May 23, 2006
Biotechnology Will Some Day Enable Polygamy

An excellent article by David Kelly and Gary Cohn of the Los Angeles Times provides an overview of Mormon splinter sects which practice polygamy.

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. For half a century, while polygamous members of this remote enclave engaged in widespread sexual abuse and child exploitation, government authorities on all levels did little to intervene or protect generations of victims.

Here in the sparsely populated canyon lands straddling Arizona and Utah, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS an offshoot of Mormonism live by their own rules.

The expulsion of boys of at the early ages of 13 and 14 for rules infractions is one of the more amazing things the polygamists do. In order to have enough women to go around they have to have fewer men.

Boys are thrown out of town, abandoned like unwanted pets by the side of the road and forcibly ostracized from their families to reduce competition among the men for multiple wives.

Children routinely leave school at age 11 or 12 to work at hazardous construction jobs. Boys can be seen piloting dump trucks, backhoes, forklifts and other heavy equipment.

Girls work at home, trying to keep order in enormous families with multiple mothers and dozens of children who often eat in shifts around picnic tables.

Wives are threatened with mental institutions if they fail to "keep sweet," or obedient, for their husbands.

I think polygamy may become more prevalent in the future and I think advances in biotechnology will make this possible. First of consider that the polygamists face two problems (legal problems aside) as far as human nature is concerned: A) They need several women per man and yet their babies are born like others with nearly equal ratio between males and females; and B) Women want husbands of their own, not shared. Biotechnically speaking, these are both solvable problems.

First off, a company called Microsort can already solve the sex ratio problem (though I suspect they would avoid knowingly doing business with polygamists). They have a method of sorting sperm that selects out male and female sperm (i.e. sperm with Y versus X chromosomes). This method isn't 100% efficient. But the technology could be used to produce offspring that are overwhelmingly female. Also, selective abortion guided by ultrasound sex detection is widely used in India and China to abort a substantial fraction of all female fetuses. The same technology could instead guide selective abortion of male fetuses of women in polygynous marriages.

In the longer run easier and cheaper methods to select offspring sex will become available. Methods that do not require cooperation of a company or even of a doctor and which are much cheaper will eventually lower the barriers for doing offspring sex selection. When such technologies become available I would be surprised if polygamous religious sects do not use them.

Then there's the problem of human nature. Consider that these polygamists are already managing to condition many women into lives of polygynous wives (polygyny is one husband and many wives) and that they succeed in this in spite of human nature as it exists today. Imagine the world 10 years hence when we will know many genetic variations that influence the tendencies toward jealousy, possessiveness, promiscuity, and other personality characteristics that affect mating behavior. Just by selecting among existing genetic variations it will be possible to have female offspring that will find polygyny more tolerable than the average woman does today.

Knowledge of genetic variations which generate the existing range of cognitive characteristics will inevitably lead to the development new genetic variations that widen the range of human desires, urges, instinctive responses, and other behavioral tendencies. I expect scientists will accidentally if not intentionally discover how to produce females who will find polygyny much easier to accept and even to enjoy.

When I look at the hold that charismatic leaders have over their followers, the extreme demands those leaders can successfully make on their followers (e.g. expel your 13 year old son from the community by leaving him somewhere along side a road), and also the assortment of sects (whether religious or secular) that exist today one conclusion I draw from this is that people in various sects (not just polygamist offshoots of the Mormons) will use biotechnologies to achieve their group goals. Some sects will genetically engineer offspring to have characteristics that make them more ideal members of their sect.

Sect leaders will tell their followers that God has entrusted them with the responsibility to make the perfect followers of their doctrines and to create offspring that will better serve God's will. I fully expect we will see members of both small religious sects and major religions genetically engineering their offspring to make better believers and better livers of their doctrines. I do not expect legal barriers to prevent this. There are nearly 200 countries in the world. Some are highly corrupt. Some will allow this to take place in their borders either legally or in exchange for bribes.

Of all the religious sects that will do genetic engineering to make better followers I do not see polygamists who genetically engineer girls to have low jealousy as posing anywhere near the biggest problem for the rest of societies. Sects that make people more intolerant of non-believers and more devout in whatever they believe strike me as far more problematic.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 May 23 11:20 PM  Bioethics Reproduction

Doug said at May 23, 2006 11:53 PM:

"There are nearly 200 countries in the world."

That number can be made to decrease, in two modes.

PacRim Jim said at May 24, 2006 7:06 AM:

Wars will keep high the women:men ratio.

