The Descent of Man – Day 142 of 151

The Causes which Prevent or Check the Action of Sexual Selection with Savages

The chief causes are, first, so-called communal marriages or promiscuous intercourse; secondly, the consequences of female infanticide; thirdly, early betrothals; and lastly, the low estimation in which women are held, as mere slaves. These four points must be considered in some detail.

It is obvious that as long as the pairing of man, or of any other animal, is left to mere chance, with no choice exerted by either sex, there can be no sexual selection; and no effect will be produced on the offspring by certain individuals having had an advantage over others in their courtship. Now it is asserted that there exist at the present day tribes which practise what Sir J. Lubbock by courtesy calls communal marriages; that is, all the men and women in the tribe are husbands and wives to one another. The licentiousness of many savages is no doubt astonishing, but it seems to me that more evidence is requisite, before we fully admit that their intercourse is in any case promiscuous. Nevertheless all those who have most closely studied the subject (5. Sir J. Lubbock, ‘The Origin of Civilisation,’ 1870, chap. iii. especially pp. 60-67. Mr. M’Lennan, in his extremely valuable work on ‘Primitive Marriage,’ 1865, p. 163, speaks of the union of the sexes “in the earliest times as loose, transitory, and in some degree promiscuous.” Mr. M’Lennan and Sir J. Lubbock have collected much evidence on the extreme licentiousness of savages at the present time. Mr. L.H. Morgan, in his interesting memoir of the classificatory system of relationship. (‘Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences,’ vol. vii. Feb. 1868, p. 475), concludes that polygamy and all forms of marriage during primeval times were essentially unknown. It appears also, from Sir J. Lubbock’s work, that Bachofen likewise believes that communal intercourse originally prevailed.), and whose judgment is worth much more than mine, believe that communal marriage (this expression being variously guarded) was the original and universal form throughout the world, including therein the intermarriage of brothers and sisters. The late Sir A. Smith, who had travelled widely in S. Africa, and knew much about the habits of savages there and elsewhere, expressed to me the strongest opinion that no race exists in which woman is considered as the property of the community. I believe that his judgment was largely determined by what is implied by the term marriage. Throughout the following discussion I use the term in the same sense as when naturalists speak of animals as monogamous, meaning thereby that the male is accepted by or chooses a single female, and lives with her either during the breeding-season or for the whole year, keeping possession of her by the law of might; or, as when they speak of a polygamous species, meaning that the male lives with several females. This kind of marriage is all that concerns us here, as it suffices for the work of sexual selection. But I know that some of the writers above referred to imply by the term marriage a recognised right protected by the tribe.

The indirect evidence in favour of the belief of the former prevalence of communal marriages is strong, and rests chiefly on the terms of relationship which are employed between the members of the same tribe, implying a connection with the tribe, and not with either parent. But the subject is too large and complex for even an abstract to be here given, and I will confine myself to a few remarks. It is evident in the case of such marriages, or where the marriage tie is very loose, that the relationship of the child to its father cannot be known. But it seems almost incredible that the relationship of the child to its mother should ever be completely ignored, especially as the women in most savage tribes nurse their infants for a long time. Accordingly, in many cases the lines of descent are traced through the mother alone, to the exclusion of the father. But in other cases the terms employed express a connection with the tribe alone, to the exclusion even of the mother. It seems possible that the connection between the related members of the same barbarous tribe, exposed to all sorts of danger, might be so much more important, owing to the need of mutual protection and aid, than that between the mother and her child, as to lead to the sole use of terms expressive of the former relationships; but Mr. Morgan is convinced that this view is by no means sufficient.

The terms of relationship used in different parts of the world may be divided, according to the author just quoted, into two great classes, the classificatory and descriptive, the latter being employed by us. It is the classificatory system which so strongly leads to the belief that communal and other extremely loose forms of marriage were originally universal. But as far as I can see, there is no necessity on this ground for believing in absolutely promiscuous intercourse; and I am glad to find that this is Sir J. Lubbock’s view. Men and women, like many of the lower animals, might formerly have entered into strict though temporary unions for each birth, and in this case nearly as much confusion would have arisen in the terms of relationship as in the case of promiscuous intercourse. As far as sexual selection is concerned, all that is required is that choice should be exerted before the parents unite, and it signifies little whether the unions last for life or only for a season.

