Legalized polygamy would be an attack on hard-won rights
As the primary witness for the attorney-general of British Columbia, Prof. Joseph Henrich was almost unassailable this week as he made a convincing case about the sweeping harms associated with legalizing polygamy.
Last week, McGill law professor Angela Campbell was grilled for most of a day before Chief Justice Robert Bauman of the Supreme Court of B.C. qualified her as the primary witness for the amicus curiae. (The amicus has been appointed by the court to argue against the governments of British Columbia and Canada, and in favour of striking down the law.)
Campbell testified that polygamy and equality rights can coexist, and that women in plural marriages and their children suffer no more harm than those in monogamous unions.
But before her testimony began, Campbell had already admitted she had no expertise in sociology or sociological research methods, and that her conclusions were based on the word of 22 self-selected women and 12 days spent in Bountiful, B.C., Canada’s only known polygamous community.
Henrich, on the other hand, has an astonishing resume. Still in his 30s, he has already changed careers once from aerospace engineer to distinguished multi-disciplinary scholar, holding the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition and Evolution at the University of B.C., where he is a tenured professor in both psychology and economics.
In 2004, he went to the White House to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Last year, Henrich received the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society’s Early Career Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions.
And the Indiana Jones stuff? It comes from the fieldwork: nearly a year in Fiji, 10 months in southern Chile and six-and-a-half months with the Machiguenga in Peru.
Henrich testified in B.C. Supreme Court to his conclusions that polygamy is harmful to both the participants and society as a whole.
Using slides to illuminate his research, he drew on evolutionary biology and mating psychology to explain why polygyny (men with multiple spouses) is widespread and monogamy relatively rare.
The Ethnographic Atlas, which includes information about marriage in 1,231 societies, indicates that only 15 per cent of those societies are monogamous. Frequent polygyny is found in 48 per cent, occasional polygyny in 37 per cent, and polyandry (women with multiple spouses) in 0.3 per cent.
One problem with the data, Henrich noted in his court affidavit, is that it is based only on observation; there is no distinction drawn between societies where monogamy is enforced (such as Canada) and where it is preferred, or where only the leaders or the wealthy have multiples wives.
Henrich went on to explain how certain cultures — starting with the ancient Greeks — evolved norms that favour monogamy.
The reason, Henrich argues, is that polygyny has predictable effects. Those include an increase in the pool of low-status men, who engage in risky and criminal behaviour. And high-status men invest in attaining more wives, with the result that infant and child mortality rates rise and educational attainment falls.
Also, competition for brides drives the age of first marriage down, widens the age gap between husband and wife and results in greater inequality, higher rates of domestic violence and increased psycho-social stress for the women.
If Canada were to become the only developed, western nation to reject imposed monogamy, Henrich predicts it would result in “a non-trivial increase in the incidence of polygyny.”
Immigration of high-status men from other polygynous countries would probably increase, and high-status men such as actors and athletes already living here would probably take multiple wives, setting off a wave of copycats, he said.
The amicus, George Macintosh, was dubious about that and asked whether Henrich had ever heard men talking about their desire to take more than one wife.
Henrich replied that he had, several times, during the year he spent living among the polygamous Machiguenga.
But what about in North America? Macintosh asked. Henrich said no, he hadn’t, but he pointed out that Canadian men are no different in their biological or psychological makeup than others.
Henrich had earlier noted an experiment he had done with his female third-year students.
If polygamy were legal and they fell in love with two men — one a married billionaire, the other an unmarried man with a moderate income — whom would they choose?
Seventy per cent chose the billionaire.
Lawyer Monique Pongracic-Speier of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association called it “highly implausible” that legalizing polygamy would have deleterious effects, since Canada, she said, is overwhelmingly monogamous, “highly democratic and highly rights-respecting.”
But is it?
“We tend to think that it can’t happen in five years or 10 years,” Henrich said. “But in 50 years? It doesn’t seem implausible.”
In fact, given what the chief justice has heard so far, it’s hard to see how he can conclude that legalizing polygamy would be anything but an attack on the fabric of Canadian society and our hard-won rights.