Thursday, June 14, 2007

When polygamy reigns, women gain

Undercover Economist Tim Hartford on polygamy:
After more than a decade of war between separatist rebels and the Russian army, there are not many marriageable men to go around in Chechnya. So, acting Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, probably not a feminist, proposed a radical step: "Each man who can provide for four wives should do it."
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It's natural to assume that polygyny is bad for women, partly because most of us would rather have our spouse to ourselves, and partly because we look at a place like Saudi Arabia, where polygyny is not uncommon, and note that women aren't even allowed to drive. I'm not quite so convinced.
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In a society with equal numbers of men and women, each man with four wives gives women the additional pick of three men—the poor saps whose potential wives decided they'd prefer one-quarter of a billionaire instead. In the Sahel region of Africa, half of all women live in polygynous households. The other half have a good choice of men and a lot more bargaining power.
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In a society such as Chechnya, where there is a shortage of young men, we would expect the reverse effect: Men get to pick and choose, playing the field, perhaps not bothering to get married at all. We don't have good data on Chechnya, but we have excellent information about an unexpected parallel.

A little over one in 100 American men are in prison—but there are several states where one in five young black men are behind bars. Since most women marry men of a similar age, and of the same race and in the same state, there are some groups of women who face a dramatic shortfall of marriage partners.

Economist Kerwin Charles has recently studied the plight of these women. Their problem is not merely that some who would want to marry won't be able to. It's that the available men—those not in prison—suddenly have more bargaining power. Goodbye to doing the dishes and paying the rent; hello to mistresses and wham, bam, thank you ma'am... finding a surfeit of marriage partners, [the men] suddenly seem in no hurry to marry. And why would they?
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The reverse is probably true, too... In China, the policy of one-child families coupled with selective abortion of girls has produced "surplus" males. Such men are called "bare branches," and China could have 30 million of them by 2020... these lonely, wifeless men will end up sleeping with a relatively small number of women—prostitutes—with severe risks of sexually transmitted disease all around.

Beirut, according to the NY Times, has been experiencing the opposite: because so many men emigrate to work abroad (or fight and die in violence that erupted since the publication of this article), there is a shortage of men--which means men are in demand, and women have little bargaining power:
The country’s high rate of unemployment pushes the young men to seek work elsewhere, sometimes in Western countries like France and Canada, but mainly in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the other oil states on the Persian Gulf. The women, inhibited by family pressures, are generally left behind.

“The demographic reality is truly alarming,” Professor Khalaf said. “There are no jobs for university graduates, and with the boys leaving, the sex ratios are simply out of control. It is now almost five to one: five young girls for every young man. When men my sons’ age come back to Lebanon, they can’t keep the girls from leaping at them.”
Stories like this fascinate me because they poke holes our complicated and passionate personal stories, about what we believe, who we like and why we act as we do. I suspect that straight women in a place with a shortage of men would rate a picture of man X more highly than women around a glut of men.

Much of the explanations we make for our decisions are little more than ex post facto decoration, added so that the context makes sense to us or so that we appear less craven. I love that this is true, and that we're so transparent. Knowing that we are all base creatures and servant to our genes makes me feel closer to other people; if we're all apes struggling to wear human clothing together, then we are more like each other than we realize.

Others often feel the opposite way, that studies like these strip away the value of human relationships and implicitly justify selfish and indulgent behavior. I can certainly relate; I feel a twinge of horror at our lost innocence when I read in the Times, for example, that in Europe "a 5-foot-0 guy would need to make $325,000 more than a 6-foot-0 man to be as successful in the online dating market".

I sense a difference in gender perspective here, but I could be making that up. As an anecdotal example, it seems to me that today, more men of the '60s (to borrow a phrase that really refers to the 1860s) than women see a connection between political conservativism and sexual conservativism as damaging ideas; I have heard women of that experimentally libertine subculture talk of the damage of promiscuity and extramarital affairs in a way that the men don't. Even looking at such a phenomenon as this different in perspective in terms of gender and evolutionary psychology is something I suspect men are more interested in doing than women. Is that because it reduces us to animals and points out our natural distance from each other? Is it because we need to maintain our cultural mortar of beliefs and practices to hold families, and our civilization, together? Is it because such stories about evolution allow men to justify reckless behavior?