Polygamy, Genius, and the Origin of Religion

God as ultimate alpha male?

Out of Eden will make monogamists nervous. It will make polyamorists happy—and then it will make them sad. It will upset creationists. It will also upset anyone who believes that behavioral differences between men and women are socially constructed, rather than innate. As such, it will upset many feminists. It will upset many postmodernists. It will probably upset some of author David P. Barash’s fellow scientists.

In Out of Eden Barash, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Washington, argues that human beings evolved in polygamous communities. Sometimes this multi-partnering was out in the open. Other times, it happened on the sly. Either way, Barash aims to explain “the often-hidden consequences of our inherited polygamous inclinations.” In his telling, these consequences include certain basic differences between men and women. They could also include male homosexuality, genius, and the emergence of religion.

Out of Eden, Barash acknowledges, “is likely to be controversial.”

Out of Eden: The Surprising Consequences of Polygamy
David P. Barash
Oxford University Press, March 2016

Barash, author of more than 25 books, is a lucid writer and an elegant explainer. He’s a wonderful guide to the world of parental investment, sexual selection, and other Darwinian concepts. But Out of Eden is less upsetting than it is hapless—a project sidetracked by a blinkered reliance on universal principles.

Barash starts from a simple observation: people cheat on their partners. Couples swing. Lovers enter open relationships. In many cultures, men take multiple wives. In a few, women take multiple husbands. Viewing the full sweep of human sexual behavior, the mono- in monogamy starts to seem more aspirational than descriptive.

Humans aren’t alone in these polyamorous impulses. Strict monogamy is rare among animals. Even animals that pair off—mostly birds; birds are super monogamous—tend to cheat on each other.

There’s a fundamental asymmetry built into all that sex. For males, reproduction is often fairly low-cost: all it takes is a bit of sperm. For females, reproduction tends to be slower and costlier. In theory, males should try to have sex as much as they can. And females should try to be as choosy as possible about the males they sleep with, so that they invest that pregnancy or egg-laying energy in babies with the best possible genes.

This story is a rough approximation of a theoretical model. But that model has a lot of descriptive power in animals.

So how does all of this play out in people? Barash lays out a strong case that human beings, and our primate forebears, were polygamous. His evidence is primatological (our primate relatives today are mostly polygamous), anthropological (lots of human cultures today are polygamous) and physiological (our bodies share some traits with those of other species in which males compete for harems of females; in particular, human males are larger than females, and have relatively small testicles for their body size).

Barash argues that this polygamous evolutionary history should generally make women more passive, more risk-averse, and less openly promiscuous than men. Polygamy would also incline women to try to sleep with alpha males when they can, even if they try to form pair bonds with men who are likely to be good caretakers. Barash argues that these behaviors aren’t just gender roles that kids learn. They aren’t just artifacts of patriarchy. After untold generations, they’ve been wired into our genes.

This is an era when questions of gender construction and fluidity are hot topics on university campuses. In that light, an argument like Barash’s sounds hopelessly retrograde at best, and intolerant at worst. But just because a question is uncomfortable doesn’t mean that it should be taboo. Evolution clearly made male and female bodies different. Human brains are subject to evolution, too. It’s possible that natural selection has encoded different behavior patterns in men and women. These differences could show up in proclivities toward certain behaviors.

I say possible with a key reservation: even if these proclivities were there, we’d probably be terribly equipped to discern them. There’s no question that male and female roles are deeply conditioned by culture, by physical differences, and by power—which is to say, by patriarchy. A whole lot is happening here outside of any evolution-and-genetics explanation.

Additionally, researchers are coming at the problem with all sorts of potential prejudices lingering in their heads. Those biases can seep into the framing of research questions, into experimental design, and into conclusions.

In other words, we’re inclined to be bad at seeing something that’s already really difficult to see. Plus, it might not really exist.

Again and again, reading his book, I was struck by situations that Barash chalked up to natural law that could just as easily be explained by dynamics of social power—that men have more extramarital sex, for example (cf: prostitution), or that women are valued less for their education and wealth than men.

And Barash is alarmingly comfortable engaging in wild speculation and generalizations. Nowhere is this clearer than in his treatment of the origins of religion. Riffing on the alpha-male-polygamy theme, Barash argues that religion comes from fear of a powerful male father. God, he suggests, was “created in the image of a dominant, alpha male polygynist.” Contemporary religion is the legacy of that terror.

