On Joseph Henrich’s report to the Supreme Court on Polygamy in Canada

On July 15, 2010 a University of British Columbia professor, Joseph Henrich, submitted a requested paper entitled: “Polygyny in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Theory and Implications” to the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The Supreme Court is set to consider the polygamy question in November, 2010.

It should be noted that prior to the request to write this report, Henrich had neither published nor researched any aspect of Polygyny either in Western Society or Globally. It is uncertain how and why he was sought to become a court expert on the subject.

His 44 page report and associated affidavit can be found at http://www.vancouversun.com/pdf/affidavit.pdf following an article in the Vancouver Sun entitled: “Polygamy is Harmful to Society: Scholar finds”


In summary, the report strains to prove the following points:

  1. Polygyny (primarily Polygyny as it is mentioned in the report that Polyandry accounts for only 1% of Polygynous unions.) would result in increased crime and antisocial behaviour by the pool of unmarried males.
  2. Greater degrees of Polygyny would drive down the age of marriage for all females as males seek to increase the number of wives due to scarcity.
  3. Greater degrees of Polygyny will result in an increased inequality between men and women as men seek more control over their wives in order to maintain their Polygynous state.
  4. Polygynous men will invest less time in their offspring as they will be “stretched too thin” and they will be investing more time in seeking out further wives.
  5. And finally, Polygyny will result in a reduced national wealth (GDP) because men will be focused on gaining more wives and increased female fertility.


In the first section, Henrich discusses social norms and marriage and mating philosophies.  He states that “a marriage system is the collection of marriage norms in a society”. It is these norms that separate humans from other primate societies. In discussing the internalization of these norms he very nearly extols the virtues of the “reward” system for punishing “violators” of the norms. “This means that independent of any internalization, norms impose a real cost on norm violators. An underappreciated difference between marriage systems and mating systems in that in marriages many people are concerned that the norms are followed, not only the mating pair and their families.”

Henrich, regurgitating previously discredited and unproven theories (see Mark Henkel’s paper entitled “Scholars Anti-Polygamy report for Court is discredited” http://www.pro-polygamy.com/articles.php?news=0079 , argues that due to the competiveness in males and “choosiness” of females in their search for the more viable male for reproduction, males will resort to risky behaviour in order to find a female mate. He argues points taken from uncited studies that this risky behaviour will result in a higher crime rate of theft, murder and rape as males compete for females and strive to become more financially viable mates.  The issue here is that there is no proof or basis to this theory. It is based upon the perception that if a viable male were to marry more than one wife, it would create a lack in enough females for the rest of the population, thus causing chaos.

Henkel argues that this is limited in its thinking. Given the abundance of males that are not interested in marrying, (he quotes the often mentioned joke that men are commitment-phobes as a social norm that belies the truth in the joke.) and the legalization of same-sex marriage, it can be equally argued that there may be and certainly will be a shortage of men in society that are viable partners.

In addition, Henkel goes on to argue that Henrich’s view of the economy of the availability of finding successful female mates is a form of Socialism whereby the “resources” should be shared equally among the people and not in the hands of the wealthy and genetically superior males as Henrich argues will cause social instability. In Henkel’s paper he makes association that perhaps the attraction of females to more viable males would cause the non-desirable males to seek to better themselves in order to provide a better chance of finding a mate. This would be analogous to the free market economy of the Western World.

In a baffling section, Henrich discusses the mating and pairing habits of primates, mainly gorillas, chimpanzees and gibbons.  Again seeking to find some correlation between humans and primates in their search for desirable mates and family units as well as justifying the theory that unpaired males will become marauding bands of risk takers as they search to overthrow the dominant male.

In a classic failure, Henrich uses a global analysis of Polygynous societies to form an argument against its use here in North America. As Henkel notes, this is in stark contrast and to a previous paper by Henrich in which the study (in June of 2010) found that it is unscientific to make global generalizations and findings based upon unrelated social populations. Essentially, studies must be made within their related groups and not using data from unrelated societies and species such as examples found in Africa and Primates to make a determination on Western Society.

