Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Agriculture, property, sex and women's inequality

I was listening to another interview the other day, this time with the author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, and they were discussing something I thought was very interesting regarding human cultures and women's place in them.

In foraging and traditional hunter-gatherer societies, the community is very egalitarian. Since these groups are constantly on the move, there is no true property as everything is shared, and that includes sexual partners. The reason this came up in discussion of the book is that in these groups, women have as much say in decision making and defending themselves as the men. In other words, they can accept or refuse the sexual advances of others as they like without retribution.

It wasn't until the dawn of agriculture that the concept of ownership came into play and where the "agricultural revolution triggered radical social reconfigurations from which we're still reeling." Males became possessive of not just the land they worked, but everything else they came to acquire in order to supply that lifestyle. People no longer worked in groups for the greater good of all. At that time, women were thrown into the pot of what was possessed, right along with land, housing, slaves and other types of property. So, the author argues that women's status has changed considerably due to the advent of agriculture and are viewed not as equals, but as property and something to control.

In societies that are matrilineal - that is, the property is passed down from mother to daughter - men and women are more sexually free in that they have multiple partners. In patrilineal societies, in order for the males to ensure that their property actually goes to their children (and not someone else's) they tightly control the sexual relations of the women. However, in matrilineal societies, this doesn't matter and it's irrelevant how many sexual partners the female has. She will always know which offspring are hers.

One other thing the author pointed out that I thought was interesting, was that most animals only mate when the female is in heat. There are exceptions and those are humans, chimps, bonobos and dolphins. He speculates that those with higher intelligence are more apt to have sex not just for reproduction, but for social reasons as well. Very few other animals in the animal kingdom bother with non-reproductive sexual acts such as oral sex and the like.

This last bit is somewhat off topic, but something to think about over the weekend :)

Here's a fun quote from the author's website:
When it comes to sex, men may be trash-talking sprinters, but it’s the women who win all the marathons. Any marriage counselor will tell you the most common sex-related complaint women make about men is that they are too quick and too direct. Meanwhile, men’s most frequent sex-related gripe about women is that they take too damned long to get warmed up. After an orgasm, a woman may be anticipating a dozen more. A female body in motion tends to stay in motion. But men come and go. For them, the curtain falls quickly and the mind turns to unrelated matters.

This symmetry of dual disappointment illustrates the almost comical incompatibility between men’s and women’s sexual response in the context of monogamous mating. You have to wonder: if men and women evolved together in sexually monogamous couples for millions of years, how did we end up being so incompatible? It’s as if we’ve been sitting down to dinner together, millennium after millennium, but half of us can’t help wolfing everything down in a few frantic, sloppy minutes, while the other half are still setting the table and lighting candles.

When a female chimp or bonobo is in the mood, she’s likely to be the center of plenty of eager male attention. And the more attention she gets, the more she attracts, because as it turns out, our male primate cousins get turned on by the sight and sound of others of their species having sex. Imagine that.

So, after all that, do you think that human females are adapted to having multiple partners at the same time and, by that, I mean at literally the same time?

Furthermore, are humans meant to be monogamous or are we fighting a losing battle?


Brad K. said...


I *have* to re-read Wen Spencer's novel, "A Brothers Price" again this week. Her semi-western, semi-historic romance adventure includes a genetically challenged future - with few fertile men. Just think of it - sisters as co-queen, and the guy only a consort.

I guess I thought of the church as the beginning of discerning between the sexes, especially the patrilinear Judeo-Christian church. I figure the often feminine magic and powers of the Old Religion were a direct threat to the patriarchs. That meant that they wanted to both bind the energies and magic inherent in sex and mating to the church. And since the early church was often focused on wealth community members - and mostly men - it was to their advantage to combine the assault, and bind women to a man in sacred rituals - which became our wedding vows. Certainly early teachings define a master/not master relationship.

Another model I have felt was an important factor in whatever screwballs decided that gender was culturally significant - was positing a man as a warrior, or leader, or community asset, and his home, including wife and children and any household help or assets, were mere supports to inform his work.

I think the Italian Renaissance merchant princes that so codified the bonds of marriage that the Church then adopted, were also the origin of the invention of courtly - Romantic - love.

Keep in mind, so very many of your readers never experienced the reality of living before widely available, safe, and effective birth control. When contemplating any time before the Renaissance, the issue was always about fertility, and the economic and survival value of children, whether sons or daughters.

