The Biological Imperative of Polygyny

In his excellent post Dateonomics, our friend Taylor talks about the sociological argument for polygyny (one man having multiple wives), especially in the context of the mainstream LDS Church. Here I’d like to talk about the biological argument for polygyny.

If you assume that the main biological goal of a species is to reproduce, then – bluntly speaking – females are much more valuable than males. If a woman (or a female animal, more broadly) does not have children for whatever reason (early death, infertility, intentional childlessness, etc.), those 8 or 10 or however many children she could have had can never be recouped or recovered and the children those children would have had can never be recouped or recovered, either. It is a permanent loss to the species as a whole.

On the other hand, if a man (or a male animal) does not have children, that does not mean that there have to be any fewer children total. Any of the other males could step in for him. A man could have 1,000 children. Most women could reasonably have 10 or 15 at the most, and though there are some women who could have more, none of those outliers even fleetingly approaches the number of children an average man could have. A species is limited in its generations by the female members of that species. And yet there are a roughly equal number of men and women in the world. The result? Superfluous men. The women are not biologically dispensable, but most of the men are. You see this in other species, too. You only need one ram per some forty or fifty ewes1, and only one rooster per ten hens2.

Females being biologically indispensable is one of the reasons forced monogamy is such a tragedy. Ideally, from a biological perspective, every woman would have children. There are slightly more men than women world-wide (in the under 65 age bracket)3, and so you’d think that it would all work out just fine. However, there are more “unmarriageable” men than there are “unmarriageable” women, which skews the demographics of decent people under 65 in the other direction – there are more decent women than decent men.

Let me explain. 

Men are much more likely4 to commit violent crimes than are women. If you assume that few people would want to marry a violent criminal, this takes many more men out of the running, so to speak, than it does women. 

If we assume that not many people would want to marry someone with an abnormally low IQ, this takes more men than women out of the running, too. More men than women have genius-level IQs (seven out of every eight people who score in the top 1% on IQ tests are men), but there are also more men than women who have idiot-level IQs5,6. The mean intelligence is the same or nearly so, but the distribution (or you could say, standard deviation) is wider for men than for women.

All this is to say that if you took all the decent men and all the decent women (mind you, in this case I’m using decent to mean marriageable – for the purposes of this post that means someone who is not a violent criminal and does not have a very low IQ – without any of the moral implications that the word decent often has) and paired them off, you would be left with extra women who, in a strictly monogamous society, would likely be doomed to spinsterhood and childlessness, thereby forever depriving the human race of the children they could have had, or else go and marry a low-quality man. They may feel forced into such a marriage for the sake of having children, but issues can (and often do) arise with the children of low-quality men, leaving us to conclude that this is also not ideal.

Additionally, from a primitive, biological standpoint, there are likely to end up being  fewer men left than women due to conflicts. For the entire history of humanity, with a very few exceptions, men have been the warriors. This makes a lot of sense, as the average man is stronger, faster, and better mentally suited (more aggressive and better able to compartmentalize things) for war than the average woman. This works out just fine, as the women in a primitive situation would spend much of their time in a less-than ideal situation for soldiering due to pregnancy, breastfeeding, and/or needing to care for young children. However, this means that in conflicts (which have been around as long as we have), more men end up dying than women do. This can have significant, even drastic impacts on the overall ratio of men to women, such as in the Soviet Union after WWII, when there were only 4 men per 5 women7. (In Soviet Russia, proper, it was even more dramatic, with 3 men per 4 women8.)

The solution from a biological perspective? Allow some of the decent men to marry multiple decent women, enough to take care of the surplus of women and simultaneously maximize the genetic potential (and number of children) of the group as a whole.

This surplus of decent women is one of the reasons that polyandry (the practice of one woman having multiple husbands) is a biologically unjustifiable practice, in my opinion. There is already a relative shortage of decent men. Why exacerbate the problem by allowing one woman to hog limited resources when one man would work just as well, biologically speaking?

