away on a long trip.  Why would he use this as a cover?  Because the fine for complaining that they'd slept with other men would be nine head of cattle.  It was much cheaper for him to come up with some other lame excuse to beat his wives.

Thankfully, there are a number of social factors that mitigate wife-beating in Masai society, including strict limitations of when it is allowed that would theoretically preclude a husband from beating his wife during a fit of anger, the right of women to collectively fine husbands that mistreat their wives during the organization of their fertility rituals, and the tight social cohesion that allows in-laws to intervene.  Indeed, in the case above, the man stopped beating his wives as soon as his in-law told him to. 

All anthropologists I have read thus far have concluded that severe wife-beating is quite rare.  When it does occur, it is probably over married women having sex with moran, the young warriors, singers, and dancers with whom sex is considered adultery.  Anthropologists debate how often this occurs, but when it does, the woman is subjected to forty lashes with a long stick.  The husband has license to do much worse to the offending moran, but the moran has license to run for his life.  If he escapes — which is likely, given that he is in his physical prime — he must go through a very elaborate ceremonial process of formal apology. 

In her contribution to the book Women United, Women Divided, Melissa Llewelyn-Davies maintained that such adultery is ubiquitous.  She reported that women brag of purchasing their moran with forty lashes, and that they select them based on their fashion, good looks, sexual prowess, and willingness to stay up all night long sweet-talking them.  She further claimed that women maintain strict networks of secrecy about these affairs and form friendships with other women based on common moran lovers.  Paul Spencer initially disputed this with great vigor, considering this extremely unrealistic and believing instead that the women were just fantasizing.  In Time, Space, and the Unknown, he took a more agnostic view:
The boundary between truth and fantasy in these extramarital affairs is unknowable, but the popular image depicts elders as disgruntled cuckolds who have lost control over moran as well as over their young wives.
Llewelyn-Davies may have been quick to believe some of the women's fantasies and accept them as literal truth, since one of her main purposes was to show that women do rebel against men, only in ways that don't challenge "male hegemony."  As Paul Spencer accurately pointed out, such adultery is obviously a rebellion of youth against elders and not of women against men.  Regardless, even Llewelyn-Davies believed that women were only beaten severely once in their lives.

In our society, of course, we have police, courts, and jails that, while far from perfect, do largely prevent husbands from physically beating their wives if they have extramarital affairs. 

What about those affectionate bonds with children?

Masai men do show affection for children.  We can see this in Llewelyn-Davies' videos, which show men expressing affection even for cattle.  

Nevertheless, the expectation of sharing leads to strict "avoidance of daughters."  Men must avoid even the most remote suggestion that they might have sex with their daughters.  A young girl must never do any work for her father.  She must never so much as cook for him or bring him a calabash of milk.  Once she reaches the age of seven or eight, when she would be expected to begin having legally acceptable and consensual sex with moran in order to cause her breasts to begin developing, her father must never even sleep under the same roof as she does.

Since virtually any man in a father's age-set could be the biological father of his daughter, any young girl is a daughter of the whole age-set.  Thus, a father must strictly avoid most contact with any daughters of his age-mates.

Fathers avoid age-set daughters so strictly that a father is rarely accused of having sex with such a daughter, which would be considered incest.  When he is, however, the women form an angry mob and hunt him down.  They at least steal an ox but if they catch him they'll beat him up too.  They may subject him to a grotesque ritual of dishonor.  He will forever be a social outcast.

The avoidance of daughters is important not only to prevent incest, but also to prevent marriage demands from a father's age-mates.  A father instead gives his daughter to men of age-sets below him.  Since the father is expected to submit to extensive demands for sharing, expectations to give his daughters away in marriage to his age-mates could prove overwhelming if such marriages were not illegal.  Old men would accumulate large numbers of wives while younger men would find difficulty so much as marrying, let alone generating daughters to give away as wives to their own age mates.  By prohibiting these marital arrangements, a sufficient number of young girls are available for young men to marry as soon as they graduate from moranhood to elderhood.  Thus, the "avoidance of daughters" is essential to maintaining the basic structure of polygyny.