In today's America, I am afraid that I find casual sex - time, energy, or contact with other than a life-partner - either distracting from the relationship, or actively damaging. I don't have any firm notion about what mix of genders or number of adults go into making the "best" families, but I do lean toward commitment as the best policy in today's culture.

I remember tittering with the rest of my Junior High class at the notion of some people considering hospitality to a stranger, included sleeping with the mother of the home. (Strengthens the family gene pool.) And the notion of the misteltoe thing at Yuletide, I believe, included not kissing any female underneath, but actually mating with the woman of the house, and removing a berry each time. If the berries had all been removed by the end of the festival, then she was more likely to be blessed with a child. (Again, ad hoc eugenics.)

I recall one reference that the "kiss the bride" at a wedding began as a full-scale, full contact fertility rite. In front of God and Everybody. That sheet out the window the next day was part of the original compromise. That first coupling was important in binding the bride's magic and energy to the Church and to her husband's home.

Allowing fashion and cosmetic marketing, as well as advertising for other products, to define what is desirable and attractive in a mate, has to be unsustainable as a culture. But then, I tend to think that rather than "pretty" or "cute" such products and messages are really about . . making babies.

annie said...

We're clearly not evolved to be monogamous. As a culture we need to come to terms with the huge variety of ways that the sexual/political/social relationship that is "marriage" can be organized.
We know there are different ways to organize your procreative/romantic relationships (anyone who has taken a good intro to anthropology class should have learned this) and I suspect that what "works" varies not just from person to person but for any given individual during their life. That is to say, what works for you probably changes over time.

Cwm Goch Chronicles said...

Your post was very interesting. I studied a unit in Women in South East Asia years ago in my undergrad degree.
The patterns you speak of repeat themselves all over the world where communities have changed, although it is not always agriculture that is the catalyst. In some very egalitarian societies, it was the missions that caused it.

A couple of points I thought you might be interested in. Matrilineal societies are organised 'from the womb', so if a Matriarch does not have children to pass on her property to, she passes it on to her brothers children. Also, responsibility/'parenting' for a child in such a society, often comes not from the father, but from the uncle for the same reason.

Another interesting point I remember - is that the Chinese word for "girl" literally translates to 'liability'. And this is from the historical fact that a girl would have to be sent off to another man's home (ie lost labour for the family's farm) would cost them a dowry (to be paid to the husbands family) and would mean the farm would not be handed down for further generations to family who could keep the elderly parents.

Fascinating stuff!

Aydan said...

I'm skeptical of evo-psych like things, which seek to explain our behavior in the light of evolution, but...

One thing that interests me about this topic-- and I've read the agriculture-property hypothesis elsewhere, like in _The Gender Knot_-- is that in the world today, women do the majority of the economic work, including a lot of the agriculture. IIRC there are societies where agriculture is pretty much a female thing. So it's not that women _can't_ farm, and support themselves with farming. And yet they think men farming is how we got the patriarchy. (Not saying I think that's wrong-- it's just an interesting combination.)

Jennie said...

Definitely fighting a losing battle. I've been polyamorous since I was 20. Every boyfriend and partner (and my darling husband) since has known that and it's work out fairly well. My parents don't quite understand, and sometimes there's stress, but all in all I find it much easier than monogamy. As long as everyone is honest and safe and caring, there are no hurt feelings, no betrayal and little jealousy. Care must be taken not to stray into cheating. Cheating involves lies and deception, neither of which belong in a healthy poly relationship.

I highly recommend it. I live in Iowa, and if there are poly's here I'm sure you can find some near you.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I remember hearing a theory that humans have sex at any time, not just when in heat, so the women can entice the men to hang around and help take care of the kids. I'm pretty sure a man came up with that!

Chia-Yi said...

I just read the book "Why is sex fun? The evolution of human sexuality" by Jared Diamond (1997) and he talks about similar ideas. I'm also wary of pop-science books like the commenter above, but I do find that at least some of Jared Diamond's reasoning to be reasonably solid, in his other books too. This one was a pretty quick read.

He brought up something related to the constant receptiveness to sex which is concealed ovulation. Female humans don't even know when they are ovulating, unless you get a lot of help from a fertility doc, whereas in most animal species the females are quite aware. I don't necessarily buy into any particular theory about why human sexuality is the way it is, but I think it is a question worth exploring!

