Laura Betzig, Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of History (New Brunswick: AdelineTransation, 1983).
Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, alias ‘Ismail the Bloodthirsty’, a late-seventeenth, early eighteenth century Emperor of Morocco is today little remembered, at least outside of his native Morocco. He is, however, in a strict Darwinian sense, possibly the most successful human ever to have lived.
Ismail, you see, is said to have sired some 888 offspring. His Darwinian fitness therefore exceeded that of any other known person.
Some have questioned whether this figure is realistic (Einon 1998). However, the best analyses suggest that, while the actual number of offspring fathered by Ismail is indeed probably apocryphal, such a large progeny is indeed eminently plausible for a powerful ruler with access to a large harem of wives and/or concubines (Gould 2000; Oberzaucher & Grammer 2014).
Indeed, as Laura Betzig demonstrates in ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction’, Ismail is exceptional only in degree.
Across diverse societies and cultures, and throughout human history, wherever individual males acquire great wealth and power, they convert this wealth and power into the ultimate currency of natural selection – namely reproductive success – by asserting and maintaining exclusive reproductive access to large harems of young female sex partners.
A Sociobiological Theory of Human History
Betzig begins her monograph by quoting a small part of a famous passage from the closing paragraphs of Charles Darwin’s seminal ‘On the Origin of Species’ which she adopts as the epigraph to her preface.
In this passage, the great Victorian naturalist tentatively extended his theory of natural selection to the question of human origins, a topic he conspicuously avoided in the preceding pages of his famous text.
Yet, in this much-quoted passage, Darwin goes well beyond suggesting merely that his theory of evolution by natural selection might explain human origins in just the same way it explained the origin of other species. On the contrary, he also anticipated the rise of evolutionary psychology, writing of how:
“Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.”
Yet this is not the part of this passage quoted by Betzig. Instead, she quotes the next sentence, where Darwin makes another prediction, no less prophetic, namely that:
“Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”
In this reference to “man and his history”, Darwin surely had in mind primarily, if not exclusively, the natural history and evolutionary history of our species.
Betzig, however, interprets Darwin more broadly, and more literally, and, in so doing, has both founded, and for several years, remained the leading practitioner of a new field – namely, ‘Darwinian history’.
This is the attempt to explain, not only the psychology and behaviour of contemporary humans in terms of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and selfish gene theory, but also to explain the behaviour of people in past historical epochs in terms of the same theory.
Her book length monograph, ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of History’ remains the best known and most important work in this field.
The Historical and Ethnographic Record
In making the case that, throughout history and across the world, males in positions of power have used this power so as to maximize their Darwinian fitness by securing exclusive reproductive access to large harems of fertile females, Betzig, presumably to avoid the charge of cherry picking, never actually even mentions Ismail the Bloodthirsty at any point in her monograph.
Instead, Betzig uses ethnographic data taken from a random sample of cultures from across the world. Nevertheless, the patterns she uncovers are familiar and recurrent.
Powerful males command large harems of multiple fertile young females, to whom they assert, and defend, exclusive reproductive access. In this way, they convert their power into the ultimate currency of natural selection – namely, reproductive success or ‘fitness’.
Thus, summarizing Betzig’s work, not only in ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction’, but also in other published works, science writer Matt Ridley reports:
“[Of] the six independent ‘civilizations’ of early history – Babylon, Egypt, India, China, the Aztecs and the Incas… the Babylonian king Hammurabi had thousands of slave ‘wives’ at his command. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten procured three hundred and seventeen concubines and ‘droves’ of consorts. The Aztec ruler Montezuma enjoyed four thousand concubines. The Indian emperor Udayama preserved sixteen thousand consorts in apartments guarded by eunuchs. The Chinese emperor Fei-ti had ten thousand women in his harem. The Inca… kept virgins on tap throughout the kingdom” (The Red Queen: p191-2; see Betzig 1993a).
Such vast harems seem, at first, wholly wasteful. This is surely more fertile females than even the horniest, healthiest and most virile of emperors could ever hope to have sex with, let alone successfully impregnate. As Betzig acknowledges:
“The number of women in such a harem may easily have prohibited the successful impregnation of each… but, their being kept from bearing children to others increased the monarch’s relative reproductive accomplishment” (p70).
In other words, even if these rulers were unable to successfully impregnate every concubine in their harem, keeping them cloistered and secluded nevertheless prevented other males from impregnating them, which increased the relative representation of the ruler’s genes in subsequent generations.
To this end, extensive efforts also were made to ensure the chastity of these women. Thus, even in ancient times, Betzig reports:
“Evidence of claustration, in the form of a walled interior courtyard, exists for Babylonian Mai; and claustration in second story rooms with latticed, narrow windows is mentioned in the Old Testament” (p79).
Indeed, Betzig even proposes an alternative explanation for early evidence of defensive fortifications:
“Elaborate fortifications erected for the purposes of defense may [also] have served the dual (identical?) function of protecting the chastity of women of the harem” (p79).
Indeed, as Betzig alludes to in her parenthesis, this second function is arguably not entirely separate to the first.
After all, if all male-male competition is ultimately based on competition over access to fertile females, then this surely very much includes warfare. As Napoleon Chagnon emphasizes in his studies of warfare and intergroup raiding among the Yąnomamö Indians of the Amazonian rainforest, warfare among primitive peoples tends to be predicated on the capture of fertile females from among enemy groups.