There are many beautiful and respectable things about Masai life, but the sexual promiscuity encouraged by the society's expectations of extensive sharing requires a great deal of social and legal pressure.  While the Masai have substantial social pressures that limit a man's ability to beat his wife, they have a less developed concept of women's rights and a less developed system of enforcing them, so men do sometimes take their sexual jealousy out on their wives in physical ways.  Far from creating a web of affection and affiliation that lavishes children with the investments of multiple fathers, the liberal sexual mores break the bonds between fathers and their daughters.  

The Masai are not hunter-gatherers, and other non-monogamous arrangements may have different societal effects.  Nevertheless, I think Masai society can inform our view of what non-monogamous social mores could potentially produce.

In monogamous cultures we find that people cheat.  In polygamous or polyamorous cultures we find that people get jealous.  An expectation of either norm requires a significant amount of culturally imposed restraint.  If we're going to peer into the depths of human nature in order to understand which norm we should support, or to which norm we should choose to adhere, I don't think we're going to find any quick and obvious answers.

Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, here.


  1. Here are the comments that were left on the previous version.

    Kat. said...

    It's a good book, you should read it.
    August 24, 2011 2:48 AM

    BeyondthePa1e said...

    This is one of those arguments I find as relevant as the endless "Is this Paleo" questions. I enjoyed the book, but in the end it doesn't matter if my ancestors did what. My girlfriend and I are polyamourous. It works for us and is awesome.

    Whether monogamy is the fountain of misery likely depends on the couple in question. But, I believe rare is the couple that can happily enjoy lifelong monogamy. Maybe, for you monogamous types; consider Dan Savages suggestion that cheating be considered similar to falling off the wagon? It doesn't have to be the horrifying deal-breaker that it is often viewed to be.

    Is some jealousy natural? Probably. Is jealousy overblown, a sign of insecurity, and even encouraged as romantic? Definitely.

    Here's a good ongoing series on the "naturalness" of (non)monogamy.
    August 24, 2011 4:36 AM

  2. Chris Masterjohn said...

    Hi Kat and BeyondthePa1e,

    Thank you for the recommendations. That series in particular looks good.

    I changed a few points to improve the tone of the post, and I changed my concluding paragraph to better represent my own point of view, which you might like better than what I originally had:

    "In monogamous cultures we find that people cheat. In polygamous or polyamorous cultures we find that people get jealous. An expectation of either norm requires a significant amount of culturally imposed restraint. If we're going to peer into the depths of human nature in order to understand which norm we should support, or to which norm we should choose to adhere, I don't think we're going to find any quick and obvious answers."

    August 24, 2011 6:40 AM

    Christopher Ryan said...

    "Ordinarily it is not my style to criticize a book I haven't read — and frankly, if the authors of this book really suggest that bonobos offer greater insight to human nature than extant human foragers, I don't see myself bothering to read it any time soon."

    Is the inverse true? They (we) don't claim bonobos offer greater insight than extant h/g (which may lead you to question the review you read?). So maybe you'll actually read our book (which contains multiple chapters on h/g societies?

    You might still hate it, but at least your discussion will be grounded in something other than uninformed assumptions concerning what the book's actually about.

    In any case, your insights into the Masai are fascinating. I'm sure you've read A Primate's Memoir, by Sapolsky. If not, highly recommended.
    August 24, 2011 10:23 AM

    Chris Masterjohn said...

    Hi Christopher,

    That comment of mine was unnecessarily sarcastic and rather stupid so I removed it before you left this comment.

    I also made the following post that went out to anyone using an RSS reader as soon as I woke up this morning:

    I Edited the Last Post

    I edited the last post to remove some references to Sex at Dawn that I thought were too sarcastic, minimized any references to the book except at the beginning, and changed the concluding paragraph. I didn't mean the post to be a direct criticism of the book but rather to use the review as a springboard to make a point about the cultural imposition of polygamous and polyamorous norms, using the Masai as an illustrative example. I also didn't mean the post as an attempt to argue that monogamy is more compatible with "human nature" than alternatives. Thus in the present version I conclude that we find elements of monogamous drives as well as polygamous and polyamorous drives within our nature and that if we use what is natural as our criteria for what norms we should support or adhere to, we will not find any quick and obvious answers.

