Tuesday, Feb. 01, 2011
Among the many jabs temperance advocates like to take at alcohol is that it promotes promiscuity. One glass over the line and we all know what comes next. Loveless sex, lecherous men and “fallen women.”
But what if I told you that wine-drinking cultures throughout history have tended to be more monogamous than their abstinent counterparts? What if polygyny – the social doctrine sanctioning multiple female partners for a man – tended to prevail in societies that did not imbibe?
That paradox was uncovered recently by two economists in Belgium who decided to pore over mountains of ethnographic data going back thousands of years. The more a society drank, they found, the more likely it was to endorse monogamy. (Believe it or not, “frequency of drunkenness” records have been kept for centuries.)
“Women or Wine? Monogamy and Alcohol,” published in December in the journal of the American Association of Wine Economists, lays bare an historical truth that might unsettle your pastor, rabbi or imam. It astonished even the researchers.
“It’s amazing,” said Mara Squicciarini, co-author of the paper with Jo Swinnen. “We were surprised to find that there is a trade-off between alcohol consumption and the number of sex partners” that men tended to keep at any one time.
Though much has been written about alcohol consumption and human mating habits, respectively, the authors believe that they are the first to prove a strong correlation between societies that imbibed and those that enshrined monogamy into law. It might come as news to many people today, in fact, that polygyny was the norm in most pre-industrial societies.
Unfamiliar with the term polygyny? It refers to multiple-wife arrangements, as opposed to polyandry, in which women keep multiple male sexual partners. The latter is exceedingly rare, which is why the researchers use the term polygyny and not the often misused polygamy, which refers to multiple partners for both sexes. Clear?
Some of the bedroom trivia related in Ms. Squicciarini’s paper would be enough to make Charlie Sheen blush. Lord Krishna, worshipped in Hindu tradition, was said to have 16,108 wives. King Solomon, of Old Testament fame, juggled 700 wives and 300 concubines – all without the advantage of Facebook or a BlackBerry. Monogamy, the norm in most cultures today, emerged in tandem with the spread of alcohol, primarily wine, starting in the West.
Specialists in development economics, Ms. Squicciarini and Dr. Swinnen decided to turn their attention to alcohol and monogamy while discussing a curious fact over a glass of wine near their offices at the Catholic University of Leuven. They wondered why the two most prominent religious groups we associate with polygyny today, Muslims and Mormons, also happened to abstain from alcohol. “At a certain point, we said, ‘Oh, come on. Is there a trade-off between sex and alcohol?’ ” Ms. Squicciarini told me over the phone.
They spent a year combing through published ethnographic studies of more than 300 distinct societies. Case after case showed a strong correlation between wine and one-woman men. (I say “wine” specifically because that beverage, not beer, was the chief focus of the study.)
It was an arduous pursuit because the two main databases used in the study – G.P. Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas and M.K. Bacon’s A Cross-Cultural Study of Drinking, both from the 1960s – were available only in paper form, not previously keyed into computers for swift number-crunching. “Every day, I was finding out something different and new,” Ms. Squicciarini said.
And there’s an all-important twist to the findings. If you were wondering whether there is a causal link compelling drinkers to be monogamous or, conversely, prompting monogamous men to take up the bottle, your answer is no. It’s merely an historical accident. “We call this in economics a spurious correlation,” Ms. Squicciarini said. Both phenomena are independently related to economic factors in each society, specifically three important movements in history.
Cracks in the polygynous wall first formed in earnest with the expansion of the Greek and Roman empires, which not only spread vines and winemaking expertise but also happened to be the first cultures to introduce formal monogamy, Ms. Squicciarini said. Later came the influence of the Christian church, with its “blood of Christ” oeno-symbolism and insistence on marital fidelity.
Lastly, the Industrial Revolution in Europe prompted a growth in alcohol consumption for the simple reason that more people could afford to drink. That same economic shift also put a serious dent in the female-hoarding powers of superrich landowners. Factory jobs meant wealth was being distributed to a greater number of males, who now were working for cool cash rather than subsisting virtually penniless – and in many cases wife-less – on feudal farms. In contemporary parlance, a good job gets you the girl – the girl who would otherwise have shunned your romantic advances to settle for the posh life of a rich guy’s harem. “Since females are better off by sharing the resources of a rich male rather than singularly enjoying the limited resources of a poor male,” the authors write, “there is a positive correlation between polygyny and male inequality.”
So, sorry, you can’t rationalize your boozing by arguing that it will turn you into a more loyal husband. You’ll have to find another reason to drink, if the pleasure of a glass of good wine weren’t enough.