Friday, January 27, 2012

Monogamy Succeeds Polygamy as Part of the Civilizing Process

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, about which I blogged recently, argues that the civilizing process of the modern era is one of the main reasons for the massive decrease in violence in the world.

Pinker does not treat the change in marriage norms specifically in his consideration of the civilizing process. I have long thought, though, that one of the great social benefits of monogamy is that it should reduce the violence by groups of unmarried men that is a predictable by-product of polygamy. This, I think, is why monogamy is nearly universal in developed nations, despite the wide variety of religious and cultural traditions that these different nations developed from.

A new study by Joseph Henrich and others at the University of British Columbia found "significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud in polygymous cultures found in Asia and Africa." By contrast, monogamy leads to more paternal investment, long-term planning, economic productivity, savings, and child investments.

These social advantages explain why even those who benefit the most from polygamy - rich, high-status men - are willing to switch to a monogamous social norm. The civilizing process leads to monogamy because of its greater peace and social investment for society as a whole.

4 comments:

gruntled said...

Of course, there are individual rich, high-status men in monogamous societies who do practice a kind of polygamy. This does not invalidate the changed social norm - it just creates a greater social cost for the rest who uphold that norm.

Pastor Dennis said...

I wonder about the phrase "the civilizing process." Is it all progress? Is progress inevitable under certain circumstances, and what are those? You can't answer this briefly (or can you?). Maybe you could teach us a bit about this from your point of view, over time.

gruntled said...

I don't think the civilizing process is inevitable. I don't think any human developments are inevitable. There is a logic to developmental processes which tend to go in a predictable direction, but that is the fruit of millions of micro actions which could be done differently.

The short answer on what I mean by the civilizing process is Norbert Elias' book(s) of the same name. And really I mean the extension that Steven Pinker gives to Elias' very fine-grained account of the development of less violent manners in early modern Europe.

diane m. said...

I love this study!

I think there are some other benefits to the change, too - polygamy requires young brides to be married without a lot of say in choosing their mate. This interferes with education, etc. for women. Monogamy benefits women which benefits men, etc.

I don't think the decrease in violence is likely to be the main reason powerful men agree to the change. It isn't obvious enough and the change goes against individual interests in a powerful way.

My theory is that the powerful men are willing to agree to the change because they see it as benefiting their children. Their daughters will have more power and their grandchildren will get more resources. Their sons will have a better chance to get a mate.