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The House that Fitz Built: A Scandal Explanation of the Polygyny Threshold Hypothesis


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I don’t watch Scandal but I have a pretty good idea of the major plot lines and characters. Thanks to the awesomeness that is Social Media and #BlackTwitter, I have a close captioning service that is beyond compare. I never felt the desire to pipe up until now. Episode 308 of Scandal was the talk of my entire time line (Twitter & Facebook).

The main character, Olivia Pope, is carrying on an affair with a married man – the President of the United States – Fitz. She waves back and forth letting him go, running back to his arms. So many fans (and non-fans) of the show really ride her for her behavior.  In this latest episode Olivia was really being firm – staying away from her paramour. But then he pulled out a big gun.

And many people’s reaction were to tsk, tsk, tsk her falling into his arms again. Weak Olivia falling for Fitz’s shenanigans, again. Several others were keen to warn any woman in the real world who may be carrying on with a married man to check their expectations. After all, Scandal is a television program, make-believe. All of you side-chicks of the world curb yourself. And you know what I feel compelled to defend Olivia’s reactions to Fitz’s gift.  Although humans tend to filter decisions via moral compasses – which are fair and useful – we also not very different from the rest of the members of the animal kingdom. Monogamy – a commitment between a pair of individuals sometimes seasonal or life long – is actually quite rare.  In fact, there are several systems where mating with a well-resourced male who is already pair-bonded is a better deal than mating monogamously with a male who is less resourced. It’s called the Polygyny Threshold Hypothesis. (click to embiggen)

online source: bio3520.nicerweb.com, Original Source LA Dugatkin Principles of Animal Behavior Textbook

In this diagram of the lark bunting, habitats that provide adequate cover and shade are very important. Females prefer to build a nest in locations that will keep nestlings cool and provide some cover from predators.  Male quality varies. Some are stronger and more competitive and as such stronger males secure better habitats and attract females who will mate with them and he will fertilize her eggs.  Buntings, like many small bird species tend to mate monogamously, but not always. There’s always some exceptions; and for females it comes down to access to quality habitats.  Is it better to mate monogamously with a male – who will provide some parental care – on a shabby territory or trade off a male’s attention and assistance with parental care and set up home on a better territory? Many females choose the latter.

So many folks were so quick to tongue lash Olivia for giving in, being weak – because he built her a house. A HOUSE!!!  Is her behavior morally defensible? No. But evolutionarily it is. He’s wealthy and well-resourced and this Alpha Male Lark Bunting just built her a pretty swank nest in the coziest shadiest nook of Vermont. That’s a pretty big deal. By the rules of evolutionary biology, that’s a well-played move Olivia.

Carry on.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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