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Original Sin: the Sexual Motivation of Religious Extremists


In late October of 2014, Iraqi News reported, as ISIS forces rampaged through Diyala province, one of their soldiers found a thirty-year-old woman resting at her home and attempted to rape her. She fought back, wresting away his gun and killing him. This incredibly brave woman was brought before ISIS’s Sharia Court, which promptly condemned her to death and had her publicly beheaded for this defense of her honor, thus laying bare the utter hypocrisy of all claims that draconian laws regarding sex are intended for the protection of women.

The gory spectacle of radical Islamism at work that began in the Middle East and has spread its crimson tendrils abroad from there is terrifying to behold. To the eyes of those lucky enough to enjoy a secure place in one of the prosperous modern democracies, the violence unfolding on our television and computer screens has an almost hallucinatory quality. Surely, our brains say, this cannot be real. This sort of thing cannot be happening in this day and age!

Recently have I felt as if I can begin to taste the desperate fear of the Byzantines as Attila the Hun pressed against the walls of Constantinople. Who are these barbarians? What will they do next? How, how can they be so evil as they nakedly are?

While the sporadic attacks on Western soil are frightening, they are not what induce this existential terror in me. Rather it is the merciless force that ISIS, Boko Haram, and their imitators unleash on the very populations from which they arose. They systematically behead long lines of “unbelievers;” they mow down prisoners of war; they toss gay men from high buildings; they rape and enslave every girl and woman unfortunate enough to fall into their hands; and they obliterate their own history by dynamiting and destroying archeological sites. And while all the offenses in this list make me weep and gnash my teeth in helpless rage, it was the sight of the last one that finally sent a deep chill all the way into my bones.

For when I saw the pillagers attacking the giant winged bulls of Nineveh, when I saw them tear down the ancient gates and walls of the city those figures guarded, it made their real mission visible. These men are not trying to build up a glorious empire; they are not concerned with bringing the world’s souls to Allah; no, they are in a mad fury against civilization itself. In an ecstasy of rage fueled by their thwarted desires, they would burn the world.

Make no mistake: it is indeed desire that lies at the heart of this storm. It’s astonishing the degree to which both ISIS and Boko Haram are openly obsessed with sex, and yet how little this is commented on in the media. Both groups routinely abduct, rape, and forcibly “wed” girls. ISIS issued a pamphlet delineating the proper way to handle one’s personal sex slaves, and has strict rules even for women that are voluntarily part of the movement; each is awarded to a man, and if widowed they are quickly married off to another fighter. Boko Haram gained notoriety for its mass abduction of schoolgirls, yet it was barely implied in articles about the incident, not openly stated as the foregone conclusion it surely was, that those girls were certain to be brutally and repeatedly raped by many fighters for as long as they managed to survive the abuse.

This misguided reticence is a product of archaic cultural mores that make sex a thing of shame for women, but one of pride for men. No one wants to call these groups what they actually are, roving bands of armed rapists, because that would inevitably damage the standing of the women who fall prey to them. But unless we accept that this is a large part, perhaps the largest part, of their motivation (remember even suicide bombers are dying for the promise of eternal, unlimited sex) we will never understand them and thus, never learn how to defeat them.

This is not to say that the leaders and followers of these movements don’t desire power; they do. But in their hierarchical worldview, power is about status. That’s why massive destruction is an actual policy: since status is relative, degrading you exalts me. Like Lucifer, they would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. The caliph of ruins is still a caliph.

And that prize of status is so appealing because in primate troops, status determines access to females. What these groups are doing is no different from the Gombe Chimpanzee War, where four years of sporadic but horrific violence resulted in a total gain for the victors of three captured adult females and a small strip of territory that was quickly lost to another, bigger troop. Consider the fact that of 234 women and girls recently liberated from Boko Haram, no less than 214 were pregnant. The bloodshed in Iraq and Syria and Libya and Nigeria and everywhere else this contagion has spread is a savage primal conflict, where the whole point of conquering your neighbors is to steal their women.

In fact that primal character is what makes it contagious. And that’s exactly what frightens me. The glittering edifice that is contemporary civilization is built on the ground of evolved human nature, which is riddled with ancient faults, and sometimes, one of them moves. Moves, perhaps, with enough power to rip the modern world apart.

The last such earthquake to strike us was World War II. Nazism was a perverted apotheosis of kin selection; that is why it appealed. At the cost of millions of lives, humanity rendered a final decision: tribalism must go. This time, the slipping fault is the conflict between the evolutionary interests of men and women, and this explosion of violence will ultimately answer the question of whether male supremacy will continue to be tolerated, or be cast out at last. How many women will be slaughtered or reduced to breeding stock before enough men find the inner grit to make that choice rightly?


Sexual selection is a “special case” of natural selection. Sexual selection acts on an organism’s ability to obtain (often by any means necessary!) or successfully copulate with a mate… Sexual selection is often powerful enough to produce features that are harmful to the individual’s survival. —UC Berkeley website, “Understanding Evolution.”

Fitness (often denoted in population genetics models) is a central idea in evolutionary theory… it describes individual reproductive success and is equal to the average contribution to the gene pool of the next generation that is made by an average individual of the specified genotype or phenotype. —Wikipedia, “Fitness (Biology).”

Evolution is a numbers game. Personal intentions or happiness are beside the point. Natural selection is an algorithm that grinds out results based purely on physical inputs. Open a book on population genetics and you will quickly encounter pages of intimidating mathematics. Difficult as it is to accept that human destiny has been and will be decided by such an abstract, indifferent mechanism, it is the truth.

The predictive power of evolutionary theory is both vast and robust. In ordinary conversation people reduce this complex and powerful science to a few well-worn (and frequently inaccurately understood) concepts. But in the hands of the experts, it is a tool of surpassing excellence. Make no mistake: this is not hand-waving. It is hard science.

One of the great truths of evolution and one of the hardest to accept is that the natural evolutionary interests of males and females are not the same. Because the reproductive capacity of males is theoretically near-infinite, whereas that of females is strictly limited, they can only achieve maximum fitness by pursuing differing strategies. A male tends to be best off with many mates, a female with a high-quality and devoted one. When resource inequality among males is great these two strategies, combined, produce the mating system known as resource polygyny, or, in social animals, harem polygyny, where strong high-status males monopolize both resources and large numbers of females.