Therefore, even fortifications erected for the purposes of military defence, ultimately serve the evolutionary function of maintaining exclusive reproductive access to the fertile females contained therein.
Other methods of ensuring the chastity of concubines, and thus the paternity certainty of emperors, included the use of eunuchs as harem guards. Indeed, this seems to have been the original reason eunuchs were castrated and later became a key element in palace retinues (see The Evolution of Human Sociality: p45).
Chastity belts, however, ostensibly invented for the wives of crusading knights while the latter were away on crusade, are likely a modern myth.
The movements of harem concubines were also highly restricted. Thus, if permitted to venture beyond their cloisters, they were invariably escorted.
For example in the African Kingdom of Dahomey, Betzig reports:
“The king’s wives’… approach was always signalled by the ringing of a bell by the women servant or slave who invariably preceded them [and] the moment the bell is heard all persons, whether male or female , turn their backs, but all the males must retire to a certain distance” (p79).
Similarly, inmates of the ‘Houses of Virgins’ maintained by Inca rulers:
“Lived in perpetual seclusion to the end of their lives… and were not permitted to converse, or have intercourse with, or to see any man, nor any woman who was not one of themselves” (p81-2).
Feminists tend to view such practices as evidence of the supposed oppression of women.
However, from a sociobiological or evolutionary psychological perspective, the primary victims of such practices were, not the harem inmates themselves, but rather the lower-status men condemned to celibacy and ‘inceldom’ as a consequence of royal dynasties monopolizing sexual access to almost all the fertile females in the society in question.
The encloistered women might have been deprived of their freedom of movement – but many lower-status men in the same societies were deprived of almost all access to fertile female sex partners, and hence any possibility of passing on their genes, the ultimate evolutionary function of any biological organism.
In contrast, the concubines secluded in royal harems were not only able to reproduce, but also lived lives of relative comfort, if not, in some cases, outright luxury, often being:
“Equipped with their own household and servants, and probably lived reasonably comfortable lives in most respects, except… for a lack of liberal masculine company” (p80).
Indeed, seclusion, far from evidencing oppression, was primarily predicted on safety and protection. In short, to be imprisoned is not so bad when one is imprisoned in a palace.
Finally, methods were also sometimes employed specifically to enhance their fertility of the women so confined. Thus, Ridley reports:
“Wet nurses, who allow women to resume ovulation by cutting short their breast-feeding periods, date from at least the code of Hammurabi in the eighteenth century BC… Tang dynasty emperors of China kept careful records of dates of menstruation and conception in the harem so as to be sure to copulate only with the most fertile concubines… [and] Chinese emperors were also taught to conserve their semen so as to keep up their quota of two women a day” (The Red Queen: p192).
Confirming Betzig’s conclusions but subsequent to the publication of her work, researchers have now uncovered genetic evidence of the fecundity of one particular powerful ruler (or ruling male lineage) – namely, a Y chromosome haplogroup, found in 8% of males across a large region of Asia and in one in two hundred males across the whole world – the features of which are consistent with its having spread across the region thanks to the exception prolificity of Genghis Khan, his male siblings and descendants (Zerjal 2003).
In contrast, limited to only one pregnancy every nine months, a woman, howsoever rich and powerful, can necessarily bear far fewer offspring than can be sired by a man enjoying equivalent wealth, power and access to multiple fertile sex partners, even with the aid of evolutionary novelties like wet nurses, bottle milk and IVF treatment.
As a female analogue of Ismail the Bloodthirsty, it is sometimes claimed that a Russian woman gave birth to 69 offspring in the nineteenth-century. She was also supposedly, and very much unlike Ismail the Bloodthirsty, not a powerful and polygamous elite ruler, but rather a humble, monogamously married peasant woman.
However, this much smaller figure is both physiologically implausible and poorly sourced. Indeed, even her name is unknown, and she is referred to only as ‘the wife of Feodor Vassilyev’. It is, in short, almost certainly an urban myth.
Feminists have argued that the overrepresentation of males in positions of power is a consequence of such mysterious and non-existent phenomena as patriarchy or male dominance or the ‘oppression of women’.
In reality, however, it seems that, for women, seeking positions of power and wealth simply doesn’t have the same reproductive payoff as for men – because, no matter how many men a woman copulates with, she can usually only gestate, and nurse, one (or, in the case of twins or triplets, occasionally two or three) offspring at a time.
This is the essence of Bateman’s Principle, later formalized by Robert Trivers as differential parental investment theory (Bateman 1948; Trivers 1972).
This, then, in Darwinian terms, explains why women are less likely to assume positions of great political power.
It is not necessarily that they don’t want political power, but rather that they are less willing to make the necessary effort, or take the necessary risks, to attain power.
This calculus then, rather than the supposed oppression of women, explains, not only the cross-culturally universal over-representation of men in positions of power, but also much of the so-called gender pay gap in our own societies (see Kingsley Browne’s Biology at Work: reviewed here).
Perhaps the closest women can get to producing such a vast progeny is maneuver their sons into having the opportunity to do so. This might explain why such historical figures as Agrippina the Younger, the mother of Nero, and Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, are reported as having been so active, and instrumental, in securing the succession on behalf of their sons.
The Purpose of Political Power?