Besides the evidence derived from the terms of relationship, other lines of reasoning indicate the former wide prevalence of communal marriage. Sir J. Lubbock accounts for the strange and widely-extended habit of exogamy–that is, the men of one tribe taking wives from a distinct tribe,–by communism having been the original form of intercourse; so that a man never obtained a wife for himself unless he captured her from a neighbouring and hostile tribe, and then she would naturally have become his sole and valuable property. Thus the practice of capturing wives might have arisen; and from the honour so gained it might ultimately have become the universal habit. According to Sir J. Lubbock (6. ‘Address to British Association On the Social and Religious Condition of the Lower Races of Man,’ 1870, p. 20.), we can also thus understand “the necessity of expiation for marriage as an infringement of tribal rites, since according to old ideas, a man had no right to appropriate to himself that which belonged to the whole tribe.” Sir J. Lubbock further gives a curious body of facts shewing that in old times high honour was bestowed on women who were utterly licentious; and this, as he explains, is intelligible, if we admit that promiscuous intercourse was the aboriginal, and therefore long revered custom of the tribe. (7. ‘Origin of Civilisation,’ 1870, p. 86. In the several works above quoted, there will be found copious evidence on relationship through the females alone, or with the tribe alone.)

Although the manner of development of the marriage tie is an obscure subject, as we may infer from the divergent opinions on several points between the three authors who have studied it most closely, namely, Mr. Morgan, Mr. M’Lennan, and Sir J. Lubbock, yet from the foregoing and several other lines of evidence it seems probable (8. Mr. C. Staniland Wake argues strongly (‘Anthropologia,’ March, 1874, p. 197) against the views held by these three writers on the former prevalence of almost promiscuous intercourse; and he thinks that the classificatory system of relationship can be otherwise explained.) that the habit of marriage, in any strict sense of the word, has been gradually developed; and that almost promiscuous or very loose intercourse was once extremely common throughout the world. Nevertheless, from the strength of the feeling of jealousy all through the animal kingdom, as well as from the analogy of the lower animals, more particularly of those which come nearest to man, I cannot believe that absolutely promiscuous intercourse prevailed in times past, shortly before man attained to his present rank in the zoological scale. Man, as I have attempted to shew, is certainly descended from some ape-like creature. With the existing Quadrumana, as far as their habits are known, the males of some species are monogamous, but live during only a part of the year with the females: of this the orang seems to afford an instance. Several kinds, for example some of the Indian and American monkeys, are strictly monogamous, and associate all the year round with their wives. Others are polygamous, for example the gorilla and several American species, and each family lives separate. Even when this occurs, the families inhabiting the same district are probably somewhat social; the chimpanzee, for instance, is occasionally met with in large bands. Again, other species are polygamous, but several males, each with his own females, live associated in a body, as with several species of baboons. (9. Brehm (‘Thierleben,’ B. i. p. 77) says Cynocephalus hamadryas lives in great troops containing twice as many adult females as adult males. See Rengger on American polygamous species, and Owen (‘Anatomy of Vertebrates,’ vol. iii. p. 746) on American monogamous species. Other references might be added.) We may indeed conclude from what we know of the jealousy of all male quadrupeds, armed, as many of them are, with special weapons for battling with their rivals, that promiscuous intercourse in a state of nature is extremely improbable. The pairing may not last for life, but only for each birth; yet if the males which are the strongest and best able to defend or otherwise assist their females and young, were to select the more attractive females, this would suffice for sexual selection.

Therefore, looking far enough back in the stream of time, and judging from the social habits of man as he now exists, the most probable view is that he aboriginally lived in small communities, each with a single wife, or if powerful with several, whom he jealously guarded against all other men. Or he may not have been a social animal, and yet have lived with several wives, like the gorilla; for all the natives “agree that but one adult male is seen in a band; when the young male grows up, a contest takes place for mastery, and the strongest, by killing and driving out the others, establishes himself as the head of the community.” (10. Dr. Savage, in ‘Boston Journal of Natural History,’ vol. v. 1845-47, p. 423.) The younger males, being thus expelled and wandering about, would, when at last successful in finding a partner, prevent too close interbreeding within the limits of the same family.

Although savages are now extremely licentious, and although communal marriages may formerly have largely prevailed, yet many tribes practise some form of marriage, but of a far more lax nature than that of civilised nations. Polygamy, as just stated, is almost universally followed by the leading men in every tribe. Nevertheless there are tribes, standing almost at the bottom of the scale, which are strictly monogamous. This is the case with the Veddahs of Ceylon: they have a saying, according to Sir J. Lubbock (11. ‘Prehistoric Times,’ 1869, p. 424.), “that death alone can separate husband and wife.” An intelligent Kandyan chief, of course a polygamist, “was perfectly scandalised at the utter barbarism of living with only one wife, and never parting until separated by death.” It was, he said, “just like the Wanderoo monkeys.” Whether savages who now enter into some form of marriage, either polygamous or monogamous, have retained this habit from primeval times, or whether they have returned to some form of marriage, after passing through a stage of promiscuous intercourse, I will not pretend to conjecture.

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