Loose women of the Amazon

Posted on November 14, 2010


You really have to watch those metaphors: “Johnny has two daddies” may have been common in Amazonian cultures blares World Science, inadvertently implying that researchers are suggesting traditional Amazonian society was unusually gay-friendly.

Sify News manages at least to keep the story heterosexual: Extramarital sexual affairs were common in Amazonian cultures is its take. Still, there are pesky implications sneaking in here as well: in this case, “affairs” brings along the implication that fidelity between a man and a woman would be the expected norm, and that there was something illicit about the people in question having multiple sexual partners.

Which ironically is precisely the opposite of what the research is about.

The article in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has a quite a bit less exciting title: Evolutionary history of partible paternity in Lowland South America.

The study, by anthropologists Robert Walker, Mark Flinn, and Kim Hill, surveys the ethnography of 128 Amazonian societies and comes to the conclusion that it was common to consider multiple men as “fathers” based on their having had sex with a child’s mother.

There, that wasn’t so hard to say, was it?

No “extramarital affairs” here; instead the interesting question for these researchers is why a belief that multiple men could be the father of the same child would become so common (they say, up to twice as common as the belief in one man as exclusive father of each child). Because they adopt an evolutionary perspective, they need to show that this practice is biologically adaptive. That is not the really new thing about this study; the authors note that previous investigations of the same phenomenon have seen it as adaptive for the mothers involved:

Previous work has emphasized the fitness benefits for women where partible paternity beliefs facilitate paternal investment from multiple men and may reduce the risk of infanticide.

Mothers, after all, are certain that children are their offspring.

But what would be the benefits for men in a social practice that blurs any certainty about paternity they might seek? The authors have several suggestions:

Despite a decrease in paternity certainty, at least some men probably benefit (or mitigate costs) by increasing their number of extramarital partners, using sexual access to their wives to formalize male alliances, and/or sharing paternity with close kin.

The idea that relaxing the exclusivity of sexual relationships might be attractive, and thus responsible for men collaborating in a social practice ascribing male parenthood to multiple fathers, is where the emphasis on “extramarital affairs” comes from. It involves the media, not entirely surprisingly, taking a male point of view.

Again, this kind of misses the actual point of the article, which stresses that in a lot of these social groups new husbands moved in with their wife’s family, and that she maintained a level of freedom of action– including sexual freedom– because she remained among her own people.

Press coverage of the research at times falls into the trap of attributing motivations to the people being studied that make sense from the perspective of the people doing the studying, who have specific scientific concepts not known in Amazonian culture.

So, for example, I am dubious that Amazonian women drew on a theory of “gene pools” in pursuing multiple male sexual partners, as is implied by reporting that “women believed that by having multiple sexual partners they gained the benefit of larger gene pools for their children”.

All of the reporting– and some of the quotes from the study’s lead author– takes for granted that acceptance of multiple sexual relationships is anomalous. After laboring hard to shift the “two daddies” analogy into a heterosexual mold, World Science still has to emphasize that it was “socially acceptable” in these societies for children to have multiple fathers, quoting Walker.

Which goes without saying, really: no matter how much sex the mother was having, her children would not “have” multiple fathers unless these relationships were socially recognized, so by definition they were socially acceptable. The relationship only exists because it is named; mere physical kinship is not enough.

Years after anthropologists began to recognize that it is a peculiarly European and American thing to predicate kinship on blood, we still haven’t figured out ways to explain this to reporters.

And so we seem doomed to read things like “Walker said promiscuity was normal in many traditional South American societies”.

Pause while I shriek in pain: sex with multiple partners really isn’t promiscuity if it is normal and accepted. “Promiscuity” presumes the violation of a norm of fidelity. It’s a moral term, and if the morality on which it is based doesn’t exist– when a different morality exists instead– people having multiple sexual partners are not being naughty.

One account did allow a hint of this through the screen. In a story titled Multiple fathers prevalent in Amazonian cultures, Science Blog included the following:

“In some Amazonian cultures, it was bad manners for a husband to be jealous of his wife’s extramarital partners,” Walker said. “It was also considered strange if you did not have multiple sexual partners. Cousins were often preferred partners, so it was especially rude to shun their advances.”

Of course, Science Blog simply reprints press releases intact. So the credit here goes to the research team– and at the same time, this makes the point that all the other stories derived from the same press release left out these key paragraphs.

After all, they don’t fit the narrative. Who wants un-jealous husbands, multiple sexual partners as normal, and refusing sexual advances as rude? Especially if you can instead have all the exoticism and prurience of extramarital sexual affairs leaving little Amazonian Johnny with two fathers to explain…