Book Summaries History Politics

Chapter 6: Polygamy and The Nature of Men (The Red Queen)

The Incas had strict rules for who would be able to mate with their women. They organized these rights according to a hierarchy, and any man who violated these rules would be put to his death, along with his family. Most of the Incas were descendants of powerful men.

Human beings are a product of evolution as much as any slime mould, and the revolution of the last two decades in the way scientists now think about evolution has immense implications for mankind as well. To summarize the argument so far, evolution is more about reproduction of the fittest than survival of the fittest; every creature on earth is the product of a series of historical battles between parasites and hosts, between genes and other genes, between members of the same species, between members of one gender in competition for members of the other gender. Those battles include psychological ones, to manipulate and exploit other members of the species; they are never won, for success in one generation only ensures that the foes of the next generation are fitter to fight harder. Life is a Sisyphean race, run ever faster towards a finishing line that is merely the start of the next race.

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen

IF you consider that such arguments do not apply to humans because everything about human behavior is learnt or that inherited behavior is inflexible, then you are wrong on both accounts. Lust is not an inherited experience. And inherited tendencies are controlled and regulated by humans – we learn to reserve our feelings of lust when the time s appropriate. Man is, of course, a product of nature and nurture, and never one alone.

Are humans monogamous or polygamous?

There are five ways to find out. One is to describe the mating system of modern people directly. Two is to look at human history and see what sexual arrangements are most common. This teaches us that rich and powerful men enslaved women in large harems. Three is to look at people living in simple societies and assume that they lived how our ancestors did thousands of years ago. They tend to fall between the extremes: less polygamous than early civilization but less monogamous than modern civilization. Four is to look at our closest relatives and compare our behavior and anatomy with theirs.

The answer here is for a system of promiscuity such as that of chimpanzees, men would need to have larger testicles than they actually do, and to have a harem polygamy similar to a gorilla’s, men’s bodies would need to be bigger relative to females. But we are not antisocial and built for fidelity like the monogamous gibbon.

We are somewhere in between. More precisely, it depends.

Mankind is a polygamist and a monogamist, depending on the circumstances. Indeed, perhaps it is foolish even to talk of mankind having a mating system at all. He does what he wants, adapting his behaviour to the prevailing opportunity.

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen

Men seduce, women flirt. In virtually all societies, men are expected to propose marriage.

For most of human history, barring the last few centuries in western civilization (Hitler and the Pope)-  man has used wealth to buy power, in order to buy female slaves.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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