    In hindsight, I shouldn't have even mentioned your book or linked to the review since I have not yet read your book, and this was somewhat irresponsible. I might just take the post down, or at least re-edit it and change the title. My comments were unfair and I apologize.

    August 24, 2011 11:20 AM

  3. The problem I have with this post is that the Masai are pastoralists who practice limited agriculture, not pure hunter-gatherers. As such, the notion of property, passing on property, children as heirs, and women as producers of heirs should be rather strong in their society. Perhaps somewhat less so than for non-nomadic agriculturalists, but the Masai certainly do not serve as an example of the kinds of societies that Ryan and Jethá posit that humans inhabited before the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry. Therefore, the Masai may actually serve as a poor counterexample to their thesis.

    Also, I'd like to point out that Ryan and Jethá are not writing a prescription for ditching monogamy. They're looking for a way to explain why our predominant paradigm for male-female relations seems such an ill fit with what people seem to actually want to do. Although the authors do suggest that holding ourselves to a standard in which only lifelong monogamy is worthy of being considered "true" love may be unhealthy and unrealistic, they do not call for abandoming monogamy entirely or anything so clumsy. In fact, they acknowledge that we would likely not be able to turn the clock back to a "primal" human sexuality, even if it were possible to determine with any certainty what such a sexuality would look like.

    Personally, I think their book is kind of the _Good Calories Bad Calories_ of sex. As with GCBC, I may not agree with all of the conclusions, but I think it's valuable for unmasking out some of the unfounded assumptions and terrible reasoning that sometimes take over science. And, like Taubes, they've produced a solid pop sci read.

  4. Hey Chris. No need for apologies. In fact, if/when you get to read our book, you'll find that we're not above unnecessarily snarky comments ourselves! (Something I'd have done differently if I'd suspected the book would be anywhere near as popular as it's been.) Anyway, I enjoy your writing, and appreciate your candor. I hope I didn't come across as a prima dona who thinks nobody can criticize our book. Far from it. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than a bad review is no review at all.

  5. Super interesting. I haven't been coming here regularly, so I didn't know you were doing this kind of stuff now.

    This really brings up some interesting questions as to what are cultural norms may eventually become. There's already a shift toward a more widespread acceptance of casual sex in America, but there's still the notion that maybe you get around a bit in your 20s, but still settle down for good at some point.

    Come to think of it, it's almost like the idea is to "get it out of your system", so maybe you'll have somehow settled your polyamorous urges by the time you start a family.

    As you said, we clearly have impulses that make it difficult both ways. I think a lot of people would indulge in extra-marital sex if it was generally accepted behavior, but at the same time we tend to get jealous.

    I'd venture to say the core issue here is the conflict between our sexual programming (taste for variety) and our social programming (need to feel cared about or "special").

  6. Responses to Spark, Christopher, and Josh.

    Hi Spark,

    I agree that is a confounder and did state that a couple times in my post. I think it is possible that one could posit, looking at this case alone, that male sexual jealousy arises from a contradiction between their practice of polyamory and their concept of property. If that is the case, one has to at least wonder why their sense of property doesn't prohibit polyamory if the two are at odds, so I think this example can simultaneously serve as a counter-point to the idea that monogamy is somehow connected to the concept of property at all.

    And although most anthropologists insist that women and children are property in Masai society, I have never seen anyone present a cohesive set of data that I thought supported this more than it refuted it. At best, this is supported by a man saying he "owns" other people, but that reflects the choice of translation more than it reflects the actual dynamics between people within the society.

    In any case, substantial social pressure exists to suppress sexual jealousy in women, and women are said to be property rather than to hold property in other people, so I think that even if we are to be very generous to the property theory, it still can't explain the totality of sexual jealousy that we have here.