It seems likely, though we cannot know for certain, that this is the ancestral mating system for Homo sapiens. It is common in primates. Historically it was the rule until the Greek introduction of legal monogamy between two and three thousand years ago, and worldwide before the modern era it was by far the most common system (whereas polyandry, one woman with multiple husbands, is vanishingly rare). It persistently reappears, sometimes in ugly fashion, in isolated communities.

Physically, men are larger than women, a trait associated with polygyny. And genetic studies show a remarkable dominance of only a few Y-chromosome types, but no corresponding restriction of the mitochondrial ones which are passed on by mothers. Recent research shows that the global ratio of successful reproduction for the sexes after the advent of agriculture was as much as 17:1 (women:men), and even in more recent times it hovered between four and five to one. It is clear that throughout most of our history only a subset of men managed to reproduce, but almost all women did.

The West can thank the Romans for decisively rejecting this ancestral preference, and codifying a surprisingly modern form of monogamy in their marriage laws. Christianity, which grew up under the Romans, adopted the idea from them; it is not at all Biblical. In fact, a quick perusal of the Old Testament will make it clear why I say the Romans should be thanked. Polygyny may maximize reproductive potential, but it leads to all sorts of social ills. Women are not the only ones who suffer. So do children, and so do many men. So does society at large. And it is all because of those relentless numbers.

Just as a quick and (I must emphasize!) immensely oversimplified demonstration of principle, consider these examples. Because the human population sex ratio is normally 50/50, when one man takes on an extra wife, another man is deprived of the opportunity to have one at all. So if just one man in ten takes a single extra wife, a very modest degree of polygyny, that means fully 10% of men are shut out of the marriage market entirely. This sets off a mad scramble among young men not to end up in that unfortunate bottom 10%. There, the options for obtaining sex (at least with a woman) are reduced to two: subterfuge or rape.

Now, think about the reproductive numbers. Say a woman can be expected to successfully raise ten children in her lifetime. But a man can have that 10 times the number of wives (or concubines) he obtains. What does this mean for parental investment? Parents can hope for only a small number of grandchildren from daughters, but a large number from sons. Selection will favor parents who favor sons by granting them the means necessary to obtain wives. Daughters will suffer neglect; some desperate man will likely take them anyway.

In fact, the reality is even worse than this, because the relatively low biological value of daughters encourages female infanticide. So the number of women available for marriage actually becomes less than that of men even in theoretical terms, yet the number of children each of them can have does not increase. It’s a vicious circle that escalates sexual conflict—a trap.

In short, the only way to ensure that the evolutionary interests of men and women become identical, which is the only way that natural selection will favor equality, is a monogamous mating system. The reproductive potential of men is then collapsed to that of women, and within families every child of a given man is the child of the same woman, so there is no conflict over resource allocation to be had, save between siblings. Every man can hope to find a wife, which enormously reduces social stress.

While it has never been fully achieved in practice, this ideal has had a powerful influence on our society. It alters behavior in myriad ways. It was never intended to raise the status of women, but thanks to the inexorable logic of evolution, normative monogamy has done so.

This, I submit, is the true source of the rift between the Muslim world and the secular world of the West. Islam never gave up polygyny. Instead it enshrined the practice in Sharia law, allowing men up to four wives, and concubines into the bargain. In doing so it made it impossible for women to rise in social status—a rise that seems so natural and inevitable to us—and condemned itself to suffer the ongoing societal instability created by large numbers of unattached young males.

Here, minus the pages of calculations, are just a few predictions of evolutionary theory about the consequences of polygyny. All have been thoroughly researched in humans and are solidly borne out by multiple converging lines of evidence in studies that are cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary. Further, the higher the degree of polygyny in a society, the stronger are the effects. These include:

  1. Stringent controls on women in all aspects of life.
  2. Decreased age of wives relative to husbands, sometimes to the point of pedophilia.
  3. More children per woman, with less reproductive choice.
  4. Higher infant mortality (but no so high as to offset the higher number of births).
  5. Much greater domestic violence and child abuse.
  6. Increased rates of crime, most especially rape and murder.
  7. More frequent warfare.

Does this list paint a familiar picture? I could go on.

These problems and many others are endemic to societies that practice polygyny and they arise directly from it. It exacerbates conflict between individuals to such a degree that the resultant behavior is often of a kind we would term barbaric. And yet the system persists, because our biology favors it. In the absence of a strong cultural counter-force it will prevail.

Polygyny is the poisoned soil that nurtured the explosive growth of radical Islamism with its sexual obsessions and salacious sacralization of violence. The revolt of ISIS and Boko Haram is not at root a religious one; nor is it truly political or even economic. It is an evolutionary uprising of frustrated young men. They have arisen and seek to claim their place as head of a harem, if not here, in the afterlife.

Modernity requires monogamy. But will followers of Mohammed accept it?


The Vulcan heart was forged out of barbarism and violence. We learned to control it, but it is still part of us. To pretend it does not exist is to create an opportunity for it to escape.

—Lt. Tuvok, Star Trek Voyager episode “Cold Fire.”

Last night was Friday the 13th of November, 2015. At some point as I watched and listened to the havoc unfold in Paris, as I waited, teeth clenched, for the police to respond to the people trapped in the Bataclan who were begging them to storm the building because the terrorists were killing them, the last vestige of patience left me. So let’s just lay it on the line, shall we?

Religion has nothing to do with immortal souls. It’s about bodies. Especially women’s bodies. Religion is concerned with sex and with violence, in that order. Men want sex from women; men fight over women to get it. The resulting children may or may not be allowed to live, depending on whose they are—and how much they grovel. That’s all there is to it. Everything else is just window-dressing. There’s no great supernatural lawgiver running the show. There are only evolutionary imperatives built into our DNA which those memeplexes that are religions ruthlessly exploit to their own benefit. At the dark throbbing heart of faith lies patriarchy.

It’s not just Islamism; remember Nazism’s “Kinder, küche, kirche!” Any ideology that depends on faith can loose these atavistic drives. But the phenomenon is most clearly visible in the Abrahamic religions. “Abraham” translates to “great father of multitudes.” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are literally religions of the patriarch. What is more revealingly symbolic, more phallocentric, more perfect a unification of sex and violence, than circumcision, that gory sign of the covenant? In God one can almost see the hairy figure of the old alpha male, now inflated to the size of King Kong, leaning over the cradle of newborn civilization, flint knife in hand to claim his eternal tribute.

