Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Toward Non-Stupid, Non-Blank-Slatey Polyandry

"There is a theoretical debate...over the evolutionary status of human polyandry and whether it is truly an adaptation....We argue that marriage (or pair-bonding) is the adaptation."

Starkweather & Hames, "A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry" (Human Nature 23:12, June 2012)


Humans are an effectively polygynous species; that is, the reproductive fitness variance of males exceeds the reproductive fitness variance of females. However, our degree of polygyny is not particularly high among primates; we have significant adaptations for pair bonding and monogamy. Daly & Wilson say (Homicide, p. 143) that "we are the products of a mild but sustained polygynous competition."

What about polyandry? Marriage relationships between a single female and multiple males has been understood to be extremely rare among humans, both based on anthropological evidence and for sound biological reasons; Daly & Wilson cite the classical source, Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, for the proposition that "a tiny minority [of human societies] practice polyandrous marriage." Starkweather et al. mention that for the 1967 sample Daly & Wilson are citing, only seven societies are identified as practicing polyandry out of 1,167 societies in the sample. A tiny minority, indeed!

A popular blank-slatey denial of both polygyny and monogamy adaptations (and, some argue, the adaptation of pair bonding in general) has emerged in recent years, known as Sex At Dawn. I have not deigned to read this book, but I am informed and on that basis believe that its authors argue that humans are basically happy love monkeys cruelly forced into the strictures of monogamy by agricultural patriarchy. 

As a happy love monkey, I am, emotionally, extremely sympathetic to this ludicrous line of hogwash. Yes, human males are much bigger than human females, we mate face-to-face, males invest heavily in their children and exhibit violent sexual jealousy, and basically the picture is one of monogamy shading into polygyny - but what about our huge penises, huh? What could they be but beautiful twat squeegees? And what about the fact that cuckolding is the second most common heterosexual interest in pornography, after (the unquestionably adaptive characteristic) youth?

What theory truly accounts for all the facts about humans and their mating systems? This theory must not be a blank slate, must not be happy love monkeys (no adaptations after bonobos? really?) and must not be pure virtuous monogamous/polygynous females (else why the twat squeegees?). It must account for pair bonding, but also for occasional extrapair matings - for complicated but biologically sensible intrasexual and intersexual competition. 

There is no reason that a polyandrous society might not fall within the realm of possibilities of such a theory - given the right environmental or population constraints and the right social institutions. Indeed, in the article quoted at the beginning of this post, Starkweather and Hames find 53 societies that practice polyandry outside the classical societies surveyed by Murdock. While still a "tiny minority" of human societies, polyandry is a sensible model for the tiny minority of societies experiencing certain constraints.

What is the single biggest determinant of a society going polyandrous? It is, say Starkweather and Hames, a male-skewed operational sex ratio. That is, when there are way more males than females in a society, polyandry is a likely solution to that problem. This is true whether the operational sex ratio is temporarily skewed (by an unusual war), or permanently so (by, say, the practice of whale hunting). Temporary polyandry follows temporarily skewed sex ratios; stable polyandry follows stably-skewed sex ratios. There is evidence that the overall operational sex ratio in the Western world and China has become mildly male-skewed in recent decades; even this relatively mild skew has had measurable, culture-dependent effects.

Do we know of any communities that have massively male-skewed sex ratios?

Yeah, that would be us.

Who are "we"? We might identify as rationalist nerds. Many of us have IQs a couple-few standard devs above average, and many of us enjoy some form of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Many of us read LessWrong, or are at least aware of LessWrong enough to pretend not to read LessWrong. Many of us pass through Senior House or East Campus at MIT; others, through Blacker House or Ricketts House at CalTech. We are particularly likely to chew nicotine gum despite never having smoked cigarettes (which only scratches the surface of our drug use). 

To some limping extent, we form a semi-endogamous community. How sex-skewed are we? Taking LessWrong as a sample of whatever we are, according to the 2011 survey, we are 89% male. An operational sex ratio of 204 males to 100 females, as found in Netsilik children, is considered extremely high, and is highly determinative of polyandry. Our LessWrong operational sex ratio would be 1056 males per 100 females.