    I was also being genuine when I said I didn't mean this as a direct response to the book. The book might be great and I'll have to read it someday.

    Hi Christopher,

    I agree that your book should not be beyond criticism, but I think people who have actually read it should be the one to criticize it. I'm not totally opposed to snarkiness, but my problem is with ignorant snarkiness and I suppose it is mostly the 'ignorant' that constitutes the bulk of that problem. So, I wouldn't have felt terribly guilty for not apologizing, but I think it was a lapse of judgment on my part to throw disparaging comments at your book without reading it and I'd at least marginally prefer to apologize. A la Mr. Wilde, you're welcome for the link. Thanks for commenting and thank you for your interest.

    Hi Josh,

    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. I don't do this stuff too much, but I have been writing quite a bit about the Masai lately and will continue to do so, as the series is meant to culminate in a deeper analysis of their diet and health status. I think there is sexual programming in both directions and that there will be conflicts in any type of social programming, whichever norm it supports. I prefer monogamy, but I have no desire to police everyone else so it will be interesting to see what path our society follows in the future.


  7. Another thoughtful piece, Chris.

    It's acute of you to spot the incest angle. It's been pointed out before now that Plato's sexual communism necessarily involves this. But, as far as I recall (it's some years since I last read the Republic) Plato's "Socrates" avoids mentioning so.

    BTW, Karl Popper interestingly suggests that Plato in the Republic and the Laws was actually reconstructing to some extent what life had been like for the Dorian invaders of the Peloponnese, who were of course herders. (See The Open Soc. Ch. 4.)

    However, I have to say that it seems to me that the extended "avoidance behaviour" doesn't actually prevent incest. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding something about the way the age-sets, or Maasai society in general work, but I think that if Maasai men are as peripatetic in their sexual attentions and Maasai women as obliging as is indicated, then it's perfectly possible that a young man and a young woman or girl perhaps half a dozen years younger could well have the same father.

    Secondly, I think it's important to understand whence the incest taboo. People often tend to assume that it exists because people make a judgment about the dangers from the point of view of heredity. It's a good reason, but it's questionable whether everyone in all societies really thinks like this. The only book-length treatment of sexual phenomena by a philosopher is Roger Scruton's "Sexual Desire".

    (Others, such as Sartre have written briefly on some aspects.) Scruton in this book points out that where siblings have been brought up separately and not known each other sexual relations between them are not always seen as a violation. By contrast, sexual relations between a biologically unrelated parent and an adopted child tend, by most societies, to be regarded as incest. Accordingly, Scruton suggests that incest probably arouses horror because it involves "a confusion of social roles". The relation between a parent and a child, or between two siblings, is very different in kind to that between a lover and his beloved. And it's not possible to "replace" the one type of social relation with the other. That's the argument as I remember it: I no longer have that particular book.

    Now the interesting thing here is why the married Maasai men have the elaborate avoidance behaviour. We know why they *extend* it to all the girls in the community -- you covered that. But why would it exist at all? People in societies where you can be much surer who is your offspring and who isn't don't necessarily have avoidance behaviours of this sort. in fact the bond between fathers and daughters can be strong and affectionate.

    Reflecting on this all I can think is that Maasai males are so wandering in their sexual interests and so easily aroused that without the barrier of those avoidance behaviours they'd be inclined to see any woman, or even girl, as "fair game".

    it's an uncomfortable thought inasmuch as there does seem much otherwise to admire about the Maasai.

  8. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your props and thanks for your insightful comments.

    I think it's important to note that "incest" and "adultery" have totally different meanings to Masai as they have to us, and that ultimately these words are used because someone once decided they would be the most convenient English words to use in translation and the majority of ethnographers agreed enough to continue using them.

    There is no barrier whatsoever between people related to one another having sex. Indeed, young girls between ages 7 or 8 up to circumcision, which occurs within one year of breast development, are fair game to any moran within the village. However, neither the moran nor the young girls are allowed to marry, and the girls are presumed to be infertile. If she does get pregnant the baby will probably be aborted either by herbal methods in the first couple months or by infanticide afterwards because it is extremely shameful.