Whether his stand-in is mohel, Caliph, or Pope doesn’t matter. Religions survive because they tap into the instinctive psychology of human beings. It is from that deep well that they draw their insidious power. That is why they are so stubbornly conservative: they cannot depart from the way things once were to match the way things are, or they will lose the source of their appeal. Genes are slow to change; ideas race ahead without them, but do so at their peril.

Movements like fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islamism are driven by the existence of large numbers of people who, for whatever reason, simply cannot adjust to modernity. In particular, they cannot adjust to equality for women. Both movements are completely fixated on sex. The obsession takes different forms but its focus is the same: the control of women and their bodies in the service of men. How much difference is there between the life of Michelle Duggar and that of a farmer’s prize cow, relied upon to produce a calf every year? She has certainly been paraded around the ring for profit.

There are still some lingering restraints on the most bestial impulses of faith under the secular governments of the West, but in the war-riven Middle East and Africa, and increasingly in South Asia, where fledgling democracy was already by far the weaker party, religion has now fully unleashed the monster of our primal nature.

Think about it. Memes need hosts. To reproduce maximally they need hosts that do the same. Maximum reproduction is what evolution selects for. It’s that ancient behavioral program encoded in our DNA that was honed to just this purpose. Any set of memes that can fully activate it will have a great advantage. And so religions, which unlike other fields of human endeavor are unconstrained by any consideration of external realities, will find ways to do so.

In other writings I have said that religion is the art of fiction gone feral. Now I say that its most avid followers are humans who have done the same. The fighters for ISIS who ecstatically slaughter infidels and sexually enslave women have fully reverted to wildtype. Red in tooth and claw, they are like lions whose alliances are cemented by relationship—think of all those attacks carried out by brother teams. And who doubts that as the killers in the Bataclan detonated their suicide belts with bloody fingers, they thought eagerly of the virgins awaiting them? In their actions we see the terrible danger of an alliance between genes and memes where the sole priority of both is their own reproduction.

“Kill the unbeliever!” is the battle cry of such alliances; it serves marauding memes and genes together. Maximizing fitness—which consists, remember, not in the absolute number of surviving offspring but in the share of the next generation they compose—necessitates the extermination of rivals. No other slogan should strike more fear into the heart of humanity. However and wherever it arises, it’s a death knell for civilization.

In fact the mass graves left behind by ISIS look remarkably like Neolithic ones that have been excavated in Europe. Heaps of pathetic bones tell the story of brutality: grandfathers, babes in arms, strong men, small children, their mothers. But as in the case of the Yazidis, what are not present, what are never present, are the bodies of girls and young women. They were the prize; they are why the killing was done.

Rape has always been the companion of war, as the survivors of Nanking can attest. These behaviors appear together because they are part of the same innate pattern of male aggression. For too long we have looked away from that fact. It’s time to face it straight on. It’s our own nature that is the ultimate enemy here.

The magical siren song of radical Islam is just the call of the wild. It offers a way to fulfill the fantasies of our DNA, to cast aside the chains of culture and become once more what we evolved to be. But the Eden it offers is not a mythic paradise; it’s the real ancestral jungle of blood and tears and endless unimaginable suffering. That is what patriarchy looks like. That is what the world looked like before we gained the knowledge of good and evil.

How could it ever have been otherwise?


This series of essays was originally published at Secular Humanist Bulletin, where Janet L Factor is a columnist and contributing editor. Read more of her essays here.


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  1. Can you give a reference for the consequences of polygyny?

  2. Richard says

    “This, I submit, is the true source of the rift between the Muslim world and the secular world of the West.”

    China and Korea have monogamy, yet no fight with the Muslim world. While Boko Haram and ISIS may be motivated by sex, at the ground level, the only reason this is a global conflict is because of Western policy, which makes war on Muslim countries while letting millions of them settle in the West.

    • Richard, China has less of a problem because they have their own problems. China’s one-child policy resulted in the termination/abortion of many females. If radical Muslims are invading to take the women, why would they invade a country that doesn’t have any women?

    • Echo Delta says

      Uighurs in Xinjiang are one of the threats driving China towards the US.

    • This is not an Islam vs the West binary.
      On every continent, there’s at least one country grappling with Islamism (think Russia, Egypt, Australia, Indonesia, and yes, China).
      Blowback (e.g. the unintended consequences of Western foreign policy) only explains so much. For example, the US has meddled in Latin America for decades, yet South Americans haven’t reacted in violence.

  3. Richard says

    “Movements like fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islamism are driven by the existence of large numbers of people who, for whatever reason, simply cannot adjust to modernity”

    Ironic coming from an evolutionist! Seems like those least able to adjust to modernity are those with a birthrate below replacement.

    “The obsession takes different forms but its focus is the same: the control of women and their bodies in the service of men. How much difference is there between the life of Michelle Duggar and that of a farmer’s prize cow, relied upon to produce a calf every year?”

    Michelle Duggar gave birth to 9 daughters. Even if their lives end us less than perfect, I think that they’re grateful for the opportunity to be born, which they wouldn’t have been if their mother had “successfully adjusted to modernity.” How many of us would be alive today if our grandparents had accepted secular humanism?

    The author doesn’t like religious fundamentalists, and the problems with Islamic fundamentalism are obvious enough. But there needs to be a middle way between Islamic extremism, and the nihilism and sterility of the liberal West.

    • Easttexasfatboy says

      It’s passing strange that “educated” people can’t understand that all of your prattle is useless. Islamic expansion versus Western perversions. How’s that for a stark contrast? You see, the use of beheading is a very real way to spread terror. Terrorized people can’t function.

      Islam deals in absolutes. Their foot soldiers are promised western women as sex slaves. Any idea how you are going to stop that? Western feminism is in the process of destroying the very masculine qualities that are necessary to fight and win.

      Just think! The very soldiers who could have saved western feminism were aborted…..literally. Islam doesn’t have that problem. So, there you go……..rampant feminism is a sterile death cult. Islam isn’t.

