Gender Politics and Taming the Alpha Male Harem Master
When the editors of Contexts asked me to review Out of Eden: The Surprising Consequences of Polygamy, I read the promotional material and enthusiastically said “yes.” As a sociologist who studies contemporary forms of consensual non-monogamy, I am interested in the debates among evolutionary anthropologists and psychologists about whether or not humans are predisposed to monogamy or polygamy.
I am interested not because I believe that this research can, once and for all, answer the nature-nurture question about what causes human behavior. I don’t know many sociologists who would dispute that our bio-physiology and the social world around us are inter-related, co-constitutive, and irreducible to one or the other. Not only is it both “nature” (the physical world including our bodies) and “nurture” (social arrangements and relationships), but, indeed, this distinction is meaningless. For this reason, to argue that the most plausible explanation for human behavior, the structure of society, and social inequality is an evolved, genetic, and thus universal predisposition, as David Barash does, is to enter into the realm of politics. As brilliantly documented by Angela Willey (Undoing Monogamy, 2016), evolutionary stories about monogamy have always been at the center of scientific claims to the biological origin and thus inevitability of Western, Christian, hetero-masculine, and capitalist domination. Which is why, in this review, I will focus not on the validity of Barash’s argument, but on what it says about contemporary politics of gender and monogamy.
So what story does David Barash tell about polygamy? His narrative begins with gender and it goes something like this: Men’s desire for sexual novelty and their violence toward women, themselves, and each other, as well as women’s acquiescence to subordination and desire for monogamy with one man, can be explained with the Darwinian maxim that only the fittest survive. Barash, however, departs from most sociobiologists by taking a daring and provocative turn. He claims that gender differences reflect not a genetic predisposition for monogamy, as most evolutionary anthropologists and psychologists argue, but a predisposition for polygyny where one man possesses several wives.
According to Barash, it is not the monogamous male and female who were the fittest and most successful in passing on their genes. Instead, our genetic ancestors consisted of “alpha male harem masters” and complacent harem wives. In this provocative story, the physically stronger and more aggressive men hoarded women so that lesser men were unable to find mates. The alpha male harem masters were thus far more likely than the weaker men to successfully mate and pass their genetic material on to subsequent generations. The women who accepted their place in the harem were more likely to mate with genetically superior harem-masters. And because harem-masters killed straying females and their offspring, female acquiescence to control and subordination was happily passed onto future generations. Hence, men’s desire for sexual variety (after all, they had several wives) and jealous, sometimes violent control over female sexual behavior (they had to make sure “their” females didn’t wander off to mate with lesser males) and men’s aggression toward each other (they had to successfully fend off lesser males) exist today because those characteristics would have made individuals more reproductively fit in a polygynous kinship structure.
To spin this tale, Barash relies on three data sources: evolutionary biological studies of non-human animal behavior and physiology, evolutionary anthropological studies of human cultures, and evolutionary psychological research on human behavior and physiology. Barash relies almost exclusively on other scholars who subscribe to his same origin story about gender differences (he cites himself profusely) and dismisses, ignores, or distorts the data that do not fit his narrative. For example, when offering non-human animal studies as evidence, Barash cherry-picks studies of particular (and polygynous) animals that suit his purpose. At the same time, he completely ignores sociological studies of people, including the last five decades of gender, sexuality, and family research that challenge his arguments. Barash also dismisses out of hand anthropological studies of polyandrous societies (where women have multiple husbands) and appears to be completely unaware of research on polyamory. When he does not have data or supporting empirical evidence, he speculates or turns to biblical verse, literature, myth, folklore, and mainstream media representations.
Consider what he says about human genius. According to Barash, because virtually all of the recognized geniuses in human history have been men, we must have been polygynous. Only in the context of a polygyny where males compete to be harem masters and females are just one in the crowd would men rather than women try to stand out as intellectually superior to others.
To prove that human males are more motivated than females to “stand out,” Barash provides a long list of male geniuses and then chuckles at the “entertaining—and remarkably challenging—parlor game to come up with renowned women” (162). Barash has no other evidence of the universality of male genius. “I, at least, have been unable to unearth any data that speak to the ratio of identified male versus female geniuses cross-culturally.” (162) And yet, two pages later he writes, “The gendering of genius would begin, not surprisingly, with the fact (emphasis added) that Homo sapiens is evolutionarily predisposed to polygyny” (164). Given his list and logic, one must ask why it is mostly European, white men who “stand out” as potential harem masters, but that question is left to other reviewers.
Finally, after trying to convince the reader that humans are predisposed for polygyny, male dominance, and violence, Barash’s final two chapters takes an astonishing and perplexing 180-degree turn. He argues that, “despite our shared polygamous history and the fact that somewhere deep inside everyone there lurks the ghosts of our harem-holding (for men) and harem-hiding (for women) pasts, by virtue of being human we also have the capacity—should we choose to do so—to make conscious, deliberate, mindful choices that refute our polygamously generated inclinations” (203). How can we “refute” our biological inclinations? Humans, he concedes, are different from every other animal species in that we have a “behavioral repertoire [that] includes cognition, culture, symbolism, language, and so forth. As a result, we are almost certainly less constrained by our biology than any other species” (210).
One would think that, if it’s culture all along, we could consciously create symbolism and language that would overcome our evolved gendered nature. Not possible, according to Barash. In true sociobiological (and ideological) form, he claims that, of all human features, gendered sexuality is a rather persistent predisposition. Once we come to realize and accept this predisposition, we can cage our beastly nature with institutionalized monogamous marriage, for it is the only kinship structure that is egalitarian and civilized. As evidence of this civilizing, Barash compares Muslim and “oriental” polygamous cultures to monogamous Western cultures, arguing that the latter demonstrates that humans are able to overcome our brutish polygynous natures.
In sum, Out of Eden is a reactionary counter-narrative to changes in the structure and culture of intimate relationships and the anxieties those changes produce. In the contemporary United States and other Western cultures (Barash’s audience), there are very real structural, cultural, and economic challenges to and critiques of life-long monogamy. At the same time, there is an emergent and growing acceptance of polyamorous and queer sexualities.
In my book (Beyond Monogamy, 2016), I show how polyamory opens up possibilities to reconfigure the structure and meaning of intimate relationships in ways that can disrupt gender, race, class, and sexual hierarchies. Given what I call the polyqueer potential of polyamory, it is not surprising to me that Barash glibly dismisses “libidinous polyamory” as just another doomed-to-fail attempt at “free love.” Here he reveals his ideological agenda–to render monogamy civilized, egalitarian, and desirable by juxtaposing it exclusively with primitive and brutal polygyny as if those are the only two choices. And that’s the insidiousness of a book like Out of Eden. It is marketed to “non-scientists” as a scientific book about our polygamous nature when, in reality, it is an ideological narrative advocating compulsory and institutionalized monogamous marriage.
Ironically, I find myself optimistic by the appearance of Out of Eden at this time. Its appearance suggests that narratives about evolution, gender, and monogamy are in crisis and need to accommodate and push back against some significant cultural change. Perhaps that change is a growing acceptance of gender egalitarian polyamory as a viable and desirable structure for intimate relationships.