Similarly, as noted in my previous blog on Polygyny and Canadian Law, Henrich uses many examples of the rationale for Polygynous groupings without bringing into the mix the ability for marriages to occur based upon Love and Consent rather than socio-economic reasons.  In discussing the justification for Polyandry he states “…in some places economic circumstances make it necessary for a male to travel long distances from the household while the presence of bandits requires a man to guard his family.”  How is this relevant to Canada and Western Society as a whole?

In part three of the report, Henrich discusses the origins of Monogamy in the Greek and Roman empires prior to Christianity.  Again, how this relates to the moral and social norms of today’s society is unclear.  The economic and political rationales for Monogamy in early civilization has little baring on the rationale for Polygyny in today’s Western civilization.  It should be noted that in those societies while it may have been illegal for men to have more than one wife, it was legal for them to visit registered prostitutes and this would not be considered adultery.  If one follows Henrich’s argument based upon historical data, should he not also be advocating for the legalization of prostitution?

Further arguing the theory of unmarried men resorting to violence, Henrich states: “Competition for mates and access to sex created by a pool of unmarried men increases kidnapping of women (as sex slaves), rape, and prostitution.”  He goes on to state however that “data and proper analyses for kidnapping and prostitution are not available, but observed patterns are consistent with this prediction.”  How this “prediction” can arise is certainly unclear without any data to support it.

In terms of the ability of a single male to be an equitable parent to larger numbers of offspring, he argues in the subsistence economy of Love theory whereby there would not be enough time and Love available to one man to support emotionally his offspring. Assuming, first of all, that all men want (and women for that matter) is to have children, which is debatable in today’s society, there is ample evidence of monogamous pairings to have large numbers of offspring. It is relatively new in human society for families to have only two children on average. Many pre 1900s families had upwards of twelve children and there was and is no debate on the viability of a father and mother to be able to financially and emotionally support that number.

In trying to support the regurgitated theory that non-married men (to women) will increase crime rates, Henrich uses the following example: If you take 20 males from high school drop outs to billionaires and 20 females and 12 of the highest status males marry 12 women, then the top five status men take another wife, the top two take a third wife and the tope male takes a fourth wife. That would leave 40% of the male population without a wife. The argument then follows that this forty percent would then resort to risky behaviour in order to garner a wife and once garnering (or capturing) that wife would violently and passive-aggressively control the situation in order to keep that wife.

The arithmetic may be sound but the social aspect of today’s Western Society does not follow this statistical approach.  It assumes that ALL men want to marry a woman.  Which is not true.  So, therefore, if we take the same 20 men and 20 women and put them together the following is more likely to happen: Statistically one of the twenty males (5%) is likely to be homosexual and would not be interested in marrying a woman, three of the 20 males (15%) would not be interested in marriage at all. This leaves sixteen males for 20 females.  The same may be said of the females where homosexuality and a lack of a desire to marry may be the case.  Finally, even if Polygamy was legal it can not be said that people will flock to that way of life. Perhaps only one, maybe two of the sample population may be interested in joining a plural family.

Again using unrelated sample populations as an argument against Polygamy, Henrich states: “…Polygynous societies all have low GDPs”. In using some complicated statistical averages using African and Asian countries that have Polygynous societies they have determined that these countries have higher rates of rape and murder.  It is noted that all of these countries have low GDPs and deal with issues such as overpopulation and economic struggles. The number of variables within these societies related to a rather small population practicing Polygamy make any findings suspect at best.  Finally, we are not talking about Polygamy in Africa, we are dealing with a report presented to the British Columbia Supreme Court of Canada.  The discussion is the ramifications of Polygamy being legal in Canada whose socio-economic situation is far removed from the developing world.

In a similar vein, when discussing the extent of a males involvement in parenting, Henrich looks to isolated cases within extreme sects of Mormons as well as societies in Africa to argue that Polygamy results in less of an involvement of the male in the upbringing of the children.  Neither of which study group hold any bearing on the issue at hand that the court will look at in November.  Nor does he delve deeper and balance out the argument by visiting the Polyandrous societies in India where the males assist greatly in the upbringing of the children.  This is a “Pick and Choose” method of research which never holds up to serious scrutiny.