    Marriage, by contrast, is exogamous with respect to clan and village, so these moran-girl relationships could never turn into marriages. Concern about mixing lineages too closely manifests itself as these rules of exogamy.

    I don't think the "incest" issue between fathers and daughters has much if anything to do with concerns about mixing lineages. My tentative analysis is what I offered above, which is taken from Paul Spencer, that the basic structure of the polygynous marriage system would fall apart completely if it were not for the strict prohibition of marriages between fathers and their age-set daughters.

    It is tempting for me to speculate that the sexual promiscuity is what makes the avoidance taboo so strong, but there are other things to consider.

    The Masai make very strong ritual taboos reinforce important concepts like this. For example, if a young girl joins a moran meat-fest in the forest, she must eat all her meat with skewers to prevent her from ever touching the fat. Girls who have touched fat are "unclean" to moran, because animal fat is associated with the married women who are anointed with it at fertility rituals and who anoint their newborns with it when they give birth. The "ox fat" is not itself dirty; it's actually sacred. The taboo is preserving the sacredness of the association between women and animal fat, as it is indeed these women who are regarded as closest to God. It is "unclean" to the moran because it is a strong ritual taboo using something that is relatively mundane and harmless (fat) to signify something that is an incredible threat to society (moran having sex with married women).

    This, of course, is also necessary for the basic structure of polygyny. The only way to provide sufficient women is to create a large age gap between husbands and wives, and this is accomplished by relegating moran to the periphery of society so that they cannot marry until they are some 15-20 years older than girls are at their first marriage opportunity.

    So, I'm not sure if the strictness of the avoidance is related to the lusts of the fathers or to the penchant the Masai have for driving home important points with very strict behavioral regulations. Either way, it seems like a sad element of an otherwise quite admirable society.


  9. I should point out that there are other implications of daughter avoidance that are not entirely bad. For example, men tend to enlist boys in their labor force and women enlist girls. So it creates a sphere of influence for the women where the mothers are in charge, which compliments the men's analogous sphere of influence, and it provides for more closeness between young girls and the women of the village, who tend to work, chat, and play with children together.

    But I haven't read about any anxiety about "son avoidance" among women.


  10. "Marriage, by contrast, is exogamous with respect to clan and village, so these moran-girl relationships could never turn into marriages. Concern about mixing lineages too closely manifests itself as these rules of exogamy."

    Thanks. I should have guessed that.

  11. Chris:

    "In monogamous cultures we find that people cheat. In polygamous or polyamorous cultures we find that people get jealous."

    I would like to point out that jealousy is hardly a non-issue in monogamous cultures. In fact, it's quite arguable that women bear much more severe consequences for jealousy in our society than in a society that permits or requires "promiscuity".

    And in polygynous societies in which extramarital activity is forbidden to women, jealousy and its consequences are often even more severe and involve the honor of entire families and clans, not just the husband's feelings. Death, torture, disfigurement, exile, etc. are common punishments that result from jealousy in these cultures.

    It seems to me that jealousy has less severe consequences in societies in which polyamorous activity is permitted or enforced in both men and women. Therefore, one has to question whether the theory that jealousy is really a problem that is particular or even particularly severe in polyamorous societies is accurate. It seems to me that such societies are more open about acknowledging the threat jealousy poses to the fabric of communal life as well as the community's individual members, and therefore, such societies, as you illustrate here with the example of the Masai, are proactive in controlling its negative consequences on a group's members.

    I doubt that there is any form of society free from sexual jealousy, and Ryan and Jethá don't try to make the case that carefree promiscuity eliminates sexual jealousy.

    I also don't know that I would see the Masai father-daughter relationship as "broken". The daughter cannot do any work for her father or sleep under the same roof. I don't know that this necessarily excludes the possibility of love and affection between daughter and fathers--and I don't know about the importance of maternal uncles in Masai society, but I would guess that the father's age-set peers would all share affection with one another's daughters.

    "If we're going to peer into the depths of human nature in order to understand which norm we should support, or to which norm we should choose to adhere, I don't think we're going to find any quick and obvious answers."

