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Despotism and Differential Reproduction by Laura Betzig
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The Purpose of Political Power
Ismail the Bloodthirsty, a late-seventeenth, early-eighteenth century Emperor of Morocco is, in a strict Darwinian sense, probably the most successful human ever to live. Ismail is said to have sired some 888 (or, in some versions, 867) offspring. His Darwinian fitness therefore exceeded that of any other known human.

As Laura Betzig demonstrates in ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction’, Ismail is exceptional only in degree.

Ismail himself is never mentioned. Instead, Betzig uses a random sample of cultures across the world.

The results are similar: Throughout history and across the world, wherever men acquire great power, they also acquire large harems.

From a sociobiological perspective, the explanation is obvious. Rulers are acting to convert their power into the ultimate currency of natural selection – reproductive success.

Indeed, from a Darwinian perspective, multiple wives are not merely a perk of power. They are the very purpose of power itself:
“Political power in itself may be explained, at least in part, as providing a position from which to gain reproductively” (p85).
Maximising Fitness
Matt Ridley summarizes Betzig thus:
“[Of] the six independent ‘civilizations’ of early history – Babylon, Egypt, India, China, the Aztecs and… Incas… the Babylonian king Hammurabi had thousands of slave ‘wives’ at his command. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten procured three hundred and seventeen concubines and ‘droves’ of consorts. The Aztec ruler Montezuma enjoyed four thousand concubines. The Indian emperor Udayama preserved sixteen thousand consorts in apartments guarded by eunuchs. The Chinese emperor Fei-ti had ten thousand women in his harem. The Inca… kept virgins on tap throughout the kingdom” (The Red Queen: p191-2; Betzig 1993a).
Betzig acknowledges:
“The number of women in such a harem may easily have prohibited the successful impregnation of each, but their being kept from bearing children to others increased the monarch’s relative reproductive accomplishment” (p70).
Efforts were also made to ensure their chastity.
“Evidence of claustration, in the form of a walled interior courtyard, exists [as early as] Babylonian Mai and claustration in second story rooms with latticed, narrow windows is mentioned in the Old Testament… [while] elaborate fortifications erected for the purposes of defense may have served the dual (identical?) function of protecting the chastity of women of the harem” (p79).
Sometimes concubines were guarded by eunuchs employed – and castrated – specifically for this purpose.

Their movements were restricted, and, if venturing beyond cloisters, they were escorted.

Methods were employed to increase their fertility:
“Wet nurses, who allow women to resume ovulation by cutting short their breast-feeding periods, date from at least the code of Hammurabi in the eighteenth century BC… Tang dynasty emperors of China kept careful records of dates of menstruation and conception in the harem so as to be sure to copulate only with the most fertile concubines… [and] Chinese emperors were also taught to conserve their semen so as to keep up their quota of two women a day” (The Red Queen: p192).
Confirming Betzig’s conclusions, a recent study provided evidence of the exceptional fecundity of one powerful ruler (or lineage) – a Y chromosome marker found in about 0.5% of males across the world the features of which are consistent with its having spread thanks to the exception prolificity of Genghis Khan, his male siblings and descendants (Zerjal 2003).

Female Rulers
In contrast, limited to one pregnancy every nine months, a woman can bear fewer children, even with the aid of evolutionary novelties like wet nurses, bottle milk and IVF.

Feminists contend the overrepresentation of males in positions of power is a consequence of such mysterious phenomena as ‘patriarchy’ or the ‘oppression of women’.

The better view is that, for women, power and wealth simply doesn’t have the same reproductive payoff. Therefore, they have less evolutionary incentive to seek power in the first place.

This then explains both the cross-cultural universality of male rule and the gender pay gap.

Darwin vs Marx
Betzig contrasts the predictions of sociobiological theory with those of Marxism.

Superficially, Marxism appears as cynical as Darwinism. Marxists regard most societies as exploitative – designed to serve the interests, not of the population in general, but of the dominant class within that society.

However, Marxists envisage that exploitation will be absent under communism – and also was absent among hunter-gatherers.

