I refuse to believe that polyandry was practiced in Nauvoo: Part I

So seeing all the fuss about Nauvoo polygamy, I thought to myself, history schmistory, let’s talk biology. Biologists know plenty of titillating facts about reproductive strategies—including polygamy and polyandry! However, watch out, biologists tend to be ribald and earthy in these descriptions so if you tend towards reserved euphemisms in your discussions about what the ‘stork brings’ and the ‘nether parts’ of the body stop reading now. You are duly warned that I will splash some rather unsettling biology across the page. Also, I assume sexual strategy is an evolved response and what I’ll be presenting represents what biologists call an ‘evolutionary stable strategy’ meaning that there are demonstrable benefits for organisms to evolve these ways of getting at creating a new generation. Polygamy, monogamy, and polyandry are all ways of dealing with having healthy offspring that can compete with other organisms in the game of survival. (If you are surprised at my strident use of evolution, I assure you I am as strident defender of my Faith. I write about this on my other blog. Especially look at the early posts where I introduce my defense of evolution and the church) One or another strategy will work in various situations. So let’s briefly sketch a sidewalk caulk outline of when each works best and why. Note: this post is merely a cartoon of complicated research and I’m hand-waving through loads of missing detail. I’ll give you some references at the end. Also, please do not think that this biological information tells you how to live. As Hume said long ago, you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

First some things you need to know to set the stage.

A) In most organisms, females bear the brunt of direct reproductive costs. They carry the baby, provisioning it from conception on—indeed until it can make its own way in the world completely. They bear the costs of lactation or feeding their young offspring. They bear the risks that pregnancy and delivery carries (birthing is one of the most dangerous things animals do). They bear the risks of guarding the young from predators and all the other uncertainties play out in bringing young to adulthood. This means huge costs in risk and energy expenditure for females.

B) Females have only a few reproductive opportunities in their life because of the time required to raise each child.

C) Males in general have few direct risks in reproduction, bear little cost, and have as many opportunities for reproduction as they can get. Technically they could father a child a day (or more) their whole lives. Sperm is fairly cheap and readily available, eggs are costly and are available less often.

These things set up a situation where males and females have very different interests in reproduction. Because of the costs they bear in reproduction, females in most species are very choosy. You’re only going to get a few offspring off during your life so you better select the best male you can—the male animal equivalent of Twilight‘s Edward, who oozes virile perfection, would be best. Trying to impress these fussy girls is why it’s common for males to be colored or have secondary sexual characteristics like nice tail feathers or a stunning set of manly antlers. Ofttimes a male may have to fight other males to properly dazzle the female of the species, or do a dance, for example, if you’re a prairie chicken, perhaps sing like an angel, or other things that let females compare him to the sorry losers standing about posturing. Females really don’t want to waste their chances on a ner-do-well. Males have to strut their stuff. So in reality although they could father a child daily, the reality is much different. For a male, reproduction is actually limited by his success in impressing that special lady (or ladies if he’s good!) enough that she is willing to accept him as a mate. This takes effort. So males do bare costs in other ways: bloody battles, way too big of tail feathers, movie tickets, expensive dinners, nice cars, stunning wit, being a vampire, etc.

Polygamy tends to show up when a male can impress a number of females, guard them from other males, has exclusive access to scarce resources, can beat up or drive off the other males, out-dazzle the females in the presence of the other males also trying to dazzle them. (And Speaking as a male I can vouch that it’s a tough gig).

Strict polyandry (one female many males) is very rare the animal kingdom. Actually, what people are writing about happening in Nauvoo was not what biologists or anthropologists mean by polyandry (I’m disagreeing with Wikapedia on this). The technical term for what is being written about in Nauvoo is extra-pair matings or couplings. Polyandry implies a stricter reproductive strategy where the one-female-and-lots-of-males schtick is a little more formalized, and it does occur in humans. I just don’t think Nauvoo is an example of it’s implementation. But historians misapplied the term and I guess we are stuck with using it. Of course, as Wittgenstein pointed out, language is usage, so I might be wrong on this soon enough as historians keep using it this way.