    This is definitely a matter of individual choice and negotiation between a person and his or her romantic partner(s). I think you'll agree that there is great potential benefit in challenging with a scientifically reasoned alternative interpretation the current paradigm which has gone unquestioned for too long.

    I know people who regret not being exposed to these ideas before they ended relationships that perhaps did not need to end. It makes a huge difference in how people choose to cope with infidelity (which, one could argue, seems inevitable in a large percentage of monogamous marriages/relationships) when they are given a perspective about "human nature" in which infidelity can be interpreted as something other than "proof" that partners no longer love one another.


    "Reflecting on this all I can think is that Maasai males are so wandering in their sexual interests and so easily aroused that without the barrier of those avoidance behaviours they'd be inclined to see any woman, or even girl, as "fair game".

    I think this is a bit of a leap. Elaborateness of taboos can be an acknowledgment that the desire to break the taboo is strong, but it can also indicate that the values upheld in the taboo are so socially important that a "big show" of keeping the taboo benefits societal order.

  12. Hi Spark,

    As I said before, I didn't mean my post to be a response to Sex at Dawn, which I haven't read. I'm not familiar enough with the relevant literature to address your cross-culture comparisons. I wasn't trying to make a cross-cultural comparison; I was simply trying to point out that sexual jealousy is not a result of a cultural standard of monogamy but is something that needs to be suppressed in societies where polyamory is the standard. My point wasn't that one requires more indoctrination and socially engineered restraints than the other, but that both cultural norms require indoctrination and socially engineered restraints.

    The daughter avoidance in Masai crosses the father's entire age-set. As I indicated in my response to Mike, there are reasons not to see it as an entirely negative phenomenon. My point was simply that there's no reason to see bonds with children as increased in this scenario. Clearly they are different, and clearly the Masai system of raising children works, so to throw a blanket criticism at it would be quite wrong and that is not what I meant to do.

    I agree that it is good to acknowledge that polyamory is within the spectrum of human nature. But it is hardly a sufficient basis to make a moral decision about it. This just means it falls somewhere in the spectrum between murder and cannibalism, on the one hand, and helping an elderly person cross the street or feeding the homeless on the other. All of these things are part of human nature and one hardly needs to do fancy experiments with neuroscience to realize these obvious facts. The neuroscience of altruism and psycopathy is interesting, of course, and it is good to study them, but that human nature had this range was quite evident before the advent of neuroscience. The fact that monogamy and polyamory likewise fall within this range is interesting, and studying their causes is interesting, but it was quite evident even in ancient times.

    If this type of argument is necessary to help someone reject the idea that infidelity is proof that a person doesn't love them anymore, then I think that is a good thing. I think it says something either about either the person's moral beliefs about monogamy or their self-control and ability to live up to those beliefs, and it's important to have compatability in those areas.


  13. The sexual urge is a major driving factor in human culture. Desmond Morris wrote something to the effect that if it wasn't for culturally induced inhibitions, the chores would never get done. As to incest someone else wrote--it might have been Judge Richard Posner--that incest is universally abhorred and universally practiced. And the practice of a man having more than one wife was the norm throughout most of human history. Even in the time of Jesus a Hebrew man could have had as many wives as he could afford and want. However, througout most of time, the women were property and not actors in their own right. And like anything else human, sex is dose related. That is, there are those who have very high libidos and those who have very low libidos, and then there is the vast middle ground of sexual desire. Unfortunately--or fortunately--sex is emotion, but we should try very hard to harness it with our powers of logic.

  14. To be human is to be bound by one's culture in many ways. There may be no true standard but the ones set upon us by our respective cultures.