The notion that powerful rulers often use their power to gain access to multiple nubile sex partners is, of course, hardly original to sociobiology. On the contrary, it accords with popular cynicism regarding males in positions of power.
What a Darwinian perspective adds is the ultimate explanation of why political leaders do so – and why female political rulers, even when they do assume power, usually adopt a very different reproductive strategy.
Moreover, a Darwinian perspective goes beyond popular cynicism in suggesting that access to multiple sex partners is not merely yet another perk of power. On the contrary, it is the ultimate purpose of power and reason why men evolved to seek power in the first place.
As Betzig herself concludes:
“Political power in itself may be explained, at least in part, as providing a position from which to gain reproductively” (p85).
After all, from a Darwinian perspective, political power in and of itself has no intrinsic value. It is only if power can be used in such a way as to maximize a person’s reproductive success or fitness that it has evolutionary value.
Thus, as Steven Pinker has observed, the recurrent theme in science fiction film and literature of robots rebelling against humans to take over the world and overthrow humanity is fundamentally mistaken. Robots would have no reason to rebel against humans, simply because they would not be programmed to want to take over the world and overthrow humanity in the first place.
On the other hand, humans have been programmed to seek wealth and power – and to resist oppression and exploitation. This is why revolutions are a recurrent feature of human societies and history.
But we have been programmed, not by a programmer or god-like creator, but rather by natural selection.
We have been programmed by natural selection to seek wealth and power only because, throughout human evolutionary history, those of us who achieved political power tended, like Ismail the Bloodthirsty, also to achieve high levels of reproductive success as a consequence.
Darwin versus Marx
In order to test the predictive power of her theory, Betzig contrasts the predictions made by sociobiological theory with a rival theory – namely, Marxism.
The comparison is apposite since, despite repeated falsification at the hands of both economists and of history, Marxism remains, among both social scientists and laypeople, the dominant paradigm when it comes to explaining social structure, hierarchy and exploitation in human societies.
Certainly, it has proven far more popular than any approach to understanding human dominance hierarchies rooted in ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology or selfish gene theory.
There are, it bears emphasizing, several similarities between the two approaches. For one thing, each theory traces its origins ultimately to a nineteenth-century Victorian founder resident in Britain at the time he authored his key works, namely Charles Darwin and Karl Marx respectively.
More importantly, there are also substantive similarities in the content and predictions of both these alternative theoretical paradigms.
In particular, each is highly cynical in its conclusions. Indeed, at first glance, Marxist theory appears superficially almost as cynical as Darwinian theory.
Thus, like Betzig, Marx regarded most societies in existence throughout history as exploitative – and as designed to serve the interests, not of society in general or of the population of that society as a whole, but rather of the ‘dominant class’ within that society alone – namely, in the case of capitalism, the bourgeoisie or capitalist employers.
However, sociobiological and Marxist theory depart in at least three crucial respects.
First, Marxists propose that exploitation will be absent in future anticipated communist utopias.
Second, Marxists also claim that such exploitation was also absent among hunter-gatherer groups, where so-called ‘primitive communism’ supposedly prevailed.
Thus, the Marxist, so cynical with regard exploitation and oppression in capitalist (and feudal) society, suddenly turns hopelessly naïve and innocent when it comes to envisaging future unrealistic communist utopias, and when contemplating ‘noble savages’ in their putative ‘Eden before the fall’.
Unfortunately, however, in her critique of Marxism, Betzig herself nevertheless remains somewhat confused in respect of this key issue.
On the one hand, she rightly dismisses primitive communism as a Marxist myth. Thus, she demonstrates and repeatedly emphasizes that:
“Men accrue reproductive rights to wives of varying numbers and fertility in every human society” (p20).
Therefore, Betzig, contrary to the tenets of Marxism, concludes:
“Unequal access to the basic resource which perpetuates life, members of the opposite sex, is a condition in [even] the simplest societies” (p32; see also Chagnon 1979).
Neither is universal human inequality limited only to access to fertile females. On the contrary, Betzig observes:
“Some form of exploitation has been in evidence in even the smallest societies… Conflicts of interest in all societies are resolved with a consistent bias in favor of men with greater power” (p67).
On the other hand, however, Betzig takes a wrong turn in refusing to rule out the possibility of true communism somehow arising in the future. Thus, perhaps in a misguided effort to placate the many leftist opponents of sociobiology in academia, she writes:
“Darwinism… [does not] preclude the possibility of future conditions under which individual interests might become common interests: under which individual welfare might best be served by serving the welfare of society… [nor] preclude… the possibility of the evolution of socialism” (p68).
This, however, seems obviously impossible.
After all, we have evolved to seek to maximize the representation of our own genes in subsequent generations at the expense of those of other individuals. Only a eugenic reengineering of human nature itself could ever change this.
Thus, as Donald Symons emphasized in his seminal The Evolution of Human Sexuality (which I have reviewed here), reproductive competition is inevitable – because, whereas there is sometimes sufficient food that everyone is satiated and competition for food is therefore unnecessary and counterproductive, reproductive success is always relative, and therefore competition over women is universal.
Thus, Betzig quotes Confucius as observing:
“Disorder does not come from heaven, but is brought about by women” (p26).
