Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Eskimo Swingers

One of my first big Aha experiences about how biology in the form of evolutionarily ingrained genetic programs shapes human culture was back at college, five minutes into an anthropology class on Inuit tribes.

The teacher explained to us that some Inuit had adapted to their dire circumstances by being ultra-nomadic.
Instead of small tribes traveling together these groups literally consist of just a man and his wife (as well as their offspring) traveling together through the icy wilderness.

This adaptation makes sense since any larger group of humans would not be able find enough food within the same area to survive. But that is not the biological adaptation I am talking about.

In order to find out about the somewhat more interesting way Inuit have adapted to their environment, you would have to become their guest. Just like many other Nomadic tribes, Inuit pride themselves in being excellent hosts. They sure would offer you food and a warm shelter - and later that night the wife would crawl into your bed and have sex with you.

What might seem as a somewhat extreme form of hospitability makes a lot of sense to in the face of evolution. Inuit, being isolated from each other for most of their lives run into the danger of a genetic bottleneck (aka inbreeding). By marrying repeatedly between the same few families living clode by, there is not enough influx of novel, diverse alleles into their local gene pool to avoid common biological disasters such as a single virus wiping out the entire tribe. This creates a need for some genetic mixture. Hence the swinging (which is not unheard of in other indigenous cultures as well).

Why would a man stand this? Are the Inuit fishermen all omega-ized males with a cuckold fetish?

This is where the story becomes interesting.

For Inuits have come up with a bizarre heritage law (and one of the greatest examples of how genes influence behavior): Instead of passing on stuff to their kids, a man's goods will preferably be passed on to the children of his sister.

Given ther thing for swinging, Inuit men suffer from a severe form of paternity insecurity. All of his own kids might have been fathered by guys like you and me visiting for a night. The percentage of genes that are his in this generation could be zero.

Yet, he knows that his siblings will have about 50% of his own genes since they share the same (swinging) mum. And under any circumstances his sister's kids will be related to him as well. In fact, these are the only kids around where he can be certain that they are genetically related since even his brother's kids might be the product of foreign passer-throughs. Thus, he will happily support his nephews and nieces even at the expense of his own kids.

Note that there is a high chance that some of his own kids are his indeed (and therefore share 50% of genetic material with him). Yet, the genetic programs shaping his decisions multiply that by the probaility that they are of alien paternity - and he rather goes for the safe, secure strategy of supporting the kids that he knows are at least somewhat related.

It is as if the genes in his body, using him as a mere vehicle to get into the next generation by shaping his decisions "understand" that there is a need for genetic variability and therefore embrace his sister banging random strangers so he can invest in their common, genetically superior offspring. And (thanks to genetci programing) this is his preferred strategy even if there might be children of his own wo will suffer from this practice and the cultural consequences.

This behavior might seem strange to us, but we all are steered by the very same mechanisms that push us to survive and to procreate. These are very strong imperatives and failure to obey them can lead to catastrophic consequences for a group or individuals. How exactly DNA gets translated into complex behavior such as these is still completely mysterious to (neuro)science. Yet, there is few doubt that we all dance to the same tunes. Culture adapts to environmental changes in biologically reasonable ways. Our society changes all the time, and any major change on the mating market will be counteracted with behavioral adaptations such as the one highlighted above. In this sense we have yet to see what the massive changes in the sexual dynamics over the last decades have done to us.
For starters, selling DNA paternity kids to Eskimos might be a good business idea.

[Disclaimer: I am neither an anthropologist nor an ethnologist, so take with a grain of salt]


  1. it's amazing that they would have without the advent of DNA/paternity testing devised a heritage/hand me down system that reflects the possibility of not passing down their own genes.

  2. The internet suggests that most of what is going on was wife swapping where husbands switch access to the wives. This wouldn't reduce the man's genetic legacy on average.

  3. Wow how crazy that sounds that your children are not actually your children but you do not mind...

    STD's would cause so many problems in this culture.

  4. simple question...why would they shre the kids..would it be more biologically favorable?

  5. imean not he kids,their 2 generation...in older age