One Flew Over the Cuckold’s Nest

It’s the bane of manly existence everywhere: to be a cuckold. Or so the story goes. It seems to be taken for granted, in both evolutionary biology and post-Neolithic societies, that one of the worst possible things is for a man to be married to a woman who cheats. Why? Because he might end up raising another man’s child. Viewed from the perspective of a selfish gene or jealous phenotype, this is horrific.

This taken for granted story provides the contextual background for a recent PNAS article, “Religion As a Means to Assure Paternity,” by Beverly Strassman and colleagues. In the opening paragraph, the authors observe:

The major world religions sprang from patriarchal societies in which the resources critical to reproduction, whether in the form of land or livestock, were inherited from father to son down the male line. Consistent with patrilineal inheritance, the sacred texts set forth harsh penalties for adultery and other behaviors that lower the husband’s probability of paternity. The scriptures also place greater emphasis on female than on male chastity, including the requirement of modest attire for women and the idealization of virginity for unmarried females. Previous studies have considered the evolutionary biology of patriarchy, but have focused on primate antecedents or cultural factors rather than religion. Here we test the hypothesis that religions that more strongly regulate female sexuality are more successful at limiting the incidence of cuckoldry, defined as offspring sired by extrapair copulations (EPCs).

Let’s unpack these observations, beginning with the major world religions which are identified as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Did each of these religions spring from patriarchal societies? The answer is yes — these are Axial religions that originated in societies which had been patriarchal for thousands of years. Patriarchy, contrary to common opinion, is not a human universal and there is nothing inherently “natural” about it. Patriarchy developed in conjunction with the Neolithic transition — wherever people settled down to begin producing food, there was a shift from community to private property. For a variety of reasons, men dominated this process and religions legitimated it. The Axial religions, which came much later, may have been “ethical” but they did little to challenge male hegemony. In nearly all cases, they reinforced it.

This reinforcement came in several forms, not the least of which are injunctions against adultery. Cleverly couched as a two-way injunction applying equally to males and females, it was rarely so. In post-Neolithic and Axial societies, it is women who are punished most heavily for violating the rule. Males aren’t forced to wear the scarlet A, and aren’t beaten or killed in the fictitious name of religious-familial honor.

The evolutionary explanation for this non-natural state of affairs threatens to render it “natural” again. Two lines of evidence are usually cited. The first is genetic and phenotypic. Genes and individuals are supposed to be self-interested in a way that prevents them from expending resources on non-related genes or individuals. In theory, the worst possible outcome is for a man is to raise the child of another man. The PNAS authors refer to this as a “biological problem,” thus giving the impression that it is “natural” for males to fret over the paternity of children. Religions that address this issue by hemming women in, therefore, are simply addressing a biological universal. I have my doubts.

My doubt stems from the hunter-gatherer ethnohistoric record. To the limited extent that this record represents the majority of the human past (i.e., the pre-Neolithic human condition which prevailed for tens of thousands of years), it doesn’t seem that males are all that concerned about cuckoldry or paternity. While one does occasionally encounter male jealously and outrage over cuckoldry, it is far less prevalent than in post-Neolithic or food producing societies. Hunter-gatherers generally engage in a fair amount of extra pair copulating. This has, of course, astonished outsiders who have either been scandalized or delighted, depending on their proclivities.

But it generally is the case that male hunter-gatherers don’t spend too much time worrying whether a child is or is not his own. In band level societies, children are raised by a large alloparenting group. Moreover, this alloparenting group need not consist of actual kin — fictive kin are often responsible. In many cases, actual fathers have very little to do with raising their genetic children. On top of all this, adoption — even in cases where the actual parents are alive — is quite common. The overall picture when it comes to paternity and parenting is one of fluidity and flexibility. It hardly accords with the standard theory of evolutionary biology or the cultural fictions of post-Neolithic religions.

For these reasons, I am suspicious of the argument that cultural-religious practices are being used to solve a “biological problem.” Problems aren’t biological when they exist only in abstract evolutionary theory or particular post-Neolithic societies. The effect of such an argument is to scientifically legitimate or “naturalize” the post-Neolithic or present order of things. It’s hard for me to accept that hunter-gatherer societies, in which father-son genetic mismatching was widespread, had it all wrong and things were set biologically straight when people settled down and began practicing new forms of religion.

