Jeffrey Dickemann Came First

On the Father of Darwinian History

Posted Aug 31, 2013

Chronicle/Kendra Luck
Source: Chronicle/Kendra Luck

“Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”

—Charles Darwin, 1859, 1871

Over most of the last 80 odd years, Jeffrey Dickemann has toiled away in obscurity. Not always unpleasantly. He grew up, partly, in Hawaii and Samoa; went to school at the University of Michigan (an inclement digression) and the University of California at Berkeley; taught anthropology and sociology, for decades, at Sonoma State University; then moved back to his garden in Berkeley, and has made trips to Costa Rica to visit his sister.

But the work has been done on his own. In a series of papers—specifically, in 3 articles published from 1979 to 1981—Jeffrey Dickemann became the “father” of Darwinian history. He was the first to apply the mid-20th-century, gene-centered theories from biology—the work of George Williams, Bill Hamilton and, especially, Bob Trivers—to the millennia-old written record of human societies. His penchant for global theorizing, and large library, made Dickemann start—in a literal sense—to fulfill Darwin’s prophecy: to shed light on man and his history, from the long view of life on earth.

He started with a simple fact. Most human societies, like most animal societies, are hierarchies. And because the evolved end of human existence, like the evolved end of other animals’ existence, is reproduction, breeding opportunities concentrate at the top. That set off a chain reaction. Women born towards the bottom, whose brothers had poorer breeding options, would compete to get access to men in higher eschelons. Their families would put together enormous dowries, and go to elaborate lengths to guarantee their fidelity. But women born at the top, whose brothers had stronger breeding options, would get discriminated against. Their families would slough them off into nunneries, or worse.

Dickemann drew evidence from all over the Old World. He talked about Taoist and Buddhist nunneries, crammed with daughters from aristocratic families, across medieval China; and about Christian nunneries, packed with other highborn daughters, across the European Middle Ages. He talked about the architectural, sartorial, surgical and moral means used, universally, to keep women from cuckolding their husbands: claustration, veiling, footbinding, nuptial virginity tests, clitoridectomy and infibulations, the use of eunuchs, passages in religious texts, even wedding rings, are paternity insurance mechanisms. He talked about the seraglios of Abassid caliphs and Ottoman sultans; about the zenanas of Indian maharajas; and about enormous Zhou Dynasty and Tang Dynasty harems—where kings were allowed one queen, 3 consorts, 9 wives of second rank, 27 wives of third rank, and 81 concubines in the millennium before the Current Era; and hoarded 10,000 women or more in the millennium afterward. “While anthropologists such as Irons and Chagnon are engaged in demonstrating for sceptics that human masculine RS* is indeed a function of socioeconomic status, I take it here as a given,” he wrote.

And he never had to apologize. “I have proved nothing in this wandering mélange of biological notions and historical and ethnographic tidbits. I have merely hypothesized, creating, I hope, a coherent, though oversimple, model,” he wrote in the coda to the first of his trio of papers. But he followed that, almost 20 years later, with this. “After another decade and more observing spilled ink and wasted funds (in fields as diverse as human genetics, demography, and cross-cultural comparison) due to the failure to begin with grassroots natural history of the subjects at hand, leading to the isolation of meaningful variables, I must reaffirm my dedication to this method of doing science.”

In the years after Dickemann wowed me with his trilogy, other Darwinian historians took up his subject. The evolutionary anthropologist, Jim Boone, had already started to ask questions about family dynamics in populations from the past; and the historian of science, Frank Sulloway, was starting to use evolution to answer big questions about scientific revolutions.  Other Darwinian histories would follow, by other history buffs—on the New World conquest, the decline of violence and the rise of the West.

But before the big books with big audiences, and before the Darwinian demographers, there were 3 papers, published in obscure places, that reduced the whole human edifice—from politics to ideology, religion and marriage—to gene competition. As much as I love reading Jim Boone, Frank Sulloway and their successors, the scales fell from my eyes when I read that work. History became science, and I was set on my own course.

Because Jeffrey Dickemann came first.


Dickemann, M. 1979. The ecology of mating systems in hypergynous dowry societies. Social Science Information, 18, 163-195.

Dickemann, M. 1979. Female infanticide, reproductive strategies, and social stratification: A preliminary model. In N. A. Chagnon and W. G. Irons, eds., Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective. North Scituate MA: Duxbury Press.

Dickemann, M. 1981. Paternal confidence and dowry competition: A biocultural analysis of purdah. In R. D. Alexander and D. W. Tinkle, eds., Natural Selection and Social Behavior: Recent Research and New Theory. New York: Chiron Press.


*Reproductive success