I’ve been reading a collection of essays in a book called This Explains Everything. Interestingly, two essays that were near each other in the book both dealt with the psychological and moral ramifications of sex and monogamous pairing. The first of these essays (in book order) was called The Overdue Demise of Monogamy by Aubrey DeGrey, a noted gerontologist and author. When I read it, I couldn’t help but think of some of the vociferously-stated original justifications for Mormon polygamy which deplored monogamy as a system that created serious familial and societal problems.

“Monogamy, or restrictions by law to one wife, is no part of the economy of heaven among men. Such a system was commenced by the founders of the Roman Empire… Rome became the mistress of the world, and introduced this order of monogamy wherever her sway was acknowledged. Thus this monogamic order of marriage, so esteemed by modern Christians as a hold sacrament and divine institution, is nothing but a system established by a set of robbers.” – Brigham Young, Deseret News, August 6, 1862

“We breathe the free air, we have the best looking men and handsomest women, and if they envy our position, well they may, for they are a poor, narrow minded, pinch-backed race of man, who chain themselves down to the law of monogamy and live all their days under the dominion of one wife. They aught to be ashamed of such conduct.” – George A. Smith, Deseret News, April 16, 1856 [1]

These comments reveal one of the common justification of the time, that monogamy was designed by the Romans due to a scarcity of women, and that it caused problems like prostitution and other vices by restricting male copulation to one female, but that on the other side, it also caused problems to women who were sexually exploited and left unprotected financially.[2] The belief was that the fall of the Roman empire was a byproduct of monogamy.[3]

The gist of DeGrey’s argument is that with the proliferation of birth control and disease-prevention, the activity of sex is no different from other forms of recreation. He does not claim that monogamous partnerships don’t have other benefits such as the loyalty that springs from the time investment in a monogamous bond. He simply says that the activity of sex doesn’t have to be restricted to a single partner. As evidence, he cites that so many people ignore their supposed monogamous commitments, that we are (as a species) indifferent monogamists at best, aspiring to something in theory that we eschew in practice. He adds that reproductive efficiency is no longer the concern that it once was.

“Every single society in history has seen a precipitous reduction in fertility following its achievement of a level of prosperity that allowed reasonable levels of female education and emancipation. Monogamy is virtually mandated when a woman spends her entire adult life with young children underfoot, because continuous financial support cannot otherwise be ensured. But when it is customary for those of both sexes to be financially independent, this logic collapses.” Aubrey DeGrey

I hate to say it because nobody hates polygamy more than I do, but his assertion that monogamy is required to support a spawning female is not accurate. Historically, there have been tribal societies that raised the children collectively, and this is essentially (it hurts to say this) how polygamy functioned. The household managed child care as a group of women, and this freed up some women to pursue other interests outside the home such as becoming doctors. Even today, polygamists sometimes add income to the family group by having some of the wives work while others handle the larger-than-normal child care needs. So while I’m not justifying polygamy, I’m pointing out that the logic he says collapses with female education already collapsed. This is a straw-monogamist argument.

My first thought, having been raised a good Mormon girl was, “Oh, Aubrey, you dirty dog. You get to write an essay about the most elegant truth you can come up with, and you waste it defending your horniness? Puh-lease!” He also trots out another justification for polygamy that was often brought up among LDS women as a way to get us back in line with the eternal polygamy proposition: that refusing to share your spouse with another person means you are a flawed person, jealous and possessive, a selfish shrew who is tied to human concerns in a way you won’t be in the eternities. The older women in Relief Society would cluck their tongues and wag their heads explaining that you just needed to expand your thinking and be more Christlike. File that away under “Conversations You Won’t Hear in Priesthood.”

“What is the impetus in this case? It is simply the pain and suffering that arises when the possessiveness and jealousy inherent in the monogamous mind-set butt heads with the asynchronous shifts of affections and aspiration inherent in the response of human beings to their evolving social interactions.” Aubrey DeGrey

DeGrey’s argument is that jealousy is a bad thing, something to be overcome. Certainly, jealousy that is unwarranted and controlling behavior can be very damaging, both to the person who is jealous and to their partner who may be in physical peril. As I like to joke, before divorce became legal, women had to rely on arsenic. Jealousy can lead to domestic abuse, crimes of passion, and driving across the country wearing adult astronaut diapers. But I was listening to a Ted Radio podcast episode recently that talked about the fact that jealousy is an evolutionary trait. In other words, jealousy is a human quality that sets us above the animals. Take away the jealousy, and we could be monkeys trading sexual favors for a little friendly delousing.

