Is Monogamy Part of Natural Law?

To get a better understanding of what makes polygamy illegal and why it has become illegal lets first look at the other side which is monogamy and determine if this side is part of natural law.

As disconcerting as this might seem to the human race, monogamy is not part of natural law. In fact, just the opposite is the case. In the animal kingdom, of the 5,000 or so mammal species in the world, only about 3 percent to 5 percent are engaged in any sort of monogamous relationship. Moreover, not all of these monogamous relationships would be viewed, in the eyes of the Western world, as purely monogamous.

Scientists and observers of the animal kingdom identify three types of monogamy. The first is sexual monogamy. This is the practice of having sex with only one mate at a time. Second is social monogamy. Animals form pairs to mate and raise offspring, but may still “wander” on the side. Last is genetic monogamy. DNA tests confirm that a female’s offspring were sired by only one father.

Even among those animals who do practice monogamy and mate for life, few and far between are those animals who practice total genetic monogamy or sexual monogamy.

In a new book “The Myth of Monogamy,” the husband-wife team of renowned scientists David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton review findings of DNA fingerprinting science employed in the courtroom to prove that most animals cheat on their mates and dispel the notion that monogamy is a natural way of life.

Book Summary of The Myth of Monogamy: Shattering deeply held beliefs about sexual relationships in humans and other animals, The Myth of Monogamy is a much needed treatment of a sensitive issue. Written by the husband and wife team of behavioral scientist David P. Barash and psychiatrist Judith Eve Lipton, it glows with wit and warmth even as it explores decades of research undermining traditional precepts of mating rituals. Evidence from genetic testing has been devastating to those seeking monogamy in the animal kingdom; even many birds, long prized as examples of fidelity, turn out to have a high incidence of extra-pair couplings. Furthermore, now that researchers have turned their attention to female sexual behavior, they are finding more and more examples of aggressive adultery-seeking in “the fairer sex.” Writing about humans in the context of parental involvement, the authors find complexity and humor.

Initially, the thought may cross one’s mind that, at least within the human race, the majority of people are monogamous, whether or not they are practicing sexual and/or social monogamy.

However, even within the human race, monogamy also is not as prevalent as members of the Western world might assume. According to a worldwide ethnographic survey of 849 human societies conducted a few years ago, only 16 percent of the societies surveyed exhibited monogamous customs.

Thus, if most creatures on the planet are, in fact, polygamous, where does the concept of monogamy originate?

While Adam and Eve, the progenitors of the human race, according to Judeo-Christian tradition, and even Noah who survived the flood with his one wife, were monogamous, then where does polygamy come in?

The fact is that most biblical figures practiced polygamy, probably for the very same reasons that most do in the animal kingdom. King Solomon is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines, and his father, King David, had six wives.

Darwinian historian and psychologist Laura Betzig conducted an in-depth study of the first six great ancient civilizations for which reasonable historical records exist: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Aztec Mexico, Inca Peru, India and China. All were societies with extreme inequality of wealth as well as extreme inequality of male reproductive success. While the wealthy nobility in each of these societies practiced monogamous marriage, they did also engage in highly polygamous mating. As late as the 16th century, one can find British aristocracy embracing the same types of relationships. Most historians agree that the reason for this set up was to guarantee a primogeniture, thereby passing on wealth to the oldest son. This meant that the wife’s son would become the official heir.

The concept of a monogamous marital relationship has changed through time from the “divinely” ordained Catholic version to today’s homosexual couples. One may observe that monogamous marital relationships may soon be a concept from the past. Moreover, observers might be surprised to learn that, in fact, like with the animal kingdom, there is more room and understanding for “polygamous” relationships. In a survey conducted by a leading national magazine in the United States, “the majority of 4,700 mistresses interviewed preferred being a second wife to their current status.”

So Why is Polygamy Illegal?

So if monogamy is not part of natural law when one might wonder why polygamy is actually illegal.

Before attempting to answer the question as to why polygamy is illegal, it might be beneficial to first examine the history of polygamy. Polygamy or plural marriage is not a modern-day invention. It is an institution dating back thousands of years. It is based in many of the world’s ancient customs, cultures and religions. Anthropological research suggests that polygamy has its origins in pre-colonial cultures that were based on subsistence farming. The harsh conditions that resulted in short life spans and a high infant mortality rate made polygamy a realistic solution to the expansion of the tribe or culture. Additionally, living in a larger, expanded family grouping increased the likelihood of both individual and group survival.

The vast majority of polygamous societies have been male-dominated. Thus polygamy was the rule. The taking of more than one wife was often viewed as a status symbol and one that pointed to great wealth and importance. Polygamy was also often seen as a solution to population problems. After large-scale conflicts or natural disasters, there would be shortages of males. For example, in 1650 at Nuremberg in Germany, a law was passed allowing a man to have up to 10 wives as a means of combating the huge loss of life sustained during the 30 Year War.

Polygamy knows no national boundaries and has been practiced in many societies around the world. In fact, a survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin in 1998 of more than 1,000 cultures found that only 186 were strictly monogamous; 450 of them allowed occasional polygamy. In 580 of the cultures, polygamy was a regular occurrence. In four cultures, polyandry was reported.

Genetic research into the human genome seems to suggest that until just 10,000 years ago, the human gene pool was based on a very small paternal base. This might indicate polygyny as being the rule rather than the exception.

In fact, for most of the world’s population, it is not illegal. There are even societies in which polygamy is illegal but the law is rarely enforced. However, in most Western cultures polygamy is most assuredly illegal. Even the practitioners of those religions that condone or permit it are forced to adhere to the civil law.

Where it is illegal, the illegality appears to be linked to Christian ethics and the spread of European colonial rule in the 18th century. European industrialization required better education for a larger portion of society. This led to the growth of the modern democratic ideal which decried the idea of one human being the property of another. Thus slavery came to an end. Similarly, multiple marriages were viewed as the males enslaving the females. When European nations began their colonization of Africa and other continents, Christian missionaries followed shortly thereafter. The missionaries preached the ideal of monogamy.

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