Indeed, Betzig herself elsewhere recognizes this key point, namely the relativity of reproductive success, when she observes, in a passage quoted above, that a powerful monarch benefits from sequestering huge numbers of fertile females in his harem because, even if it is unfeasible that he would ever successfully impregnate all of them himself, he nevertheless thereby prevents other males from impregnating them, and thereby increases the relative representation of his own genes in subsequent generations (p70).
It therefore seems inconceivable that social engineers, let alone pure happenstance, could ever engineer a society in which individual interests were identical to societal interests, other than a society of identical twins or through the eugenic reingineering of human nature itself (see Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left, which I have reviewed here).
Marx and the Means of Reproduction
The third and perhaps most important conflict between the Darwinist and Marxist perspectives concerns what Betzig terms:
“The relative emphasis on production and reproduction” (p67).
Whereas Marxists view control of what they term the ‘means of production’ as the ultimate cause of societal conflict, socioeconomic status and exploitation, for Darwinians conflict and exploitation instead focus on control over what we might term the ‘means of reproduction’ – in other words fertile females, their wombs, ova and vaginas.
Thus, Betzig observes:
“Marxism makes no explicit prediction that exploitation should coincide with reproduction” (p68).
In other words, Marxist theory is silent on the crucial issue of whether high-status individuals will necessarily convert their political and economic power into the ultimate currency of Darwinian selection – namely, reproductive success.
On this view, powerful male rulers might just as well be celibate as control and assert exclusive reproductive access to large harems of young fertile wives and concubines.
In contrast, for Darwinians, the effort to maximize one’s reproductive success is the very purpose, and ultimate end, of all political power.
As sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe observes in his excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon (reviewe here, here and here):
“The ultimate measure of human success is no production but reproduction. Economic productivity and profit are means to reproductive ends, not ends in themselves” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p165).
Thus, production is, from a sociobiological perspective, just another means of gaining the resources necessary for reproduction.
On the other hand, reproduction is, from a biological perspective, the ultimate purpose of life.
Therefore, it seems that, for all his ostensible radicalism, Karl Marx was, in his emphasis on economics rather than sex, just another nineteenth-century Victorian prude!
The Polygyny Threshold Model Applied to Humans?
One way of conceptualizing the tendency of powerful males to attract (or perhaps commandeer) multiple wives and concubines is the polygyny threshold model.
This way of conceptualizing male and female reproductive and ecological competition was first formulated by ornithologist-ecologist Gordon Orians in order to model the mating systems of passerine birds (Orians 1969).
Here, males practice so-called ‘resource defence polygyny’ – in other words, they defend territories containing valuable resources (e.g. food, nesting sites) necessary for successful reproduction and provisioning of offspring.
Females then distribute themselves between males in accordance with size and quality of male territories.
On this view, if the territory of one male is twice as resource-abundant as that of another, he would, all else being equal, attract twice as many mates; if it is three times as resource-abundant, he would attract three times as many mates; etc.
The result is rough parity in resource-holdings and reproductive success among females, but often large disparities among males.
Applying the Polygyny Threshold Model to Modern America
Thus, applying the polygyny threshold model to humans, and rather simplistically substituting wealth for territory size and quality, we might predict that, if Jeff Bezos is a hundred thousand times richer than Joe Schmo, then, if Joe has only one wife, then Jeff should have around 100,000 wives.
But, of course, Jeff Bezos does not have 100,000 wives, nor even a mere 100,000 concubines.
Instead, he has only one solitary meagre ex-wife, and she, even when married to him, was not, to the best of my knowledge, ever guarded by any eunuchs – though perhaps he would have been better off if she had been, since they might have prevented her from divorcing him and taking an enormous share of his wealth with her in the ensuing divorce settlement.
The same is also true of contemporary political leaders.
Indeed, if any contemporary western political leader does attempt to practice polygyny, even on a comparatively modest scale, then, if discovered, a so-called ‘sex scandal’ almost invariably results.
Yet, viewed in historical perspective, the much-publicized marital infidelities of, say, Bill Clinton, though they may have outraged the sensibilities the of mass of monogamously-married ‘Middle American’ morons, positively pale into insignificance besides the reproductive achievements of someone like, say, Ismail the Bloodthirsty.
Indeed, Clinton’s infidelities don’t even pack much of a punch beside those of a politician from the same nation and just a generation removed, namely John F Kennedy – whose achievements in the political sphere are vastly overrated on account of his early death, but whose achievements in the bedroom, while scarcely matching those of Ismail the Bloodthirsty or the Aztec emperors, certainly put the current generation of American politicians to shame.
Why, then, does the contemporary west represent such a glaring exception to the general pattern of elite polygyny that Betzig has so successfully documented throughout so much of the rest of the world, and throughout so much of history? And what has become of the henpecked geldings who pass for politicians in the contemporary era?
Monogamy as Male Compromise?
According to Betzig, the moronic mass media moral panic that invariably accompanies sexual indiscretions on the part of contemporary Western political leaders and other public figures is no accident. Rather, it is exactly what her theory predicts.
According to Betzig, the institution of monogamy as it operates in Western democracies represents a compromise between low-status and high status males.
According to the terms of this compromise, high-status males agree to forgo polygyny in exchange for the cooperation of low status males in participating in the complexly interdependent economic systems of modern western polities (p105) – or, in biologist Richard Alexander’s alternative formulation, in exchange for serving as necessary cannon-fodder in wars (p104).
