For the uninitiated, popular economics holds that while human courtship operates in a reasonably free market, the marriage market is all about inefficiencies. Across the world, which is, by and large, a ‘serial monogamous’ society — multiple spouses but one at a time — wives have for years been, er, a depreciating asset. But the market dynamics, apparently, are all set to change. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned, not for the first time, that the excessively skewed sex ratio in India, China, Vietnam and Nepal can mean a natural progression into polyandry — one woman with multiple husbands.
While the reverse, polygyny (one man, multiple wives), is far more frequently encountered in all societies, polyandry is a practice restricted to pockets in India, Nepal and Tibet in this part of the world. In fact, Indians have always been quite easygoing about polygyny, while the only ‘public’ instance of polyandry in public memory is Draupadi in Mahabharata. It would seem, though, that polyandry has certain ‘biological’ benefits. Population control to begin with — there can only be one pregnancy at a time. Multiple male spouses ensure ‘better’ reproductive success as well and economic benefits for the woman. The report suggests that this is bound to happen as men will grow old single and will compete with younger men for a spouse.
But leave aside the scholarly arguments, and you’re left with the fact that apart from some birds and most bees, polyandry is the dominant social structure only in a subfamily of New World monkeys. Look where we’re going... and think about the laundry list.