So why would a male ever be monogamous? It turns out that if a male can be assured that he is the father of the children it’s a great idea! Why not help pay the reproductive costs by helping get the little tikes to adulthood, rather than the constant effort of impressing those fickle girls? Beats having those ungainly tail feathers, or spending you time chasing off amorous males who are constantly trying to sneak in and grab a little from your females. Two, parents working together are more likely to get the little rascals to the point they can have their own little rapscallions (see the Proclamation on the Family). But here’s the rub, if this is going to work as an evolutionary stable strategy: the male has to be pretty darn sure those are his brats before he starts paying those costs. Females, have a clearer sense that a particular young’n is her’s, I mean, really, she gave birth to it. Males? Not so much. Male helping (if that’s not an oxymoron) is usually associated with tight monogamous pair-bonding.

However, even in monogamous species, females tend to, shall we say, keep an eye out for those most-excellent genes. For example, in lots of birds monogamy is the rule and the pairs form tight bonds. But when scientists began to look at actual paternity it turns out, well, some things began to show up in the genes that seemed to cast a suspicious eye on our conception of tight ‘monogamous’ pair-bonds. For example, in barn swallows, it turns out that the big tailed males were mating with some of the females on the side while the poor average-tailed father was out bringing home the gnats. If you can have a male help (because he’s convinced he’s the father) and still grab some of those dreamy long-tailed stud’s genes, well why not the best of both worlds? If you are an Office fan you see this played out in Angela’s relationship with Andy and Dwight. She wants to marry Andy, because he’s stable, reliable, will make a great dad, and will take care of her. But she wants to mate with Dwight because he’s wild and virile and would bring some great things to the genetic table for future offspring (not that she specifically is thinking this, but in evolutionary time, that drive to have sex with Dwight could underpin such considerations and explains why such common depictions in literature ring true). These extra pair-matings are not uncommon in humans and and can run as high as 5% in some cultures, in terms of the number of fathers unknowingly raising someones else’s kids. Extra pair-matings (known as adultery in humans) run as high as 20-25% in males and 10-15% in females in humans and varies significantly by culture. But, again, this isn’t polyandry, it’s just messing with monogamy in creative ways. As might be said in bad translation, “Monogamy as she is practiced.” So I disagree with the term polyandry being applied in Nauvoo. So I think we have demonstrable polygamy, but not polyandry, in Nauvoo. But it’s monogamy that really interests me and why it works especially well in Mormonism.

And in general humans are actually fairly good at monogamy. Better than most birds.
So we will take a closer look at Humans in Part II.


  1. Fun post..but mostly wrong. Culture trys to override Nature.
    I see no ‘Nature’ in Nauvoo’s polygamy and polyandry, only ‘Culture’. Only a religious effort I will let others define.

  2. This cached link has what appears to be a pretty exhaustive overview of the percentage of “fathers unknowingly raising someone else’s kids.” The pre-DNA studies report the number (5%) suggested above. When DNA testing shows up, the numbers jump to about 20%.

  3. # 1 Culture does not override Nature it’s based on it. There were huge debates on this in the 80-90s but it’s widely accepted that nature is the context where culture operates. It infuses everything that happens in culture. Not to downplay culture, but it rarely overrides biology.

    #2 Those high rates are mostly coming from paternity testing laboratories, which will be inflated because the people doing that kind of testing are biased in the direction high rates of non paternity because they are often getting tested because there is some doubt in their mind already. Random testing is still in the 5% range.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Loved the post, Steven. Especially the problem of having to be a vampire and the Office analogy. Great stuff!

  5. StillConfused says:

    I don’t really like the term polyandry for the Nauvoo period either because, to me (not necessarily in line with the strict definition), I take polyandry to mean that it is the woman who is out seeking additional mates. In the Nauvoo period, it appears that often times, it was the man trying to convince the women to expand her version of monogamy.

  6. But when testing family members for inheritable diseases, genetic counselors stumble across evidence of discrepant paternity surprisingly often. For the population as a whole, “The generic number used by us is 10 percent,” said Dr. Bradley Popovich, vice president of the American College of Medical Genetics. [15 to 25 % has been determined from blood tests of parents and offspring in Canada and the US.]

    From here.

    Splash, splash.

    Mormons get a pass at 1%, btw.

    What’s your source, Steven P?