      • What nonsense. Western feminism isn’t about destroying masculinity. It is about equality for all. That is all. A feminist-inspired society where everyone has equality of opportunity has far better chance of defeating the hyper-masculinised vision of ISIS than trying to fight fire with fire. Heart and minds and all that.

        • Good point! Sex-starved extremists would love to enter an environment where sexual assault = jail and you cannot simply purchase yourself a pliable woman. Truly, Feminism is the cure to Islam!

          Oh wait, no it isn’t. And in fact, most feminists have a hardon for islamists like you wouldn’t believe, judging by their defense of said islamists. The best way to defeat ISIS is to show ourselves to be decisively stronger than them while absolutely crushing them.

      • CF2 says

        Rather simplistic argument to claim that the potential soldiers to fight Islam are being aborted. One overwhelming reality from birth control is a reduction in human misery, less children being born into situations that mean that they don’t receive enough food, attention or other resources. We all know that absolutist regimes want a high birth rate as cannon fodder; the nazis spent a lot of time experimenting on twins to try to see if they could induce multiple births to increase birth rates. Control of women is related to a control of fertility. What it comes down to is, how do you want to live? Do you want to live in a society with basic standards for all and one that hopefully works to improve equality and justice for all members or do you want to live in a society solely focused on military interests? To become the monster is ultimately not defeating the monster. Has the world situation been improved by military intervention in the middle- East? Historically cultural improvements to the status of women there have been achieved by grassroots movements influenced by world conferences in countries like Turkey and Eygpt not by sanctions or warfare.

    • Moschops says

      “Seems like those least able to adjust to modernity are those with a birthrate below replacement.”

      WTF are you talking about? The states full of people living modern lives are the states with birthrates below replacement.

      • LambChops says

        That’s EXACTLY what he’s talking about, Doofus: any (evolutionary) Biologist can tell you that the most “successful” creatures are the ones who reproduce (most) successfully. The ones who adapt most successfully to an environment are the ones who have the most children. Therefore, the religious extremists are more successful, by far, than the West, which is a HUGE failure by any halfway-scientific understanding of failure, even without ISIS to hasten their collapse.

        • M. Raven says

          Wrong. A species that OVER produces for its environment is not successful. Why do you think all species don’t have huge litters? We are overpopulating our environment, and birth rate below replacement IS, in the case of overpopulation, and evolutionary adjustment and advantage.

          Finally, modernity (I would hope) means that we can allow our intellect to override pure evolutionary impulse, and recognize when breeding to excess will only destroy is in the long run. THat I even have to explain such a thing…. SMH

        • CF2 says

          Successful biologically or successful in life quality, I know which one I would pick. It is easy to make sweeping judgement about a future where horrifyingly we are outbreed by ISIS a but do you want the living standards that come from rearing and supporting ten children? If not why are you arguing?Or do you just want some unknown quantity of western women (preferably feminists from your tone) to have these little foot soldiers on your behalf and some hardworking men to help financially support them? Nice to talk about biological necessitates but not nice to have to pay the piper

  4. John Frenchie says

    Richard, China is having plenty of issues with its Muslim Uighur population in its westernmost province, Xinjiang. China simply has stricter controls over its media, so we hear less about issues regarding Islam in China. But you are right in that China tries to limit the number of outsiders it allows in.

    • Richard says

      Ok, then Korea and Japan. Basically, the only people who have problems with Muslims are those who live alongside them. China and Russia inherited their problems. The West has been voluntarily creating them.

  5. Rojas says

    What does the poor lion in the picture have to do with islamic extremism? Yes, lions are predators that kill other animals in order to eat their meat, but apart from that they are rather peaceful creatures. They don’t blow themselves up, they don’t rape, they don’t enslave, they don’t stone anybody to death, they do none of the things that islamists do.

    • August says

      Prides of lions are usually controlled by one dominant male. However, young male lions will sometimes gang up to attack and kill the male of one pride, kill any of his cubs, and tale control of the females.

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  7. dragbunter says

    You lumped Christianity in with the other religions without really delving into details. Christianity worships a celibate deity (Jesus), rejected circumcision, and advocates servant love in monogamy (Ephesians 5). It doesn’t seem to me to fit in the same category as the others.

    • August says

      I thought so too. She states monogamy is key to modernity but discounts the major religion that encourages monogamy for life.

    • Christianity rejected circumcision as, in the early days, it was run by the Greeks. They did their sport naked (Gymnos, where our word Gym comes from). Their definition of obscene was for the end of the penis to show so they would tie the end over with a leather thong. This would not be possible if circumcised, so to evangelise the Greeks the practice had to go. The choice was therefor to spread the new religion or ban sport! A political choice was made and the rest is history

    • Celibate diety? How do you know? and are you ignoring the fact that they are all the Abrahamic religion? And xtianities “Bible” is largely not just the new testament…How many% of xtians actually practice total lifelong monogamy….probably about the same %number of non xtians is my guess… not very many at all!!! There are a number of dubious assertions in the article but none of them are about the lack of efficacy of religion or xtianity.

  8. If polygyny is the reason that ISIS exists, then why did so many ISIS fighters come from Tunisia, where polygamy of all kinds has been banned for 60 years? How do you explain the jihadi brides, or the significant number of foreign fighters who were married, some of whom brought their families to ISIS territory? How do you explain Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik? How do you explain Abdeslam Salah, the still at large Paris attacker who regularly visited gay bars to flirt with other men? http://nypost.com/2015/11/22/missing-paris-attacker-loved-gay-bars-and-playstation/

    Looking beyond ISIS, how do you explain the fact that, prior to 9/11, most members of Al Qaeda were married?

    Nice theory, but it’s full of holes.

    • Agreed. Way to many holes in this theory.

