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WETZSTEIN: Making a case for monogamy

- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2011

A Canadian court is assembling an unprecedented set of testimonies and legal briefs about the pros and cons of polygamy. The goal is to answer the question of whether Canada's anti-polygamy law is constitutional.

The case, which revolves around efforts to prosecute polygamous men from a renegade-Mormon enclave called Bountiful, could eventually reach the Supreme Court of Canada for a final ruling.

One legal paper offers a fascinating analysis of monogamy and its powerful, positive effect on cultures, in contrast to polygamy.

Historically, polygamous cultures have vastly outnumbered monogamous ones, and yet monogamy is associated with "the most successful and competitive" of civilizations, both ancient and modern, wrote professor Joseph Henrich, who holds the Canada Research Chair in culture, cognition and coevolution at the University of British Columbia.

It may be that as "ancient societies began to impose monogamy," they "consequently began to prosper and spread, because of the group-beneficial effects of monogamy," he explained.

Moreover, he added, "monogamous marriage" appears to be "one of the foundations of Western civilization, and may explain why democratic ideals and notions of human rights first emerged as a Western phenomenon."

In making his case to B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman, Mr. Henrich compared "highly polygynous" countries with "monogamous" North America/Western Europe countries. (Polygyny, where one man is permitted to marry many women, is often interchangeable with polygamy.)

Mr. Henrich found that polygamy was associated with lower incomes and higher death rates for children. And these differences were stark:

• The 1985 per capita gross domestic product for polygynous countries was $975. In contrast, in monogamous countries, the per capita GDP was $11,950.

• In 1980, polygynous countries had 12.2 percent infant mortality rates and 19.4 percent child mortality rates. Monogamous countries had rates of 1.2 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively.

Why the differences?

A major argument against polygamy is that husbands often cannot adequately support their many wives and children (especially if the men spend time pursuing more wives). Moreover, as fathers, they are often simply overwhelmed and incapable of caring for dozens of children.

One 2008 study of African polygynous households found that fathers "may not even know all of their children's names," Mr. Henrich wrote.

Monogamous husbands, on the other hand, have only one family in which to invest their time, attention and wealth, and these investments typically pay off with healthier children and more assets.

Another benefit of monogamy is that it is linked to the emergence of political democracy and equitable treatment of the sexes. This is because monogamy:

• Applies to both "king and peasant" — each can have only one wife (at a time). This creates a basic equality among men.

• Ultimately ends men's competition with each other for wives. This, in turn, "decreases the tendency for males to tightly control their wives and daughters" and may even lead to "more egalitarianism in the household."

• Encourages men, who know they have a good chance to marry in their lifetimes, to "redirect" their energies in socially productive ways, resulting in lower crime rates and other positive social outcomes.

Monogamy seems to end up "dissipating the pool of unmarried males that were previously harnessed by rulers in wars of aggression," Mr. Henrich wrote.

Of course, even in monogamous cultures, people — especially high-status males — engage in extramarital affairs and "serial monogamy."

But when practiced faithfully, monogamy seems to benefit humanity far more than any kind of "big love."

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at

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