  7. If not Polyandry what term would you use? Language doesn’t mean much without a common vocabulary.

  8. StillConfused says:

    I think the problem comes from trying to find a word which accurately reflects what was really happening without offending anyone. I know that when I comment on that period, I find myself really struggling to find words that are neutral enough not to upset people.

  9. I don’t see anything in the original post that strikes me as controversial or strange.

    And “polyandry” definitely strikes me as implying a formal arrangement – if it’s on an ad hoc basis in a handful of specific marriages, with no formal social recognition, then frankly a term like “open marriage” sounds more appropriate. Of course that implies ickiness…

  10. #6 Nice article djinn. Thanks. My estimate is a conservative guess based on my reading probability assessments that take into the account the bias. Your 10% is more what people use, but in looking at the studies the statement from your article “No reliable studies seem to be available, no doubt, in part because of the severe ethical, difficulties of trying to conduct one.” is relevant and I don’t trust the studies done because the way the data are gathered and their known biases. I have no problem using the 10% if you want, I think above that is inflated. Look at the cashed link you gave (very useful by the way) all the general studies go from 1% to 12%, the paternity testing centers 20% – 50% and the media reporting the high end. It’s complex but I don’t think the studies are good. My take is for most Western culture 5% is a conservative guess based on my reading of the lit. But if the higher values hold when the studies are done, I would not be that surprised.

    #7 That’s a good question! I don’t think Polyandry works because it has a meaning in biology. Much of what happened in Nauvoo does not seem to fit the mould of our terminology. That’s OK, but I don’t think borrowing a term that has specific meaning already is the right move. But language is fluid if anything and it does appear this is standard usage in the history, although I think it is a misreading of standard usage elsewhere and the idea of common vocabulary becomes even more relevant.

    #8 & 9, I think not offending is some of the real difficulty here. And really, there probably isn’t a good word to apply that fits the complexity. It may be that all we can do is describe what happened in its complexity and if we really need a short hand call it the “Nauvoo situation” or something that does not seem to impose the baggage that polyandry or extra-pair mating give it that are both inaccurate in light of the complexity, historically contingent aspects, and deeply religious nature of this.

  11. Left Field says:

    I think it was about 15-20 years ago when I first read of polyandry in Nauvoo. I was startled and puzzled that I had never heard of it. Then I read further and realized that I did know about it; I just had never heard it described as polyandry.

  12. I’m pretty sure Angela doesn’t like Andy at all, for any reason, and is just using him to stick it to Dwight.

  13. Nice post.
    So I assume the next post will discuss why rock stars and powerful politicians (Edwards, Clinton, possibly Larry Craig) do what they do?

  14. Mephibosheth says:

    #11 is my experience exactly. Thanks for the read.

  15. Early Nauvoo polygyny followed the basic principles of evolution. The practice was dominated by a fraternal interest group of related kin (coterie), most of whom were related to Joseph Smith, even if distantly.

    It is probably true that the Mormons did not meet biological definitions of polyandry.

    The best expert on the sexual practices in Nauvoo (I still think) is Lawrence Foster of Georgia Tech. I wonder what label he would use to describe the practice. Oh, darn, I forgot history schmistory.

  16. Left Field says:

    I assume you’re the Steven F. Faux of Evolutionary speculations on the oligarchic development of Mormon polygyny. Ethology and Sociobiology 5:15-31?

    If so, I would say that you’re an expert yourself.

  17. S.Faux, I didn’t mean to diss history too badly, I love reading it. I’ll definitely check out Foster. Thanks.

  18. Aaron Brown says:


    You had me at the edge of my seat, anticipating all sorts of titillating talk about nether regions and anatomical features, but then I clicked on the full post and it was something of a let down. Some of us only read BCC to satisfy our prurient interests in a less-than-fully-pornographic atmosphere, and if you’re not going to deliver, then please don’t make promises! Otherwise, I’ll have to take my wandering eyes elsewhere. ):


  19. Sorry it all got moved to part two where I compare the testicle sizes of the great apes. It’s coming hang on.

  20. It would be a clearer picture if the DNA tests had shown Joseph Smith to have more descendants or if he and Emma had not been so fertile together. Still, an interesting matter all in all.