      A few more:

      Consider the differences between civilization in North and South America: in North America, colonists brought women with them and men were expected to marry women of their own race, but women were still a little scarcer than men; in South America colonists were mostly men and ended up marrying native women – so in a practical sense, women in North America were scarcer than in South America and this may have led women being valued more highly there … BUT women were not scarce in England, yet England had a reputation even by the 1800s for how deferential men were to women. By contrast, we are told that a shortage of women in most of Asia (Arab nations, India, China) leads those men to violence – whereas, despite common belief, America’s wild west was pretty peaceful despite a severe shortage of women; meanwhile; for most of history women outnumbered men because men were more likely to die in war or on the job – after the War of the Triple Alliance, visitors found that women outnumbered men by 13 to 1 in some towns in Paraguay. That is extreme, but at one point Swedish women outnumbered men 2 to 1, prompting the pope at the time to permit Swedish men to take 2 wives, and based on some other numbers I have seen I suspect a ratio of 2 to 1 was not terribly uncommon throughout history. Moreover, the two World Wars left a terrible imbalance in European societies and in Japan – and this surplus of women made it easier for men to find mates (whether formally or informally) but at the same time it “cheapened” the relative value of women, women gained considerable new freedoms.

      For that matter, in societies where polygyny is allowed the great majority of marriages end up being monogamous anyway, and the shortage of women in many Asian countries is not because of polygyny but because of sex-selective abortion. Looks to me like the low regard for women PRECEDED the shortage of women.

      Meanwhile, the author writes as if the West has rejected polygyny, whereas in fact we have only changed its form – in fact, most children today are born to unmarried mothers, and many of those mothers are sharing a few fathers while relying on the state to be their provider. In other words, we still have the pattern of a few men having many children, and a good deal more men never having children at all – a system even less progressive than that of the Islamic world, because childless men there are at least not held back from their reproductive potential by being required to pay for the upkeep of other men’s children.

      So – no dice. I need a better explanation. This one has too many counterexamples. Whatever is happening, some societies tend toward more freedom for women whether women are scarce or abundant, and some societies tend toward less freedom for women regardless of whether women are scarce or abundant. Maybe it’s enlightenment values, but it’s not polygyny vs. monogamy.

      • CF2 says

        I do agree that the enlightenment had a major impact on the development of concept of human rights but I question your beliefs about solo mothers. they don’t stand up against studies I have read. The site seems below seems to have a reasonably accurate array of stats on the subject. The leap from Solo Mothers being rare to mainstream may have impacted of your belief or perhaps you live in a social group were this more common


  9. Sullen Felix says

    You are right about Islam, polygamy and evolution. But when you declare secular modernity to be superior to Christianity and monogamous patriarchy, you switch from solid, well-substantiated arguments to just begging the question and taking the answer for granted. In reality the move form traditional christianity to modern secularism has been a move AWAY from monogamy. Nobody is having four wives under secular modernity but many people engage in “serial monogamy”, either by divorcing and remarrying or by just not settling at all in their fertile years. Meanwhile the single ladies casually form de-facto harems around high-status males by all taking turns dating and sleeping with the same 20% (or whatever%) of single men. This results in more surplus men without attachment to society than there ever were under traditional christian patriarchal monogamy (though not as many as under Islam). Hence: By the very very same standards you use to declare Islam inferior to secular modernity, secular modernity is inferior to Christian traditional monogamous patriarchy.

    • Nils says

      I think part of what keeps those forces at bay in the West is things like pornography and a different attitude to masturbation so that pent up sexual energy for the many involuntary celibate men has a different outlet.

      The risk here is of course that if you have a large population of men with no real stake in society you will see them withdraw. If you look at Japan for example there are already a lot of young people completely opting out of society, living with their parents well into their thirties and not pursuing careers.

    • Mike says

      The article addressed this. Monogamy comes to us from Greece, by way of Rome. It is not inherently part of the Abrahamic belief system that spawned both the originally polygynistic Judaism nor its Islamic offshoot… and also spawned Christianity. Want proof? Look at virtually every ‘cult’ that emerges from Christianity. David Koresh took all the young females among the Davidians, just as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (and other ‘elders’) did 200 years ago with the Church of Latter-Day Saints. It is no accident that the bizarre offshoots of the major Christian cults look alike in this fashion. Because each of them is just a single step backward into our less civilized nature.

      And it’s fascinating to see the claims that what we need to protect us form the abhorrent nature of radical Islam is to….. become more like radical Islam!! If that’s the case, then isn’t it just stupid tribalism after all?.

      • Micha Elyi says

        Look at virtually every ‘cult’ that emerges from Christianity.

        Ok. I’m looking at the Shakers and I can see your claim rests on nothing more than cherry-picking. You’re going to need a bigger exhaustive list of cults, Mike.

    • Don’t think so. Black culture in America has been artificially created and constantly truncated by the facts of 1) slavery and 2) the reality that American political control has been in the hands of white people from ward and neighborhoods to national offices throughout American history, including today. And that’s an essay longer than the one we’re commenting on.

    • BV Beauregarde says

      Very good point. You can’t praise the advantages of monogamy in part 1 and 2 of the article and then bash Christianity in part 3. Christianity is a huge supporter of monogamy. The argument in part 3 of this article falls apart.

      • I would contend that genuine life long monogamy in xtianty is largely fallacious.. very few xtians are genuinely monogamous. There are serial monogamists and even they mostly treat their “monogamy” as ceremonial.. Monogamy is a cultural artefact…. as is religion….

  10. Nicolas Bryant says

    > …dynamiting and destroying archeological sites…
    > when I saw the pillagers attacking the giant winged
    > bulls of Nineveh, when I saw them tear down the
    > ancient gates and walls of the city those figures
    > guarded, it made their real mission visible… they
    > are in a mad fury against civilization itself.

    I suspect there’s a simpler and more pragmatic (if unpleasant) explanation for that: historic sites are being raided so that smaller, more portable artefacts can be looted and then sold on the black market to raise money. The large-scale destruction of the site makes it more difficult to trace where any given artefact came from. “Obviously this thing can’t come from ISIS territory, ISIS blows everything up; I don’t know what its origins are,” the disreputable dealer can say to the prospective customer.

    • CF2 says

      So the Taliban blowing up the Giants Buddhas in Afganistan was not an attempt to deny the complex religious history of the region? When you destroy the cultural artifacts of place’s history, you ensure no questioning mind will ask who were these people of the past and what did they believe. This creates a nice sense of totality for a regime, gives them the artificial illusion of being eternal and backs up the propaganda that their’s is the only belief system.

  11. The ironic thing is that those who do not believe in evolution are the most avid practitioners of it, while the most vocal proponents of evolution, like the author, are its most lethargic followers.