Thus, whereas, under polygyny, there are never enough females to go around, under monogamy, at least assuming that there is a roughly equal sex ratio (i.e. a roughly equal numbers of men and women), then virtually almost all males are capable of attracting a wife, howsoever ugly and unpleasant.
This is important, since it means that all men, even the relatively poor and powerless, nevertheless have a reproductive stake in society. This, then, in evolutionary terms, provides them with an incentive both:
1) To participate in the economy to support and thereby provide for their wife and family; and
2) To defend these institutions in wartime, if necessary with their lives.
The institution of monogamy has therefore been viewed as a key factor, if not the key factor, in both the economic and military ascendency of the West (see Scheidel 2008).
Similarly, it has recently been argued that the increasing rates of non-participation of young males in the economy and workforce (i.e. the so-called ‘NEET’ phenomenon) is a direct consequence of the reduction in reproductive opportunities to young males (Binder 2021).
Thus, on this view, then, the media scandal and hysteria that invariably accompanies sexual infidelities by elected politicians, or constitutional monarchs, reflects outrage that the terms of this implicit agreement have been breached.
This idea was anticipated by Irish playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw, who observed in Man and Superman: Maxims for Revolutionaries, the preface to his play Man and Superman:
“Polygyny, when tried under modern democratic conditions, as by the Mormons is wrecked by the revolt of the mass of inferior men who are condemned to celibacy by it” (Shaw 1903).
‘Socially Imposed Monogamy’?
Consistent with this theory of ‘socially imposed monogamy’, it is indeed the case that, in all Western democratic polities, polygyny is unlawful, and bigamy a crime.
Yet these laws are seemingly in conflict with contemporary western liberal democratic principles of tolerance and inclusivity, especially in respect of ‘alternative lifestyles’ and ‘non-traditional relationships’.
Thus, for example, we have recently witnessed a successful campaign for the legalization of gay marriage in most western jurisdictions. However, strangely, polygynous marriage seemingly remains anathema – despite the fact that most cultures across the world and throughout history have permitted polygynous marriage, whereas few if any have ever accorded any state recognition to homosexual unions.
Indeed, strangely, whereas the legalization of gay marriage was widely perceived as ‘progressive’, polygyny is associated, not with sexual liberation with rather with highly traditional and sexually repressive groups such as Mormons and Muslims.
Polygynous marriage was also, rather strangely, associated with the supposed oppression of women in traditional societies.
However, most women actually do better, at least in purely economic terms, under polygyny than under monogamy, at least in highly stratified societies with large differences in resource-holdings as between males.
Thus, if, as we have seen, Jeff Bezos is 100,000 times richer than Joe Schmo, then a woman is financially better off becoming the second wife, or the tenth wife (or even the 99,999th wife!), of Jeff Bezos rather than the first wife of poor Joe.
Moreover, women also have another incentive to prefer Jeff to Joe.
If she is impregnated by a polygynous male like Jeff, then her male descendants may inherit the traits that facilitated their father’s wealth, power and polygyny, and hence become similarly reproductively successful themselves, aiding the spread of the woman’s own genes in subsequent generations.
Biologists call this good genes sexual selection or, more catchily, the ‘sexy son hypothesis’.
Once again, however, George Bernard Shaw beat them to it when he observed in the same 1903 essay quoted above:
“Maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one” (Shaw 1903).
Thus, Robert Wright concludes:
“In sheerly Darwinian terms, most men are probably better off in a monogamous system, and most women worse off” (The Moral Animal: p96).
Thus, women generally should welcome polygyny, while the only people opposed to polygyny should be:
1) The women currently married to men like Jeff Bezos, and greedily unwilling to share their resource-abundant ‘alpha-male’ providers with a whole hundred-fold harem of co-wives and concubines; and
2) A glut of horny sexually-frustrated bachelor-‘incels’ terminally condemned to celibacy, bachelorhood and inceldom by promiscuous lotharios like Jeff Bezos and Ismail the Bloodthirsty greedily hogging all the hot chicks for themselves.
Who Opposes Polygyny, and Why?
However, in my experience, the people who most vociferously and puritanically object to philandering male politicians are not low-status men, but rather women.
Moreover, such women typically affect concern on behalf, not of the male bachelors and ‘incels’ supposedly indirectly condemned to celibacy by such behaviours, but rather the wives of such politicians – though the latter are the chief beneficiaries of monogamy, while these other women, precluded from signing up as second or third-wives to alpha-male providers, are themselves, at least in theory, among the main losers.
This suggests that the ‘male compromise theory’ of socially-imposed monogamy is not the whole story.
Perhaps then, although women benefit in purely financial terms under polygyny, they do not do so well in fitness terms.
Thus, one study found that, whereas polygynous males (unsurprisingly) had more offspring than monogamously-mated males, they (perhaps also unsurprisingly) had fewer offspring per wife. This suggests that, while polygynously-married males benefit from polygyny, their wives incur a fitness penalty for having to share their husband (Strassman 2000).
This probably reflects the fact that even male reproductive capacity is limited, as, notwithstanding the Coolidge effect (which has, to my knowledge, yet to be demonstrated in humans), males can only manage a certain number of orgasms per day.
