Book Summary: “Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human” by William Tucker

Title: Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human
Author: William Tucker
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

The author focuses on the role that marriage (or what paleontologists call “pair bonding”) has had on human cultural development.

Key Take-aways

  • Almost all non-human mammals are polygamous, usually with one male mating with multiple females. Because of this, males tend to be highly aggressive towards each other.
  • The evolution of pair bonding among early humans reduced the sexual competition between males. The result was that unrelated males could cooperate together.
  • Since many human societies have polygamy, particularly among high-status males, cultural factors are critical to the maintenance of monogamy.
  • Hunter-gatherer, Agrarian and Industrial societies tend to have widespread monogamy. Polygamy is rare and socially unacceptable.
  • Horticultural and Herding societies tend to have widespread polygamy, particularly among high-status males. Polygamy is considered a sign of success.
  • The inevitable result of polygamy is that large number of young males will have no means to mate and reproduce. This is the root cause of many of the societies problems.
  • Societies that accept polygamy tend to have:
    • Older men marrying many far younger women.
    • Males who focus on hunting, herding animals and waging war.
    • Women do almost all the physical labor other than hunting and waging wars.
    • Higher rates of war and violence, particularly rape.
    • Low levels of male parenting of their biological children, particularly girls.
    • Much higher levels of gender inequality
    • Young males who group together with their peers to form warrior bands to express their masculinity
  • Single-parent families and multiple marriages are the cultural equivalent of polygamy in Industrial societies.

Important Quotes from Book

“Human monogamy—the pair-bonding of couples within the framework of a larger social group—is not entirely a natural institution. This is attested by the observation that 95 percent of all species are polygamous. Where monogamy has been adopted in nature, it usually involves pair-bonded couples living in isolation in a challenging environment.”

“while 90 percent of bird species are monogamous, 97 percent of mammal species are polygamous and individual pair-bonds are almost unknown. Only the beaver and a few others practice monogamy.

Yet the payoff that was somehow achieved by our earliest chimp-like ancestors was extraordinary. The adoption of social monogamy by early hominids created something unique in nature—a society where males cooperate at common tasks with a minimum of sexual competition. In almost all species, males spend most of their time fighting among themselves for access to females. The unique social contract of monogamy—a male for every female, a female for every male—lowers the temperature of sexual competition and frees its members to work together in cooperation. It is at this juncture that human societies—even human civilizations—are born.

Unfortunately, monogamy does not sustain itself “naturally.” It requires rules—rules that must be continuously enforced by the members practicing it. Moreover, the benefits of monogamy are not distributed equally. There are clear winners and losers, ”

Chimps are a band of brothers. This is practically unique in nature. In almost every other social species, related females form the backbone of the group… Most interesting is that chimps occasionally hunt together (5% of diet)… The chimps practice sexual communism. Every male gets to mate with every female… it provides a rich reward. With rivalry between males minimized, the closely related group –  none of whose members have overpowering size or strength is able to inhabit a wide swath of the forest, defending territory and protecting against rival troops. (p21-24)

When a species has one dominant male, he must kill all the infants sired by the previous dominant male so that the females will be able to mate with him. Female chimps have evolved a strategy to prevent this by confusing paternity through mating with all the males. Most conception, however, is with a favored male who they sneak off into the jungle with to copulate for days (p36)

This sexual strategy became impossible when early hominids moved into the savanna where they needed to stay together as a group for protection and secret mating was extremely dangerous. This gave incentive for the dominant male and dominant female to pair up publicly, but then the male had to stay in the pair bond to protect his offspring from infanticide by other males… Once the alpha couple has paired off, the beta couple now find themselves in the same position… The import thing is this: the solidarity of the troop is maintained (p40-41)

For a group trying to live in close proximity, the example of the alpha couple becomes crucial… But if the alpha males collects a harem then other males can have the same aspiration and the free-for-all of unlimited sexual competition returns (p42)

Of all the species ever identified, approximately 95 percent are polygamous… In addition, chimps and humans are the only species in nature where the band of brothers forms the core of the group… Human beings are the only species in nature where males work together in the context of social monogamy. This is what makes us unique. It makes us human. (p47)

What then are the requirements that keep such a group together? The first and foremost is that the alpha male should take only one mate. We can see this over and over in human history. When an alpha male tries to take too many wives or consorts, it disrupts the harmony of the group. Intelligence and self-restraint are key to achieving high status within the group plus the meta-task of keeping the group together. (p51-52)