    The real problem is that we are reconstructing an historical narrative,with far too few solid facts, often using statements not from the people involved, or from their children, but by grandchildren or by others who wrote on their behalf.

  21. What a fun read!

  22. StillConfused says:

    #19 — I can hardly wait!!!!

  23. #3: Have you ever seen a man raised without a Culture? Not pretty.
    I did not say Culture replaced Man’s Nature, only trys to control it.
    If Biology ruled, and not our Cultures, then most girls would be having babies at 13.
    Again, I don’t see where the Navuoo effort was to add birth numbers to the group, but to form stronger Cultural bonds within the group.

  24. Some say that despite my Mother’s best efforts, I am a man without culture.

  25. In Bob’s defense, I think it’s fair to say — without down-playing the centrality of biology in human behavior — that Nauvoo plural marriage was less about fitness-conferring reproductive strategies than it was about social and political power relations flowing through the circuits of reconfigured kinship structures.

    There are many useful, if not definitive or totalizing, ways of thinking about the nature/culture distinction. One would simply be to assign to the category of culture all patterned human behavior that is transmitted intergenerationally by other-than-biological (i.e. genetic) means. It is worth pointing out that some of the most fruitful and fascinating anthropological theory on nature-culture derives from work on kinship systems (from Mauss and Levi-Struass to, more recently, the work of Asif Agha).

    It’s also worth pointing out the central position that must be granted to language and other kinds of signification within any potentially useful definition of culture. The emergence of polygamy in Nauvoo, among other things, dovetails with emerging strategies and practices on Joseph Smith’s part by which he with greater effectiveness self-consciously used language as a way of altering and shaping the social reality of the Mormon kingdom in ways that increasingly set it apart from the protestant world.

  26. Brad, No, I clearly don’t mean that culture plays no role in human socio-sexual interactions. But culture supervenes on biology. The cultural milieu of Nauvoo was taking place on structures that probably evolved for small groups living in the Pleistocene. The fitness producing structures arose long ago, and are still in place, and it is on these that culture works. I firmly believe that culture and language can change the way that those biological structures play out in lived cultures. No doubt. (For example, it would be hard to argue that throwing children into the fires of Moloch is good for reproductive fitness of individuals, while it may be good for spreading the culture (it makes them committed believers or something). I would also argue that it is not the case that these evolved structures have to play out as successes in current reproductive success to be biologically based. What’s good for hunters and gatherers may not be good for office workers. But when we see culture structures that are similar across broad taxa (like polygamous structures in birds, humans, and apes (More in Part II)) we don’t need to posit elaborate cultural influences to explain what’s happening in general to get a parsimonious explanation of the behavior. In short, I don’t disagree with what you and Bob say about culture as long as you lay down proper sacrifices and offerings to biology.

  27. Anyone who uses the word “trys” from now on outside of rugby references* will be shot and banned.

    *and even then.

  28. One word for you: spandrels.

  29. Very nice post, Steve. I agree, the term polyandry is a bit of a misnomer. It wasn’t polyandry per se, so much as extra access to otherwise off-limits women, for a few men. The point was not greater access to men’s genes for these women, and that was a by-product or side effect. The point was greater access to women for a few particular men.

    As for numbers, Jared Diamond (who’s written some of the best stuff on this topic) cites a source saying that about 10% of babies in one study were genetically unrelated to the purported father. That was several decades ago.

    And definitely look at Foster’s _Religion and Sexuality_ which examines some of these issues in the LDS community as well as others (like the Oneida community).

    (I’m not sure that polyandry is really uncommon in the animal world. It’s the norm for a lot of insects, for instance, isn’t it? E.g., honeybees.)

  30. 27. It’s a brand new year, Steve. Toss away those old resolutions like the dead weights they are!

  31. #26: I do think biology is the default setting. If a man gets hungry enough, he may set aside his culture, and return to being a beast. He may run or fight, even if he has learned (in his culture) not to. I don’t think this happened in the case at Nauvoo.
    I agree with Steve. At times a man may voluntarily choose to abandon his culture to bad manners and bad sportsmanship, and play the beastly game of rugby.(Or try).

  32. I don’t know that “free-love commune” sounds any better. Polyandry seems like the best word for the women who practiced it.

