- Published on Saturday, 18 February 2012 06:56
- Written by John Draper
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Perhaps in ancient times when the men kept getting killed in wars, it might have worked but now new research shows that polygamy causes greater levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality. There are some small religious sects that practice it, notably fundamentalist Mormons, but Muslims are the largest group who currently allow polygamy. Because the Qur'an says that Mohamed did it, and if he had multiple wives it must be acceptable, then polygamy is OK. To be more precise, multiple wives are OK, not multiple husbands. Of course in today's sexually liberal world, we tend to think that if polygamy works for them, it's not immoral. That would be true if only one or two practised it but when whole societies do it, it's a problem. The concern is not just academic - Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan have no laws against it although the majority frown on it.
So what's wrong with it? Research conducted at the University of British Columbia found that societies have "systematically evolved away from it because of the social problems it causes". It's not just the gender inequality suffered by women, but there are problems for young men.
The scarcity of marriageable women in polygamous cultures:
- Leads to increased competition among men for the remaining unmarried women
- The greater competition increases the likelihood men will resort to criminal behavior to gain resources and women. Men feel they need to be wealthier to attract the women.
- Leads to significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud.
Conversely, monogamous marriage decreases competition for younger and younger brides, increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment.
Monogamy's institutionalization has been assisted by its incorporation by religions, such as Christianity. Monogamous marriage also results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict, the study finds. These benefits result from greater levels of parental investment, smaller households and increased direct "blood relatedness" in monogamous family households.
Note that the wives may well say that they are happy with the arrangement. The husband's demands are shared and there are other women to share the work. The men are no doubt happy too! The problem is not the polygamous marriages as such but the effect it has on society as a whole.
This finding was backed by the history of cultures that were previously polygamous (for men) and became more successful when they banned the practice. Polygamy was outlawed in 1963 in Nepal, 1955 in India (partially), 1953 in China and 1880 in Japan.
The study's lead author, Prof. Joseph Henrich, says that monogamous marriage has largely preceded democracy and voting rights for women in the nations where it has been institutionalized.
It is clear that the path to a civilized society includes an end to polygamy. While the practice is legal and tolerated, the strong and wealthy will be favoured and democracy cannot flourish. But Islam says it's OK so another requirement is that Muslims must start to reject parts of their religion. If one part of their religion is wrong, maybe other parts are wrong too! The fact that many in Pakistan frown on polygamy is a good sign - there is hope yet.
UBC study "Monogamy reduces major social problems of polygamist cultures" Lead author UBC Prof. Joseph Henrich
Comments at National Post by Libby Copeland