The first husbands club

Men don't have a monopoly on serial monogamy, anthropologists say

Published September 1, 2009 1:02PM (EDT)

According to pop evolutionary theory, men can't help jumping from mate to mate and spouse to spouse. They've got to spread their seed, choosing only the most beautiful, fertile young ladies to bear their children. It's their biological duty! And that's why women should be neither shocked nor enraged when they sprout a few gray hairs and their husbands trade up for a newer model. That's just how nature works. Survival of the fittest and most promiscuous or whatever. Right?

Well, no. Not always. In a fascinating piece from Tuesday's New York Times, Natalie Angier explores a recent report on male-female relationships in non-Western cultures where birth and child-rearing are still dangerous ventures. Even at those Darwinian extremes, she writes, "serial monogamy is by no means a man’s game, finessed by him and foisted on her."  The report's author, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder at the University of California, Davis, has studied the Pimbwe people of Tanzania for 15 years. Her conclusion? For the Pimbwe, who also divide labor and resources relatively equally among the genders, "serial monogamy looks less like polygyny than like a strategic beast that some evolutionary psychologists dismiss as quasi-fantastical: polyandry, one woman making the most of multiple mates."

Angier goes on to explain that, while Pimbwe men are slightly more likely than women to enter into multiple marriages, male serial monogamists are generally seen as "layabout drunks." But women "with the greatest number of spouses were themselves considered high-quality mates, the hardest working, the most reliable, with scant taste for the strong maize beer the Pimbwe famously brew." And what's more, women who cycled through more than two husbands boasted more surviving children than their more committed counterparts.

Of course, it would be a mistake to take the study as evidence that everything we know about men, women, mating and monogamy is wrong. The take-home, writes Angier, is a bit more modest: "The results underscore the importance of avoiding the breezy generalities of what might be called Evolution Lite, an enterprise too often devoted to proclaiming universal truths about deep human nature based on how college students respond to their professors’ questionnaires." In other words, don't assume that "The First Wives Club" is evolutionarily inevitable.

So what, if anything, does all of this mean for women who don't happen to live among the Pimbwe? As Geoffrey F. Miller of the University of New Mexico points out, "the capacity of women across cultures to dissolve relationships that aren’t working has been much underestimated." And, as Western women become more like Pimbwe women -- which is to say, less reliant on their husbands as providers -- that capacity should only increase. According to an article in Tuesday's Guardian advising women to seek prenuptial agreements, in Britain "the number of men making claims on their wives' wealth in divorce has doubled since last year." Now, I'm no cheerleader for divorce, and I don't want to lionize women with roving eyes while castigating their mate-hopping male counterparts. But I sure would love to stop hearing nature used to absolve any and all marital infidelities and indiscretions perpetrated by a dude.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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