Thus, the Marxist, so cynical regarding capitalism, turns naïve and innocent when it comes to communist utopias, and ‘Noble Savages’ in their ‘Eden Before the Fall’.

In contrast, Betzig dismisses ‘primitive communism’ as a Marxist myth.
“Unequal access to the basic resource which perpetuates life, members of the opposite sex, is a condition in the simplest societies” (p32)
In addition:
“Some form of exploitation has been in evidence in even the smallest societies… Conflicts of interest in all societies are resolved with a consistent bias in favor of men with greater power” (p67).
However, Betzig insists:
“Darwinism… [does not] preclude the possibility of future conditions under which individual interests might become common interests: under which individual welfare might best be served by serving the welfare of society… [nor] preclude… the possibility of the evolution of socialism” (p68).
However, as Donald Symons emphasizes in The Evolution of Human Sexuality, reproductive competition is inevitable – because, while there is sometimes sufficient food that everyone is satiated and competition for food is hence unnecessary, reproductive success is always relative, and therefore competition over women is universal.

Thus, Betzig quotes Confusius as observing:
“Disorder does not come from heaven, but is brought about by women” (p26)
‘The Means of Reproduction’
The third difference between the Darwinism and Marxism is “the relative emphasis on production and reproduction” (p67).

Whereas Marxists regard control of the ‘The Means of Production’ as the ultimate cause of societal conflict, for Darwinians conflict instead focuses on control over what we might term ‘The Means of Reproduction’ – i.e. fertile females.

Thus, whereas “Marxism makes no explicit prediction that exploitation should coincide with reproduction” (p68), for the Darwinian, reproductive gains are ultimate end of all conflict and exploitation.

Production is, from a biologic perspective, just another means of gaining the resources necessary for reproduction. Reproduction is the ultimate purpose of life.

Therefore, unlike his contemporary Darwin, Marx, for all his radicalism, was it seems, in his emphasis on economics rather than sex, just another nineteenth-century Victorian prude.

Contemporary Rulers and Elites
There is one glaring exception to this general pattern – namely the contemporary West.

Here, polygyny is unlawful, bigamy a crime and the people who have the most offspring and the highest Darwinian fitness are, at least according to popular stereotype, single mothers on government welfare.

What is exceptional about western societies is not monogamy itself. ‘Ecologically-imposed monogamy’ is common in relatively egalitarian societies (Kanazawa and Still 1999).

What is exceptional is the combination of:
1) Large differentials of resource-holdings between males; and
2) Prescriptive monogamy.

Under the ‘polygyny threshold model’, formulated by Gordon Orians to model the mating systems of passerine birds, if one male’s territory is twice as resource-abundant as another’s, then he attracts twice as many mates (Orians 1969).

Applying this to humans, one might predict that, if Bill Gates is a hundred thousand times richer than Joe Schmo, then, if Joe has one wife, Bill should have around 100,000.

However, contrary to this theory, Bill Gates does not have 100,000 wives, nor even 100,000 concubines, but only one wife, and, to the best of my knowledge, she is not currently guarded by any eunuchs.

The same is true of political leaders. Indeed, if any contemporary politician is caught mating polygynously, scandal usually ensues.

Yet the marital infidelities of Bill Clinton, though they may have outraged the mass of monogamously-married Middle American morons, positively pale into insignificance besides the reproductive achievements of, say, Ismail the Bloodthirsty.

They don’t even compare to those of a politician just a generation removed, namely JFK – whose achievements in the political sphere are overrated on account of his early death, but whose achievements in the bedroom, while scarcely matching Ismail the Bloodthirsty, certainly put the current generation of American politicians to shame.

What then has become of the henpecked geldings who pass for politicians in the contemporary era?

Monogamy as Male Compromise?
According to Betzig, the public outrage provoked by the sexual indiscretions of politicians is no accident.

According to her, ‘socially-imposed monogamy’ represents a compromise between low and high-status males, whereby the latter agree to forgo polygyny in exchange for the necessary participation of the former in the complexly-cooperative economic life of modern polities (p105) – or, in Richard Alexander’s alternative formulation, in exchange for serving as cannon-fodder in war (p104).

