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Women or Wine? (April 15, 2011)

The American Association of Wine Economists is a "non-profit, educational organization dedicated to encouraging and communicating economic research and analyses and exchanging ideas in wine economics." Twice a year they publish a journal with papers on such learned and sleep-inducing subjects as "Identification of stochastic processes for an estimated icewine temperature hedging variable" and "Unobserved heterogeneity in the wine market: an analysis on Sardinian wine via Mixed Logit."

But there is nothing like introducing sex into wine to capture this writer's attention. Recently posted on AAWE's website was a working paper by two economists at the University of Leuven, Mara Squicciarini and Jo Swinnen, entitled "Women or Wine? Monogamy and Alcohol."

The abstract reads:

Intriguingly, across the world the main social groups which practice polygyny do not consume alcohol. We investigate whether there is a correlation between alcohol consumption and polygynous/monogamous arrangements, both over time and across cultures. Historically, we find a correlation between the shift from polygyny to monogamy and the growth of alcohol consumption. Cross-culturally we also find that monogamous societies consume more alcohol than polygynous societies in the preindustrial world. We provide a series of possible explanations to explain the positive correlation between monogamy and alcohol consumption over time and across societies.

The authors look at the major religions of antiquity and those societies that sanctioned a plurality of wives. (There has to be a better collective noun for this – a reluctance of wives? But I digress.) The two economists point out that, according to the Bible, Solomon had 700 wives, but that would not have earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records. According to the Bhagavata Purana, a Sanskrit devotional text, the Hindu deity Lord Krisha had 16,108 wives. You do the math.

Polygyny is practiced today by some followers of the Islamic faith and the fundamentalist Mormons of Utah. Under Shari'a law a man is allowed to take up to four wives (Koran 4.3: "And if you fear you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear you will not do justice (between them) then (marry) only one..."). And the Koran has an injunction against the consumption of alcohol by the faithful. The Mormons do not drink alcohol either.

The Greeks and the Romans, in their own times, were the only societies that drank wine, and it was those enlightened societies that introduced the concept of monogamous relationships. After the fall of Rome the early Christian Church reinforced the notion of monogamy while at the same time spreading the gospel of wine by planting vineyards throughout Europe and refining winemaking techniques in the monasteries. The Industrial Revolution further entrenched the social imperative of one man, one wife.

So, no alcohol for polygynists and alcohol for monogamists. This leads to the question which the New York journalist and Freakonomics blogger Stephen J. Dubner asked rhetorically in a recent post: Does our society drink wine because we're monogamous or are we monogamous because we drink wine?

My friend Barry Brown is a marriage counsellor who advises his clients to work out their differences over a bottle of wine. I don't think this solution would cut the mustard in a polygynous situation. On a purely practical level I would imagine a husband with a harem would have little time to sit back and enjoy a bottle of wine. On the other hand, it is not hard to understand why a couple in a long-term monogamous relationship might feel the need for a bottle of wine as a social lubricant. For the polygynist, if he had an argument with one of his wives, he could always seek comfort in the arms of another of his wives.




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