Ontogen said at May 24, 2006 3:08 PM:

If this sect has been expelling males and females that perform poorly in whatever measurements they value, they've already been creating an increasing genetic trend... one that was already based on a sample of the population that is sympathetic to those values. They probably have short generational cycles (birth in mid-teens?) and have probably been doing this for a long time (100 years?).

AMac said at May 24, 2006 4:15 PM:

An interesting application of Tom Wolfe's "fiction-absolute" concept (via Steve Sailer):

Each individual adopts a set of values which, if truly absolute in the world--so ordained by some almighty force--would make not that individual but his group... the best of all possible groups, the best of all inner circles.

The idea of engineering polygamy-prone women does have one problem: the father/husband himself would not benefit, only his (like-minded) descendants and fellow-polygamists of the future.

Of course, this same objection is just as valid when applied to the idea of dumping excess adolescent sons by the roadside--and by your account, this is already observed in practice in these communities.

Wolf-Dog said at May 24, 2006 4:21 PM:

Perhaps those nations with a shortage of women, are more likely to go to war.

Has there been any academic studies about the ratio of women to men in those countries that provoke a war? It might be possible to conduct a historical study to estimate the percentage of women and men in all nations that declared war.

Randall Parker said at May 24, 2006 4:41 PM:


An 18 year old polygamist who gets his first 15 year old wife pregnant can expect to have females to trade for other females with other males in his sect about 16 years later. At that point he'd be only 34 and still could collect more wives for decades to come.

The ability to use the daughters for some gain is key here. I've read news accounts claiming that Warren Jeffs assigns teen girls to loyal follower men. Jeffs could see ordering his disciples to have more female offspring as in the interest of the group. Or more independent polygamists could arrange marriages for their daughters just as is done in the Middle East today.

Robert Silvetz said at May 24, 2006 11:12 PM:

Well, we have reverse evidence. We have considerable evidence that high female-to-male ratios lead to tranquil social groups. This has been used by ranchers/herders for the better part of 1000 years with all types of cattle to keep things quiet in the pens.

JK said at May 25, 2006 6:31 AM:

I would think that having more men in a society would make it more apt to go to war, not less. With fewer women to start families, etc., you'd have more idle men sitting around, wondering what to do with themselves...that's not a good thing.

Garson Poole said at May 25, 2006 10:19 AM:

I see the wonders of technology. Each man obtains a large private harem of pliable female sex-slaves. Unsurprisingly, the commentators on this thread appear to be mostly male. ;-) For contrast we might consider a very different society based on technological intervention.

We could imagine a society in which each woman obtains a large private harem of male sex-slaves. But instead consider a more radical society with no males. Is there a technology that would allow reproduction in this society? I think it is possible as follows. First, a diverse stock of sperm is kept frozen in sperm banks (This technology exists now.) The sperm bank is initially created when males are still present in the society. Second, in vitro fertilization is used to obtain small groups of cells called morulas.

Third, morulas are tested for sex identification. If a morula is female then it can be transferred to a woman's uterus for growth into a female child. (All this technology exists now.) Fourth, if a morula is male then it is not allowed to develop into a child. Instead the morula development is guided to yield only a subset of cells. Specifically, cell culture techniques are used to obtain spermatogonial stem cells. These are the stem cells that create sperm. Now these new sperm cells can be used to update the sperm bank and replace older sperm cells. The society is now self-renewing and no males are needed.

The technology for guiding the development and differentiation of cells is still incomplete. It is the only missing part of this scenario I believe. Perhaps some irate oppressed woman from a polygamist society will perfect this technology. ;-)

Randall Parker said at May 25, 2006 5:18 PM:

Robert Silvetz,

A more feminine society would have lower violence and lower general crime rates.

But as Garson points out, a society of pliable sex slaves is a distinct possibility. I can easily imagine Muslim countries going that direction.

One thought struck me when writing this up: A higher ratio of females to males would produce a shortage of engineers and hard scientists. But if the males get IQ boosts this should be a solvable problem. Medicine wouldn't suffer. Women could take over most medical work even in most specialties. So a society with a higher ratio of females to males could be made to work pretty well.

Doug said at May 25, 2006 8:37 PM:
Well, we have reverse evidence. We have considerable evidence that high female-to-male ratios lead to tranquil social groups. This has been used by ranchers/herders for the better part of 1000 years with all types of cattle to keep things quiet in the pens.