Women’s distaste for polygynous unions may also reflect the fact that even prodigiously wealthy males will inevitably have a limited supply of one particular resource – namely, time – and time spent with offspring may be an important determinant of offspring success, which paid child-minders, lacking a direct genetic stake in offspring, are unable to perfectly replicate.
Thus, if Jeff Bezos were able to attract for himself the 100,000 wives that the polygyny threshold model suggests is his due, then, even if he were capable of providing each woman with the two point four children that is her own due, it is doubtful he would have enough time on his hands to spend much ‘quality time’ with each of his 240,000 offspring – just as one doubts Ismail the Bloodthirsty was himself an attentive father his own more modest mere 888.
Thus, one suspects that, contrary to the polygyny threshold model, polygyny is not always entirely a matter of female choice (Sanderson 2001).
On the contrary, many of the women sequestered into the harems of rulers like Ismail the Bloodthirsty likely had little say in the matter.
‘The Central Theoretical Problem of Human Sociobiology’
Yet, if this goes some way towards explaining the apparent paradox of ‘socially imposed monogamy’, there is, today, an even greater paradox with which we must wrestle – namely, why, in contemporary western societies, is there apparently an inverse correlation between wealth and number of offspring.
After all, from a sociobiological or evolutionary psychological perspective, this represents something of a paradox.
If, as we have seen, the very purpose of wealth and power (from a sociobiological perspective) is to convert these advantages into the ultimately currency of natural selection, namely reproductive success, then why are the wealthy so spectacularly failing to do so in the contemporary west?
Moreover, if status is not conducive to high reproductive success, then why have humans evolved to seek high-status in the first place?
This anomaly has been memorably termed the ‘The central theoretical problem of human sociobiology’ in a paper by University of Pennsylvania demographer and eugenicist Daniel Vining (Vining 1986).
‘Socially imposed monogamy’ can only go some way towards explaining this anomaly. Thus, in previous centuries, even under monogamy, wealthier families still produced more surviving offspring, if only because their greater wealth enabled them to successfully rear and feed multiple successive offspring to adulthood. In contrast, for the poor, high rates of infant mortality were the order of the day.
Yet, in the contemporary west, it seems that the people who have the most children and hence the highest ‘fitness’ in the strict Darwinian sense, are, at least according to popular stereotype, single mothers on government welfare.
‘De Facto’ Polygyny
Various solutions have been proposed to this apparent paradox. A couple amount to claiming that the west is not really monogamous at all, and, once this is factored in, then, at least among males, higher-status men do indeed have greater numbers of offspring than lower-status men.
One suggestion along these lines is that perhaps wealthy males sire additional offspring whose paternity is misassigned, via extra-marital liaisons (Betzig 1993b).
However, despite some sensationalized claims, rates of misassigned paternity are actually quite low (Khan 2010; Gilding 2005; Bellis et al 2005).
If it is lower-class women who are giving birth to most of the offspring, then it is probably mostly males of their own socioeconomic status who are responsible for impregnating them, if only because it is the latter with whom they have the most social contact.
Perhaps a more plausible suggestion is that wealthy high-status males are able to practice a form of disguised polygyny by through repeated remarriage.
Thus, wealthy men are sometimes criticized for divorcing their first wives to marry much younger second- and sometimes even third- and fourth-wives. In this way, they manage monopolize the peak reproductive years of multiple successive young women.
This is true, for example, of recent American President Donald Trump – the ultimate American alpha male – who has himself married three women, each one younger than her predecessor.
Thus, science journalist Robert Wright contends:
“The United States is no longer a nation of institutionalized monogamy. It is a nation of serial monogamy. And serial monogamy in some ways amounts to polygyny.” (The Moral Animal: p101).
This, then, is not so much ‘serial monogamy’ as it is ‘sequential’ or non-concurrent polygyny’.
Another suggestion is that evolutionary novelties – i.e. recently developed technologies such as contraception – have disrupted the usual association between status and fertility.
On this view, natural selection has simply not yet had sufficient time (or, rather, sufficient generations) over which to mold our psychology and behaviour in such a way as to cause us to use these technologies in an adaptive manner – i.e. in order to maximize, not restrict, our reproductive success.
An obvious candidate here is safe and effective contraception, which, while actually somewhat older than most people imagine, nevertheless became widely available to the population at large only over the course of the past century, which is surely not enough generations for us to have become evolutionarily adapted to its use.
Thus, a couple of studies have found that that, while wealthy high-status males may not father more offspring, they do have more sex with a greater number of partners – i.e. behaviours that would have resulted in more offspring in ancestral environments prior to the widespread availability of contraception (Pérusse 1993: Kanazawa 2003).
This implies that high-status males (or their partners) use contraception either more often, or more effectively, than low-status males, probably because of their greater intelligence and self-control, namely the very traits that enabled them to achieve high socioeconomic status in the first place (Kanazawa 2005).
Another evolutionary novelty that may disrupt the usual association between social status and number of surviving offspring is the welfare system.
Welfare payments to single mothers undoubtedly help these families raise to adulthood offspring who would otherwise perish in infancy.
In addition, by reducing the financial disincentives associated with raising additional offspring, they probably increase the number of offspring these women choose to have in the first place.
While it is highly controversial to suggest that welfare payments to single mothers actually give the latter an actual financial incentive to bear additional offspring, they surely, at the very least, reduce the financial disincentives otherwise associated with bearing additional children.