This is gender skewing beyond what would be expected based on mere IQ; in the Scottish sample, there were 203 girls and 277 boys in the 140 band of the IQ test, for a skewed-but-not-ludicrous operational sex ratio of 136 boys per 100 girls. Whatever we are, we are not selecting in merely for intelligence, but likely also for other factors that are heavily dependent on sex.

As someone who lettered in both math team and cheerleading, polyandry has been a reality of my dating life since I was 16. (I am Presently in a Monogamous Relationship Okay.) Polyamory was already a buzzword at MIT in the mid-1990s, but my girlfriends and I didn't need anyone to tell us that we could have whoever we wanted PLUS whoever else we wanted, PLUS set all the rules, and if anybody didn't like it, they were mean, jealous crybabies. This is pretty much totally unfair, and I guess our emotional response to this unfairness was something like, "well, patriarchy sucked, payback's a bitch." 

However, despite the unfairness, it is not at all clear that the polyandrous polyamorous system in place in many elite bohemian communities is undesirable for the males involved. Indeed, many males in this system actively seek to promote it; this comment from Eliezer Yudkowsky is one of my favorite examples:

The following is a public service announcement to all women who naturally like at least some shy nerds.

If you are (1) polyamorous and (2) able to directly ask men you find attractive to sleep with you (instead of doing the sheep dance where you freeze motionless and wait for them to approach) - or if you can hack yourself to be like that without too much effort - it is vastly easier than you imagine to acquire an entire harem of high-status and/or handsome nerds.

(For some but not all nerds, this may require that you be reasonably attractive. Most nerd girls I know are reasonably attractive and think they are not. So if you think that you're overweight and hideous and yet oddly enough nerds spend a lot of time talking to you at nerd parties, this means you are pretty.)

This concludes the public service announcement.

In addition to the high male-skewed operational sex ratio, we have many things going for us as a community in terms of determinants of successful polyandry. For one thing, our males, I offer, seem to experience less sexual jealousy than average human males. Whether this is mostly a result of their biological characteristics, or mostly a result of cultural norms against jealousy, it does seem to be effective in suppressing most open expression of hostile jealousy. 

Also, we are generally socially broken and pathologically interested in a lot of other things besides social monkey crap. (I mean this as a very high compliment.) We are still monkeys, but we are able to get a lot of our happiness, status, and belonging from sources other than a monogamous pair bond. Since we have often failed to develop healthy social instincts, we are not hampered by these instincts as much as the regular monkeys seem to be.

However, the reason I wrote this is to caution against a stupid, blank-slatey ideal of natural polyamory, and to challenge the community to think harder and create institutions that can make polyandry work and solve its inherent problems. 

The 53 societies Starkweather et al. identified as polyandrous were identified as such based on a marriage-like institution: rights and obligations toward each other and toward any children of the union, along with some degree of limitation of sexual access to others outside the union. Right now, it doesn't look to me like nerd polyamory has almost any institutions or expectations by the community about partners' rights and duties toward each other. Any kind of right or duty is looked at askance; each relationship group is expected to hammer out its own institutions from scratch. 

It's amazing that this is controversial, but I argue that relationship norms are part of our cultural package, and we rely on them both to be secure and to feel secure in our relationships. It's demonstrably not stupid to think that polyandry could be part of our relationship norms; but it is, I think, stupid to think we don't need any norms or institutions at all. 

While we do seem to be low on male sexual jealousy, humans as a species tend to exhibit violent male sexual jealousy; wife-killing is the least culturally variable portion of homicides, and violent sexual jealousy is a frequent motive in male-male homicides as well (see, e.g., Daly & Wilson, Homicide, "The Logic of Same-Sex Conflict"). This represents only the visible tail of jealous violence. While discouragement of jealousy is probably awesome as a sexual norm, I suspect that the outright DENIAL of the existence of jealousy may be harmful. We haven't had a community murder yet that we know of, but what are we doing to make sure it never happens? And what can we do to prevent not just the expression of jealousy, but the painful experience of jealousy? How can we avoid ending up like those people on Proles Behaving Badly?

