Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

On a Panhuman Preference for Monandry: Is Polyandry an Exception?

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

On a Panhuman Preference for Monandry: Is Polyandry an Exception?

Article excerpt


This article explores the following proposition: that monandrous marriage arrangements marriages simultaneously involving one or more females but only one male are universally preferred. The formal object of analysis is marriage wherein spouses are socially legitimate sexual partners to one another, and wherein, to paraphrase Gough, a child born of the union is "accorded full birth-status rights common to normal members of his society or social stratum." (Gough, 1974:264). There may be forms of, say, concubinage, that satisfy this definition, but this should not affect the argument, and, in general, adultery, concubinage, and other "non-marital" mating forms are not my concern now.1

The argument depends not on an examination of monandry as such, but on a demonstration that the only exception to marital monandry-polyandry2-is 1 ) vanishingly rare, 2) never the only allowed marriage form, 3) when fraternal, dominated by older brothers and/or elders to an extent which renders it functionally monandrous, 4) when non-fraternal, also non-residential, again rendering it monandrous, 5) when non-fraternal, dominated by elders to an extent which rules out the likelihood that it is preferred by the actual spouses, 6) apt to "fission" into monogamy with the departure of spouses, and 7) in all cases, riven by tensions which arise from jealousy, and by pair-bonding and / or polygynous tendencies.

The greater part of the discussion will concern Tibetans, who are the best-studied polyandrous population.3 I will however also examine features of polyandry as it has been encountered in other cases: Sherpa, Pahari, Sinhalese, Nayar, Toda, and African.4 While all of these cases may be fruitfully studied in culturally detailed context, my view is that polyandry is everywhere a sufficiently unitary phenomenon that it can and should also be comparatively treated.

At the most general Darwinian level, it is axiomatic that "as a mammal and an anthropoid primate, the human male would appear to be one of the least likely candidates for polyandry" (Weigel and Weigel,1986:94; also see Symons,1978:225-26; Orians,1969:265-66; Alexander 1979:162; Daly and Wilson, 1983:151) At this level, just to begin with, the extreme rareness of polyandry comes as no surprise.


In remarks before a meeting of the Indian Science Association in 1940, D.N.Majumdar, a noted investigator of polyandry, claimed that there might be some forty million people throughout the world practicing polyandry. (Peter, 1963:84) This seems an unrealistically large figure, given that, even today, the largest groups ever to have been recorded as having practiced polyandry (Tibetans, Sinhalese, and Nayars) would not add to 30 million, and that the two or three dozen other much smaller groups5 who have been called "polyandrous" would not add up to Majumdar's figure.

For purposes of argument, however, the forty million figure will serve. Also, to further enhance the incidence of polyandry-and for ease of calculation-I will underestimate the world's population, at 5.04 billion. Now, carve up the world into three units. These will be the rather small land of "Polyandria," the considerably larger "Polygystan" (2 billion), and the dominant empire of "Monogalith" (3 billion). "Polygystan" and "Monogalith," of course, are normatively monandrous, so if I have erred, even drastically, in favor of one or the other, the result will not undermine my project.

Further stipulations for the construction of this imaginary "polyandry-friendly" world: I) there is a globally equal sex-ratio, 2) 4% of the total male population is exclusively homosexual and declared unmarriageable6 3) all marriageable men in any population are married, 4) onequarter of the male populations in "Polygystan" and "Monogalith" are marriageable, 5) onehalf of the male population in the "polyandrous" group is marriageable, 6) in "Polyandria", men are in polyandrous unions at the highest rate ever recorded (75%), and 7) in "Polygystan", men are in polygynous unions at a low rate (10%)7 The results, with the monandrous systems handicapped rather severely, are seen in Table I. …

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