  15. Lets look at this from the perspective of a child in such a culture. Does anyone think strangers will give him/her love and unconditional commitment like a parent would? A polygamous society is a society full of orphans - in the sense that many don't know who both their parents are. Secondly you're right on point with the jealousy issue. Without exception, every polygamous marriage in the Bible had strife due to polygamy (Hannah -Penninah, Rachel - Leah, Sarah - Hagar..). Do none of those 200 wives want any more than the others? Is there a wife that is more loved than another? Does the jealousy between the wives (or partners if it's polyamorous) cause strife between their children? Can you really develop strong bonds of love in such a society or is it all just relationships of convenience; after all, how strong could your love be if you have no problem sharing the person the next day or being thrown away for the newest infatuation. What kind of a lace is this for children to grow up in? There is a reason we evolved jealousy. Society is stronger and can be defended against aggressors better when family units are intact and unified. Interests can be aligned in such a society. But in a polyamorous society there is no family; there is only strife. Who has your back; the son of the father's other wife who hated your mother? Or the person on the street who has no idea who his father is and lost touch with his mother after her new beau disapproved of him. We have examples of polyamory in our own society it's called 'baby dady' with 16 kids. Compare how well children of 'baby daddies' do compared to a nuclear family. If these authors really believe their hype about polygamy and amoury then let them go off and start such a society or town where this is the way of things and we'll see how things turn out. I suspect it will work out just as well as all the hippie Utopian communes of the 1960's.

  16. Good on you Chris for acknowledging when you think you've acted in error. Kudos, brother.

  17. Hi Jason,

    I agree with you that some strife is caused by this system, and I am in no way a supporter of it. However, I think it's a great exaggeration to say there is "no family" and "only strife." If that were true, Masai society would not have survived this long. I think if you familiarize yourself with the anthropological literature you will see it is a little more nuanced than that.

    Rob A, thanks!


  18. Thanks for your thoughtful post, as always.
    I've often said before...people always ask the question "Why do people cheat?" When In actuality, we should be asking "Why do we get jealous?". All you academia types out there, please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that in the animal world there is quite a lot more polygamy than monogamy. And it seems to me, although hard to confirm this, that most of the animals do not get jealous. While the males of some animal species might get protective (which might be considered jealousy), the females don't seem to care at all. Tell me if you see this differently or if I am totally off base.

  19. Thanks for the descriptive summary of the Masai--and for the academic review of Sex at Dawn.

    I've read Sex and Dawn. IMO, the main trouble with holding up the Masai, or the Inuit, Canela, Piraha, Mosuo (which Chris also mentions) as successful instances of a multi-mate mating strategy is that, in the end, these cultures are the Masai, Inuit, Canela, Piraha, or Mosuo! That is they're all very geographically or technologically isolated. Rain forests, ice age-like weather, impenetrable deserts, and Tibetan plateaus have insulated these cultures from other cultural and social forces. These cultures are not very representative nor as reproductively successful compared with the "developed" world. These cultures likely survived until now more due to their isolation than their sexual organization for which authors, such as Ryan, hold them up.

    Starting with the Sumerians, the Greeks, and later the Romans, a remarkably successful "group selection" process appears to have conquered, out-competed, and marginalized tribes such as the Masai and Inuit, etc. This more successful social trait was monogamy--often occurring alongside instances of polygyny. Indeed, monogamy may have been one of the key components to success for the early city-state--including its technological developments and political organization. In natures octagon, where survival of the fittest rules, monogamy appears to have largely kicked the trash out of more primitive mating strategies.

    There are numerous explanations for monogamy's success. We know that monogamous cultures suffer fewer civil wars than polygamous ones (Kanazawa 2008) and cultures with larger proportions of unattached males historically caused more intra-group conflict (Hudson and Den Boer 2004). It's (monogamously) married men who prove to be more productive than their unmarried peers, after controlling for other factors (Chun and Lee 2001). And research in both humans and other animals shows us that the greater a male's perception that his offspring reflect his own genes, the greater his investment in their development (Moller 1988). In short, monogamous males appear to have been more motivated and enabled to protect their own tribe (or conquer others) than competing multi-mate social organizations.

    Ryan could be forgiven for omitting monogamy's role if he confined himself to the mere presentation of the multi-mate historical record. His book might then be an undistracting, entertaining read. But Ryan doesn't stop there. He appears hung-up on the role of moralization and religion in promoting monogamy (ignoring the fact that monogamy predates judeo-christian morals; ignoring the idea that sexual morality may itself be an evolutionary adaptation--as suggested by Darwin himself).