    • Yes exactly. Another way I like to say it is this (from an American political perspective). Conservatives don’t believe in evolution and liberals are against it.

  12. At the cost of millions of lives, humanity rendered a final decision: tribalism must go.

    No it did not. Tribes must live in their place, not in other tribes places. Your attempt to remake human nature will fail.

  13. Tom Cleaveland says

    Interesting thesis. Perhaps a way to undermine ISIS would be to dump a massive amount of pornography into areas they control?

    • CF2 says

      Unfortunately the Wests misogyny oozed from its pornography, so that ain’t going to help any gender oppression.

  14. Will says

    For more on the headline topic, try “Punishing Eve” part 1, at the web site: janetwise.net/zeitgeist-commentary. She limns the parallel of religious zealots both Christian/Calvinist fundamentalists and Muslim Talibanists. But see for yourselves.

  15. emptyfull says

    Ugh. Yet another reductivist screed from a religion-hating evolutionary psychologist type who takes interesting questions (and a few interesting factoids) about human sexuality and tries to use it to “explain” socio-cultural phenomena she hasn’t bothered to even learn the slightest bit of history about.

    There is an enormous amount of theological debate throughout Islamic history about polygamy, under what conditions it is appropriate, its dangers, etc. Also, female infanticide (a very real problem) has multiple roots in economic structures and cultural practices.

    It is one thing to say that unconscious evolutionary drives help shape human practices – this is almost certainly true and can be explored in interesting ways. It is another thing entirely to declare that religion is only about sex, Darwinian selection, and the types of questions that evolutionary biologists study. This latter claim almost always comes along with a studious attempt to avoid learning anything about particular religions throughout history that do not fit one’s facile theories.

    Sadly, such screeds also often fixate on the (sometimes very real) crimes of cultural “others” while ignoring the massive, industrialized, murder that the “enlightened West” has visited on the rest of the world, and continues to this day to perpetrate.

    • Mike says

      Every ‘conservative’ branch of every religion certainly is obsessive about sex. On the Wailing Wall, there are conservative ‘police’ who prohibit women from worshipping at the most sacred spot. And the first thing that happens officially to every male Jewish child? The hood of his penis is sliced off, thereby making the penis appear larger and more ready to reproduce.

      In conservative American Christianity, we see it in the attempts to not only prevent abortion but to also eliminate birth control (see the HobbyLobby SCOTUS case). And on the other hand, aren’t they utterly obsessed with gay sex? Westboro Baptist is merely the lunatic fringe of it, and that fringe is but one step away from the main body of the movement which fights for the traditional ‘right’ to oppress homosexuality. Virtually the entirety of the “social conservative” movement here is about sexuality.

  16. Jonathan says

    Science-fiction fandom, as progressive and futuristic a community as you can imagine, generally eschews monogamy, and for good reason. The bourgeois mind needs to cause drama in order to have a sense of purpose.

    I think we can safely disregard this as a piece of fiction, or standard bourgeois projection.

    • cavenewt says

      “Science-fiction fandom, as progressive and futuristic a community as you can imagine, generally eschews monogamy, and for good reason.”

      As a member of that group, I’d like to see a source for that statement.

      • GeoBarbara says

        It is presented without quotations, as an opinion. As a member of “that group” (science-fiction fandom), you act as a faux scientist. Unfortunate, as Jonathan’s statement is also false and just as pretentious. Don’t dare to speak for such a heterogenous group of people; I, for one, resent it.

  17. tony says

    “How many women will be slaughtered or reduced to breeding stock before enough men find the inner grit to make that choice rightly?”

    Could someone explain to me what this means in practice. Does this mean the sort of predatory, low empathy men that form these warbands will stop forming them? Or that men will for some reason accept the gendered expectation that they must fight and die to protect women instead of using their healthy bodies to leave or simply convert? Syrian men left by the millions, and it’s easier to go to Germany and be welcomed as a hero than risk death for people who have no leverage over you.

  18. Mike Haines says

    Excellent analysis. Thanks for creating this, it’s a great piece.

  19. cavenewt says

    “Recent research shows that the global ratio of successful reproduction for the sexes after the advent of agriculture was as much as 17:1 (women:men), and even in more recent times it hovered between four and five to one. It is clear that throughout most of our history only a subset of men managed to reproduce, but almost all women did.”

    “after the advent of agriculture” is hardly “most of our history”. That’s only been about 10,000 years, vanishingly small in evolutionary terms.

    • Janet L. Factor says

      “History,” not “prehistory.”

      10,000 years is ample time to wreak major evolutionary changes. Half that was enough to make lactose tolerance near universal in dairying populations. And have you ever compared a Jersey cow to an aurochs?

  20. Micha Elyi says

    This incredibly brave woman was brought before ISIS’s Sharia Court, which promptly condemned her to death and had her publicly beheaded for this defense of her honor, thus laying bare the utter hypocrisy of all claims that draconian laws regarding sex are intended for the protection of women.

    The author confuses “woman” with “women”. Those “draconian laws” wouldn’t exist without the collusion, even insistence, of one woman after another. The Women Herd is ok with disposing of a member of the herd here and there to demonstrate the fidelity of each woman in the rest of the herd and to protect the Good Name (read claim to safety and privileges) of each woman in the rest of the herd.

    After seeing the author make such a huge mistake and oversight in the very first paragraph, I can’t trust the remainder of the article.

    • CF2 says

      Learn about the nature of oppression, in each oppressed group there are quislings and collaborators, rebels and those who keep their head down and try to find joy in little things while the big choices are are out of their control. Do not judge women who live under very dominant societies, where to step out of line is to be punished, to live like this affects your whole being. Maybe if the whole of an oppressed group tried passive resistance this might make a dent but there would a pile of bodies before this occurred and most people would be trying not become one of them. Think of Roman society where to be a slave was a be a nonperson and the reality that slaves and non citizens outnumbered their masters many times. What kept them under control was the hope of freedom and the pervasive dominance of the culture which told them this model of society was entirely acceptable.