There are two related problems that may be exacerbated by polyamory: low-status male celibacy and sliminess. While polyandry probably does a better job of managing male intrasexual conflict over females than monogamy in a sex-skewed community, those unfortunate males in the lowest status quadrant are frequently left partnerless; even a Zipgirl membership is a status good when there are 1056 males for every 100 females, and our community is not somehow magically invulnerable to hypergamy. Sliminess is the problem of guys (not just low-status guys) sliming all over women when there aren't clear boundaries preventing such sliminess. I am certain this is a problem in monogamous communities, but I suspect it is even more of a problem when even the "taken" girls are not really "taken." We have not solved this problem as a community, and if anything, it makes us less attractive to much-needed women. Sexual attraction is not egalitarian, and our norms must reflect this. Can we be fair without being egalitarian? Can we make our women happy without making our low-status men miserable? I have rarely seen an acknowledgement that these problems even exist (except from the Men's Rights folks, with whom we have some overlap, like it or not), let alone proposals for how to deal with the problems.

A solution to our skewed sex ratio, perhaps even more powerful than polyandry, is chosen bisexuality (what some call sexuality hacking). Can some men who feel heterosexual but want to be bisexual increase their sexual response to other men? How can they go about doing that? Not much has been written on this. While male sexuality is no doubt less plastic than female sexuality, evidence of highly bisexual societies like the ancient Greeks imply that male sexuality has possibilities unrealized in our present world. Can our community tap these possibilities? 

32 comments:

  1. Although Starkweather & Hames suggest that "junior husband" status is a second-best strategy for the uncompetitive, in some cases it's desirable and chosen, by men who could have a monogamous relationship if desired.

    Some circumstances (based partly on observation of geek culture):

    * Don't want to invest the resources a monogamous relationship requires, even though you have them.

    * E.g. don't want to take the time, because you are extremely busy with some project. This is evolutionarily sensible if the project will pay off in a big way later. Geeks are also likely to be extremely busy with some project, at times.

    * Don't have the skills, or don't want the hassle, of managing the emotions of a woman whose emotions need managing. (That is typically the job of the senior husband only, in the cases I've seen.) This could be a motivation for a lot of geeks.

    * A slice of a highly-desirable woman may be better than the whole of a less-desirable one.

    * In cases I've seen, the "junior husband" is less committed. It's easier to move on if better prospects open up.

    To elaborate your analogy: you might get a Zipcar membership even though you could afford to buy a car, because it's less hassle than finding on-street parking, or you don't drive often enough for a car to be cost-effective, or Zipcar has nicer models than you could afford, or...

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    1. Absolutely agree - and aside from practicality, it fits in with a common fetish alluded to in the Billion Wicked Thoughts link!

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  2. My one problem with your blog persona: her low tolerance to pain.

    Sister Y should have to read Sex At Dawn and report back, if she is serious about this project.

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    1. Aw man, that is almost EXACTLY how my mom tricked me into reading The Secret.

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    2. There's a good extended summary that touches on most of their evidence, with much less rhetoric, at http://kevishere.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/part-1-humans-are-blank-ogamous/

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  3. Re chosen bisexuality/homosexuality:

    From the ages of 21 to 26, I was heavily involved in the bodybuilding scene, chasing after the pipe dream of a pro card. I was spending close to $10k a year on drugs, astronomical food bills, etc.

    The simplest way to get the necessary money is to go 'gay for pay', and the more you're willing to do, the more you can make. It was not an enjoyable experience, more like a five-year nightmare (although, to be fair, I doubt very many heterosexual females who take up prostitution out of economic necessity fondly recall turning tricks....).

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    1. Yet another reason to legalize drugs.

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    2. When early evidence that homosexuality might be due to a simple mutation came out, and I was working in the pharma industry, it occurred to me that maybe you could design a drug that would just hit that mutation. A "gay for the day" drug.

      It's interesting to speculate about what effect that would have on society. Social conservatives would want to ban it, of course. It would be a popular party drug for some.

      I wrote a short story about that at the time...

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    3. Oh, whoops, I see Chris more-or-less said this below...

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  4. "Can some men who feel heterosexual but want to be bisexual increase their sexual response to other men?"

    I tried this. Bad idea. Very bad idea. Very very bad idea. Not recommended.

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    1. I am extremely curious what your experience with this was. I did not find it to be a bad idea myself. Would you be willing to share more?

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    2. I am also curious about the specific nature of the downside. If you were on a human subjects panel for a study of a protocol to help guys be bi, what would you want them to know?

