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March 22, 2004

Then She Told me a Story, About Free Milk and a Cow

Note: this is a post recovered from my old blog, before it died of an insufficient backup. Any comments/trackbacks on it have not been brought over, but can be seen with the original. The date is that of the original posting.


It is only relatively recently that love became (at least in Enlightenment-influenced societies) a primary motivation for marriage. (Let me be clear: in societies not based on Enlightment values, love has not become a primary motivation for marriage.) That doesn't invalidate love as a motive for marriage, but it does bring into question why marriage would exist otherwise.

The answer is actually pretty straightforward: marriage provides concrete benefits to both partners, and concrete evolutionary benefits.

The concrete benefits to the husband are that he has an object for his natural protective and provider traits (and thus is made happy, and proud, by having someone to protect and provide for and by protecting and providing for them) and a better chance of having sex (especially past the prime of life). The concrete benefits to the wife mirror those of the husband: she has someone to protect and provide for her - particularly when she is incapacitated by childbirth and early childcare - and also has a better chance of having sex (especially past the prime of life). Both spouses also benefit from companionship, a pretty universal human need, and other psychological benefits (married people are still, apparently, happier in general than non-married people).

The evolutionary benefits of marriage are that children are more likely to survive for two reasons: the children are provided for and protected, and families are a great mechanism for accumulating wealth (which has a positive impact on survival to adulthood and on ability to find a good spouse in adulthood).

Over the long-term, the evolutionary benefits are such that people likely to choose marriage (barring societal conditioning against doing so) are more likely to increase their share of the gene pool than people unlikely to choose marriage.

What is happening now, though, is a societal suppression of many of the reasons for marriage (and not just in Scandinavia). The prevalence of easy divorces, and the availability of abortion, have both significantly weakened marriage as a societal institution, and it is likely that socially redefining marriage to include homosexual couples, groups and whomever else can make an equal-rights case for "the right to be married" is going to weaken the institution further.

It should be noted here that I believe that civil divorce should be more difficult, but certainly not impossible, that abortion should be available on demand to adults whose foetus is not yet at the 50% viability point, and that (from a civil, not religious, standpoint) any group of two or more consenting adults should be able to form a contractual relationship equivalent to marriage (including the protections against testimony against a spouse, which will need to be evaluated in depth for reasons I hope are obvious).

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Anyway, the point is that the institution of marriage as it's known in our culture today is weakening further, and is likely to undergo another major change.

You heard me, another major change. In this country, only something like 100 years ago, nuclear families were rare, and were the result of unusual forces. Typically, they were the result of epidemics wiping out the extended family, in-migration from other countries where only the nuclear family came, or colonization of the frontier. The usual model was the extended family, with elders mostly caring for and educating the children; the adult males providing for the elders, women and children; and the adult women bearing and nursing children. The dissolution of the extended family had far-reaching effects (consider: the need for public education, the emergence of nursing homes, the need for women to be able to vote and work - and these are just the edge of the issue), and these effects are only now stabilizing.

But now, the nuclear family looks as if it will dissolve as the norm (there are still extended families in the US, but they're very rare). The interesting question to me is not how to prevent this, but what will replace nuclear families.

I doubt there's much to really argue about in the foregoing, but now I'm going to hop off into speculation, so get ready to be annoyed, offended, intrigued or bored (your choice).

Human social institutions exist for one reason only, and at the behest of one group only. They exist to for women to obtain protection and provision for themselves and their children when they and their children are incapable of living without help.

The fundamental, overriding imperative of women is successfully to raise children to adulthood, who themselves then have children. (The evolutionary success of any individual is measured by the number of grandchildren, because that accounts for how many of the individual's children survived to adulthood, and passed on the individual's genes to another generation.) In order for women successfully to raise children, given that they will be incapacitated for large parts of their productive adult life, women require social institutions to make that possible, and desire social institutions that make it easier.

The social rules that grow up around relationships (from tribal hunter/gatherer cultures where all adult males were responsible for supporting all of the tribe's women and children, to early agricultural settlements where monogamous attachment in pairs first became prominent, to extended families of various kinds, to the nuclear family) were always based on providing women with care during their periods of pregnancy and nursing, and providing women and children with protection and sustenance always.

While such social rules benefit women directly, men also obtain benefits. In addition to social approval, men get to indulge their desire to protect and provide. But, more importantly to most men (at least when they're young enough to be in prime breeding age), women have the power of withholding sexual favors. Chastity before marriage as a social rule, for example, was enforced by the denial of women to provide sex before marriage, not by the rules of the Church. (For very good practical reasons, too; go read Les Miserables to see what women with a child could face in the absence of a man to care for them.) Given that there is a limited number of attractive young women willing to have sex with any given man without asking for a commitment in return, men have a pretty strong incentive to live within the social structures that women build up to protect themselves and their children.

I do believe that it's at least somewhat likely that the combination of birth control, ready divorce, and the societal redefinition of marriage might well make nuclear families as rare in 100 years as the extended family is today. But absent horribly repressive measures (such as the most extreme Islamic creeds impose on women), some new institution will arise to take over the functions of the family, protecting women and children and increasing wealth. What this institution will be is anyone's guess (science fiction has provided us with almost as many ideas as has a careful study of history), but I can almost guarantee that the primary shapers of the replacement to marriage will be young, heterosexual women.

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Posted by jeff at March 22, 2004 12:00 AM

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