Jealousy manifests slightly differently in men and in women. Men experience sexual jealousy because of paternal insecurity (not knowing that the child their spouse gives birth to is their genetic offspring) whereas women experience relationship jealousy, knowing that a man’s financial resources and other forms of support follow his emotional investment. Men ask a cheating spouse “Did you have sex with him?” while women ask “Do you love her?” Unfortunately, in polygamy, men are permitted multiple partners, exacerbating female insecurity while also diluting the financial support across a larger group of people. It doesn’t provoke male jealousy and insecurity, only female jealousy and insecurity. Decrying female jealousy as something to be overcome in the wake of polygamy is therefore doubly galling.

Then, a few short pages after the anti-monogamy essay, I encountered the second essay by Steven Pinker a professor of Psychology at Harvard and author. His essay is called Evolutionary Genetics and the Conflicts of Human Social Life. Coming so soon after the first article, I couldn’t help but compare the ideas being presented by both of them, again with the spectre of polygamy in the back of my mind. This essay talks about the side effects of such a lopsided biological investment in human reproduction.

“Because of the essential difference between the sexes–females produce fewer but more expensive gametes–the females of most species invest more in offspring than do the males, whose investment is often close to zero.” Steven Pinker

“Men, but not women, can multiply their reproductive output with multiple partners. Men are more prone than women to infidelity. Women are more vulnerable than men to desertion. Sex therefore takes place in the shadow of exploitation, illegitimacy, jealousy, spousal abuse, cuckoldry, desertion, harassment, and rape.” Steven Pinker

Unlike DeGrey, Pinker doesn’t really pose a solution to this, just the observation that the human story and human conflicts have historically revolved around these biological sexual differences. DeGrey crafts similar observations into an albeit nerdy pick-up line. I find Pinker’s observations a little less dysfunctional and self-serving. He adds a psychological and biological advantage to marriage due to shared offspring (and one must assume he’s referring to monogamy here as a feature of polygamy is less male parental involvement and the introduction of large quantities of step-siblings):

“Marriage does offer the couple the theoretical possibility of a perfect overlap of genetic interest, and hence an opportunity for the bliss we associate with romantic love, because their genetic fates are bound together in the same package–namely, their children. Unfortunately, those interests can diverge because of infidelity, stepchildren, in-laws, or age differences–which are, not coincidentally, major sources of marital strife. . . a large number of recurring forms of human conflict fall out of a small number of features of the process that made life possible.” Steven Pinker

Having recently seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, I will note that the human conflicts that emerge from non-monogamous marital arrangements can be dire. Jacob, Joseph’s dad, acquired four wives in order to increase his own posterity. Each wife, with her expensive gametes, only had roughly the same number of children she would have been able to have had she been married monogamously, but Jacob was able to produce the equivalent of 4 families of offspring, increasing his personal legacy and glory (and exponentially increasing downstream familial pressure, conflicts and jealousies to the point of fratricide). In a recent Church News article, the justification for historical polygamy is framed as “raising up seed” to God. That justification may be true for the elite men who practiced it, but it is mathematically not true for women, nor for the community at large. Polygamy doesn’t produce a higher number of offspring in general. What polygamy does is maximize the offspring of select males, those deemed to have “believing blood,” at the expense of lower-status males who are either restricted to one wife through lack of economic resources, lack of approval from higher-ups, or the depletion of the female mating pool. In some polygamous communities, younger males are unable to marry at all because their same-age women are taken by older, higher-status males.