Postscript for Reddit Readers: A redditer linked this post and someone over there commented that it is in fact a “biological problem” if you live in a patriarchal post-Neolithic society in which assurance of paternity (i.e., being the biological father of a child) is culturally important. This is correct insofar as it goes. My point, however, is that when the PNAS authors observe that religious-cultural strictures solve a “biological problem,” they are implying that this is an ultimate, absolute evolutionary problem. In other words, they are contending that the proper or baseline state of affairs, from the perspective of “nature” and science, is that men should worry about cuckoldry and paternity (so they don’t invest in another man’s genes or child). I am saying this is not an evolutionary, baseline, or “natural” state of affairs — it is a cultural value that implicates biology.

Perhaps an analogy would make this point more clear (as I should have done originally). American culture in general values a certain body type and form for both males and females. This body type-form is obtained in a variety of ways, most of which implicate biology. The cultural value comes first and the biological issues flow from it. This does not mean, however, that the culturally valued body type-form is an evolutionary given or that the desired appearance is the natural result of selection pressure for that particular type-form. This is essentially what the PNAS authors are claiming for patriarchy-paternity and the post-Neolithic religious formations that address it.

The Cuckold’s Nest (Justin Richel 2007)


Beverly I. Strassmann, Nikhil T. Kurapati, Brendan F. Hug, Erin E. Burke, Brenda W. Gillespie, Tatiana M. Karafet, & Michael F. Hammer (2012). Religion as a Means to Assure Paternity. PNAS, 109 (25), 9781-9785 : 10.1073/pnas.111044210

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5 thoughts on “One Flew Over the Cuckold’s Nest

  1. Adrian

    I don’t know enough about the topic to really make an argument pro or contra the thesis, but I believe that it is not impossible that the biological explanation is not precluded by a different organization in hunter gatherer societies. After all the biological fitness function has lots and lots of local maxima. It might very well be that both communal parenting and jealous are good spots in the fitness space and thus it is possible for evolution to find both.

  2. Cris Post author

    I think this is certainly possible. However, there seems to be lots of continuity from one hunter-gatherer society to another and this continuity spans continents. Certainly, local ecology could change the dynamic.

    I took my cue on this issue from my study of the American Plains Indians, who may not be the best exemplars of hunter-gatherers given their unique ecological-economic circumstances. Having said that, I do a fair amount of reading on the traditional exemplars — the Bushmen, Aborigines, etc. — and this flexibility seems to be fairly common. It doesn’t really matter who raises children — what matters are children who get raised and are able to contribute to the group, which is significantly different from raising children who can care for nuclear parents. This latter idea is almost certainly a product of post-Neolithic societies and may be a function of mercantile-capitalist societies. The whole nuclear-genetic family fetish is modern and localized in time and space.

    Until or unless someone proposing this thesis can point me to significant counter-examples in the ethnohistoric record, I’m going to go with this.

  3. Lillian Cannon

    Ah, Redditors. There is nothing quite like the absolute certitude of a 20 year old nerdy male. :)

    This was a great essay. As an anthropologist, it still shocks me that the bio side fails to see the obvious biases and assumptions in what they consider to be science. Humans have organized themselves in a zillion different ways; to look for one tribe and pronounce them the prototypical human band and then announce that they were worried about cuckoldry in order to legitimize the anti-human practice of honor killings… Well, the motive is so transparent that I see no need to pimp out bioanth if one just wants to be a Christian or Muslim apologist.

  4. J. A. Le Fevre

    To borrow once again from the Jefferson Airplane: ‘Poison oak is a natural plant, why don’t you put some in your food?’
    Both sides of this argument are missing the evolutionary point, which comes down to: So what good has it done you?
    Wife swapping is a well established cultural ritual is sub-Saharan Africa, as are STD’s and painfully underdeveloped societies. All the winners in the cultural wars are the descendants from the patriarchal clans that developed the Axial moral codes. Like it or else, choices have consequences.
    I strongly suspect that one of the strongest contributors to the success of the patriarchal cultures is the level of investment in the children. The better you train your children, the better they will perform as adults, and well performing adults are far more likely to build strong, competitive communities. Evolution (particularly at the cultural level) is not about how ‘natural’ you are or how you mimic your ancestors, but how successfully you compete. Free-loving aboriginals are facing extinction if no one has noticed.

  5. Libertarian

    Thanks for the article! Boy, would I wish that I still lived in a system where children are reared by female-led clans, and we males all pitch in to help the children of our sisters, moms, aunts, nieces etc without caring too much about who the genitor is. Think of the burden that we males would not have. All that mate-guarding crap, all those repressed, prude wives trapped in monogamy, all these bitter divorces resulting from it, you name it, these would vanish. While the Mosuo have their own niche culture, the principles could be applied to modern Western culture, too, and I hope will–though the feminist emphasis on even more totalitarian monogamy makes me not to hopeful.

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