  21. Janet: your argument about ISIS being a return to hunter-gatherer, even ape-like culture is well taken.

    However, your knowledge of “fundamentalist Christianity” is limited. Strictly speaking, fundamentalism is a reaction to the liberal notions about religion advanced by Harvard president Charles Eliot in “Religion of the Future” written around 1910. You would also be a lot more persuasive if you had read the work of writers like David Martin, Rodney Stark, and Philip Jenkins. These are not didactic “fundamentalists,” but scholars attempting to understand Christianity as a world-wide movement. Then, of course, there is Max Weber’s classic “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” I tend to think of enthusiastic Christianity as a culture that teaches people the ways of the city, to live as responsible individuals in a market economy. The classic on that, of course, is George Eliot’s novel “Adam Bede.”

    • CF2 says

      Not so nice for Daniel Deronda, although I would rather live in a society that can express disapproval at least.

  22. Allen says

    Blind hate towards the rights & value of all women is as flawed as blind hate towards the value of all religion.
    When you use the Old Testament you might be more accurate (especially when referring to notions of polygyny) to point your finger of blame at Judaism.
    Regardless, as a CHRISTian, when confronted with secular “wisdom” like yours, I like to see what CHRIST, has to say on the matter. I seem to remember him saving the life of a woman about to be murdered by a group of zealots.

    To use the atrocities of ISIS in order to take shots at Christianity belies a deep ignorance you harbor about a great many things. ISIS & Christianity among them.

    You and your fellow Ivory Tower residents love these pseudo-intellectual mastrubations meant only to confirm your bias not to stand up to an examination of logical or historical accuracy.

  23. joejohnson541981813 says

    Thank you for taking the time to write this out your reflections. The effort to systematize what you’re seeing is certainly worthwhile. Yet, there are many holes in the thought process, due largely to some basic misunderstandings.
    Reflect on this as if the evolutionary hypothesis were false. It will completely change your perspective.
    Attempting to find parallels between fundamental Christianity and Islam is disingenuous at best. The only legitimate reference Christianity an article like might have is to point out that fact that Christians are clearly the scorn of ISIS and specifically targeted. Most beheadings involve Christians who refuse to deny Christ to bow to Allah. Which camp did you most identify with by taking shots at a women who loves to have children, such as Mrs. Duggar?
    Many of the problems discussed here are spot on, but it will remain shallow, degrade the innocent and miss the point as long as the very real spiritual battle continues to be ignored.

  24. Richard Allan says

    “How much difference is there between the life of Michelle Duggar and that of a farmer’s prize cow, relied upon to produce a calf every year?”

    A truly disgusting comment. Shame on you.

    • advancedatheist says

      The Duggars have secular admirers in the U.S., believe it nor not. My mother and sister both live in Springdale, Arkansas. They don’t go to church, and they don’t know the Duggars. But they regularly see members of the Duggar family out in public – easy to do for obvious reasons. My sister cashiers at a Walmart there, and she has had the older Duggar girls come through her checkout line, with younger siblings in tow. They consider themselves fans of the Duggars’ reality series.

      I think some of secular humanists’ hostility towards the Duggars derives from mortality salience – refer to terror management theory in psychology. The Duggars will probably have descendants in the 22nd Century, while today’s sterile humanists won’t. This reminder of their mortality makes humanists anxious about and hostile towards people who show greater vitality than theirs.

  25. advancedatheist says

    “Movements like fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islamism are driven by the existence of large numbers of people who, for whatever reason, simply cannot adjust to modernity. In particular, they cannot adjust to equality for women.”

    “Equality for women”? You can’t “adjust” for something that cannot possibly exist or happen. Traditional peoples show excellent adjustment to the organic hierarchy between the sexes because they recognized the brute facts of reality.

    George Orwell didn’t go far enough with his depiction of Oceania’s Opposite World beliefs. He should have added; Syrians are Germans; Islam is a Religion of Peace; and Men Are Women.

    • CF2 says

      You might need to unpack a little more because I am not understanding the basis for your argument.

  26. Well you did just appeal to only a single case in the same sentence that you suggested cherry picking…

  27. Most of this is complete hooey. My biggest problem is the lack of research. The current batch of modern Muslim extremists is no different than any other extremist group from history. Religious or otherwise. From the razing of the Library of Alexandria to Shankaracharya to the slaughter of American Bison to Napoleon and so on, the destruction of icons of other religions or past cultures is nothing new. The idea of polygyny being the root of all evil is interesting. But I certainly don’t believe that monogamy is the answer.

  28. Csanad says

    If “modernity” is identified as secularism, may we at least examine the bloodthirstiness of the societies of last century built entirely on Godless secularism, from Stalin to Mao, to Pol Pot to Sanger, etc? Even Hitler’s cult was based on godless secularism and is unfairly mis-characterized as some form of right wing, Christian aberration.

  29. You don’t know anything about history, you don’t know about sociology, you don’t know anything about theology, you don’t know anything about anthropology, and you actually barely know anything about evolutionary biology. You’re a giant idiot

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  33. The ironic thing is that those who do not believe in evolution are the most avid practitioners of it, while the most vocal proponents of evolution, like the author, are its most lethargic followers.

    What an absurd comment. Evolution isn’t something to be “followed” or “practised.” Evolution happens, with or without our conscious participation.

    You need to learn more about evolution. And while you’re at it, look up “naturalistic fallacy.”

  34. Traditional peoples show excellent adjustment to the organic hierarchy between the sexes because they recognized the brute facts of reality

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but hunter-gatherers (whose societies are about as traditional as they come) have sexually egalitarian societies.

    The “organic hierarchy between the sexes”–ooh, male supremacy is organic! That makes your assfax sound even truthier.

    • CF2 says

      Did you know that the gathers provide 85% of the nutritional of their societies. The hunters traditionally have made the biggest noise about their contribution. they have of course been very useful for defending against other hunter warriors but is this a model for true civilisation? we are back to same old same as a species.

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  36. The Lunatic says

    “Modernity requires monogamy. But will followers of Mohammed accept it?”

    How can they, and still pretend they’re following Mohammed?

    Christians can denounce polygamy, slavery, and war without denouncing the actions of Christ. They might instead justify them, based on Old Testament precedents, but the example of Christ in the New Testament does not bind them to do so.

    Muslims cannot denounce polygamy, slavery, and war without denouncing the actions of Mohammed, a polygamist, slaveowner, and warmaker.

  37. Steve Johnson says

    “Every ‘conservative’ branch of every religion certainly is obsessive about sex. ”

    Let’s try this from another perspective (keep in mind that I’m far more on the evolutionary psychology side than the religious side).