Which brings us to Pokemon Go. In the game, players can level up by amassing a team of Pokemon characters. Getting a larger team requires adding more storage space which costs either time (coins can be earned through game activities like defending gyms) or money (coins can be directly purchased). The higher your level, the better everything in the game is: you are able to get more powerful Pokemon and win more badges, experience points, etc. Status hinges on how great your team of Pokemon is. One way to increase and improve your team is through hatching eggs; some of the rare Pokemon are only available this way. The problem is that you have only one incubator given to you (Poke-monogamy?), and you have to walk between 2 and 10 kilometers to hatch a single egg (like a gestation period). Having a single incubator creates a bottleneck, and the tagline of the game is “Gotta catch ’em all!” How are you going to catch them all with only one incubator?!

My oldest son plays a lot, and my second son decries the game as a capitalist scam because you have to put money into it to really play well and get ahead (both of my sons are adults with real jobs, which I feel like I need to clarify at this point). My second son has a point. One way to maximize your team is by purchasing additional incubators that will allow you to hatch multiple Pokemon at once. You can purchase an adventure box for about $12 or you can amass enough “free” coins by defending gyms every day for roughly an entire month. That means people who are time-poor (e.g. busy) probably have to pony up 15 quid. But if you are both time-poor and money-poor (this doesn’t truly apply to either of my sons), you really can’t afford to play this game well. You’re going to have a crappy second-rate team, and you won’t be able to beat out these nearly professional level gamers with their powerful teams. If you think these professional gamers don’t exist, you must have missed this article.

So how does this relate to polygamy? If one’s status in eternal life is contingent on the quality and quantity of one’s progeny, the more offspring the better. If you are a male restricted to one wife (with her expensive gametes and 9 month gestational period plus a less fertile lactation stage) you can only hatch so many eggs, er, have so many children.[4] Polygamy is like buying an adventure box. You can suddenly hatch up to 9 eggs at once. It just hinges on having the money to pay for that. Since Pokemon Go is a game, it’s fine to treat your Pokemon team like the little fake status symbols they are. Objectifying Pokemon, essentially cartoon drawings that only exist on your phone, is neither immoral nor psychologically damaging to them. Not so with humans, whether wives or children.

It would be great if we could all see polygamy for what it really was and is, a male status symbol, a way to game the biological reproduction system. But so long as there are men with cheap as dirt reproduction (so little invested that they can be blissfully ignorant of their fatherhood) and women with highly expensive reproduction (it can literally end or ruin your life), I have to agree with Steve Pinker that there will be inevitable human conflicts: infidelity, selfishness, jealousy, and polygamy. Blaming women and children for the misery polygamy inflicted on them (as I experienced in my younger years in the Church) is unfair; misery is a feature of polygamy and other forms of infidelity because we have evolved to care about our spouses and to mind being denied access to reciprocated love and support. Those are the higher human qualities; indifference is a downgrade.

Excusing male promiscuity as an inevitable biological imperative only works if offspring are not a factor (as in DeGrey’s argument), and if we level the playing field by making women fully financially independent, equal earners with equal opportunity, not reliant on a partner’s supplementary financial support (to make up for the wage gap if nothing else). While we may be heading toward financial equality as a society, it remains to be seen if that equality would really change our priorities as a species (normalizing childless, open marriages). If genetic offspring are theologically desirable as they were seen in the Church’s early adoption of polygamy, science would now enable women to harvest their eggs to produce far above the gestational maximum of 20 or so using test tubes or surrogates. Yet this has not become a trend, perhaps because women have never been encouraged to have more genetic offspring than nature allows or perhaps because women are saddled with more work the more children they have, unlike men. In the mid-1800s, children often brought wealth to the family, performing domestic chores, child care for younger siblings, or providing labor on the farm. Even if children are no longer the financial asset like they were when we were all farmers, my Pokemon aren’t going to care for me in my old age.


[1] Yes, that Deseret News.

[2] The supposedly better alternative of sexually exploiting women while financially protecting them has historically been called polygamy. It is not just a system in which male sexual appetites are satisfied through greater variety, but it also obligates those men to the care of the women with whom they engage sexually and more importantly, the offspring of those sexual unions.

[3] Apparently they weren’t big readers of Edward Gibbons.

[4] Something between 11 and 20 is the maximum, although historically the maternal death rate was so high that most women could not have that many. Once people started washing their nasty hands that got a little better.