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Blog: Monogamy or Polygamy — An Economic Choice?

One might be tempted to assume that monogamy is an ideal that all humans aspire to, but that’s far from the truth, according to Chinese economics professor Li Jingkui. It explains how matrimonial systems were designed to maximize economic benefits.

Most societies in the world today practice monogamy, giving us the illusion that it is human instinct. Fidelity between two people is symbolized in China by Mandarin ducks, and couples often receive linen sets decorated with ducks on their wedding day to convey the blessings of loved ones. Swan geese also symbolize the lifelong pair, as they are considered the most monogamous creature in the animal kingdom.

While ancient scholars were impressed when they spotted breeding pairs of April mandarin ducks swimming together, seemingly inseparable, references to monogamy throughout history are merely human projections onto the natural world. We like to see ourselves as being “one with nature”. But alas, the beautiful imagery stops there.

When the mating season begins in May, the male ducks go out of their way to attract the attention of the females, while the latter return the favor by becoming attached to the males. However, as soon as they have mated, the male ducks exit the scene, leaving the females to build the nest, hatch the eggs, and care for their offspring on their own. Even leaving aside the fact that male mandarin ducks seek out different females each year, and sometimes during the same breeding season, researchers in the Changbai Mountains of Jilin Province have found that when one of a pair of mandarin ducks is killed, the other quickly finds a new mate. . As for the swan geese, while they take care of their offspring together, as soon as the mating season is over, they start looking for a new partner. Mating for life is a fantasy.

Animals have evolved to have the best chance of reproducing and passing on their genes. Of more than 8,000 species of birds worldwide, about 90% mate and care for their young together, indicating a monogamous lifestyle. This is because the birds take a long time to incubate their eggs and rely on mates to bring them food, otherwise they risk starving. However, ornithologists have found that even birds among monogamous species mate with other birds, not just their mates. In other words, they cheat, as Helen Fisher mentions in “Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Go Wrong.”

Monogamy as an economic expedient

One could view human evolution as a type of cultural evolution, with monogamy being the product of production incentives. Gary Becker was a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a renowned economic imperialist in contemporary Western social science. He was known for his unique ideas on the economic analysis of human behavior and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992. His research focused primarily on marriage and family.

Using economic approaches to consider why men generally marry a woman in his article, “A Theory of Marriage”, Becker explained, “The importance of one’s own children is sufficient to explain why the marriages of several men with one or multiple women are rare since it would be difficult to identify the father of a child if multiple men had access to the same woman, while the identity of the mother is always known.

Becker’s assertion of the practice of monogamy in modern society is based on an important premise that, in a male-dominated society, the husband is the main source of family income, and therefore has a greater control over family property and greater decision-making power in the distribution of assets. after death. Since men hold the power to distribute property in the family, it is important for fathers to know who their “own children” (biological children) are in the family.

If a child in the family is not his biological child and the father did not know about it, this would have two serious consequences. First, the father would end up caring for his non-biological children, allowing “outsiders” to have a share of the family income; and second, after the death of the father, the family property could be inherited by “outsiders”. These serious consequences pose major threats to the accumulation of family wealth.

Since monogamy is so economically sound, why does polygamy still exist? My thesis supervisor, Professor Shi Jinchuan from Zhejiang University, is an expert in law and economics. He addressed this issue in his book “The Taste of Law and Economics” (法律经济学趣谈), which I paraphrase here.

Polygamy in matriarchal societies

The Mosuo people living on the shores of Lake Lugu, on the border of China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, are one of the last traditional matriarchal societies in the world. They adopted the “walking marriage” (走婚) system in which men and women did not marry and women could choose and exchange partners as they wished.

In such a system, a man who had feelings for a woman (and her for him) could stay at the woman’s house at night and return home the next morning. Neither of them would be considered the other’s family, nor would they form a new independent family through this union.

In a “walking marriage”, the man and the woman call each other “A Xiao” (阿肖). Local custom allowed everyone to have an unlimited number of “A Xiaos”. Although this marriage system has undergone major changes today, it is essentially still polygamous. But in such a system, how should the father identify his “own children”? Although this seems like a difficult question, the answer is very simple: fathers don’t have to do it under this system.

In the matriarchal Mosuo society, women have family power and control over family property. If we consider their societal structure as a joint-stock company, the shareholders of the company are all women – from grandmothers, mothers and aunts to sisters – while the employees are all men – from great-uncles and uncles to the brothers.

In a Mosuo family, the children belong only to their biological mother and have no financial relationship with their biological father. Since the father does not live with his biological children and is not responsible for raising them, he has no control over the assets of the family in which his biological children live. Thus, it becomes unnecessary for fathers to recognize their “own children”. Women, on the other hand, have no problem identifying their own children, since they are the ones who give birth to them. There is therefore no question of family income or assets falling into the hands of strangers.

Lots of Husbands for Better Taxes

Now let’s move on to polyandry, which is practiced in contemporary Indian society.

The Jat people of Uttar Pradesh in India practice a form of polyandry in which brothers share the same wife. There are around 1,500 single men who live with their brothers and share a wife in the three districts of Uttar Pradesh, Meerut, Baghpat and Muzaffarnagar. Such polyandry continues because the property of the Jat people belongs to all male brothers and sisters – it is not, nor will it be, divided among individual brothers in the family. As a result, neither of the brothers or husbands needs to identify their own children. What matters is that the children come from brothers of the same family.

In fact, in areas under different social environments and property regimes – such as Tibet or other ethnic minority areas in China – there had also been instances of polyandrous marriages in the past. Historically, the Monpa people of northeast India practiced polyandry to pay less tax. If three brothers each married their own wives and formed three independent families, they would have to pay three sets of taxes. But a family made up of brothers sharing the same wife must pay only one tax as a single family unit. Thus, marriage has become a means of tax evasion.

Economic analysis of different matrimonial systems shows that these systems are subsets of other systems in human society and cannot exist independently of other social institutions. In particular, the management of family assets has an important influence on matrimonial systems. What the different marital systems have in common is that they prevent the outflow of income and assets from a married couple. Any matrimonial system that meets these criteria in the simplest and least expensive way can be considered an economically efficient matrimonial system that has passed a cost-benefit analysis.

When it comes to making the best choice within the framework of economic constraints, the asset management system of the society is an important factor that governs the choice of matrimonial system. And because this constraint varies across societies, people can choose between different marriage systems, whether it’s monogamy or some form of polygamy.

Contact Editor Heather Mowbray (heathermowbray@caixin.com)

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