    Let’s say there’s a society where the culture is that every day starts with the drinking of a poison smoothie – a specific type of poison that doesn’t kill you – it “merely” makes you sterile and deeply unhappy. Now there’s a religion out there that holds “don’t poison yourself” as one of its tenets. Members of that religion are considered weird for not drinking the poison smoothie and the mainstream members of that society always say “why are those religious people so obsessed with poison smoothies”. Seems weird, huh? From an outsider perspective the side with the self-destructive tenets (female equality, sexual liberation) seems like the side that is obsessed and that avoiding their culture is just basic hygiene.

    Every conservative religious tradition is (relatively) sane about sex. Sanity about sex and male / female relations looks like obsession simply because of how insane the “modern” ideas about it are.

    • CF2 says

      Where do you get the idea that conservative religious societies are relatively sane about sex? historically I can see no evidence of this. Conservative religious societies have traditionally had fear guilt and ignorance about sex and been morbidly obsessed by it. I see us in a long drawn out recovery from our obsessive concerns with notions of purity, and though I think the pendulum has swung too far I hope to hell it does not swing back to past attitudes. Consider Victorian society with it vast underbelly of child prostitution. The notion that some forms of sex between consenting adults were inherently sinful led people to treat activities such as homosexuality as being worse than rape or heterosexual pedophilia, because at least these were not unnatural acts! Like the Victorians,
      religious fundamentalists disapprove of males and females being alone together because they both make an automatic assumption that the sexes can not be alone together without sexual behaviour taking place. Although being alone together in a society that encourages gender extremes might reduce conversation gambits between the sexes!

  38. Steve Johnson says

    A major error in the article.

    Patriarchy isn’t at the heart of Islam – clannishness is. Patriarchy is at the heart of Christianity as it was practiced but more generally is at the heart of the mating strategy of the European descended peoples.

    The basic patriarchal agreement is that men won’t compete for other men’s wives and they enforce this on each other while women enforce on each other that they won’t court competitors to their husbands. It’s a high cooperation social equilibrium but a precarious one since each woman would love to court other offers and either get better genes on the sly or get better provisioning as the second or third wife / concubine of a man much richer than her husband. At the same time, high status men (in either sexually attractiveness or wealth – but primarily in sexual attractiveness) would individually benefit from choosing defect and pursuing all the women who they can find who are willing. Unfortunately, without enforcement the cooperate / cooperate equilibrium breaks down and you get basically 21st century Western civilization – unsexy men check out en mass, women make themselves available to sexy bad-boys and don’t reproduce and civilization slowly (or not so slowly) crumbles because the men who are necessary to keep it going aren’t participating. That’s what patriarchy prevented. It wasn’t some conspiracy to hurt women out of spite. It was acknowledgment of reality – only men are capable of destroying civilization on the one hand (obviously – literally never has a civilization been destroyed by roving bands of women bandits on the prowl) and on the flip side only men are capable of doing the work necessary for keeping civilization going (less obvious to a 21st century equalitarian ideologue but equally obvious to anyone not ideologically blinded).

    Islam is the end state of no patriarchy. Men band together with relatives – who are the only people you can trust in a low trust society and fight a constant war of all against all until someone comes along (Mohammed) to say that we should all temporarily band together and instead of stealing the women from the clan across town we should all steal the women of the clan in the next town until they agree to join up with us. Then we’ve got bigger numbers and move on to the next town, and so on and so forth until no more women remain in the house of war. Then I guess they go back to raiding the next town over. (In actuality they lose to monogamous societies and go back to raiding the next town over as soon as their borders expand enough to be exclusively with those societies).

  39. “More children per woman, with less reproductive choice.”

    I don’t see how this follows. Women are fertile for a few days per month, and most pregnancies end in silent miscarriages. That is, not even the woman is aware she’s pregnant because it happens very early.

    If a man is dividing his time between women, that means less semen per woman (crude, but accurate).

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  41. That Nigga says

    “How many women will be slaughtered or reduced to breeding stock before enough men find the inner grit to make that choice rightly?”

    All my life women have been telling me that they are strong, independent, can take care of themselves and don’t need a man. Now when shit hits the fan it’s men who have to fight?

    Nigga please.

  42. Peter Anderson says

    I agree with most of your points, but not your conclusion, that monogamy is the only way. I believe that the solution lies in men and women being equally free to be as monogamous or unmonogamous as they choose. And of course getting rid of religion is probably the only way to achieve this!

  43. An interesting thesis. However the situation is not quite as bleak as suggesting that the likes of IS a necessary result of our genetic inheritance. Bonobos rather than Chimpanzees may be a closer fit to the evolutionary model of our sexual behaviour. Also the barbarity of IS practitioners can be attributed to Islamic doctrinal characteristics, the adherence to which is due to socialisaion, which is more amenable to change than innate characteristics.

  44. ISIS and Boko Haram, I would suggest, have nothing to do with polygyny. They are just thugs raping and pillaging in the time-honoured way. They break almost every rule in the rule book that is the Qur’an – they are not observant Muslims.

  45. Aiven says

    Dear Janet.

    This is well written and is an interesting new take on Daesh. However, your guilty-by-association attempt on all religion is totally off target. Your text makes me think that you don’t know very much about religion. Also the evolution part is a bit dodgy. It’s a shame to see a good point beeing so badly made; taking an initial plausible theory and trying to reforge it into a weapon against all religion – an attempt that comes off as artificial, tendentious and without foundation.

  46. Shhhh. You’re not allowed to criticize Islam… Any religion but Islam.

  47. Hal9001 says

    Clearly there are muslim apologist among these commentators.

  48. Spruance says

    How can such a fine piece of thought lapse to the usage of a Star Trek citation?

  49. The author should read Saharasia by James De Meo a student of Wilhelm Reich who is the king of showing how oppressive political structures come from repressed emotional drives.

    Saharasia details how the desert region comprising North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia developed an “armored” nature as the this formerly green, well-watered area desertified requiring a patriarchal war-like behavior pattern to survive through rivalry for diminishing resources;.

  50. This is not science. This is a toxic mixture of Intelligent Design and Jungism. How did this junk get past the editors?

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