Research On Marrying Women Will Definitely Lead To Sweeping Generalizations

Illustration for article titled Research On Marrying Women Will Definitely Lead To Sweeping Generalizations

Perhaps in response to all the recent talk about the female imperative for mate-poaching - or perhaps coincidentally - today's "Science Times" brings a piece by Natalie Angier suggesting that women are also prone to serial marriage.

While, as Angier puts it, "observers of human mating customs have long contended that serial monogamy is really just a socially sanctioned version of harem-building," in fact, she suggests, perhaps women are, by nature, also inclined to live polygymously.

In a report published in the summer issue of the journal Human Nature, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder of the University of California, Davis, presents compelling evidence that at least in some non-Western cultures where conditions are harsh and mothers must fight to keep their children alive, serial monogamy is by no means a man's game, finessed by him and foisted on her. To the contrary, Dr. Borgerhoff Mulder said, among the Pimbwe people of Tanzania, whose lives and loves she has been following for about 15 years, 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... "We're so wedded to the model that men will benefit from multiple marriages and women won't, that women are victims of the game," Dr. Borgerhoff Mulder said. "But what my data suggest is that Pimbwe women are strategically choosing men, abandoning men and remarrying men as their economic situation goes up and down."


In addition, the researcher found, these multiple-marriers are not deemed the flighty "bolters" of Western perception, but, rather, "considered high-quality mates, the hardest working, the most reliable, with scant taste for the strong maize beer the Pimbwe famously brew." While this is obviously a specific study of a certain group's practices, as Salon's Judy Berman puts it, these are "Darwinian extremes," and as such it's tempting to extrapolate about a society not mired in our constructs. I'm wary of this, as a rule; because a society doesn't have our mores doesn't mean it can't have its own, surely equally entrenched and capable of altering a society's shape? To suggest anything else seems both reductive and patronizing. But let's say we take the argument to this far-fetched extreme and start the perennially-popular par;or game of "what-if." What if this says something about basic human nature? What do we learn? That women are security-minded? Angier's circumspect, saying only, "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." I'm inclined to concur: if we choose to regard this as some kind of triumph for evolutionary equality, the results lead themselves equally open to far-flung "gold-digger" interpretations. The best conclusion to draw, to my mind, is what I'll call the creationist's paradox: you can use loosely-interpreted evolutionary arguments to back up as many arguments as a Bible-thumper can find Good Book justification for his.

If we need proof, keep in mind that the "husband-snatcher!" furor is still going strong. A rather cavalier piece in the Houston Chronicle sports the same sort of reductive headline that's been snaring views since the rather more complicated Journal of Experimental Social Psychology results came out. In short, she reports that "mate poaching" is real, and that it says a lot of bad stuff about women. Then readers, who also haven't read the research and are drawing their own conclusions based on this rather sketchy pop-summary, say things like, "fellas if your wife has hot looking girlfriends, leave the house, cause those b—-h's are cheating to. ladies, if your husband has hot looking friends, chances are they are cheating with your hot looking girlfriends." And "THE ALPHA MALE, just like the lion of the jungle his role is to get as many lioness's pregnant." Does a moron need "facts" to bolster his grandstanding? No - but he'll use them.

"Facts" as we know can be dangerous things. It's not, obviously, an exactly analogous situation, but I thought of this earlier while reading a piece about Marriage Works USA, a campaign of the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative that promotes marriage by using statistics on its ads like "married people earn and save more money" and "married people enjoy better health." As Christopher Wanjek sagely points out on LiveScience, these stats derive, universally, from studies and surveys whose results are, unsurprisingly, far more complicated and less neatly reductive than the campaign would suggest, and as such, misleading. I'm not saying people who want to shouldn't get married (and be able to) but the decision shouldn't be dictated by pop sociology, and if that marriage ends, let's not invoke evolutionary imperatives, either. Sure, facts and studies are great. But a fact, noun, doesn't in itself bolster an argument, also noun. These various studies are fascinating, enrich the discussion and, when used as intended, can teach us a lot. But we've eschewed plenty of "evolutionary imperatives" to live as we do, and as a result have pretty much forfeited the privilege of using it as an excuse. Apologies to THE ALPHA MALE.

Skipping Spouse To Spouse Isn't Just A Man's Game [NY Times]
The First Husbands Club [Salon]
Are You Or Do You Know A "Mate Poacher"? [Houston Chronicle]
Marriage Works: An Exaggerated Message [LiveScience]

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`


Erin Gloria Ryan

I prefer stealing children to stealing husbands. Much cheaper to feed.