February 21, 2004

Africa, AIDS, and multiple concurrent relationships

New and Improved, with the magic ingredient: proofreading! --

Needed Role Model: O.J. Simpson? -- Discover Magazine runs an interesting article (not online) on the big improvement that Western statisticians finally realized they had to plug into their models to explain why HIV spreads so much faster in sub-Saharan Africa -- "multiple concurrent relationships." Originally, American computer whizzes assumed that the sexual behavior of Africans resembled to one degree or another various American models -- monogamy, serial monogamy, promiscuity, mistress-keeping, prostitution, etc. But they missed the key difference between Africa and much of the non-tropical world: a large proportion of both the men and women of Africa are involved in simultaneous long term relationships with two or more members of the opposite sex.

The author of the Discover article fails to pick up on the cause, but it leaps out from her interviews with African men: the lower level of male jealousy in Africa. The men the journalist interviewed drinking beer in a Botswana bar one morning all claim to have more than one long-term girlfriend. There's nothing surprising in this. What is very surprising for Westerners, though, is the complacency with which they assume that their multiple girlfriends probably have multiple boyfriends, as well. Feminists should be delighted by their enlightened commitment to sexual equality, their assumption that what's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, too.

An anthropologist friend of mine living with an African tribe went off on a multi-day trip with some of the men of the tribe. They were supposed to be back, say, Wednesday morning but on Tuesday evening they were making such good time that he suggested they drive onward and get home late that night. His hosts were dismayed at this ungentlemanly suggestion. A good husband, they explained, never unexpectedly showed up late at night. It could create the most embarrassing scenes with his wife and her lover.

In contrast, O.J. Simpson assumed it was perfectly reasonable for him to have many women, but the notion that his ex-wife was fooling around with a younger version of himself, USC Heisman Trophy winning running back Marcus Allen, drove him nuts -- a much more American than African response.

Evolutionary psychologists explain why men are more sexually jealous and women are more romantically jealous (i.e., a man more hates the idea of his wife sleeping with another man, while a woman more hates the idea of her husband caring for another woman) by reference to the old rhyme:

Mother's baby

Father's maybe

In other words, a man has to police his wife's sexual fidelity in order to not get saddled working like a dog for 18 years to support another's man's child. But what happens in the large swathes of the world where the husband doesn't expect to slave away to support his wife's children, legitimate or not? Evolutionary psychologists aren't very good at thinking about diversity. They simply assume that humanity is so homogenous that they can understand the whole human race by giving questionnaires to their UC Santa Barbara students.

Indeed, African men are more likely to insist than to object to their women going out into the workplace. By one estimate, women do not just 50% of the work, but 80% of the work in sub-Saharan Africa.

And that seems to be the key to explaining the AIDS epidemic in Africa: on average, African men aren't jealous enough to do what it takes to keep their women faithful. Why not? Because they are less likely than men in the rest of the world to support their women's children, so getting handed cuckoo's egg kids by adulterous wives is less skin off their noses than it would be for men in cultures where husbands are expected to make higher degrees of paternal investment in their nominal kids.

Thus, you see in African cultures tendencies both toward hyper-polygamy and matrilineal/matrilocal family structures. Outside of the tropics, you have to be the Emperor of China or the equivalent to be able to afford a huge number of wives. But, in systems of tropical agriculture where most of the work is gardening (e.g., weeding), which women, with their nimble fingers, can do better than men, you sometimes see handsome men with 100 or more wives. Of course, he can't afford to keep them locked up in harems, so he puts them to work in the fields, where they can produce enough to support themselves and their children. Now, the 99 local bachelors who are left over are going to spend a lot of effort to lure the polygamist's wives out of the fields and into the bushes, so, many of the children born to the local Big Man's wives are not going to be his genetic offspring. But their mother's can support them, so it's no big deal to him.

Likewise, it's much more common for tropical folks like Africans and Melanesians than elsewhereto have social structures where there is so little certainty of paternity that the mother's brother plays a major role as the adult male in the lives of the mother's children. After all, he knows for sure that he's at least the half-uncle of his sister's kids, while her husband might have no genetic relationship to them. These sometimes are "matrilocal" families where the brother lives with his sister and her children, while her husband and other lovers may live with their sisters.

Another time, the anthropologist was once about to go off on a dangerous trip into lion country. The tribespeople were very worried about him, and asked what to do with his possessions in case he gotten eaten. He said, "Just send them to my wife." They were shocked at this immoral reply: "Don't you want us to send them to your family?" (i.e., to his sisters) they asked in disbelief.

(Of course, polygamy and matrilocalism are somewhat contradictory in practice. A man with 100 wives who lived in 100 different villages would be as exhausted as the traveling salesman in a 1920s joke. So, there is a wide vary of African family structures. But, the overall bell curves of kinship systems in Africa are significantly shifted in directions implied by the relatively higher ability of African women to fend for themselves and their children without males as providers.

This lack of male jealousy makes Africans particularly susceptible to the spread of venereal diseases like AIDS.

By this analysis, O.J. Simpson would represent assimilation toward the non-tropical norm of high male jealously