It does seem that a high ratio of women to men would produce cattle in the long run. If the men in some populace make it easy for themselves, not just to gain a wife, but to gain multiple wives, it seems the men must suffer declining capacities over some number of generations. An overlooked benefit of the liberty of women to choose their mates and of the possibility of their excluding some men from reproduction altogether is that their choices exert selection pressure against decadent men.

There's also the problem that considerations of foreign affairs are paramount. If a society "A" of 100,000 men and 900,000 women had a neighbor "B" with 500,000 men and 500,000 women, I think the probable outcome would be a single society of c. 500,000 men and c. 1,400,000 women. I mean, I doubt that I'm alone in thinking it would be satisfying in more than one way, as ruler of society "B," to arrange the slaughter that would extinguish the stupidity of the men of society "A" and liberate their women to marry men of greater foresight and prudence. I would be careful to keep alive the ruler of society "A," so that when the war was over, I could ask him whether he deserved to leave offspring in the next generation.

Robert Silvetz said at May 26, 2006 2:38 PM:

Well, actually, we know what happens Doug. And by history you are right as to the outcome of them being wiped out.

The original fertile crescent societies were peaceful matriarchal farming. Neighboring patriarchal societes decimated the former and history unfolded as we know so well. 7000+ years of endemic violent anticivilizations.

Now, whether high female-to-male ratios would produce sheep-men, I don't know. Undoubtedly progress would be slower because of dissipation of energy into sex. I concur these men would be docile but would they be stupid or decadently unproductive? It's not clear to me I need to be aggressive to be smart or successful.

monday jack said at May 27, 2006 2:14 AM:

The lower the female to male ratio, the more energy the men have to spend to attract mates. And there is already too much spend on this.

So a global increase of the female percentage would be a good thing, for a lot of other reasons too. (but it's not the silver bullet of course)

epobirs said at May 28, 2006 3:50 AM:


Unintended consequences always lurk, waiting to surprise us.

A century later we could find what would appear to be a polygamist's dream. A society with a female to male ratio anywher from 5:1 to 10:1. But who is in charge? After female preference for polygamy become s a dominant trait, does that necessarily also make them submissive to the male minority? Leaving aside the issues of bisexuality and lesbianism, the result could be women who happily form small family groups with a single shared male making all of their children half-siblings. The males may or may not have the illusion they're in control of things but so long as they're living the dream they'd likely not make a fuss and be productive in their specialties as well as in initiating pregnancies for the women and acting as male figure for the resulting children.

epobirs said at May 28, 2006 3:56 AM:


The opposite can occur as well. Recent years have seen many new little sovereign states crop up. Most recently, Montenegro. Meanwhile, the EU is encountering much resistance in trying to make over the nations of Europe as a single entity. It's arguable that keeping Iraq as a single nation is undoable without a brutal dictator to suppress a major portion of the population. The trend could easily continue towards more and smaller nations while large multinational corporate entities become a kind of overnation with their own global culture appealing to those who don't care for the tribal mindset driving the increasing number of political borders.

Garson Poole said at May 28, 2006 10:01 AM:

I agree that societies do evolve and that there are sometimes unintended consequences. For example, a polygamist society might start to use democratic decision making strategies in limited domains. As the democratic sphere grew the power of women would grow. If ultimately all the members of the society were given full voting rights then the supernumerary women would have great power. Indeed, there is a danger that males would be oppressed in this scenario.

Randall Parker said at May 28, 2006 10:28 AM:


Whether a society with a high ratio of women to men would pose a problem for men depends on two factors

1) Would the women have a right to vote in national elections?

2) How would the women be genetically programmed?

It is important to note that married women vote much more conservatively than unmarried women. The gap between male and female voting behavior is mostly due to people getting married at later ages (if at all) and getting divorced. Women in polygynous marriages might vote very conservatively even without being programmed to think conservatively.

Oh, and I predict that we'll find genetic causes of group differences in voting behavior and it will become possible to genetically program offspring to favor left-liberalism, anarcho-libertarianism, classical liberalism, or various variants on conservatism. Ditto for desire to exist in a hierarchy or to be independent and more free.

What people will actually program their offspring to be like politically I do not know. It is a question of enormous importance though.

C.R. said at May 29, 2006 7:21 PM:

One possible outcome is that offshoot groups of the numerous women would produce societies that could consider males as 'breeder males'. Only the best males would be shared among these women who would maintain social dominance. I'm not sure if this is a good thing. As a woman, I tend to find men more easy going and while their forms of aggression are physical, women have intricate and longstanding aggressive patterns that while more passive, can be as great a 'stress' as the more obvious physical ones to those lower in the hierarchal structure. This may seem an improvement over war, and violent acts among the more aggressive individuals of our species, as we see in the world today, but would also have its own drawbacks.

