Sex and Society: Part I

Introduction

In times of stress, like aggressive extermination attempts, coyotes are able to increase their reproductive rates by breeding at younger ages and having larger litters. Many animals like coyotes have more than one reproductive strategy depending on environmental factors.

A completely detached view of the human species is hard to find, even though everyone is an expert. In this set of blog posts I am writing to explore inequality and how much of it stems from reproductive strategy and environmental factors, such as scarcity.

In times of disaster, war or famine, human beings come together as extended families, clans and even countries. In times of abundant resources, they seem to push apart. My thesis is that humans have two main reproductive strategies based on resource abundance that manifest themselves in different societal structure.

That’s not to say there are only two types of society, but rather a spectrum spanning from egalitarian to hierarchical on the far end. Within a large group there may be night and day differences.

Egalitarian Hunter-Gatherer Society

Egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies of the past often had limited ability to accumulate resources but retained food-sharing and gift-exchanges in social networks. When a gift was given, a gift of equal value was expected in the future. Both the group and social network acted as security and the development of individual ego was combated with both humour and group criticism. Cooperation was the highest priority for group survival.

Among one egalitarian society, the Caribou Inuit of Hudson Bay, marriage was a flexible relationship adaptable to a variety of economic conditions. Marriage is predominately an economic unity and in the Inuit economy, men were the hunters and women the meat-preparers. Mutual attraction could bring a man and woman together, but if a man was a gifted hunter, he may need the assistance of another wife to process all of the carcasses. In times when there were few marriageable women, as in years of high female infanticide, two husbands would serve as co-fathers to the offspring of one woman. A fourth type was co-marriage, where two men and two women would set up long-term food sharing and mutual support.

Although marriage, whether through mutual attraction or the arrangement between families or clans, was common in egalitarian societies, sexual exclusion was not an absolute.

I believe Ryan and Jetha, authors of Sex at Dawn, make an excellent argument that human reproduction was based on sperm competition, versus external competition between males, in their anatomical comparisons to other primates. Men and women would have multiple sexual partners and rely not on a small family unit, but the larger group for support and the parenting offspring. Sperm competition makes logical sense for a society whose priority is cooperation for food security, protection and child-raising.

For Ryan and Jetha, the buck stops here: agriculture is blamed for domesticating the human mind and libido and infecting our egalitarian nature. Although this was probably the most common reproductive strategy for the majority of our species’ existence, it clearly hasn’t been the most successful one.

In part 2, I will write about non-agricultural accomplishment-based societies and how high resources can lead to external sexual competition instead of sperm competition.

I also plan to talk about how this relates to sexism, current western society and the possibility of a return to the egalitarian strategy in the near future.


 

I am taking The Creation of Inequality by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus and pairing it with Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha as my main references to come to my own conclusions.

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