Hunter-Gatherer societies overwhelmingly practice monogamy. Horticultural societies practice polygamy because women do the bulk of agricultural work. This means that the more wives a man accumulates, the more land he can cultivate. It was not until domestic animals were hitched to the plow… Once men became the principal laborers again, having additional wives was no longer an advantage. (p64-65)

Horticultural and Herding societies have much higher rates of warfare. (p67)

The hallmark of a polygamous society is that there is always a shortage of women. Older men with lesser means are forced to look among younger and younger cohorts. Child marriage becomes common. Given the degree of sexual inequality and the great age difference that result, the personal bond between husbands and wives is not strong and there is a very little companionate marriage… This demand for more women can only be results by stealing women from other wives. Thus warfare and polygamy become mutually reinforcing. (p68-69)

Once primitive farming began, tribes began to live in fixed settlements and accumulate land and other property. This led to differences in wealth, which allowed some men to claim and support more than one wife. The other crucial element, of course, was that the collective effort of hunting was lost. (p71)

As with horticulture, societies based on herding tend toward polygamy. Both are based on an exaggerated inequality between the sexes. In horticulture, women dominate the economy as men pine for their masculine role as hunters. In the sparse environment that can sustain herding, men dominate, as women are no longer able to gather much in the way of fruits, seeds, and nuts or cultivate crops. Given the economic drivers, we might think of herding polygamy as “male driven polygamy” and horticulture as “female driven polygamy” (p77)

“What makes the system work is that the women are largely self-supportive.

In Africa farming is largely the province of women. Men have never quite gotten over the loss of their hunting privileges and still shun farming as “women’s work.”

West Africa is the world epicenter of polygamy. The men reject farming as women’s work, so the women are mainly self-supporting and the marriages are frequent and short. (p78-83)

Boserup found that in societies where men do take up farming – not rejecting it as “women’s work” – monogamy again becomes the norm because a second wife can be an economic burden rather than an asset. (p83)

Monogamy dominates in the West and East Asia where it has made males more peaceful and productive. (p88-90)

 “In the majority of pre-Classical civilizations, monogamy was the de facto standard for most of society while men at the very top took multiple wives.”

“The Athenians were the first known urban society in which an alpha male was not allowed to take more than one wife, and was shamed if he divorced. They were also the world’s first democratic society.”

“The Greeks were the first complex society in history to impose monogamy on its members, top to bottom”

“Christianity played the crucial role in making monogamy the norm in Western society. It did so as the state religion of the Roman Empire in a Greco-Roman world where polygamy was associated with barbarism. The Roman Catholic Church prohibited adultery and divorce and viewed monogamous marriage through the prism of Jesus’ admonition that in marriage a husband and wife became indivisible, “one flesh.” For 1,500 years, the Catholic Church proclaimed, essentially without rebuttal in Christian Europe, that indissoluble monogamous marriage was ordained by God.”

19th Century

“All this came to a crescendo in the Family Wage Movement of the early twentieth century, led by a coalition of the Catholic Church, the labor unions, the social welfare movement, and even some Socialist political parties. The core principle was that the head of a household should be able to make a “living wage” that would support his family without his wife and children having to work.”

“Marvelously, the “Family Wage” achieved three major reforms at one stroke: 1) it raised men’s wages by limiting the size of the workforce; 2) it strengthened families by freeing women to concentrate on childrearing; and 3) it equalized incomes across society. If employment were a free-for-all, then the family that could throw wives and children into the workforce would do best. But if each family could be limited to one breadwinner, then a much more equal distribution could be achieved.”

Nomads and Islam

“Nomadic warrior culture is designed for conquest. “Raids are our agriculture” is an old Arab proverb and it applies to any and all nomads living on the edge of civilization. Conquest is how nomadic societies not only gain wealth but women as well. ”

“In the West, slavery was about work. When Western merchants shipped slaves to the New World, male slaves outnumbered females two to one. In Islamic countries, female slaves outnumbered male slaves by the same ratio. These “slaves” were in fact extra wives and concubines. ”

“So began the familiar Islamic pattern: young men with very little hope of rising in society are offered enlistment in a dissident sect that sanctifies violence, promises revolution, and offers martyrs a prize of seventy-two virgins. This is how polygamous societies end up at war with their neighbors. A shortage of women means a volatile male population.”

