Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Polygamy’s Bitter Fruit?

One of the great things about a room in Seattle’s Watertown hotel is that its television sits high on a swivel, so that you can turn it around 180 degrees so as to watch it in the mirror while shaving (see the description near the top and fourth picture down here). This morning, over a banner that I think read “Polygamy Problems,” it was briefly reported on MSNBC that some French authorities are blaming their recent marathon of riots on the fact that large Muslim polygamist families are producing too many disturbed young Arab men. This led, of course, to the sort of deep insight that can only come while shaving.

“Disturbed” young men: What, are they mad about all the young women being taken by the powerful, older elite men? So that’s what’s behind these riots. I can see how that could lead to a lot of pent-up frustration…

“Too many” young men: Maybe these French authorities aren’t aware that polygamy is alleged to reduce the overall fecundity of a population. Before I heard of this claim, I used to like to explain polygamy to my bewildered/snickering non-Mormon friends by saying that without its capacity to generate large populations I wouldn’t be here today. Hence the obvious necessity of polygamy: Where would the world be without me? But this claim must be modified if the social scientists’ critique of lower fecundity holds water. I guess now the argument is that, while I might still be present somewhere on this planet without polygamy, I wouldn’t be the high-octane badass you see before you without the genetic and cultural legacies bequeathed by such elites as John Taylor and Nathaniel Jones. Let no one call me a bitter fruit of polygamy!

(Parenthetical 1: This—quality rather than quantity—may be the true meaning of Jacob’s explanation of polygamy, as opposed to the nearly universal (but perhaps naive and short-sighted) interpretation in terms of raw numbers. The corollary is that polygamy undertaken by the unworthy or unfit would be especially abominable.)

(Parenthetical 2: Ancestry that includes John Taylor is—along with ownership of a deluxe leather-bound limited special edition of Mormon Doctrine and fond (and detailed) memories of the Truman Madsen Joseph Smith tapes—another commonality I share with the illustrious Aaron B. Cox that I forgot to mention. Good company.)

While I’ve written tongue-in-cheek here, I must say that contemplating the historical contingency of my particular existence drives home the lesson of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, writ large to apply to the history of my Mormon ancestry. According to Mormon theology my premortal spirit—‘me’ in some sense—still would have ended up here on Earth, somewhere, sometime. But my present phenotype—‘me’ in a much fuller sense—consists not only of heavenly and earthly genotypes, but the epigenetic totality of my experience and unfolding development in the presence of various historical and environmental factors. There may be unpleasant things in our individual and collective pasts; and while we may need redemption or see a need to change directions as we face the future, to contemplate actually erasing our past is as unbearable as the thought of annihilation. For ultimately it would be tantamount to annihilation: there is an important sense in which material alteration of the past would mean that ‘I,’ as I am today, would simply not exist. (This insight into the ‘vale of tears’ that is this mortal probation is perhaps what led BYU professor Eric Samuelsen to call Eternal Sunshine “the most ‘Mormon’ film of the last two years.”)

It is an insight that may translate with greater, even existential force into a Spinozist perspective. Hence in my bones I love and embrace my people and the totality of its history as it was and as it produced me as I am today. I simply can’t bring myself to wring my hands too much about any ‘bitter fruit’ of 19th century Mormon polygamy.


Not that it matters, but a few points about fecundity and polygamy:

--Polygamy will only yield reduced fecundity if the population is essentially closed. If the polygamous community is a minority community with a much larger non-polygamous majority community, and the population is open (i.e., there exists the ability for individuals from the majority population to migrate into the minority population), then there is the potential for an essentially unlimited supply of females and fecundity is not necessarily reduced but rather is enhanced.

--In the absence of such migration polygamy will ultimately yield reduced fecundity. However, fecundity is enhanced during the intial "startup" phase (the first few generations). Because of the "male problem" it is ultimately unsustainable in the absence of migration into the community, and fecundity is reduced.

Therefore, in a system with some, but not unlimited migration (such as the early LDS church), to maximize overall fecundity one would set up the system to have polygamy for a few generations to get rapid startup with maximum short-term fecundity, then convert to monogamy for long term stability and to maximize long-term fecundity.

Note that I am not saying this is a rationale for polygamy, just some thoughts about polygamy and fecundity.

Comment by Taylor Cardall | 11/19/2005 09:08:00 AM  

Taylor, thanks for stopping by. What you say sounds very plausible---any references, or original analysis from you?

Even though you disclaimed it as a rationale, it's nevertheless interesting that short-term polygamy transitioning to monogamy, the suggested optimum, is the trajectory the Church happened to follow (though not by choice). 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/19/2005 09:20:00 AM  



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