Whereas under polygyny there are never enough females to go around, under monogamy all men can attract a wife and each therefore has a reproductive stake in society, providing them with an incentive to participate in the economy, and to defend these institutions in war.

The institution of monogamy is therefore key to the economic and military success of the West.

Thus, the hysteria that accompanies sexual infidelities by elected politicians reflects outrage that the terms of this implicit agreement have been breached.

George Bernard Shaw anticipated this theory, writing:
“Polygyny, when tried under modern democratic conditions, as by the Mormons, is wrecked by the revolt of the mass of inferior men who are condemned to celibacy by it” (Shaw 1903).
Why is Polygyny Unlawful?
Consistent with this theory, in all Western democracies, polygyny is unlawful.

Yet these laws are seemingly in conflict with liberal principles of tolerance and inclusivity for alternative lifestyles and non-traditional relationships.

Thus, while gay marriage has recently been legalized, polygyny remains anathema.

Indeed, whereas gay marriage is perceived as a ‘progressive’ cause, polygyny is associated with conservative groups like Mormons and Muslims, and also with the supposed oppression of women.

Yet, as economists like Gary Becker recognise, most women actually do better, in pure economic terms, under polygyny.

Thus, if Bill Gates is 100,000 times richer than Joe Schmo, then a woman is financially better off becoming the tenth wife, or even the 99,999th wife, of Bill Gates rather than the first wife of poor Joe.

Moreover, women also have another incentive to prefer Bill to Joe.

If she is impregnated by a polygynous male, then her male descendants may inherit the traits that enabled the father’s polygyny, and hence become similarly reproductively successful themselves, aiding the spread of the woman’s own genes in subsequent generations.

Biologists call this ‘good genes sexual selection’ or the ‘sexy son hypothesis’.

Again, George Bernard Shaw got there first, observing:
“Maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one” (Shaw 1903).
Thus, women generally should welcome polygyny, while the only people opposed to polygyny should be, first, women currently married to men like Bill Gates, and unwilling to share their resource-abundant alpha-male providers with a whole hundred-fold harem of co-wives and concubines; and, second, a glut of horny sexually-frustrated bachelors terminally condemned to celibacy by lotharios like Bill Gates and Ismail the Bloodthirsty hogging all the women.

Who Opposes Polygyny?
However, in my experience, the people who object most strongly to philandering male politicians are not men, but women.

Moreover, such women typically affect concern on behalf, not of the male bachelors supposedly indirectly condemned to celibacy, but rather the wives of such politicians – though the latter are the chief beneficiaries of monogamy, while these other women, precluded from signing up as second or third-wives to alpha-male providers, are the main losers.

This suggests that the male compromise theory of socially-imposed monogamy is not the whole story.

Perhaps, although women benefit in purely financial terms under polygyny, they do not do so well in fitness terms.

Thus, one study found that, whereas polygynous males had more offspring than monogamously-mated males, they had fewer offspring per wife, suggesting that males benefit from polygyny, but wives incur a fitness penalty (Strassman 2000).

Indeed, contrary to the polygyny threshold model, polygyny is rarely a matter of female choice (Sanderson 2001). The women recruited into the harem of Ismail the Bloodthirsty likely had little say.

De Facto Polygyny
Or perhaps western society is not really monogamous at all.

Betzig herself speculates that wealthy males may sire additional offspring, whose paternity is misassigned, via extra-marital liaisons (Betzig 1993b).

However, the best evidence suggests that rates of misassigned paternity are quite low (Gilding 2005; Bellis et al 2005).

More plausible is Robert Wright’s claim that:
“The United States is no longer a nation of institutionalized monogamy. It is a nation of serial monogamy. And serial monogamy in some ways amounts to polygyny.” (The Moral Animal: p101).
Thus, wealthy males often divorce first wives to marry much younger second- and sometimes third-wives, thereby monopolizing the peak reproductive years of successive partners.