Therefore, given that the desire for offspring is probably innate, women would rationally respond by having more children.
Feminist ideology also encourages women in particular to postpone childbearing in favour of careers. Moreover, it is probably higher-status females who are more exposed to feminist ideology, especially in universities, where feminist ideology is thoroughly entrenched.
In contrast, lower-status women are not only less exposed to feminist ideology encouraging them to delay motherhood in favour of career, but also likely have fewer appealing careers available to them in the first place.
Finally, even laws against bigamy and polygyny might be conceptualized as an evolutionary novelty that disrupts the usual association between status and fertility.
However, whereas technological innovations such as effective contraception were certainly not available until recent times, ideological constructs and religious teachings – including ideas such as feminism, prohibitions on polygyny, and the socialist ideology that motivated the creation of the welfare state – have existed ever since we evolved the capacity to create such constructs (i.e. since we became fully human).
Therefore, one would expect that humans would have evolved resistance to ideological and religious teachings that go against their genetic interests. Otherwise, we would be vulnerable to indoctrination (and hence exploitation) at the hands third parties.
Finally, it must be noted that these issues are not only of purely academic interest.
On the contrary, since socioeconomic status correlates with both intelligence and personality traits such as conscientiousness, and these traits are, in turn, substantially heritable, and moreover determine, not only individual wealth and prosperity, but also at the aggregate level, the wealth and prosperity of nations, the question of who has the offspring is surely of central concern to the future of society, civilization and the world.
In short, what is at stake is the very genetic posterity that we bequeath to future generations. It is simply too important a matter to be delegated to the capricious and irrational decision-making of individual women.
 Actually, the precise number of offspring Ismail fathered is unclear. The figure I have quoted in the main body of the text comes from various works on evolutionary psychology (e.g. Cartwright, Evolution and Human Behaviour: p133-4; Wright, The Moral Animal: p247). However, another earlier work on human sociobiology, David Barash’s The Whisperings Within gives an even higher figure, of “1,056 offspring” (The Whisperings Within: p47). Meanwhile, an article produced by the Guinness Book of Records gives an even higher figure of at least 342 daughters and 700 sons, while a scientific paper by Elisabeth Oberzaucher and Karl Grammer gives a figure of 1171 offspring in total. The precise figure seems to be unknown and is probably apocryphal. Nevertheless, the general point – namely that a powerful male with access to a large harem and multiple wives and concubines, is capable of fathering many offspring – is surely correct.
 In a contemporary context, I wonder whether the ostensibly ‘elite’ all-female bodyguard of Arab socialist dictator, Colonel Gadaffi, his so-called ‘Amazonian Guard’ (aka ‘Revolutionary Nuns’), served a similar function. Given the innate biological differences between the sexes, women are unlikely to represent effective bodyguards anymore than they do effective soldiers in wartime. Certainly, they did little to prevent his exection by rebels in 2011. In addition, since his overthrow and execution, accusations of sexual abuse have inevitably surfaced.
On the other hand, such allegations cannot necessarily be taken at face value, given the prevalence of false rape allegations. Moreover, it is suggested that, while female bodyguards may have been largely ineffective as conventional bodyguards, they may have served as, in effect, a ‘human shield’, whereby Gaddaffi took advantage of the reluctance of chivalrous male assassins and unsurgents, especially Arab Muslims, to shoot at and kill women.
 The capture of fertile females from among enemy groups is by no means restricted to the Yąnomamö. On the contrary, it may even form the ultimate evolutionary basis for intergroup conflict and raiding among troops of chimpanzees, our species’ closest extant relative. It is also alluded to, and indeed explicitly commanded, in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Deuteronomy 20: 13-14; Numbers 31: 17-18), and was formerly prevalent in western culture as well.
It is also very much apparent, for example, in the warfare and raiding formerly endemic in the Gobi Desert of what is today Mongolia. Thus, the mother of Genghis Khan was, at least according to legend, herself kidnapped by the Great Khan’s father. Indeed, this was apparently an accepted form of courtship on the Mongolian Steppe, as Genghis Khan’s own wife was herself stolen from him on at least one occasion by rival Steppe nomads, resulting in a son of disputed paternity (whom the great Khan perhaps tellingly named Jochi, which is said to translate as ‘guest’) and a later succession crisis.
Many anthropologists, it ought to be noted, dismiss Chagnon’s claim that Yanomami warfare is predicated on the capture of women. Perhaps the most famous is Chagnon’s own former student, Kenneth Good, whose main claim to fame is to have himself married a (by American standards, underage) Yąnomamö girl – who, in a dramatic falsification of her husband’s theory, was then herself twice raped and abducted by raiding Yanomami warriors.
 It is ironic that John Cartwright, author of Evolution and Human Behaviour, an undergraduate level textbook on evolutionary psychology, is skeptical regarding the claim that Ismail the Bloodthirsty fathered 888 offspring, but nevertheless apparently takes at face value that claim that a Russian peasant woman had 69 offspring, a biologically far more implausible claim (Evolution and Human Behaviour: p133-4).
