Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group, teaches that “the foundation of society for the family is marriage of a man and a woman for life.” “One man, one woman, one life” is deemed to be God’s plan and instruction. This group is largely against homosexual marriage, but it also rails against no-fault divorce, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, group marriage, and other variations of their ideal scheme. They cite decent research showing the benefits of a stable traditional family, and they warn weakening the family or expanding its definition would be detrimental to society.
I share their concerns but not their conclusions. As detailed in my comments in our newsletter, assuming that all who oppose gay marriage are also anti-gay creates an inaccurate and alienated group that then is exploitable in elections. The meaning of marriage is important for many social and governmental reasons. However, when viewing the Focus on the Family web site I found them dismissing Civil Unions, which are inclusive, fair, and respectful, along with gay marriage. Their defending marriage goes beyond sincere reasons to tend to children, families, and society to a mean moralism that precludes gays from ever having social and legal sanction for their partnering in any form. They capitalize on people’s unease with homosexuality and their common sense about the importance of family to round up votes, swaying not just presidential elections and the appointment of “non-activist judges” (itself a feat of Orwellian doublethink) but the options and tenor of our entire society.
My concern here today is to examine the biological, evolutionary, and social context of our human families, not so much our feelings as the forces that shape and sustain family. The issues are neither simple nor insignificant. (Thanks here to Helen Fisher’s Anatomy of Love.)
We start with biology. Mothers are more important than fathers. The mother’s egg is huge and very singular compared to the father’s self-cell. Her egg was in place on her ovary when she was an infant in her mother’s womb! It ripens and launches at ovulation. The female also carries the stable RNA components of the new organism; the father’s isn’t tracked. The father makes millions of sperm a day; he can afford to spread them around. Fathers may come and go, as it were, but mothers have and nurse the babies. Her body is more central; it is significantly stressed during pregnancy and birth, and typically she then nurses the infant for a period afterwards. Human babies have large heads to house big, smart brains. Human infants come with altriciality; they are helpless. What should take up to twelve months gestation has to come out in nine. They have to be held, nursed, and cared for in ways most animals don’t. As mammals are more nurturing than reptiles, humans are even more nurturing and social. The mother and infant are the center of family. Relatively immobile and dependent, both need outside assistance: food, protection, and company. While this can come from others in the community, it often comes from the father. If he is sure the child is his, he is more willing to invest in caring for the mother and the infant.
This is a big if. When a woman is pregnant we can be sure who the mother is. (Recent implantation technologies provide an exception.) But at all births, it can be questioned as to who the father is. Only later, when facial features emerge, does the question show up. If the child looks like the guy down the path more than him, he might be investing his time, energy, and resources raising some other man’s child. Women who think, “So what?” might ask themselves how they would feel if their husband showed up with his child born of another woman, delivering it to his wife and expecting life-long devotion to it.
In close cousin chimp apes, and other animals, this issue has mortal consequences. If a new male defeats the former head of a harem he might kill all the infants. This sends the mother into heat and he sires his own batch. We may not like this “I and mine” morality, but we’re selected for it. The Saint Joseph type, who loves his wife and her babe as if divine, no matter who fathered it, is rarer than those fathers who insist on monogamy to insure what is unsure.
This monogamy is not equally balanced. The wife wants her husband’s monogamy because his sex with others might lead to love and commitment, taking away his support partially or entirely. The husband wants his wife’s monogamy to insure the children he raises are his. Whereas her philandering would bring another man’s child into their home for a lifetime of care, his would affect a distant setting. Once paternity is an ownership issue, no longer can the village parent the babes in general. A nuclear unit comes into play, and with it, defined extended families. Monogamy may be expected for both, but in many cultures, including as in the Bible, the stricture is far stronger on her than on him. Typically, it means she must not stray and he must not have sex with the wife of another man. His contact with other women (other wives, concubines, prostitutes) isn’t prohibited.
Men can father many children with many mothers. Women can take many husbands or lovers, but they can’t have as many offspring. Solomon was said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Genghis Khan fathered lots; one in two hundred people today carry his genes. One historian claims he sired 20,000. Like a lion, he would invade, drive off or kill the men, and impregnate as many women as he could, creating sons to own the land he had claimed. He marks the extreme form of a problematic, persistent patriarchal trait bred into us: Take and own at the expense of those conquered.
Monogamy serves stability in families. But while an unbalanced monogamy is selected for in us, more in women, somewhat in men, so is philandering, more in men, somewhat in women. As with many other animals, apes form pair bonds and exhibit jealousy, but both males and females sneak off with lovers from time to time. And in both apes and humans, life-long monogamy isn’t so typical as to be called normal. Helen Fisher, looking at both apes and humans, notes divorce comes often at four years, about the time needed to get an infant into childhood. However, the later in life that people marry, and the longer they stay married, the greater the chances they’ll stay married. While “one man, one woman, one life” may be admirable and rewarding, it isn’t our only past, pattern, or option.