This might somehow be overcome by genetically modifying even the women, but then we could potentially have a placid, complacent society with fewer survival sills outside the bounds of civilization. (Not necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself).

My point is, each 'solution' will often present a new set of problems.

g510 said at May 30, 2006 1:08 AM:

And while we're at it, since FLDS seems to go in for pedophilia in a big way, why not breed humans who positively beg to be raped starting a couple of years after they learn to speak? "Oooh father, shove it in me! Harder! Harder!"

Nice, huh? You want unintended consequences, you're going to get unintended consequences.

If ever there was a case of a technology that humans lacked the maturity to use, genetic programming of human traits is the one. And don't give me any BS about not being able to put the genie back in the bottle, that's nothing more or less than the abdication of will and the abdication of choice. Make yourself a slave to your tools and you're a slave by any other name.

As for polygamous societies being guided by female values, forget it. Look at Saudi Arabia. All you have to do is deny women the vote and you can create a little gender-apartheid state with ten women for every man and never fear the women will vote to have the men kept in cages when they're not being trotted out for stud service.

Meanwhile, Saudi is a classic case of what Robtert S. so brilliantly termed a violent anticivilization. The decadent, dissipated ruling elite lounges around doing much of nothing, industry is managed by foreigners, labor is performed by foreigners, a large percentage of the population is impoverished and chronically unemployed, and the place is a powderkeg waiting to be blown up by the very terrorists the elite sees fit to fund. Polygamy has bred Saudi ruling class males into sheepdom, and when the Ghawar oil field peaks out, the sheep are going to find themselves turned into mutton chops.

I should mention here that in the past I have tended to be neutral on the issue of polygamy, if, after all, it is a matter for consenting adults. Now it seems to me that the whole FLDS scandal makes mush out of that arguement. It's not consent if it's not between adults, and 40-somethings "marrying" girls young enough to be their daughters is worse than downright gross, it's child molestation with a veneer of an excuse. Perhaps a national age of consent to marriage, and a national telephone number for reporting cases of child molestation, and Federal protection for victims much as was needed for victims of race-hate crimes in the civil rights era, would establish a basis for allowing people to take partners plural without causing a cascade of abuses. But at this point, polygamy, at least as practiced by FLDS and throughout the Middle East, seems like nothing more than a form of slavery in service to males with insatiable penises.

Randall Parker said at May 30, 2006 5:46 AM:


I think age of consent ought not be a single number. A 16 year old girl marrying a 17 year old boy ought to be seen in a very different light than a 16 year old girl marrying a 35 year old man. In the latter case the potential for coercion, manipulation, and deception is much greater. It is less a relationship of equals.

Similarly, I think age of consent ought to somehow be adjusted for measures of mental development. I'd expect a 15 year old girl with 140 IQ will better be able to evaluate mate choices than a 15 year old with 80 IQ.

Manu Desh Raj said at March 10, 2007 12:31 PM:

Little or more, so what, mostly religions take have a polygamistic atmospher about the women. It is belowing with blood in our minds so how can be posible that the males will change the blood like a major disease as cancer but it is a fect that we are ill all.

Someone said at August 3, 2007 10:24 PM:

Why are you all so anti-male? Do men not have the same right as women to exist? What gives one group the right to decide if another should not be allowed to? Are you doing nothing but the very same as the Nazis tried? Is this not just a new fascism with a new target in its sights? You talk of men violent and eliminating men to save people but if you eliminated men is it not you who are the real killers and the real biggest threat we all face, after all is it not you promoting the mass killings of people? And as for eliminating certain groups of people to create a better society why not just eliminate all humans as all humans have flaws of sorts and replace them with perfect robots controlled by A.I. in that case creating a 'perfect society'. In the 1930s the idea that Jews were inferior to white people and that Jews existing was a plague upon the white people was a popular idea in parts of Europe and was spread via the media to the people to make them think along the same lines. Is this not the very same we are seeing today that the idea of men being inferior to women is being spread by the media to make the people think along the same line? The reason why such ideas are created is because one large group of people in a society may become unhappy at a certain point in history and seek a scapegoat to place the reasons for this unhappiness on. Most of the reasons for this unhappiness are actually down to themselves but they cannot admit this or else feel even more unhappy and so hence the need for a scapegoat.

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