 There may even be a fitness penalty associated with increased socioeconomic status and political power for women. For example, among baboons, it has been found that high-ranking females actually suffer reduced fertility and higher rates of miscarriages (Packer et al 1995). Kingsley Browne, in his excellent book, Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (which I have reviewed here), noting that female executives tend to have fewer children, tentatively proposes that a similar effect may be at work among humans:
“Women who succeed in business tend to be relatively high testosterone, which can result in lower female fertility, whether because of ovulatory irregularities or reduced interest in having children. Thus, rather than the high-powered career being responsible for the high rate of childlessness, it may be that high testosterone levels are responsible for both” (Biology at Work: p124).
 However, here, Betzig is perhaps altogether overcautious. Thus, whether or not “political power in itself” is explained in this way (i.e. “as providing a position from which to gain reproductively”), certainly the human desire for political power must surely be explained in this way.
 The prospect of eugenically reengineering human nature itself so as to make utopian communism achievable, and human society less conflictual, is also unrealistic. As John Gray has noted in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (reviewed here), if human nature is eugenically reengineered, then it will be done, not in the interests of society, let alone humankind, as a whole, but rather in the interests of those responsible for ordering or undertaking the project – namely, scientists and, more importantly, those from whom they take their orders (e.g. government, politicians, civil servants, big business, managerial elites). Thus, Gray concludes:
“[Although] it seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodelled… it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (Straw Dogs: p6).
 Here, it is important to emphasize that what is exceptional about western societies is not monogamy per se. On the contrary, monogamy is common in relatively egalitarian societies (e.g. hunter-gatherer societies), especially those living at or near subsistence levels, where no male is able to secure access to sufficient resources so as to provision multiple wives and offspring (Kanazawa and Still 1999). What is exceptional about contemporary western societies is the combination of:
1) Large differentials of resource-holdings between males (i.e. social stratification); and
2) Prescriptive monogamy (i.e. polygyny is not merely not widely practised, but also actually unlawful).
 Quite when prescriptive monogamy originated in the west seems to be a matter of some dispute. Betzig views it as very much a recent phenomenon, arising with the development of complex, interdependent industrial economies, which required the cooperation of lower-status males in order to function. Here, Betzig perhaps underestimates the extent to which even pre-industrial economies required the work and cooperation of low-status males in order to function. Thus, Betzig argues that, in ancient Rome, nominally monogamous marriages concealed rampantly de facto polygyny, with emperors and other powerful males fathering multiple offspring with both slaves and other men’s wives (Betzig 1992). Similarly, in medieval Europe, she argues that, despite nominal monogamy, wealthy men fathered multiple offspring through servant girls (Betzig 1995a; Betzig 1995b). In contrast, Kevin Macdonald persuasively contends that medieval monogamy was no mere myth and most illegitimate offspring born to servant girls were fathered by men of roughly their own station (Macdonald 1995a; Macdonald 1995b).
 Certainly, the so-called ‘NEET’ and ‘incel’ phenomena seem to be correlated with one another. NEETs are disproportionately likely to be incels, and incels are disproportionately likely to be NEETs. However, the direction of causation is unclear and probably works in both directions. On the one hand, since women are rarely attracted to men without money or the prospects of money, men without jobs are rarely able to attract wives or girlfriends. However, on the other hand, men who, for whatever reason, perceive themselves as unable to attract a wife or girlfriend even if they did have a job, may see little incentive to getting a job in the first place or keeping the one they do have.
 Indeed, during the debates surrounding the legalization of gay marriage, the prospect of the legalization of polygynous marriage was rarely discussed, and, when it was raised, it was usually invoked by the opponents of gay marriage, as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of changes in marriage laws to permit gay marriage, something champions of gay marriage were quick to dismiss as preposterous scaremongering. In short, both sides in the acrimonious debates regarding gay marriage seem to have been agreed that legalizing polygynous unions was utterly beyond the pale.
 Thus, father absence is a known correlate of criminality and other negative life outcomes. In fact, however, the importance of paternal investment in offspring outcomes, and indeed of parental influence more generally, has yet to be demonstrated, since the correlation between father-absence and negative life-outcomes could instead reflect the heritability of personality, including those aspects of personality that cause people to have offspring out of wedlock, die early, abandon their children or have offspring by a person who abandons their offspring or dies early (see Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption, which I have reviewed here).
 This paradox is related to another one – namely, why it is that people in richer societies tend to have lower fertility rates than poorer societies? This recent development, often referred to as the ‘demographic transition’, is paradoxical for the exact same reason that it is paradoxical for relatively wealthier people within western societies to have have fewer offspring than relatively poorer people within these same societies, namely that it is elementary Darwinism 101 that an organism with access to greater resources should channel those additional resources into increased reproduction. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not restricted to western societies. On the contrary, other wealthy industrial and post-industrial societies, such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea, have, if anything, even lower fertility rates than Europe, Australasia and North America.
 Actually, it is not altogether clear that women do have an innate desire to bear children. After all, in the EEA, there was no need for women to evolve a desire to bear children. All they required to a desire to have sexual intercourse (or indeed a mere willingness to acquiesce in the male desire for intercourse). In the absence of contraception, offspring would then naturally result. Indeed, other species, including presumably most of our pre-human ancestors, are surely wholly unaware of the connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction. A desire for offspring would then serve no adaptive function for these species at all. However, this did not stop these species from seeking out sexual opportunities and hence reproducing their kind. However, given anecdotal evidence of so-called ‘broodiness’ among women, I suspect women do indeed have some degree of innate desire for offspring.
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