Study shows that religious patriarchy promotes confidence about paternity

Dogon woman watering onion garden (Photo courtesy of Beverly I. Strassmann)

Dogon woman watering onion garden (Photo courtesy of Beverly I. Strassmann)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Religious practices that strongly control female sexuality are more successful at promoting certainty about paternity, according to a study published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study analyzed genetic data on 1,706 father-son pairs in a traditional African population – the Dogon people of Mali, West Africa – in which Islam, two types of Christianity, and an indigenous, monotheistic religion are practiced in the same families and villages.

“We found that the indigenous religion allows males to achieve a significantly lower probability of cuckoldry –1.3 percent versus 2.9 percent,” says Beverly Strassmann, lead author of the article and a biological anthropologist at the University of Michigan.

In the traditional religion, menstrual taboos are strictly enforced, with women exiled for five nights to uncomfortable menstrual huts.  According to Strassmann, the religion uses the ideology of pollution to ensure that women honestly signal their fertility status to men in their husband’s family.

“When a woman resumes going to the menstrual hut following her last birth, the husband’s patrilineage is informed of the immanency of conception and cuckoldry risk,” Strassman says.  “Precautions include postmenstrual copulation initiated by the husband and enhanced vigilance by his family.”

Menstrual hut with cell phone tower (wide view)

Pictured is a menstrual hut used by Dogon women and a cell phone tower indicative of cultural change. The Dogon, a group living along the Cliffs of Bandiagara in Mali West Africa, have a cultural practice in which women sleep in a hut for five nights during their menses. The menstrual taboos are enforced by the indigenous religion and the huts have been abandoned by converts to Islam or Christianity. Beverly I. Strassmann et al. collected genetic data on a large sample of father-sons pairs and found that extra-pair paternity was two-fold less common when women were required to use the menstrual huts. The findings support the hypothesis that religious patriarchy serves the biological function of helping males to assure their paternity. (Photo courtesy of Beverly I. Strassmann)

Across all four of the religions practiced by the Dogon people, Strassmann and colleagues detected father-son Y DNA mismatches in only 1.8 percent of father-son pairs, a finding that contradicts the prevailing view that traditional populations have high rates of cuckoldry.  A similar rate of cuckoldry has been found in several modern populations, but a key difference is that the Dogon do not use contraception.

The study, which was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, is part of Strassmann’s on-going, 26-year study of the Dogon people.

Superwoman masked dancer

Pictured is a Dogon masked dancer in Mali, West Africa. The red color of the fibers symbolizes menstrual blood. Masked dancing and menstrual huts are practices embedded in the indigenous Dogon religion; these practices have been abandoned by Dogon converts to Islam and Christianity. Beverly I. Strassmann et al. collected genetic data on paternity for 1706 father-sons pairs to test the hypothesis that religious practices that more strongly regulate female sexuality are more successful at promoting paternity certainty. They report that the indigenous religion enabled males to achieve a significantly lower probability of cuckoldry (1.3% versus 2.9%) by enforcing the honest signaling of menstruation. The relaxation of menstrual taboos led to an increase in cuckoldry, as measured by an increase in genetic mismatches between fathers and sons. The findings provide evidence that religious patriarchy promotes paternity certainty. (Photo courtesy of Beverly I. Strassmann)

“The major world religions sprang from patriarchal societies in which the resources critical to reproduction, whether in the form of land or livestock, were inherited from father to son down the male line,” Strassmann and colleagues write.  “Consistent with patrilineal inheritance, the sacred texts set forth harsh penalties for adultery and other behaviors that lower the husbands probability of paternity. The scriptures also place greater emphasis on female than on male chastity, including the requirement of modest attire for women and the idealization of virginity for unmarried females.”

While previous studies have examined the evolutionary biology of patriarchy through primate antecedents or cultural factors, the current study is the first to investigate whether religions that more strongly regulate female sexuality are more successful at limiting the incidence of cuckoldry.

“Although world religions do not have menstrual huts, they do share many tenets that may foster cuckoldry avoidance,” the authors write.  “For example, in Judaism, menstrual purity laws increase coital frequency around the time of ovulation. In Islam, paternity confusion is prevented by the Qurans rule that, after divorce, a woman must wait for three menstrual periods before remarrying. The Hindu text, The Laws of Manu, admonishes against cuckoldry or sowing in another mans field.’ Strong statements against adultery and extramarital children are found in the Bible and, in Buddhism, adultery is a form of sexual misconduct. In preventing cuckoldry, religions use the dual strategy of social control in the public sphere (attendance at a place of worship or at a menstrual hut) and the fear of divine or supernatural punishment. In the United States, frequent church attendance and belief that the Bible is the word of God were the two most robust predictors of lower rates of self-reported extra-partner copulations.”

In short, Strassmann and colleagues maintain, the ideological and tactical similarities between these world religions and the Dogon religion have arisen in response to the same biological pressures.  Religious patriarchy is directly analpgous to the mate-guarding tactics used by animals to ensure paternity.

Strassmann is affiliated with the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and the U-M Department of Anthropology, part of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA).  Her co-authors are Nikhil Kurapati, Brendan Hugg, and Brenda Gillespie, all at the U-M; Erin Burke at Yale University; Tatiana Karafet of the Arizona Research Laboratories, and Michael Hammer of the Arizona Research Laboratories and the University of Arizona at Tucson.

Two statuettes with necklaces

Pictured are statuettes adorned for the funeral rites of a Dogon woman in Mali, West Africa. Menstrual huts, Masked dancing, and the traditional funeral rites are customs embedded in the indigenous Dogon religion. Beverly I. Strassmann et al. collected genetic data on paternity for 1706 father-sons pairs and found that religious patriarchy serves the biological function of protecting males against the risk of extra-pair paternity. (Photo courtesy of Beverly I. Strassmann)

 

Contact: Diane Swanbrow

Phone: (734) 647-9069

 

Comments are closed.