    But what really irks me is how Ryan makes prescriptive recommendations that we should put less emphasis on monogamy today so that "future generations may suffer fewer pathological manifestations of sexual frustration and unnecessarily fractured families." (p.395 of my e-copy) However, the historical record simply doesn't support such a prescription. In regards to a more monogamous structure causing more "fractured families", the evidence overwhelmingly points to the exact opposite!

    At first glance, Sex at Dawn appears to present a progressive, enlightened view of human sexuality--using the Masai and others as examples. On deeper reading, however, one discovers it promotes an odd fantasy: that of a geographic- or time-traveling re-appearance of the multi-mate, hunter-gathering lifestyle. (Just how such a re-appearance might be reconciled with the technological, social, and political advances of the modern nation-state that developed in tandem with monogamy Ryan doesn't answer). Rather than a progressive explanation of human sexual evolution, Sex at Dawn promotes a kind of sexual de-evolution.

  20. Hi Leslie,

    I think people naturally cheat and naturally get jealous. Looking to nature for moral solutions is deeply problematic unless we want to end up war-monger cannibals, which would be just as natural as windup altruistic saints. I'm not sure looking to animal behavior is the best way to address this since every species is unique and humans are set apart in their own unique ways, and again, because some animals behave in ways that would horrify us. But as to your specific questions, I'm not sure what the bulk of animal behavioral literature would say as its far outside my field of expertise. But I do appreciate your thoughts, so thank you for commenting.

    mnl, as much as I agree with much of what you are saying, you seem to have copy and pasted this critique here without even reading my post. I was quite clear that I had no intention of reviewing Sex at Dawn, and I quite clearly used the Masai as an example of the problems with polyamory, not as an example of a carefree polyamorous society. And of course, the Masai are deeply religious and all of their morality is derived from their religion, so it would be quite strange to use them as an example of why we should abandon religious principles. I think most Masai would be horrified by that argument.


  21. *that should be "war-mongering cannibals."

  22. @ChrisM... Pardon me. Not a cut-n-paste. Just a passionate collection of thoughts that I had been incubating and that your Masai post triggered. Perhaps the most relevant point got lost: Just as you puncture certain simplified social/sexual illusions regarding the Masai, I likewise sought to puncture the illusion that we can hold-up surviving cultures in a normative manner, in general. Are the Masai descriptive of earlier human sexuality and perhaps diet? There's quite likely some strong similarities. But is this normative for the rest of us today? That's much less assured--though I do find the potential take-aways regarding diet, say, more valid than those regarding sexuality. It was not a critique of your Masai description.

    @Leslie... Do animals get jealous? Great question. While we humans are often tempted to anthropomorphize (to project human qualities onto animals) we're often wrong. Are animals even capable of feeling complex emotions such as jealousy (or perhaps pride, longing, exasperation, shame, etc.)? Some researchers seem to say they are, but I'm not an expert. I do, however, think it's more fruitful to ask what BEHAVIORS coincide with human jealousy, and then attempt to look for those same BEHAVIORS in animals. If we do that, then we see that a great many species engage in such things as mate guarding (dolphins, swallows, some rodents, chimpanzees all come to mind). We also find sexual signaling and aggressive mate competition--sometimes even to death (think of head-butting among male deer). Some species also actively attempt to kill their sexual competition even before the competition is mature enough to reproduce. Is this evidence of jealousy? Again, I'm not sure we can attach that human-centric label, but these animal behaviors sure look, smell, and sound jealously-like.

  23. Hi mnl,

    Thanks for the explanation and I'm sorry for the misunderstanding. I agree that living foragers, horticulturalists, pastoralists, or agriculturalists are not living fossils of past such societies.



To create a better user experience for everyone, comments are now moderated. Please allow up to one business day for your comment to post. In order to avoid the appearance of spam, please avoid posting links, especially to commercial destinations, and using all-caps.