Another reason polyandry is biologically unjustifiable is the uncertain paternity of the children. A woman has the advantage of being able to be completely and utterly certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that a child she thinks is hers truly is. A man has no such privilege. He may be intellectually sure that a child is his, but there is no biological surety he can have. (Obviously now there are genetic tests that can determine paternity, but historically – and biologically speaking – that has not been the case.)  People naturally want to take care of their own children. In a polyandrous relationship, on the surface it seems wonderful. The children can have a mother figure and multiple father figures. There’s much talk about how the lack of a father figure leads to all sorts of ills, so surely having multiple would be even better, right?

Except it doesn’t quite work like that. In polyandry, none of the men is sure that the child is his, (although there could be exceptions to this, such in the case of the male partners in the polyandrous relationship being different races) and so none of them fully act like a father. It is similar to the bystander effect9, which is when people are more likely not to act in an emergency (call 911, help someone who is struggling) if there are other people present, because they assume the other people will instead. Instead of the child of polyandry having multiple strong father figures, they are likely to wind up having none. An additional downside is that having multiple stepfathers is dangerous for children.  Studies have shown that stepfathers are many times more likely to assault10, abuse11, and even kill12 their stepchildren than biological fathers are. This is called the “Cinderella effect13”.  Although there does not seem to be much research on the “Cinderella effect” specifically in the context of polyandry, I think that it is likely present to at least some extent.

In contrast, in a polygynous marriage, the parents of each child are clear. Each child has one committed, invested father and one committed, invested mother, and additional mother figures who are not primarily responsible for the child but are still interested in their success.

The biological imperative for polygyny shows up in other places as well. A study done by the dating app OkCupid shows that women on their site rate 80% of men on their site as being below average in attractiveness13. Obviously that data could be skewed, but it is still reflective of the fact that women, as a whole, are choosier than men are when it comes to selecting a partner. (For comparison, in the same study, men rate 50% of women as below average and 50% of women as above average in attractiveness – exactly what you would expect.)

From a biological perspective, this makes sense. If a woman is going to invest 9 months of pregnancy and (in a primitive setting) at least a year of breastfeeding into one of her children, she’s naturally going to want to be choosy as to who the father is. In a primitive setting, she would want or need the protection of a strong, capable man while she is especially vulnerable during pregnancy and postpartum, and she doesn’t want to (nor does it make sense to) spend that much of her life on the offspring of a loser. Her best chance at long-term genetic success is to have children with a beautiful, strong, intelligent man so they (her children) will be beautiful, strong, and intelligent as well, thereby maximizing their chances for genetic success and so forth.

Hence women want the top 20% of men, and if polygyny is allowed, every woman can have a man in the top 20%, rather than settling for someone inferior. Biologically, 20 men to every 100 women is a workable number if polygamy is allowed, and this promotes many high-quality children, the biological goal for all species. The strongest, most capable men get the most breeding rights. They have strong children, and the species as a whole prospers.

To sum up: the biological goal of any species (divorced from any morality or ethics) is to reproduce as prolifically and successfully as possible, with a maximal number of strong, healthy children. In order to do this, you need to maximize the number of female members of that species who are  having children, as they are the gatekeepers for the total number of children in any given generation. In a society where only monogamy is allowed, there end up being extra females who cannot have children due to the lack of a mate. The natural solution is to allow at least some polygyny so that the species does not shortchange itself in the coming generation.

And that is the biological case for polygyny.

My Story: Accepting Responsibility for Personal Revelation

I was born and raised a faithful member of the LDS Church.  Twice a year, the Church holds a General Conference, which is when the leaders of the Church give gospel-related instructions to the Church membership.  I was taught that General Conference talks were as good as scripture, so I would dutifully study every talk. I was taught that if there was anything important I needed to know, any new revelation from God for our day, I would hear about it in a Conference talk.  I also believed that there weren’t any contradictions between what was in the scriptures and what was contained in these Conference talks. 

Most of all, I believed that a Conference talk given by the president of the Church was as authoritative as anything could be. So if you did happen to find a seeming contradiction, the error would be from a lower-ranking member of the leadership and easily brushed aside.  

I remember believing all these things, but I believe so differently now that it almost seems crazy.