In Part D of the report Henrich strives to argue that acceptance of Polygamy will drive the age of marrying down into adolescence.  To try and prove this, he once again looks to struggling areas of Africa to argue that this could happen in Canada.  The several pages of text can be easily refuted here by stating that in Canada there is no correlation between legalizing Polygamy and the abandonment of laws relating the Age of Consent.  We are not discussing here the religious splinter sects of the LDS that bring us issues such as Bountiful B.C. where it may be evident that underage girls were married off to older men.  There is no argument that this is illegal.  In other instances, Henrich cites countries where historically, including the American Mid West, when there was a scarcity of women, the age of marriage, for the women, went dramatically down to roughly 12 and 13.  He uses this historical data to assert that the same practice would again happen in today’s society should Polygamy be allowed to occur. Again he has removed the evolutionary and legal perspective of today’s society and the cultural relevance of comparing events either in Africa or in the early years of North American Western Civilization. Canada has evolved both socially and legally beyond the events of the past that brought the marriage of underage girls.  Our present society does not tolerate this behaviour and it is for this reason that sects such as Bountiful are before the court system.  As presented in Henrich’s report it is unfortunate that the issue has turned to Polygyny rather than the clearer issue of statutory rape. 

The two issues, the marriage of underage girls and the practice of Polygyny, are not mutually exclusive.  There are many cases, most flying under the wire due to the archaic legal system, where Polygamy is practiced and none of the negative behaviours brought forth by Henrich are being practiced.

Ever deepening the quagmire of irrational supposition Henrich moves on to further discuss the suggested increase in instances of rape when there are not enough women to become brides.  His theory, again borrowed from other equally unsuccessful theorists, is based upon the practice of Bridesprice in Kenya. In his study he notes that as the “purchase price” of a bride went up (in the form of cattle) fewer and fewer men were able to pay the price and as such were unable to get married.  This resulted, or at least coincided with, an increase in rape and cattle theft.  Once again we have to ask how this relates to Canada and indeed Western Civilization as a whole?  One could argue that the cost of a traditional marriage in North America has increased on average, but this does not preclude men and women to get married. There are many options in that regard.

The only issue that would result in an inability of a male to find a mate would be if that male did not meet the criteria of those searching or open to a relationship, or vice versa.

In a section regarding inter-social behaviour and mental side effects of Polygyny among women, Henrich cites several examples from African Arab societies where Polygamy is prevalent. He explains that within most of these groups there is an increase in social disorders such as depression, anxiety, and obsession-compulsion within women. Again he is sampling a society far removed from Western Civilization and making the inference that the same situation would exist in Canada should Polygyny be allowed. Undermining his assumption and highlighting the severe differences between remote developing Arab communities and North American ones he states that the reason why some of the groups did not exhibit the above stresses and disorders is because “… this may be due to the fact that the study was conducted during the dry season when food is generally abundant and workloads are low.”  This statement and explanation for no ill effects of Polygyny highlights that the findings are not found within a control situation. It can easily be said that the stresses found upon women in the other situations may be solely due to the scarcity of food and high workloads, and not due to Polygyny itself. In addition it should be noted that these extenuating conditions are not typically (or at all) found in North American society.

In his conclusion Henrich states that “imposed monogamy reduces crime rates, including rates of murder, rape, and robbery, reduces substance abuse, increases male parental investment in offspring, and increases male-female equality.”  As explained above there is no correlation between his finding and any level of proof within the matter at hand: Canadian Polygyny. All of Henrich’s findings are based on diametrically opposed study groups which are not relevant to North American Society. In addition, in discussing issues of rising crime rates due to competition for females, no proof is offered and as Henkel demonstrates in his paper, the assumption is based on two previously documented and discredited works which, as an aside, Henrich does not cite and thus may be subject to plagiarism.

It is hoped that the British Columbia Supreme Court of Canada analyses this report with a measure of caution and recognizes that its assumed and in most cases flawed findings are irrelevant to the issue at hand: Polygamy in the Canadian context and how it relates to the Constitution of Canada.

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One Response to On Joseph Henrich’s report to the Supreme Court on Polygamy in Canada

  1. Avistew says:

    Interesting, however I’m afraid you’re mixing up your terms a bit: polygamy = several spouses; polygyny = several wives (gyn, as in, gynecologist) and polyandry = several husbands. You inverted polygyny and polygamy throughout your post, so I suggest you fix that 😉

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