A Primatologist Looks at the FLDS
A real one this time!! (It’s not just me pretending to be a primatologist, as in my primatologist looks at the mathematical community post.)
I was reading along in the book Parenting for Primates (which I discussed here and here), and I found that the author (Harriet J. Smith) devoted four full pages to the reproductive strategies of the FLDS! It’s not surprising that they’d be of interest to primatologists — polygyny may be rare for humans in industrialized nations, but it’s not that unusual for primates in general.
The main point that the author makes about them is that — while polygyny can thrive in agrarian societies where children work to contribute to the household economy — it doesn’t work nearly so well in an industrialized societies where parents are the sole economic support for their children well into adulthood. Smith explains:
Polygyny is not a good fit with the characteristics of a modern industrial society, so fundamentalist Mormons pay a high price for their lifestyle: they forfeit economic prosperity. Living in an economically deprived, barren, desert environment, they have few opportunities for career advancement or the accumulation of wealth. Because large families eat up rather than add to a family’s resources in industrial societies, Mormon polygynists typically aren’t wealthy, and many families live in poverty. More than one third of the polygynous Hilldale-Colorado City families depend on food stamps, compared to less than 5 percent of other Utah families. Although there are a few very wealthy men (with many wives) in those communities, it is not unusual for poor husbands also to have more than one wife (which doe not occur when polygyny is an adaptation to the environment).
Also, in most of the primate species where polygyny is the norm, a male has a harem only when he’s in his prime, and eventually loses it to a younger, stronger male once he’s too old to defend his position. In a species like humans where parents form lifelong bonds, polygyny obviously creates a huge gender imbalance when practiced as the norm (as opposed to a typical human society where polygyny is practiced only by a small percentage of males — the very wealthiest).
So the author concludes that this type of community is unlikely to ever become the norm.
This sounds fascinating; two of my favorite subjects in one book. I’m picking it up from the library today.
Jonathan — It’s a fun book. Once you’ve read it, please tell us what you think of it! 😀
There are all sort of ways to organize human families but since children are so expensive, monogamy will remain the most common form or the mode.
For the same reason, average family size will continue to decline. It’s just too expensive to have more than one or two children.
Hellmut — Very true. It’s a great thing, really, that parents these days can invest more time and energy into fewer kids (since low child mortality means parents can expect almost all of their kids to grow up) — instead of having more than they can handle and sadly letting natural selection take its course. I talked about this in Fertility, Mortality, or sex vs. death.
It’s sad to see people failing to adapt to their environment, hanging on to traditions that don’t work just for the sake of tradition and ideology.
Fascinating! I agree – it is important to note the distinction between animal communities and societies and human societies. For example, some animals may practice infanticide – but humans no longer encourage this practice (and most societies denounce the practice of taking the life of weaker young/humans).
We can learn a great deal from studying these societies – just wanted to note that there are fundamental differences. I’m sure if I read the book the author would discuss this further.
While animals may build their societies around strict gender roles, I’m not sure that makes the most sense for us in industrial societies.
Aerin — in fact, the book talks quite a bit about infanticide in both human cultures and in other species.
And I agree about how some of the strategies that worked well — even for humans — in the past (like strict gender roles) might not be the best strategies for our modern society. One advantage that has helped humans spread across the globe is our ability to change strategies and adapt to different environments. So we can’t just assume that the most typical or “natural” way of doing things is always the best way to do things under all circumstances.
I talked about this a bit in my “Rational Moms” post about this book, linked above.