Article By: Barbara Kay
We may reasonably infer from the fact that the Biblical Garden of Eden was presided over by 1 man & 1 woman that the Hebrew God considered monogamy the norm between the sexes. Yet Abraham & his descendants practiced polygamy, the default marriage paradigm for 75% of all recorded human cultures.
We have Athens & Jesus to thank for monogamy as the marriage paradigm the West takes for granted. Athens was not only the 1st democracy, it was the 1st society to insist on monogamy & shame those who divorced. And, also according to renaissance-man journalist William Tucker, author of Marriage & Civilization: How monogamy made us human, Christianity, in its adamant opposition to polygamy, was “the most powerful force for implementing monogamy in Western Civilization.”
All societies are imperfect, but the least imperfect societies, according to Tucker, & those most likely to war only intermittently rather than continuously, practice monogamy. By “optimiz(ing) everyone’s individual outcome in a way that maintains the integrity of the entire society” rather than maximizing the outcomes of the high-status few, as w/polygamy, monogamy creates an environment of trust where human endeavors flourish. Tucker brings a persuasive body of biological, evolutionary & anthropological scholarship to bear on a recurrent theme, that the besetting weakness of polygamous societies is the inability to get on w/neighbors.
“Everywhere polygamy is practiced, it creates conflict,” Tucker asserts. In polygamous societies, men “spend most of their time fighting among themselves for access to females,” & raiding neighboring tribes for them becomes a norm (“Raids are our agriculture” is an old Arab proverb).
Our earliest ancestors were hunter-gatherers, who were monogamous as a practical division of labor & egalitarian in the sharing of food w/their community. Not motivated to go to war over resources, they were relatively peaceful. Then agriculturalists pushed them out. W/agriculture came resources, wealth & status. More wives meant more labor & higher status. Thus, polygamy.
But, “The hallmark of a polygamous society is that there is always a shortage of women.”
High-status men could pay the bride-price for many women, but low-status males had difficulty finding any. When alpha males can have as many women as they want, men will invariably distrust other men & obsess over women, creating an environment antithetical to unguarded collaboration. A shortage of women creates volatility in low-status men. They may — as in the Ottoman Empire, which featured harems — be turned into eunuchs or, under Wahhabist influence, be “molded into assassins & terrorists & sent off to holy war.” Or — another disturbing trend in polygamous societies — they will hunt for brides among younger & younger cohorts — i.e. the barbarism of child marriage. (1 of the most interesting points Tucker makes is that in a monogamous society “the incest taboo generally extends not only to daughters but to all young women old enough to be a man’s daughter.”)
Whether it was early agriculturalists, nomad herders, Mongols or Mormons, virtually all polygamous societies have suffered internal violence & continually contested borders. Islamic history comes in particularly close & in this sensitive historical moment — provocative scrutiny.
Tucker writes: “Islam, as a civilization, has proven itself incapable of living at peace w/itself, or with others.” Citing the ruthless exploits of Tamerlane & Genghis Khan, Tucker says, “Historically, warrior civilizations of nomads have found sympathetic chords in Islam.”
It is no coincidence, Tucker believes, that the Quran not only tolerates polygamy but, unlike the Bible, prescribes up to 4 wives as part of its sacred writ. Bolstering Tucker’s claim is the fact that the Druze, a peaceful Islamic sect, & the only officially monogamous Muslims, live in harmony among both fellow Muslims & Israelis (Druze are the only Muslims to collectively serve, often w/distinction, in the IDF).
Marriage & Civilization is the kind of book that elicits the shock of recognition, like watching a perfectly proportioned human figure emerge out of a block of marble under a sculptor’s unerring chisel. Tucker says it was a decade in the making & that seems right, for there is profundity here, especially in his analysis of the Western literary canon. The Odyssey, Tucker observes, was the world’s 1st literary “hymn to monogamy,” w/the uxorious Ulysses turning down eternal life w/the goddess Calypso to return to Penelope, who represents the model of wifely virtue that used to inform all monogamous societies.
Tucker’s final chapters on the modern family are illuminating. Our social elites cling to monogamy, for they instinctively know its benefits, but for ideological reasons encourage low-status men & women to practice “state polygamy,” the effects of which are predictably deleterious for men, women & children.