Kim from Milwaukee said...

When researching reproduction and fertility when I was trying to conceive years ago, I recall that the more sperm, the greater the chances of conception. Now I haven't studies sociology, so bear with me, but it only makes sense that we're made to desire more than one partner as females, since the more partners a woman has at her fertile peak (which is the most likely time she'll seek out sexual attentions) the greater her chances of conceiving a child. The first man's 'gifting' would 'pave the way' for the second (and successive) men's 'gifting' and give greater motility to the little guys, and a greater chance of conception.

Now if that child were to look like a particular man, then those genes were more dominant, and that man will most likely bond with that child, protect it and provide for it as well as the mother.

A few things I've observed over the years....the firstborn child often resembles its mother, which would ensure the child's protection by the multiple males that brought about its conception, and also pave the way for more 'tries' by the men to sire a child who looks like themselves and pass along their genes.

It may be that society will evolve to become a matriarchal society if the fertility of the human male species continues to decline with the chemical/hormonal disruptions that are being experienced from environmental toxins and endocrine disruptors. Monogamy ensures our extinction, it would seem to me.

Jen said...

yeah Dan Savage!!

Brad K. said...

@ Kim From Milwaukee,

Monogamy ensures our extinction, it would seem to me.

That, I think, is unsupportable. Monogamy as a goal has been prevalent on this continent for hundreds of years; I am sure that monogamy is merely one cultural adaptation in bringing continuity to bear - recreation through offspring and indoctrination into the culture.

In decadently affluent times, such as recently in the US (as peak oil and debt deflation seem about to end our era of "easy energy/affluence"), we lose sight of the vulnerability of any culture to persist over a 25 year span, absent about 1.05 offspring per adult. We have been so distracted by needing "best schools", best fashions, best etc., that we forgot to teach our children why to make babies. My own notion is that the home, whatever that means to you, consists of a family-sized culture - one or more adults choosing a suite of rituals, processes, traditions, and agreements about ethics and discipline. Communities are built of the component families; stronger communities are built when family cultural values agree more closely, when the values are conducive to communal growth and sustenance.

Internally, the adults of the family are enacting roles they either learned by example from their parents, from other sources, or like most of us, from a combination of unexamined and chosen models. Those that respect their upbringing raise children to honor that parenting culture, by transmitting those values, choices, traditions, and rituals into the next generation by providing the culture that their children develop in.

Monogamy is but one form of culture that provides the background and security that a child might emulate and respect.

Decadence, the affluence to divert resources from survival and nurturing the family, tends to reduce the birthrate. Focusing on sex as recreation and merchandising propaganda, and disparaging the fertility and cultural selection aspects of selecting a mate, means that we are in a bubble of time where we have been thinking of ourselves. We haven't, many of us, been thinking of selecting a mate as a sacred or natural consequence of maturing into a fertile adult, of whatever culture.

Cultural models of family life are immensely adaptive. I don't think uncommitted polyamory is as adaptive, frankly, because it seems to be more vested in affluence and displays of wealth, and presumes a level of security that I am skeptical about making about our future, and the reliance on modern medicine to manage the disease-exposure risks. Consorting with uncommitted partners also entails spending inordinate amounts of time assuring the competence and security of each prospective partner, or risks of assorted mayhem also increase.

Kim from Milwaukee said...

@Brad K.,

Good points. However, our 'monogamous' (are people who marry several times still considered monogamous?) culture had become one that half the time leads to divorce, and the consequential instability of community, and then the next generation eschews the thought of marriage and has children outside the supposed monogamy several times, so the actual monogamous society falls by the wayside.

It's only my opinion, but if we're physically drawn towards polygamy, maybe there's a reason for it, and possibly we can evolve into a society that will thrive inside the tenets of polygamy, as in 'it takes a village', and become a stronger society for it.

I'm just musing...I'm single, once married, no kids, so I'm just probably talking out of my a$$...I just think it's unreal to think of being with one person for your entire life. I've seen it in only a handful of couples.

Unknown said...

"Monogamy ensures our extinction..."

Well ,then, monogamy full speed ahead! We have more than adequately proven ourselves to be, on the whole, an irresponsible race of breeders. There are far too many of us and gaining, so I am all in favor of pretty much anything that levels the playing field for the rest of the inhabitants of the planet we are quickly destroying.
Maybe, rather than talking at length about whether we evolved to be monogamous or polygamous, we should figure out why we didn't evolve with the sense to not overpopulate the only place we have to sustain us.