As I started to be more interested in what the scriptures taught, I remember asking my father if he had any insights about a particular scripture passage that I was trying to understand. He glanced at it and then informed me that he had never heard it discussed in a General Conference, so I shouldn’t worry about it. My eyes were opened to where I got all these beliefs; my religious world was saturated with a blind acceptance of the narrative from my parents and other places.

Joshua and I had been married for 8 years, and all that time, he had tried to bring my attention to the deeper and older things in the Restored Gospel.  Occasionally he would make a point of showing me that these doctrines used to be taught but aren’t taught anymore.  For some reason, it never bothered me that the LDS Church no longer taught doctrines that used to be taught.  I also knew that some of the ordinances had been changed, but that didn’t really bother me either.  

(I didn’t realize this at the time, but actually, every single ordinance has been changed by the LDS Church.  In fact, if you really look at it, the Church doesn’t get a single detail correct when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. Just a few examples: The level of priesthood required by the scriptures, the wording of the prayers, the use of water instead of wine, etc.)  

All these conversations with Joshua served to make me nervous about his thinking, but not the Church’s direction.  My loyalties lay with the Church, and for him to talk about the problems with the Church made me worry that he would “apostatize” (or stop believing in the Church and its leadership).  I longed for Joshua to get up in the monthly Fast & Testimony Meeting (when the microphone is open to everyone) and bear his testimony about the Church being true and the president of the Church being the Lord’s Prophet.  I never got my wish. He would share his testimony, but not about those things.

I remember asking Joshua if he would be sad if one of our children left the LDS Church.  He said he didn’t really care if the children stayed in the Church, but that it would make him sad if they rejected the scriptures.  I couldn’t understand or appreciate the distinction he was making, and I found his answer unsatisfying and confusing.  

Joshua was very patient with my blindness.  8 years is a long time for someone to wait for their spouse to come around.  It paid off for both of us in the long run.  

In June of 2010, the timing was finally right for me to wake up.  

A story in the news was the catalyst. A convicted murderer named Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed in the state of Utah.  A judge asked his preference for the manner of his execution, and he said firing squad. 

In an interview, he was asked why he chose the firing squad, and he said it was because of his Mormon heritage.  The day before his execution, the LDS Church issued a statement about blood atonement, which I read on the Deseret News website.  The statement said this (in part):

In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives.

However, so-called “blood atonement,” by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I read the statement from the Church and blindly believed it to be true based solely on the fact that it had been issued by the Church I trusted absolutely. 

But I happened to glance at the first comment under the article, and that was the moment that changed everything.  Here’s the comment:

Not Doctrine? “There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins, whereas, if such is not the case, they will stick to them and remain upon them in the spirit world. I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong DOCTRINE; but it is to save them, not to destroy them” (Brigham Young, September 21, 1856, Journal of Discourses 4:53).

I had never heard of the “blood atonement” doctrine before.  I had no idea what the debate was or who was right.  But here, right in front of me, was an undeniable, real-time example of the current LDS Church blatantly contradicting not only “some church members” “in the mid-19th century” (which is what the Church’s statement weakly said) but the president of the Church himself.  This was very confusing.  

Well, I knew what to do to get answers.  I would go to the Church’s website (which was at the time) and search for “blood atonement”.  Researching on the Church’s website was safe, right?  Nothing on there could ever be troubling or confusing, right?  

Do you want to guess how many results came up when I searched for “blood atonement” on

0.  That’s right.  Zero.  Nada.  Zilch.  Not a thing.  I sat there staring at a screen that told me it had “0 results”.  

I could not wrap my mind around this.  First of all, if the Church had issued a statement, shouldn’t I be able to find it on its own website?  I found out that the Church had statements they would issue to journalists even if they hadn’t bothered releasing them on their own platforms, so that explained that part.

But the fact that I got zero search results on the Church’s official website was a real hurdle for me, because I had always counted on the official website to be a safe place for me to do my researching.  I was faced with a choice: Don’t learn about blood atonement, or learn about it from a dangerous, untrustworthy place!  

What’s a girl to do?  I looked for answers outside the official website.  I felt so dirty.  I felt rebellious.

I also felt angry.  I felt lied to.  