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    3. Well, from my experience, even when I was surging with exogenous testosterone (400% over baseline), using PDE5 inhibitors and usually something else, like MDMA, I often couldn't go through with it (lost my erection, couldn't cum, just broke down in the middle of the act). How much of this was from the knowledge that I was selling myself for cash, and how much of it was from the act itself is up for debate.

      Properly understood, anyway, civilization itself is gay -- or maybe asexual is the better term. It aims to neuter individual men and women. One of the ways it does this is to promote homosexuality, its aim to rebuild humanity into a eusocial organism.

      I don't know. I have a feeling that it is not just a coincidence that San Francisco/NYC are the high capitals of American homosexuality AND high tech/finance. Just some theories...

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    4. While I enjoy Sister Y's posts on sexuality and some of comments, and also the links included in these posts and comments, things sometimes get too 'sexual'.

      I personally feel that as antinatalists and even suicide-right supporters, we should transcend sexuality. Many of Shadow's and Karl's posts go this way, and if I wrote more on my own blog, I expect there will be some posts talking about this.

      In this regard, I am even sympathetic to Francois's opinion (if I understood it right) that our society connects sex way too much with penetration, especially with PIV. (No wonder so many people don't think there's anything such as lesbian sex: many countries don't criminalize it because they can't even define it!)

      If we are dead serious about antinatalism, we should put it above our sexual urges: in the very least above PIV, perhaps all penetrative sex: condoms, pills and abortion notwithstanding.

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    5. Properly understood, anyway, civilization itself is gay -- or maybe asexual is the better term. It aims to neuter individual men and women. One of the ways it does this is to promote homosexuality,
      What exactly are you talking about? Well, different civilizations are differnt, but to simply "survive" and even more to "thrive" (which is one rather commonly agreed feature of a civilization) a civilization has to permit and even encourage reproduction, and sex, heterosexual sex, is the easiest way to make that happen.

      Of course, 'welfare states' like parts of the Western world, are beginning to be more humanitarian, which means beginning to embrace some of the ideas we antinatalists embrace. Consequently they are beginning to "permit" homosexuality and asexuality. But certainly not promote them, really! After all, they have to grant all citizens the right to start a family!

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  5. Let's just get it over with and invent proper sex bots.

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  6. What a terrific essay.

    In a comment to one of your previous posts, I speculated that male jealousy was probably markedly less intense in response to girl-on-girl triggers. If this is true (I couldn't find evidence either way), then part of the answer might be to encourage more bisexual behavior among smart-set females. This seems more practical than encouraging heterosexual males to go bi (read Michael Bailey's stuff, or Anonymous above), and it gets closer to the critical mass problem.

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    1. It's completely obvious to me that, yes, female-female is less jealousy triggering than female-male. But I don't see how that helps the supply-of-vaginas issue. If anything, females forming like Voltron into sexy sex units concentrates sexual value (in my experience), increasing rather than ameliorating the supply problem. Like if every nerd girl lost 20 pounds, that would not help the supply/jealousy issue!

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    2. But it's not just a supply problem. I'm talking about a very marginal strategy for reducing the incident experience of sexual jealousy in a cultural environment where it's likely to fester and tick, tick, tick. I don't think there's a real solution to the supply problem as long as social sorting favors subcultural bubbles for smarties.

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  7. What about us autistics with an IQ only 1 to 2 SDs above?

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    1. My sketch here is really vague - not at all a full phenomenological deinition of whatever group or groups or characteristics we're talking about. I'm hoping for a "know it when you see it" reaction, but I would like to figure out more about what this group of people is and what characteristics they share. I wouldn't take the IQ thing as limiting any more than the nicotine gum thing.

      Thoughts? Other characteristics?

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  8. "This is pretty much totally unfair, and I guess our emotional response to this unfairness was something like, "well, patriarchy sucked, payback's a bitch.""

    When are people going to stop thinking in tit-for-tat terms when it comes to gender relations and just try to have compassion for those that are different than they are?

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    1. Indeed. Gender is one of those tempting, emotional Granfalloons. Why is it so powerful? I don't think anybody really thinks other men/other women are going to be there for them just because of their gender when shit goes bad.

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  9. Great post. I worry though about what the effects of increasing bisexuality would be with regard to unrequited love. Like Chip, I think this is a fairly constant source of human unhappiness, and for many people misery. More possible links between people would make that problem worse, especially given that most people have closer friends of the same sex than the other. Add in sexual attraction, and the possibility of one-way attraction explodes.