Brad K. said...

Kim from Milwaukee,

You may be right. But there may be another way to look at it.

As for marriages falling apart, that is a cultural degradation (decadence in the face of extended affluence, i.e., cheap energy). The place I look to change that is when we define the roles we expect a marriage to create. A public bonding ceremony - handfasting, marriage, whatever, is a community event. We look on certain Native American traditions of requiring approval from every member of the tribe before a wedding is permitted as barbarous - while I am coming to the conclusion that it is our common misperception that only two people need to agree, to make a marriage. I think the community as well as parents need to partake in selecting a mate with responsible and respectful character, experience and aptitude for the demands of home and family, and a reputation of worth in the community. Until the indolent rich invented "romantic love" about 500 years ago, humankind seldom had much inclination to disregard family, status, character and reputation in selecting a mate prospect.

What you are seeing as a predisposition to multiple partners, might instead be an adaption mechanism, to assure fertility when partnered, will he, nil he, with any mate selected for a woman. That is, at least in the 1970's I was taught in college that the prevalent form of marriage in the world at that time, was arrangement by the parents. I personally worked with an engineer, a woman, from India, that met her husband on the day of the wedding ceremony - twenty some years before I met her, and the couple were apparently dedicated to each other and the marriage even then.

Let me suggest that in a closed or close community, polyamoury would cause more problems in the community than it solved. And that closed or close communities could develop really quickly, if rising fuel costs and curtailed supplies begin to disrupt our notions of easy transportation, of affordable recreation, and even plentiful access to alcohol and other "party" components from sugar to carbonated beverages.

There is much to learn about the Earth Mother role. I was impressed to read on an old Three Coins site that multiple wives, when it works, is about the women. That women choosing to find and share a man would work more easily. Anyone choosing to find a sex companion to convert into a mate faces the same odds and risks that today's relationships face, where the common approach is to find a "hot" attractive fun partner, someone devoting a significant portion of their live, energy, and money into being sexually attractive to many, and expect them to stop investing in being sexually attractive to many, stop viewing the world as a playground where virility is a game - and become instead a responsible mate and companion to a select family group. You yourself describe the unlikelihood that it happens, or lasts for long.

Instead, decide if you want a mate and co-parent, and find a candidate respected and trusted in your community, with good emotional bonds to their family, friends, and co-workers, and a family culture not to dissimilar from your own. And see if the odds don't change. (For more on overcoming strings of bad relationships I recommend Natalie has a lot of good things to say.)

Crunchy Chicken said...

Dale - Because those people who think that way don't procreate and pass their genes onto the next generation (who would, presumably, be more inclined to think that way - having that good sense and all).

It just doesn't work that way. What you are talking about isn't evolutionary, it's cultural. Thoughts and ideas passed down from one generation to the next. We obviously, as a whole, lack that concept.

Brad K. - I would have to add that "monogamy ensuring extinction" only fails when there is affluence and good healthcare.
In any case, when resources are scarce and risk of death is high (childbirth, disease, war), monogamy would seem to ensure extinction.

Hooking up with anything that not only survived into adulthood and had sperm seems like a good method for ensuring reproduction in the most dire of circumstances.

And, as you point out, those hookups were within a community of people supporting each other, not just some random dude you met at a bar.

Brad K. said...

Crunchy Chicken,

English and Northern European history to the contrary, I don't think it is monogamy that assures extinction.

Before modern medicine reduced the risks of childbirth, mate selection took risks of childbirth into account. Families with histories of easy childbirth conferred reduced risk on their daughters - and that would often be a consideration in choosing mates. A woman more likely to deliver healthy sons would be more attractive than someone from an unknown background or a family with a history of health and reproductive problems.

Today's "modern medicine" has done much to broaden the gene pool, including perpetuate some genetic conditions that are survivable only in the presence of good health care and good insurance coverage.

I had a further thought on why a serial partner lifestyle might seem to be genetically informed. No few people, over the centuries, have been the children of prostitutes and other "community" arrangements, from college girls to old-time tavern wenches. In addition, historically a conquering army would kill the men of a conquered nation and rape the women. I imagine the surviving gene pool had an acceptance of mating after the death of their mate.