“In reporting on the early days of the Arab Spring, the New York Times found “the long wait for marriage” to be the second most pressing grievance in Egyptian society, behind only general poverty.

Yet because of the shortage of women, young girls have value and families refuse to lower the price of their assets. For this reason, an enormous number of marriages are contracted between cousins so that wealth is kept in the family. The only other avenue, of course, is bringing younger and younger women into the marriage pool. Muslim countries are the world champions of child marriage.”

“Polygamous households, with their unrelated wives and half-siblings, create strained relationships and unavoidable rivalries. Arab fathers tend to be distant and uninvolved with their offspring. That job is left to their mothers. ”


“Unusual practices like child marriage and the long condemned ritual of sati were not common until the Mogul invasions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Child marriage, in other words, was a gift of Islam.

One might assume, then, that child marriage is the result of polygamy, which requires expanding the range of marriageable females. This is true, but in India it bears an interesting variation.”

African-American Family

“Look carefully at the pattern Gutman discovered. He was perfectly right in saying that the vast majority of children ended up in two-parent families. But there is more to it than that. The most common pattern was for a woman to have one or two children by another man, often an “unknown father,” and then settle down into a long-term relationship with a husband.

This is a pattern that can be traced to Africa. West Africa, remember, has the highest concentration of polygamy in the world… Instead it is a polygamy where women are extremely independent and often far more economically productive than men. Most important, it is not at all unusual for a woman to have children before she is married in Africa. ”

“So what happened when this African mating pattern met Western culture? As Gutman details, any attempts among slaves to set up polygamous relationships were generally stamped out “by slave owners on the basis of Christian morality. By the nineteenth century, African Americans had largely adopted Christian-based monogamy. But as Margaret Mead once wrote when describing Jamaican culture, it was a “brittle monogamy” with frequent divorces, multiple marriages, and early unwed pregnancies, as the plantation records clearly indicate. If you count them up, you will find that while 90 percent of the children on the two plantations ended up living in two-parent families, fully 40 percent of the births were fathered in early pregnancies involving other men.”

“With almost surgical precision, Aid to Families with Dependent Children began intervening at the precise moment when African American families usually formed—after a young woman had one or two illegitimate children and was ready to marry. ”

Family Today

“Perhaps the most critical blow to the monogamous culture of the 1950s came with the demise of the “family wage,” the system adopted informally in America and Western Europe at the start of the twentieth century. ”

“Unfortunately, the family wage was a disadvantage to one specific group—highly educated, professionally ambitious women. They would spend four years at college gaining useful skills and then be forced to “retire” as housewives.”

“The real story of the past fifty years has been the increasing stratification of American society, with educated, two-income families at the top pulling away while family formation at the bottom has fallen apart.”

“Unintended pregnancies, especially in the blue-collar strata of society, were also a key to family formation. A survey of working-class neighborhoods in Philadelphia in the early 1970s found that more than half of the marriages had occurred when the couple “made a mistake.” The young lovers might date exclusively, sleep together, even move in with each other, but resisted marriage—both wanting to maintain their sense of independence. Then the woman would “accidentally” get pregnant and they would marry.”


“At the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, researchers, on a whim, once tried an experiment of confining a mother and her offspring with an adult male in order to duplicate the nuclear family. “The male played very rough with them—batting them around and treating them much more physically than any female would ever do,” the scientists said. “But the young chimps couldn’t get enough of it. They kept coming back for more. In the end, those youngsters turned out to be the bravest, most self-confident chimps we ever raised here. It makes you realize there may be something very good about the way we raise our own children.” This was back in 1974.”

“Ironically, part of the problem is that educated elites don’t practice what they preach. As Charles Murray has noted, most educated people keep their families together, defer childbirth until marriage, send their children to good colleges, and practice an ethic of ambition. It is the lower classes who are absorbing the message that marriage doesn’t matter, that illegitimacy is no big deal, and that there is nothing wrong with being on the public dole.

In the middle of this, the strategy of the Democratic Party has become to peel off low-income women, the most vulnerable constituency, and turn them into a voting bloc entirely dependent on the government. ”

“Nations’ fates are not based on geography or east-west axes or natural resources or technology but on the human beings they generate. Monogamous families create socially conscious human beings ready to live in peaceful societies. ”

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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