Illustration of Draupadi, a princess and queen in the Indian epic “Mahabharata”, with her five husbands (Wikipedia)

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington; his most recent book is Out of Eden: surprising consequences of polygamy (2016, Oxford University Press). A version of this post recently appeared in Psychology Today.

Human history did not begin with historians, or with the events recorded and interpreted by them. It is as old as our species … actually, older yet, but for my purposes, it’s enough to inquire into those aspects of our past that gave rise to our behavioral inclinations. Among these aspects, sex is prominent (albeit not uniquely formative). I wrote earlier about polygyny, which is dramatically evident in our bodies no less than our behavior. But polyandry, the mirror image of polygyny, is also “us”; ironically, we are both. Part of human nature inclines us to male-oriented harems, but also – although more subtly – to their female-oriented equivalent.

When biologists such as myself began doing DNA fingerprinting on animals, many of us were shocked, shocked, to find that the social partner of even some of the most seemingly monogamous bird species was not necessarily the biological father. And people aren’t altogether different, although for understandable reasons, the sexual adventuring of women has long been more obscured. Polyandry –unlike polygyny – has only rarely been institutionalized in human societies, and yet women, like men, are also prone to having multiple sexual partners. (This may seem – even be – obvious, but for decades biologists had assumed that female fidelity was generally the mirror-image opposite of predictable male randomness.

Male-male competition and male-based harem keeping (polygyny) is overt, readily apparent, and carries with it a degree of male-male sexual intolerance which also applies to polyandry, whereby “unfaithful” women along with their paramours are liable to be severely punished if discovered. This intolerance is easy enough to understand, since the evolutionary success (the “fitness”) of a male is greatly threatened by any extra-curricular sexual activity by “his” mate. If she were inseminated by someone else, the result is a payoff for the lover and a fitness decrement for the cuckolded male. As a result, selection has not only favored a male tendency to accumulate as many females as possible (polygyny), but also an especially high level of sexual jealousy on the part of males generally and of men in particular. This, in turn, pressures polyandry into a degree of secrecy not characteristic of polygyny. Another way of looking at it: patriarchy pushes polyandry underground, but does not eliminate it.

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