What I found out did not help my peace of mind. In fact, one detail made my situation an even worse dilemma: The above quote from Brigham Young was not only spoken when he was the president of the Church, but he was speaking in General Conference!  As I said, I considered a General Conference talk by the president of the Church to be as good as God himself speaking, so what happened next was: My head exploded.  

I became obsessed with this contradiction.  I had to solve it.  I had to explain it away. 

I convinced myself that the Church’s statement had been written by some guy in a cubicle in the Church Office Building, and that President Monson could never have written or approved such a thing.  I started calling Church headquarters and asking them about the statement, trying to get information about who actually wrote it.  (I didn’t get anywhere with this inquiry.)

I don’t want to make this about blood atonement.  That is not really the point.  This particular point of doctrine just happened to be the contradiction I stumbled across.  I now know of many such contradictions, and any one of them might have been the catalyst for me.  

A huge concern was growing in my mind: That the leaders of the Church — the Prophets, the Apostles, the General Authorities — were not actually receiving revelation from God!  I couldn’t brush away that fear (and it was a fear).  

I assumed the Church leaders were receiving revelations for the Church. I soon realized that they never actually made this claim themselves. In their General Conference talks, for instance, they never actually say, “Thus saith the Lord” (or any similar claim).  They never stand up and say, “The Lord visited me and told me to say thus and such.”  I’ve never heard any of them say, “I received a revelation from God, and here it is.”  No.  The Church and its leaders simply make their statements and give their prepared talks, and then we reassure ourselves and each other that the Lord is speaking thru them.  

My world was rocked in 2010 when I came to the conclusion that there is no evidence or even claims of revelation being received by LDS Church leaders.  I didn’t know what to do with that information.  I talked to my good husband Joshua about the strong temptation to leave the Church.  Joshua encouraged me to do what Joseph Smith did in 1820 when Joseph didn’t know what to do.  Briefly, when Joseph Smith didn’t know which church to join, he didn’t join any church; he continued on his current course until instructed otherwise by the Lord.  

Joshua encouraged me to keep on the course of loyal Church activity until I found something better to put my efforts towards.  It’s a version of what we call the Tarzan Principle: Don’t let go of one vine until you’ve grabbed on to another one.  

So I continued with my activity in the Church, but in my heart and mind, things were very different.  My previous worldview was shattered, and I continued to seek for truth, but nothing changed about my religious practices.  

At this time, I came across a couple of writers that said things I needed to hear.  

One was a writer on the LDS Anarchy blog (I don’t remember which author), who talked openly about the scripturally-predicted apostasy of the LDS Church and made the case that the benefits of being faithful members outweighed the costs; staying in the Church is better than leaving.  

The other writer who influenced me at this time was Denver Snuffer (before he got a large following and started having weird ideas), who emphasized the importance of having personal revelation.  

Personal revelation?  What is the purpose of that?  It was honestly a new concept for me.  I knew I could pray about who to marry or what college to go to and I could get answers to prayers.  In other words, I had experienced praying with a question in mind and receiving answers.  

But I didn’t realize the Lord was interested in guiding me on a day-to-day, continual basis.  Snuffer explained we should forget about whether the Church leaders were intimate with the Lord and instead concern ourselves with being in direct communication with him.  

That was the answer I needed.  Honestly, was it any of my business whether God was speaking to the Church leaders?  Why not worry about what God had to say to me instead?  The paradigm shift for me was huge.  

I started paying attention to what the still, small voice was saying to me.  I had not done that before, with a few exceptions, and it definitely had a learning curve.  

I ultimately decided to stay in the LDS Church and focus on the good the Church brought into my life.  At the same time, I worked to improve my personal relationship with God, and I began to experience the joy of allowing the light of Christ to influence me.  I was no longer fearful.  It was a wonderful, stable place to be.  

That is the story of how I went from believing the LDS Church held all the answers and responsibility to realizing I was responsible for my own personal revelation to guide my own life.  

More of my story, including some experiences listening to the Holy Spirit and how I finally learned the importance of checking everything against the scriptures (whether personal revelation, the words of a prophet, or any other source), will be told in future blog posts, Lord willing.