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Communities succeed with monogamy
By Orson Scott Card October 2, 2008

Read OSC's supplement to Communities succeed with monogamy


Monogamous marriage is not just a social custom that we are free to alter as we wish. It is older than any existing government.

We have strong evidence -- in our bodies, in our populations -- that monogamy has been a significant part of the rise and triumph of the human species.

We have no evidence of any civilization that did not have it as the root social organization for the overwhelming majority of its citizens.

Humans didn't invent monogamy. Many nest-building bird species have practiced it (with some cheating) for, presumably, millions of years. But we're the only primates I know of that practice it.

Monogamy confers great advantages on the community as a whole and on women in particular. Where monogamy prevails, almost all males and females have a reasonable chance of reproductive success.

And women have far more opportunity to direct their own lives as individuals rather than as a possession of whatever male is strongest or available, while still having the advantages of male protection and support.

One advantage to communities that adopt monogamy is that traits other than physical strength and stamina can be developed and passed on.

Instead of valuing only the males that can make a physical contributions to defense or to the chase, males whose contribution is memory, creativity, inventiveness, or dexterity can also reproduce, and females who share and/or value those traits can mate with them so that their offspring can improve on them.

Monogamy, though it is overwhelmingly pervasive in successful human communities, is not the only reproductive strategy passed along genetically.

Most human societies try to obliterate rape, but by its very nature rape is likely to lead to at least some reproduction, and so the genetic predisposition toward that strategy persists.

Likewise, most societies try to suppress unmarried reproduction. But again, enough adolescents succeed in mating despite adult attempts at suppression that the trait continues in many (though by no means all) young human males.

There are also still would-be alpha males, jealous, aggressive, controlling.

A monogamous community can survive a certain amount of such behavior, as long as there are visible efforts to discourage them.

The Rise of the Uxor

Monogamy depends on -- and rewards -- a trait called "uxoriousness": husbandliness. While there is no shortage of males pursuing the old reproductive strategies, there is also a widespread male type, the uxor, the man who wants to bond with one woman and remain loyal to her and, especially their children together.

Societies that reward and encourage the uxor are far more likely to succeed at monogamy than societies that honor and other reproductive strategies.

Community Allegiance

How do we judge that one community is more successful than another? If that community is able to extend itself across time and space.

But since communities consist of individuals who usually, one way or another, have the ability to opt out, communities can only continue to exist if they command the loyalty of their members.

Communities do this by providing enough food, protection, and reproductive opportunities for most members to have a reasonable expectation of the survival of their descendants -- the persistence of their genes.

Most of us hunger to feel allegiance. The loyalty gene is strong and pervasive. Fanatical devotion to sports teams is one expression of this community-building trait.

Human communities survive best when their members are capable of such strong allegiance to the whole that they can even tolerate the death of their own child in defense of it. The feeling that they have succeeded when the whole group succeeds allows them to mask or overcome the grief and rage at the community's failure to protect their own child.

In short, they are willing to sacrifice, or tolerate individual loss, for the good of the whole.

Communities that best promote such altruism are the communities most likely to succeed. No society lasts long without instilling in its members the doctrine that it is noble to die for your country, or to make other sacrifices for the sake of all.

Property

Altruism and monogamy are not the only traits that are dominant in every successful civilization. Another important one is the concept of property -- that ownership persists even when the owner is not present.

This extends into marriage: Peaceful community life depends on married people being able to trust that their spouses will continue to belong to them even when they are apart.

Monogamy is not possible without respect for property -- including spouses governing themselves by the principle, "I belong to her"; "I belong to him."

Altruistic loyalty, monogamy, and property grew side-by-side in the human species.

But when a society throws away any or all of these principles, as ours has been doing for the past fifty years, what replaces it is the chimp or gorilla. Those strategies work -- we still have chimps and gorillas in the world -- but they can't maintain civilizations or large communities.

The community that abandons the principles that led to the rise of the human species to the top of all nature will soon find itself absorbed or overwhelmed -- replaced by a community that holds firmly to them.

Read OSC's supplement to Communities succeed with monogamy

Copyright © 2008 by Orson Scott Card

 
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