Dishonor Thy Father

From the metaphorical standpoint of selfish genes and their male human vessels, the worst possible fitness outcome is to invest in another man’s child while mistakenly believing the child carries half your genes. This view, espoused by evolutionary psychologists, receives ironic support from marriage rules and adultery sanctions promulgated by many world religions. But, as I explained in One Flew Over the Cuckold’s Nest and EP & Paternity Paranoia, this view is wrong.

In these posts, I noted that biological paternity is a non-issue for many hunter-gatherers. Among foragers, children are usually raised by large alloparenting groups in which the biological father may or may not play an important role. Thus, the identification and attribution of “father” is fluid, malleable, and often inconsistent with genetic parentage. Despite this variability, there is usually at least one person (or several) who will be identified and addressed as “father.”

It is therefore surprising to learn that an ethnic group in China’s Himalayan region, the Mosuo, take this paternity-plasticity to another level: the Mosuo do not recognize “fathers” and do not even have a word for “father.” This remarkable fact is a product of “walking marriages” which give women the right to have overnight male visitors as they wish. These visits, which obviously may result in biological paternity, do not consequently lead to fatherhood:

Most significantly, when children are born, the father may have little or no responsibility for his offspring (in fact, some children may not even know who their father is). If a father does want to be involved with the upbringing of his children, he will bring gifts to the mother’s family, and state his intention to do so. This gives him a kind of official status within that family, but does not actually make him part of the family. Regardless of whether the father is involved or not, the child will be raised in the mother’s family, and take on her family name.

This does not mean, however, that the men get off scot-free, with no responsibilities for children. Quite the opposite, in fact. Every man will share responsibilities in caring for all children born to women within their own family, be they a sister, niece, aunt, etc. In fact, children will grow up with many “aunts” and “uncles”, as all members of the extended family share in the duties of supporting and raising the children.

Although the Masuo are agrarian, there are strong echoes here of hunter-gatherer practices and flexibility. Though there is no historical data by which to judge the issue, this could be a cultural survival that has been adapted to new ways of life. It seems to be working for the Masuo:

The result – as different as it may be from other systems – is a family structure which is, in fact, extremely stable. Divorce is a non-issue…there are no questions over child custody (the child belongs to the mother’s family), splitting of property (property is never shared), etc. If a parent dies, there is still a large extended family to provide care. 

So here we have another ethnographic example of a society that contradicts the standard and widely-accepted stories about pair bonding and ritual marriage. Among the Masuo, there is no “marriage” of the kind theoretically envisioned by evolutionary psychologists and doctrinally affirmed by post-Neolithic religions. With all this in mind, a more apt aphorism might be “Honor thy Alloparenting Group.” These groups, variably consisting of genetic and fictive kin, bear little resemblance to the historically derived (i.e., post-Neolithic) ideal of dyadic nuclear families.

Triptych Holy Kinship_Frankfurt, Staedelsches Junstinstitut_1509

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4 thoughts on “Dishonor Thy Father

  1. Bob Wells

    A very good book that strongly refutes the myth of the nuclear family and monogamy is: Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan.

    It left me convinced that the idea of humans mating and then only having sex with one partner for the rest of their lives was a preposterous idea. The great majority of H-Gs did not practice it. It only became a nearly universal idea after the agricultural revolution and the curse of modern religion that accompanied it.

    It’s the only thing that makes evolutionary sense. If only one man could be the father, then that left all the other men off the hook. But survival required the entire tribe, one man and one woman could not survive.

    On the other hand, if many men of the tribe thought they could be the father then they and their entire family felt obligated.

    But the entire concept of “obligation” is part of the cure of civilization. For the most part, they were a very egalitarian people, there was very little concept of “mine-yours.” Nearly all of the different tribes that extended to child-raising and logically to sex as well.

    But the single greatest evolutionary advantage of multiple-sex partners was the mingling of the gene pool. If the women of the tribe freely had sex with strangers but remained in the tribe, the gene pool strengthened and the tribes future was stronger.

    Why are women so vocal in sex? So the men of the tribe would know she was fertile and so they would know when she was done and ready for the next partner.

    Why does the penis have such an odd shape? It’s a perfect plunger! It’s designed to vacuum out the other mans semen and leave yours in it place.

    Some tribes believed that semen literally “fed” the baby. That it needed all it could get and one man was not enough. The “duty” fell on all the men of the tribe to keep the baby well fed.

  2. Chris Kavanagh

    I’m not sure that the existence of this kind of system invalidates the general EP claims about the evolutionarily effective strategy of being concerned about cuckoldry. It would if EPs argued that there is no possibility for a system such as the Musuo’s to exist, but I don’t see many making such an argument, they are instead making hypothesis which would be better tested by looking at population level trends. To provide an imperfect analogy, there are matriarchal societies in the world, but their presence doesn’t invalidate claims that patriarchy, which evolutionarily speaking derives in significant part from our species sexual dimorphism, is a much more common social organisation. And please note I am not here endorsing patriarchy as the ‘correct’ system, I’m simply talking about its relative prevalence throughout history.

    I note as well that the website you link to also describes that:

    “most Mosuo women tend to form more long-term pairings, and not change partners frequently. It might be better described as a system of “serial monogamy”, wherein women can change partners, but tend to do so relatively rarely; and while with one partner, will rarely invite another. I’ve personally met many Mosuo who have had a “walking marriage” relationship with the same man for twenty or more years.”

    This doesn’t invalidate the point about paternal investment being much more community based but it does make me somewhat skeptical that notions of biological fatherhood are entirely alien. A relevant paper that I recommend, makes the case that claims of a lack of biological kinship terms are often exaggerated, see “On the alleged disjunction between cultural and darwininan understandings of human kinship” in the Journal of Cognition and Culture.

  3. Cris Post author

    If it were just this system, or a single exception, I would agree. But, as you rightly point out, we should be looking at this issue with populations. With that in mind, we find a large and variable population — foragers — that appear to be more or less free of paternity paranoia.

    With respect to those same groups, I don’t think patriarchy properly characterizes them. In fact, women in foraging societies tend to have higher statuses, greater freedom, and more choice. They almost always have significant support from brothers and uncles which guarantees their freedom and prevents abuse.

    There is at least one significant exception (Australian Aborigines) but the general sense among anthropologists and ethnohistorians is that women in foraging societies have a much better time of things than do women in agriculturalist societies. This is certainly my sense.

    I’m not claiming there is no concern about paternity, cuckoldry, or biological fatherhood, just that there are more than a few exceptions, and those exceptions were something close to the rule before the Neolithic transition. If that’s the case, and I think it is, then it significantly disrupts the EP story and messes with the sterile genetic maths which supposedly prove that cuckoldry is the worst thing ever, from a man’s point of view.

  4. Elisa

    Firstly, the name of the article is completely inadequate.
    Secondly, It is interesting that the brothers/uncles are “guaranteeing their freedom and preventing abuse” in Chris’s words. In the Arab world the brothers/uncles have turned into the guarantors of female essential slavery in the name of “protecting them” . Their role had metamorphosed into that of guarantors of family “honor” based entirely on the elimination of the sister/niece’s freedom to choose and on the subsequent repression of any expression of her sexuality and her volition.
    And lastly, gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to have children with different fathers, different genetic makeups ,sex with a bunch of attractive partners and feel safe and protected in a large context of one’s tribal family instead of dealing with the on-going stress of patriarchal possessiveness and patronizing?
    Ah, those good old days…

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