- - Wednesday, April 2, 2014

By William Tucker
Regnery, $27.95, 256 pages

“Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human” is a great “read me” title. Answer its call and you’ll get much more than your money’s worth. For $27.95, the reader benefits from a thorough education on where we came from and who we are as a species.

Once upon a time, man became man, but how? Man was not fashioned as an original, say, out of the clay of the earth and breath. Christianity does play a starring role in William Tucker’s study of monogamy, but it has a hugely supportive role that is treated later. Judaism is less supportive; Islam is self-consciously on the other side. All the major systems are looked at through monogamy. However, Mr. Tucker’s starting point is the land of Darwin, anthropology and specifically the work of Owen Lovejoy.

The original family made a decision that separated them from our pre-human prehistory. A choice — I’m with her, and she is with me exclusively — was the tipping point that made us human and gave us a beneficial leg up on the monkey-mix from whence we sprang.

In the beginning, it made natural-selection sense for a man and a woman to pair off for hunting and gathering, and this condition lasted 5 million years. In the safety of the jungle, polygamy works for the alpha male and the offspring are attended to. Once you step outside the jungle and into the open plains, sexual equity becomes a requirement of survival for the offspring.

“Civilizations are born,” Mr. Tucker writes, “when two people trust each other, namely a man and a woman. At this moment, we come out of the cold isolation of nature and begin to construct something that we call human society.”

Polygamy interestingly makes a comeback at the dawn of civilization 10,000 years ago, when this rational hunter and gatherer puts down his spear in favor of picking up the farmer’s hoe and shepherd’s staff. At this point, things started getting more interesting: prosperous, polygamous and warlike. With accumulated wealth comes power, and with it, the ability to write societal rules to your benefit.

In short, inequality of wealth and power reintroduces sexual scarcity back into the human story. Those with the most land and largest herds — civilization’s new alpha males — naturally started taking an unequal share of the women for themselves. In order to release the social tensions created by polygamy, a new warrior class developed to plunder the women and wealth of other people. Extreme examples of the expansionistic logic of polygamy can be seen in Genghis Khan at the top, and in suicide bombers willing to off themselves to get their own harem of virgins to debauch at the bottom.

A central argument of “Marriage and Civilization” is that monogamy, just like polygamy, is an elite-driven enterprise. Monogamy requires self-restraint and forward thinking among the strongest. These powerful few recognize the bellicose logic of polygamy and choose sexual equity because of the internal peace and prosperity that follows. This turn connects the last ape to the founders of Western civilization.

Mr. Tucker’s monogamous alphas include: Homer’s Odysseus and the love he has for the faithful and virtuous Penelope; the founders of Athens and Rome, who legislated sexual equity into their founding laws; Christianity, which ordains and spiritualizes monogamy; Pierre Beaumarchais’ “The Marriage of Figaro,” which democratized monogamy at the dawn of the French Revolution; and the Victorians that made sure that monogamy was reflected in the general mores and public policies.

Monogamy requires alpha women. The feminine vipers of the harem are replaced with astute and virtuous women who stand by their men — and up to power. “The real reason why monogamy prevailed in Western Civilization was not because of examples from the Bible, but because the Catholic Church had a crucial ally in a new icon of Western Civilization — the Virtuous Woman. We see her in Penelope in the ‘Odyssey’ and in Lucretia in Rome. We meet her continuously in the Church with its veneration of the Virgin Mary, the lives of saints, and the deeming of monogamous marriage as a sacred institution.”

Mr. Tucker’s exegetical powers are broad and deep. Anthropology, poetry, philosophy, religion, history and social policy are marshaled in the service of an argument at the core of humanity and civilization. “Nations’ fates are not based on geography or east-west axes or natural resources or technology, but on the human beings they generate.”

It turns out that we have a hand in our own creation. Culture is a product of human choice and necessity. What made man and the “West best” is our monogamy. Sexual equity creates better societies.

“Marriage and Civilization” is not a derivative book. In fact, it is as original as it gets. Original does not mean without the use of other materials. What makes a thinker, artist or engineer unique is what he does with his work with the materials at his disposal. The bookshelf behind “Marriage and Civilization” is chock-full of a diverse range of complementary works.

This wide-ranging theodicy of man is the gift of a liberally educated and idiosyncratic soul. Mr. Tucker warns, “The important point is this: Although monogamy is manifestly a more equitable and successful way to organize a society, it is always under siege and forever fragile.”

For marriage and civilization’s sake, this wonderful book ought to be broadly read and reread by the generations — particularly by our most powerful couples.

David DesRosiers is president of Revere Advisors.

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