This then is not so much serial monogamy as sequential/non-concurrent polygyny.

Alternatively, evolutionary novelties may disrupt the usual association between social status and reproductive success.

Since natural selection takes many generations, our behaviour is adapted, not to modern western societies, but to the environments in which our ancestors lived during the period of our evolution – i.e. what evolutionary psychologists call the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness’ or ‘EEA’.

For example, effective contraceptive technologies became widely available only recently and our evolved psychologies have not had sufficient time to catch up.

One study found that that, while wealthy high-status males may not father more offspring, they do have more sex with more partners – i.e. behaviours that would have resulted in more offspring in ancestral environments (Pérusse 1993).

This implies that high-status males (or their partners) use contraception either more often, or more effectively, than low-status males, perhaps because of greater intelligence and self-control (Kanazawa 2005).

Other Environmental Novelties
Another evolutionary novelty that may disrupt the usual association between social status and number of surviving offspring is the welfare system.

Welfare payments to single mothers undoubtedly help these families raise to adulthood offspring who would otherwise perish in infancy.

In addition, by reducing the financial disincentives associated with raising additional offspring, they likely increase the number of offspring these women choose to have in the first place.

Feminist ideology also encourages educated women in particular to postpone childbearing in favour of careers. In contrast, less educated women are less exposed to feminist ideology (e.g. in universities), less able to control their impulses, and have fewer attractive careers available to them.

Indeed, even laws against bigamy and polygyny might be conceptualized as an evolutionary novelty, that disrupts the usual association between status and fertility.

However, whereas technological innovations such as contraception were certainly not available until recent times, ideological constructs and religious teachings – including ideas such as feminism, prohibitions on polygyny, and the socialism that motivated the creation of the welfare state – have existed ever since we evolved the capacity to create such constructs (i.e. since we became fully human).

Therefore, one would expect that humans would have evolved resistance to ideological and religious teachings that go against their genetic interests. Otherwise, we would be vulnerable to indoctrination (and hence exploitation) by third-parties.

Finally, it must be observed that the anomalous fertility patterns in evidence in modern Western societies are not of purely academic interest.

On the contrary, since socioeconomic status correlates with both intelligence and personality traits such as conscientiousness, which are substantially heritable, contemporary patterns of ‘Dysgenic’ fertility may have long-term and potentially catastrophic consequences for the genetic posterity we bequeath future generations.

Bellis et al (2005) Measuring Paternal Discrepancy and its Public Health Consequences. Journal of Epidemiology 59(9):749
Betzig 1993a. Sex, succession, and stratification in the first six civilizations: How powerful men reproduced, passed power on to their sons, and used power to defend their wealth, women and children. In Lee Ellis, ed. Social Stratification And Socioeconomic Inequality, pp. 37-74. New York: Praeger.
Betzig 1993b. Where are the b*stards’ daddies? Comment on Daniel Pérusse’s ‘Cultural and reproductive success in industrial societies’. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16: 284-85
Michael Gilding (2005) Rampant Misattributed Paternity: The Creation of an Urban Myth. People and Place 13(2): 1
Kanazawa, Satoshi (2005) An Empirical Test of a Possible Solution to the Central Theoretical Problem of Human Sociobiology. Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology. 3: 255–266
Kanazawa & Still (1999) Why Monogamy? Social Forces 78(1):25-50
Pérusse, Daniel. 1993. Cultural and Reproductive Success in Industrial Societies: Testing the Relationship at the Proximate and Ultimate Levels. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16:267–322
Sanderson (2001) Explaining Monogamy and Polygyny in Human Societies. Social Forces 80(1):329-335
Shaw GB (1903)Man and Superman, Maxims for Revolutionists.
Strassman B (2000) Polygyny, Family Structure and Infant Mortality: A Prospective Study Among the Dogon of Mali. In Cronk, Chagnon & Irons (Ed.), Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective (pp.49-68). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Zerjal et al. (2003) The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols, American Journal of Human Genetics, 72(3): 717–721.
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