Reading this little account, I was struck by three things. The first is that Barash’s evidence almost entirely comes from cherry-picked passages of Abrahamic scripture, which might not be the most rigorous way to analyze All of Religion. It’s one thing to note that people have used metaphors of romance and rage to describe their relationships with the divine, and quite another to conclude that these literary expressions represent the fundamental human fear-impulse toward faith.

Second, it takes a certain degree of chutzpah, not to mention condescension, to lump something as diverse as religion into a single origin narrative, and then chalk it all up to fear.

And a third observation: this whole theory sounds a lot like the 1913 book Totem and Taboo, in which Sigmund Freud spins a long riff about how religion arises out of the fear of a father figure, and then rummages around for evidence to back up his story. Earlier in his book, Barash describes some of Freud’s work as “highly speculative and scientifically inaccurate.”

For this section of Out of Eden, at least, that description seems about right.

So is polyamory a good idea? Barash doesn’t think so. Or, if it is, it’s not because of some moral imperative written in the genes. Just because we’ve evolved toward a tendency doesn’t mean we should indulge it. Plus, humans are also inclined to form pair bonds. And for many reasons, legalized plural marriage is probably a terrible idea.

Out of Eden isn’t just a book about polygamy, though. It’s a thesis about gender, genes, and human nature. Barash imagines his book as one entry in a larger debate over nature versus nurture—between those who argue “that ‘human nature’…is merely a social construct” and those who accept that “like it or not…biology matters.”

That’s a narrow way to frame the debate. You can acknowledge that male and female bodies are different, and that bodies affect culture and behavior, and still take issue with Barash’s project. You can take issue with the larger world of evolutionary psychology, too. What’s at stake here is not necessarily the question of nature versus nurture. The deeper, more important contest is over how we understand nature.

Barash is working within a concept of nature that focuses on laws. His project is to uncover the essential, universal principles that govern human behavior. In this effort, the title of Out of Eden is more appropriate than Barash might intend. After all, this is a very Genesis-style quest: to understand how the primeval activities of our ancestors set the ingrained terms on which we must build human society.

Obviously, Barash isn’t attributing sin and shame to the actions of a prehistoric snake. But in a way that echoes generations of theological work, he’s after Natural Laws. He wants to get at the rulebook.

It’s fine to think about human universals. But it’s odd to focus on them so exclusively—to write an entire book about human gender and sexuality that’s aiming to find Big Rules, even as it elides all the exceptions, variations, hybridizations, and spectra that characterize human sexuality. If there’s one obvious lesson from the study of cultures, it’s that the human mind is staggeringly flexible. Is it more significant that our evolutionary hardware has inclined us toward specific foods or sexual behaviors, or that the same basic mental and physical tools can let the human creature thrive in the streets of 21stcentury Tokyo, 19th century rural Paraguay, and Paleolithic southwest France? Do you understand human nature by finding fixed laws? Or do you grasp it by understanding the rules of humankind’s incredible un-fixedness?

Shortly after finishing Barash’s book, I read a new essay by the photography critic Teju Cole. Reviewing photographer Steve McCurry’s new collection of photos of India, Cole makes a distinction between an individual piece and the total sensibility that’s developed by a body of work.

Again and again, Cole writes, McCurry’s photos show modern India at its more colorful, traditional, and quaint. His framing edits out the cellphones and shopping malls in favor of the saris and oxcarts.

In small doses that’s fine, Cole writes. But in aggregate, it becomes a kind of thesis:

Any given photograph encloses only a section of the world within its borders. A sequence of photographs, taken over many years and carefully arranged, however, reveals a worldview. To consider a place largely from the perspective of a permanent anthropological past, to settle on a notion of authenticity that edits out the present day, is not simply to present an alternative truth: It is to indulge in fantasy.

Much the same could be said of Barash’s work. In Out of Eden, the variety of human experience—the flexibility, the unpredictability, the contingency—comes to feel like an afterthought, as it does in the work of so many other thinkers who become fixated on the Laws of Man, forgetting that if our species has any rule, it seems to be the persistence of flux.

Also on The Cubit: Boyd Eaton’s plan to return to Eden

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