    For myself, as a gay man, it's easy (and fun) to imagine that some of my smart, attractive straight friends for whom I have unreturned (and unreturnable!) attraction could go bisexual and be available for a quick roll in the bed. What's less attractive is the idea that there is no guarantee they'd find me attractive even if they were gay. After all, I'm not attracted to every man I meet.

    Also, it's very reductionist of me, but I suspect if there is a way to make men bisexual, it'll turn out to be pharmaceutical or otherwise technological. (Women are different here). And I don't actually think it's as crazy an idea as most people do; it's not totally without scientific support.

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  10. >A solution to our skewed sex ratio, perhaps even more powerful than polyandry, is chosen bisexuality (what some call sexuality hacking). Can some men who feel heterosexual but want to be bisexual increase their sexual response to other men?

    I've never actually told anyone this, but at the age of 14 I made a conscious decision to be bisexual, for basically the same reasons as mentioned in this post. I somehow managed to get from about 0-1 to 2-3 on the Kinsey scale. n=1 and all, but it doesn't seem to be completely impossible.

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  11. Shouldn't this discussion pay some attention to the enormous subcultures of slash and yaoi fandom, which is full of fantasies of polyandry and male bisexuality? Presumably there are males who cater a bit to these fantasies in real life.

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  12. Wanted to add one subculture where there is a big sex-ratio skew and where polyandry is more common due to the desirability of one subgroup of women - the Fetish community. I've been involved in it for about 18 years and the women who identify as sexually dominant are far outnumbered by men who identify as sexually submissive.

    As a result, men in our community are much more likely to not only be open to the idea, but to expect that it may be a likely scenario in order to find a dominant female who is likely to share their sexual interests.

    I'm not even going to touch on the cuckolding fetish mentioned earlier, but it is certainly very common, though not among all men who are willing to be involved in non-exclusive relationships.

    I've found that I am able to have multiple male partners (though I tend to limit myself to 2 main partners due to time constraints and limited willingness to do the necessary emotional balancing and jealousy/ego management that maintaining multiple relationships can involve).

    As one said earlier, yes, I think that often the "junior male" might prefer monogamy and might depart if "something better" presents itself. After years of searching however, many will come to the conclusion that finding what he is looking for is an arduous process, and that, as another said, it's better to have a slice of a great partner than all of a mediocre one.

    Also, I wanted to mention that both of my current partners would be fairly high-status males in the "vanilla" dating world and are easily able to date attractive females, but since they are not sexually dominant, they don't see them as long term options. It would be like forgoing good sex for the rest of your life.

    Just a comment from someone who has actually been involved in this lifestyle for longer than I care to admit!

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  13. The book Sex At Dawn is not about what you think it's about.

    It suggests multi-male, single-female mating situations are natural. Polygyny

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  14. while i think this is an interesting intellectual debate, it really skips out the complexities that non-pair bonding creates in a family life (i.e. with children involved). sexual jealousy in male-female relationships is due to a battle for limited resources. the male is trying to ensure that the a) the child he is providing for is his and b) that the females time in maintaining the child is focused on his child. this is a genetic imperative that they need to act on to maximise the survival rate of their offspring.

    My experience (from trying polyamory), is once non-pair, polyamorous, behavior commences it destructs the fabric of the relationship no matter how "open" you try to be. it is very rare to have a "senior" couple/junior lovers environment that operates smoothly as very quickly the practicalities of life get in the way (who will take the kids to school, who gets the weekend off etc) and you either spend your life making agreements (and breaking them to make new agreements) or lying. the net effect of the distributed emotional commitment is positive for the senior relationship for a very limited period of time before its complications outweigh its benefits. On a pure economic return basis (attention/emtional/financial investment to related rewards), its is very inefficient as compared to pair bonding as there is massive wastage in non-beneficial activities (where beneficial equals happy children, increasing financial security and increasing relationship intimacy and overall sense of satisfaction with life).

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  15. This essay is so gratuitously verbose and retarded that I just don't know what to say about it. Is this assault on language and sense what counts as intellectual in your suffocating academic hugbox?

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    1. Please troll for attention elsewhere.

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