Monday, September 10, 2007

Asymmetric Polygamy: the problem of the leftovers

Marginal Revolution discusses the economics of polygamy, though in fact they're really talking about polygny (one male, multiple female). The discussion was triggered by a NYT story on the abandoned teenage males surrounding a pseudo-Mormon cult.

Humans have often practiced polygyny (with rare polyandry), but polygyny is rare in technological societies. I'm sure sociologists have theories about why this might be so, but it's interesting to speculate about how the leftover male problem changes over time.

Leftover males have to be eliminated -- or they'll cause problems. The least disruptive way to eliminate them is probably through continuous warfare. At some point in the development of human cultures I wonder if war started to get more costly, at the same time that the value of the males increased, such that it became too expensive to have leftover males ...

PS. Many people worry about China's current leftover male problem. Polyandry in China would help restore the critical balance ...

Update: I fixed my typo in the title. (was assymetric)

2 comments:

Pidgas said...

There's an interesting book called "The Moral Animal" which tangentially addresses this issue. In brief, they hold that modern societies essentially dealt with the problem of the "leftover male" by prohibiting polygyny (promoting monogamy) through social, religious, and governmental mechanisms. In more liberal modern societies, these mechanisms have been weakened and resourced males frequently pursue a strategy of serial monogamy...which is probably just marginally less problematic.

John Gordon said...

Thanks Pidgas. Great to see you again btw. Serial monogamy doesn't seem to generate the excess male problem, thought it may lead to other problems.

Did the book describe why the "leftover male" is more a problem for post-agricultural than for pre-agricultural societies? I'd guessed it was because the cost of war was rising and the value of labor was rising, both of which made the excess male more of a problem.