What attitudes and norms do we inherit from our evolution and why?
When we look at the behaviors of our closest animal cousins, some surprises emerge. We hominids came from a branch of the mammalian tree that also spawned the apes. We’re close to chimps. The males take and rule females, even engaging in infanticide and war, and they expect monogamy. The females sneak out anyway, some of them going off with small bands of male hunters. They’re very sexual, copulating some 500 to 1000 times per pregnancy, but only for about 11 seconds each time. Homosexuality, especially between females, is not uncommon.
Surprisingly, a separate group of chimps, the pygmy chimps, also called bonobos, lives right across the Congo River (also called the Zaire) on what is called the “left bank.” These chimps have larger brains and stand and walk more like humans. They copulate face to face about a third of the time, are even more sexual than the standard chimps, copulating some 3000 times per pregnancy, and they too have same-sex relations. Sex is used on many occasions, for gifts, to settle disputes, and so forth. Because there is no keeping track of who the fathers might be, the babes are raised communally. Whoever is closest to a female helps tend her babes. They are female centered and very gentle. There is almost no violence.
Humans diverged from the related apes some 4.5 million years ago and emerged as humans 2.5 to 1 million years ago. We have both chimp-like and bonobo-like attributes. What makes us different is our penis size, ours being far larger than theirs, and that we make love in the dark, not in view of each other. We also have a hidden estrus; we can and do copulate cycle round, increasing month-long closeness. Skin and standing up facilitates the mother’s holding the altricial infant in her arms, for it can’t hold on well when she is on all fours. The standing up widens the pelvis, allowing for larger heads. Larger brains allow more elaborate language abilities. Thus, large brains require and facilitate family and community; these are crucial to our being human. Finally, we wear clothing. Our vulnerable skin probably needed it, especially as we migrated north to exploit the hunting and gathering opportunities growing after the receding glaciers. Between our ape past and this recent 10,000 year non-ice age we developed language, tools, the control of fire, the dawn of art and the beginning of religion. When we developed music and dance, and what it meant to our evolution, intrigues me.
Thinly populated hunters and gatherers occupying an expanding temperate ecosystem didn’t have as much reason to hoard or war as did those developing agriculture. While we have nostalgia for beating our swords into plowshares, earlier humans did the obverse, turning their spears into plows. It took big men and big animals to work those. Grain bins tended to settle formerly roaming people. Women who had gathered food now processed it. This allowed for wealth, but that allowed domination genes to lead to inequality and war. Females who had an earlier economic equality now became dependent on males who control. They couldn’t divorce as easily and move on. Their job was to breed and raise his children in a stable setting. In the last 5000 years patriarchy clamped women into their assigned place. Although power is always more complex and subtle than I’m putting it here, largely the lopsided stricture on monogamy, divorce prohibitions, and dependency all landed hard on women.
The religions that had earlier praised and celebrated women changed to dominate them. Though women are more verbal than men, men are more political than women. They tend the synod and the senate while she tends the children at home. The strict and stern views of marriage and family given in the Bible are said to come from God, but they come through competitive, dominating, rationalizing men. (Resurrecting Eve rightly complains of their repression, vii.)
I have sympathy for such men almost as much as I have for their women. We inherit a lot in our genes as mediated through our current culture. Mostly, we pair bond, but we also philander. We get upset by that and either patch it up and make agreements, or let it lead to divorce. Then we tend to remarry. Maybe “family” isn’t just the separate nuclear units of this very human process, maybe it includes all these events and relations. Maybe family could be defined as the mother and her babes and their fathers (and their extended families) all knowing and caring for each other over their lifetime. This happens now more than it is admitted or encouraged.
Marriage and family are open to various definitions and practices, but at risk to prevailing norms, institutions, and importantly, children. We don’t know the consequences of our innovations until later. No-fault divorce allowed many couples to get out of their dreary, damaging relationships and into new ones. But serial marriage leads to step fathers living with step daughters who aren’t of their blood. This can lead to sexual tensions and breeches of norms. The damage to the poor girl then worsens with explosive reaction. It’s a volatile mix, one we encounter more frequently as divorce and remarriage goes up.
Then there are children deserving support and connection with their actual genetic parents. Even when children have good step parents they might want and need ongoing relations with their blood mom and dad. For emotional, financial, and genetic reasons, they should have the right to this. They didn’t ask to be brought into this world; whoever got them here owes them. If they have remarried it doesn’t mean the child has no connection. I have seen too many cases where the estranged husband and wife continue to be decent fathers and mothers to let the label “my ex” adequately describe that family. Family is more than the current marriage. It reaches into the larger families of both the mother and the father. Children should be able to know something about their actual parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so forth. The church could help define family in such a way as to honor the life-long family of blood relations as well as the currently married. They may not still be married, but to some, they will always be mom and dad.