Then, too, sparse populations would tend to favor women that remarried after the death of a husband (which is not the same as being divorced).

It may be that humans are pre-programmed to be non-monogamous. I contend that we could be suited to accept a change in partners, over a lifetime, without the change being voluntary or the acceptance desirable. I also contend that the further you get from affluence and cheap energy, the more reliance on loyalty and chastity outside the home. Recall I refuse to number the adults "proper" to a home.

Rosa said...

Frans de Waal (a chimpanzee & bonobo researcher) has written a couple of interesting books comparing primates - he thinks humans may have evolved social monogamy to prevent male infanticide, while bonobos have cooperative female power blocks and chimp females attach themselves to powerful males for protection.

Greenpa said...

oooh, wait til Sharon gets ahold of this one. :-)

As both a trained evolutionary ecologist, and trained ethologist- I can assure you that virtually no psychologist has any clue about human evolution.

As someone responded here- "some of what he says seems to make sense." Exactly. Which is why this kind of thing is so hard to kill.

Virtually everyone of these kinds of pop-psych things have a desperate case of "7 blind men and the elephant" syndrome.

Two good quotes; showing how long this has been a known and painful phenomenon:

"These blind men, every one honest in his contentions and certain of having the truth, formed schools and sects and factions..." --Buddha

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

One good basic rule:

When you hear an expert say; "Believe me, I understand China." - you know you are listening to a complete idiot.

Likewise, when some professor says "Early man did thusly..." the professor is a total fool.

a) - we don't know; and have NO evidence about behavior.

b) the freaking world is huge, genes spread really slowly between widely separated human population; populations here have hugely different pressures than populations there- and it's a sure bet that these guys do X, those guys do Y, and them guys do both, neither, and sometimes W and Z.


Oh, and Crunchy- chimps DO have estrus (heat); and only mate then, usually with every male available. Bonobos don't. And there between 36 and 40+ entire species of dolphin... The fact that someone claims "they don't go into heat" is highly suspect, to me. Lots of whales are known to have "seasons"- why not a few of the little guys?

E said...

@Kim from Milwaukee
the firstborn child often resembles its mother!
How would that work - the eggs and sperm "know" their place in sibling order and combine accordingly? Or infants "realize" that they do/don't have sibling and adjust to look like father/mother?

Brad K. said...

@ E,

Actually, patterns in reproduction do happen. Consider the hormonal adjustments of first pregnancies, and possibly certain characteristics might be more likely, both on the male and female side.

When you look at the vast amount of hormonal interaction that takes place in a family and among those we associate with, just at the level of shared breaths and casual touches, it isn't that far fetched to think this might be true.

Another perspective might be to wonder how often is "often" - including "almost half the time" or "occasionally we noticed". Myself, I generally figure "often" means more than 1/4th of the time.

Anonymous said...

Well said Greenpa!

Kim from Milwaukee said...

Crunch, thank you for this forum, to discuss this subject with such intelligent beings. Monogamy has been the subject of many conversations between myself and my friends lately, as most of us are single and/or just out of a relationship.

I appreciate that all involved here have been respectful as well as thoughtful, and you've given me much to ponder.

I hope we don't wipe out our own any way for any reason, be it lack of sex, lack of intelligence or lack of caring for our environment.

simplifysimplify said...

I don't buy it.

It's too difficult to try to imagine prehistoric behavior with no evidence of what it was. We put far too much of our own spin on it, because that's all we really *know*.

The closest things we have to those distant relations, I think, are emotional bonds, and select instincts. Emotional bonds are difficult to document from prehistory, but I saw a video of a mother elephant who stood over her dead baby for THREE DAYS (after trying to nurse and revive him for days). I'm sure that is a most basic instinct in all emotionally evolved creatures. I doubt that romantic love, in a couple, is a recent invention. I think it's probably the opposite, It's been corrupted as we evolved.

Rachel said...

Rabbits don't have a heat either. :) They only cycle after sexual activity so sometimes that first act doesn't even count.

Lisa Zahn said...

Great topic! I don't think we're "meant" to be monogamous from a biological standpoint. That doesn't mean it's not important from a cultural standpoint, however. A positive way to look at this non-compatibility is to see that it REQUIRES relationship and communication of needs/desires if both partners are to be satisfied. I rather like that view.