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A frank look at monogamy through the ages

bookIn our tell-all age of talk shows and reality television, of Facebook and Twitter, the idea that restraint and repression might contain some worth seems as antiquated a concept as arranged marriages. We revel in revelation: our bookstores are jammed with accounts by the famous and the not-so-famous regarding their sexual histories, their conquests and their defeats. Talk shows have for so long featured the weird and the bizarre that producers these days seem hard-pressed to fill airtime.

Strangers bare their souls to strangers in grocery stores and airports, often discussing sex as casually as their grandparents once discussed the weather. In the 40 years since the “sexual revolution” of the sixties, even the meanings of basic concepts — marriage, family, love, friendship — have acquired new hues of meaning.

In Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human (Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2014, 289 pages, $27.95), veteran journalist William Tucker reminds us of the value of sexual restraint and of marriage. In a fascinating study of the various turns of monogamy throughout history and a look at marriage today, he explains that the monogamous relationship helped give rise to civilizations around the world.

Before taking a look at Marriage and Civilization, it is important to note that Tucker has written neither a conservative screed nor an attack on gay marriage. In his religious views, he seems an agnostic, and in his brief discussion of gay marriage, he could be said to favor that cause. Readers looking for a rant will not find it in this book.

What you will find is a fascinating mix of anthropology and history followed by a close examination of the state of monogamy and matrimony in our own time. Tucker manages to cram enormous amounts of history into his writing. In the chapter on China, for example, which is only 10 pages long, he shows readers the impact of Confucius on the Chinese family, the enormous influence of the mandarins on Chinese culture, the reasons why so many Chinese men willingly underwent self-castration to work as the emperor’s eunuchs and the dangers of China’s One-Child Policy, which has created a male population enormously disproportionate to the female. 

Looking at India, Tucker examines the reasons for the practice of arranged marriages, a custom still followed by most Indian families. Like the Chinese, the peoples of India long ago found in marriage a stabilizing force, and unlike the West, have never abandoned arranged unions. Though most of us may not sympathize with this idea — I do know a few fathers of teenage daughters who might give the concept pause for thinking — Tucker shows us why the Indian population continues to follow this ancient path to matrimony. 

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Tucker also grants those readers who love history and new facts a treasure chest of information. The redoubtable Genghis Khan, for example, is believed to be the progenitor for 16 million people alive today. The Indian practice of sati, in which the wife of a deceased husband immolates herself on his funeral pyre, was largely an upper-class custom and was undertaken willingly. He examines polygamy among such groups as Mormons and Muslims, and shows us why such arrangements can lead to violence rather than marital tranquility. 

Tucker has a real gift for explaining complicated concepts without being  condescending to the reader. In the chapter titled “The Alpha Couple and the Primal Horde, “ for example, he interprets John Nash’s equilibrium theory, which has so heavily influenced game theory. (Nash, some readers may remember, was the subject of the movie “A Beautiful Mind”).  In a single paragraph, Tucker clearly demonstrates the theory and then applies it to the rise of monogamy in pre-historic times. 

In the final four chapters of Marriage and Civilization, Tucker looks at contemporary marriage, focusing almost entirely on its current standing in the United States. He chronicles the forces arrayed against monogamy and marriage: the promotion and acceptance of single motherhood, the economic incentives for avoiding marriage, pornography, our tangled and often fractious ideas of sex and relationships and the sheer difficulty of remaining true to one person. He then asks: “Is there anything positive that can be said about monogamy?”

Here is his reply to this question:

“Where to begin? Monogamous marriage is the most thrilling adventure anyone ever undertakes — that perilous encounter with an individual who is so much like you yet so different, the other half of your humanity, without whom you are never a complete human being. It relies not on sex, which is easy, but on romance, falling in love and staying in love, which is the work of a lifetime.”

Readers may not agree with everything Tucker tells us in Marriage and Civilization, but his book is nonetheless a fascinating blend of history, anthropology and contemporary mores. Here is a book without a dull page, bursting with information and ideas. Highly recommended.

(Jeff Minick is a teacher and writer. His first novel, Amanda Bell, is available at local bookstores and at Amazon. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human by William Tucker. Regnery, 2014. 289 pages.

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