Modern genetic fingerprinting opens up a new and significant policy option that is sure to change mating and family dynamics. Because we couldn’t be certain who the father is in any situation, the real one could squirrel out of his responsibility. Now that we can determine who the actual father is, he should be declared emotionally and financially obligated, at first to the mother then more so to the child, for the next twenty years or so. Instead of “scoring” and moving on in his “sport,” he would have to deal with the consequences of his acts just as women have traditionally inherited. He would have to be cautious and might become the pursued in the mating “game.”
Another variation on family is the emerging call for polyamorous families. Polyamory means “many loves.” It stands for everything from groups of three or more claiming marriage to those advocating open marriage. I’ve been reading the postings of the members of the UUPA (UU’s for Polyamorous Awareness) for a year and a half. These people are adamant about being able to love more than one person. They agree that their fidelity to each other is not measured by their monogamy. They may have more than one spouse, or they may take lovers outside the primary couple, but they expect honesty about it. Love affairs are not betrayals when they are known and accepted. Typically, the primary partner can exercise veto power over a secondary if they’re feeling too threatened or taken-for-granted. When it works, participants report jealousy is replaced by compersion, taking delight in the pleasures and satisfactions of ones mate.
This adventurous behavior isn’t new for humans, but talking about it publicly is lately. While not typical, there are a few places around the world where women are allowed and even expected to take lovers in addition to being married. Husbands serve as fathers even if they aren’t the actual one. The women take lovers as desired; the men support them. Of course men would, for when the community sanctions such a practice, they benefit too. When agreed upon, the bonds of love that accompany sex would promote a community cohesion that transcends the possessiveness and jealousy inherent in monogamous nuclear families. It takes “village” agreement.
Such cultures and subcultures are rare. We’re familiar with the trauma of affairs and the failures of the open marriage movement. But partly this is due to norms supporting monogamy and declaring variations from it taboo. Those happy with polyamory can’t easily share their experience without riled reactions, and they don’t pay therapists for help they don’t need. Some cultures devise compromises. Shy of multiple wives and concubines, affairs with mistresses can be condoned, such as de Gaulle’s. In America, private agreements between couples stay private. If it becomes public, like with Bill Clinton, irate outrage soars, and the “morality” elects a new president whose cavalier war has killed hundreds of thousands. We’re more comfortable with violence than sex.
George Burns noted, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” Hiding trysts is as common in humans as having them. The macho culture of southern Italy condemns adultery publicly and practices it privately. Everyone knows what no one admits. Men in America are said to have more affairs than women, but with whom? Married women in America having affairs (at some time during their lives) range from a low of 9% to a possible 70%. Genetic tests on traditional families show more non-husbands fathering than expected. There is no culture that extinguishes philandering. Helen Fisher punctuates this:
Public whipping, branding, beating, ostracism, mutilation of genitals, chopping off of noses and ears, slashing feet, chopping at one’s hips and thighs, divorce, deserting, death by stoning, burning drowning , choking, shooting, stabbing – such cruelties are meted out by people around the world for philandering. Given these punishments, it is astonishing that human beings engage in extramarital affairs at all. Yet we do.
Mature humans and their cultural institutions like religions might devise better ways of handling our innate tendency to roam than condemning and punishing it. Perhaps our higher brain can now apply compassion and compersion to the fear and anger we also inherit. Apes handled affairs better than we sometimes have. Typically, where a society sanctions sexual expressiveness, including multiple lovers, there is less violence. Where ownership of women and harsh repression is the rule, violence is magnified.
Whether a society can be more open and relaxed together or not – is open to question, especially depending on their starting point. Those who never see a woman’s ankle or wrist in public are understandably shocked when they see ample porn on the Internet. The Taliban shot a woman in the head in a sports stadium for committing adultery. In Denmark, rules dictate that you cannot let your dogs run free in the town park, but you can publicly make love there. In America, we seem to pair up titillation with moral outrage about it. The pundits were recently aghast that a teen star of a show ripe with tee-hee innuendo about sex showed her bare back in a magazine. Just as she is coming into her socially sexual years she was castigated for modeling that. What would the kids think? Evidently, the lesson was, even if they’re not interested yet, they should know she, and they, should be ashamed.
Things have changed since we stood up on the savannas of Africa. Mobility, economic opportunity, and birth control change the context of marriage and family. What haven’t changed are babes sired by fathers being born of mothers. How to do that well in community towards ever healthier and more fulfilled generations is an ongoing experiment requiring we carefully and caringly focus on the family.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the UU’s of Grants Pass, Oregon
© June 1, 2008