From a sociological perspective, power is the ability to exert influence over others or to control one’s environment or other entities. In many families today, the status of power, and almost by definition, resides in the television remote control. Unfortunately, I lost power the other day, and found myself watching Sister Wives on TLC.
This “reality” tv show follows the life of Kody Brown, his four wives and 16 children. Brown has been married to his first wife, Mirra, for 20 years, and marries his 4th wife, Robin in an upcoming episode. The show takes a look at how a polygamist family functions in a society that shuns their lifestyle.
About a week ago, we discussed Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue: Human Instinct and the Evolution of Cooperation (1996). As mentioned before, Ridley proposes in his work that social, organizational and communal development is evolutionary and not by rational human design. By this, we mean that those individuals (or organisms) that cooperate and communicate will evolutionarily thrive, Individualistic organisms, on the other hand, fall to the wayside. In some respects, cooperation and community are coded into our DNA.
However, polygyny (one husband, multiple wives) would seem to have an advantage from an evolutionary perspective. To most efficiently propagate a species, one male, with desired genetic traits, is capable of mating with multiple female partners. It serves no evolutionary purpose, however, for the female to mate with multiple partners. From Ridley’s perspective, tying this procreation into a cooperative relationship would only further the evolutionary advantages of polygamy.
So, how is it that the same evolutionary process that would theoretically encourage polygyny would also create societies that demonize the practice? Many nations and religions still support polygamist societies. Throughout the world, there are significantly more proponents of polygamist relationships than there are proponents of same-sex marriages. Many social researchers believe the context of America’s marriage debate, based upon future immigration, could shift along these lines.
The history of monogamy in Christianity can be traced back about 1000 years to the crusades of the Catholic church despite both old and new testament references to polygamy. Monogamy in America was fiercely debated in the 1830s and the Supreme Court upheld anti-polygamy laws “on the claim that the United States is a Christian nation. In the nineteenth century, it was a legal commonplace to claim that Christianity was part of the common law of the United States.” (Source) For hundred’s of years, court after court has cited bad judicial precedents, but this valuable piece of precedent has not only been forgotten but torn to shreds.
American social justice would demand that polyandry (one wife, multiple husbands) be accepted should polygyny ever receive approval. In polygamous societies, lower status males often find themselves unwed, while higher status males reap the “rewards”. This again flies in the face of America’s sense of social justice. More significant, however, is the social consequences that could develop as the number of poor males without family ties to temper their behavior. Furthermore, discontent runs rapid among the female populations in which polygamy thrives.
Societies evolve. The dominant consensus of today may not be the same in 30, 40 or 50 years. Is polygamy a practice of the past or will we see its resurgence?