    I think a more interesting question for an evolutionist Mormon believer, is this: are you suggesting that the Order of Celestial Marriage (as defined in the Nauvoo period and vigorously defended through 1900) was just an evolutionary byproduct? Does that mean God’s own marital practices (as taught by early church leaders) are derived from evolutionary pressures from His human days? Is there not a moral truth that should transcend survival strategies? Or was evolution micromanaged by God to ensure that male human brains would want to enter polygamous relationships?

  33. what about “network of belonging”? or “chain of belonging”? those best approximate how they understood the experience. it wasn’t “free love,” even if it shared with the 1960s a protest against the Victorian model.


    Although evolution itself is nonrandom, it is often driven by random processes (such as mutation). Randomness often results in orderly mathematical processes. To me, randomness is just one of the languages of God.

    So, to your question: I think Joseph Smith and the entire Church is subject to natural scientific laws, including those evolutionary. However, such a belief does not take God out of the equation, because God IS the equation.

    Actually, I think the LDS Church is what it claims to be. But, I also think Church marital systems can be described in sociobiological terms. Just as artists can paint pictures of important Church historical events, scientists can use natural principles to paint a slightly different kind of picture. Neither the artist nor the scientist changes the essence of what is being painted.

    Do walls creak because of changes in temperature or because of God? Scientists would focus on temperature. But, who can dictate what does or does not involve God? Not me. One thing is for sure: my convictions of the Church do not involve Church history or science.

  35. Great Comment, S.Faux! I concur completely.

  36. Hilarious post! Maybe it is the success of monogamy where the social element really comes into play – the costs of switching partners (re-dating, divorce, shared habitat and habits, etc.) being way too high.

  37. StillConfused says:

    Who do I have to sleep with to get Part 2 posted? (Just kidding, if that wasn’t obvious)

  38. Why can’t we simply call Nauvoo era polygamy what it was – religiously sanctioned adultary?

  39. Maybe because some of us don’t know what “adultary” means.

  40. I trys and I trys but I can’t find adultary in the dictionaree.

  41. OK, no one is allowed to make fun of spelling on my posts :)

  42. (For example, it would be hard to argue that throwing children into the fires of Moloch is good for reproductive fitness of individuals, while it may be good for spreading the culture (it makes them committed believers or something).

    Actually, it’s pretty easy to find a number of ways that smaller family size increases the fitness of offspring. The greater the parent per child ratio, the more care the child receives, which renders survival into adulthood more likely.

    Once that is established, throwing babies into the fires of Moloch may function as pre-modern family size control.

    Moloch worshipers would not be aware of that function but their offspring would nonetheless benefit from high parent children ratios.

    There are other nasty considerations about relying on religious child sacrifice to breed and select for fitness.

    I am not saying any of this is a good idea but with a little imagination, one can even imagine even infanticide beneficial.

    That appears to be the problem with evolutionary social science. On a general level, pretty much anything can work. One has to establish a considerable degree of specificity before evolutionary considerations become falsifiable.

  43. Hilarious post! Maybe it is the success of monogamy where the social element really comes into play – the costs of switching partners (re-dating, divorce, shared habitat and habits, etc.) being way too high.

    Although there are all sort of configurations for functional families, it is probably safe to claim that monogamy is the modal or most common form.

    In my opinion, the primary reason is not the cost of mating but the cost of child rearing.

    Unlike turtles or amphibians that are precocious, humans are an altricious species, which means that our off-spring requires nurture rather than being self-reliant.

    I am not aware of any other species that has to nurture its offspring as long as humans. Even in hunter and gatherer societies, it takes a dozen year before a male child approaches anything resembling self-reliance.

    In post-industrial societies, it may take until the late twenties when a child acquires a post-graduate degree.

    The altricious nature of human beings has far reaching implications. Once one considers our mammal nature, it becomes clear, for example, that libertarianism cannot account for the human condition.

  44. MikeInWeHo says:

    “…..libertarianism cannot account for the human condition.”

    You are now anathema in Utah, Hellmut. Consider yourself warned. :)

  45. I am not saying any of this is a good idea but with a little imagination, one can even imagine even infanticide beneficial.

    No need for either religion or imagination, Hellmut — see, Peter Singer.


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