Many people are pounding away about the "Traditional Marriage". Their assumption is that such a marriage is part of human nature and all other forms must be unnatural. But is this true really?
For many, "Traditional Marriage" is One Man and One Woman and their job is to have children.
But inferred by this view of Traditional is that such an arrangement is somehow ordained by nature - it is the "normal" and historic way that humans have raised kids and been in relationship with each other.
But our history as a species does not support this view at all.
For millions of years we lived in small groups that were larger and more socially complex that the traditional view.
Here the optimal arrangement for women was to ensure the protection and the feeding of their children by having as many of the males as possible in the group attached to them and the kids. No one could have had an exclusive arrangement with another for in the hunter gatherer tribal society of "NO PROPERTY" no person belonged to another individual.
This was a very pragmatic arrangement. For, if a woman was linked only to one man, she and her children would be very vulnerable. What if he died? Who would feed and look after them? If she had a new man, would he support her children?
It was pragmatic socially as well as functionally. A small social unit like this could not survive sexual jealousy.
It was an arrangement that shaped our biology. Bonobos and humans are the only species where the female is sexually available all the time. They are the only two species where the vagina is designed for face to face mating. Ovulation is hidden. We are designed for social sex not mating sex.
Sex far from splitting the group asunder makes it closer. The design for social sex and not reproductive sex - suggest that sex for humans is a form of "grooming" . Apes with fur groom the fur of the other to improve the cohesion of the group. We, the naked ape, find sex the more powerful way to develop intimacy.
The group was the most important thing - everything was designed to make the group healthy and effective. Sex must have played a large role in this.
This arrangement supported our core economic and survival function - how we got food. Among the apes, only the Bonobo and the human shares food. Human hunters would share all the food with ALL the tribe. There was no smaller group such as a "Traditional" family that had its own food. There was no mom and dad and the kids, there was only the larger group where ALL was shared.
This arrangement extended to child feeding and raising.
All the mothers and in fact all the females looked after and fed ALL the babies. While there was obviously the birth mother who was close - all the women were close. All those who were sexually active also had synchronized cycles. Meaning that there was a lot of milk available all the time. So if a mother died, the baby would be not at risk. All the females from as young as 5 or 6 participated in the raising of all the infants.
Defense was a group activity. All the males participated in the defense of all the children.
Our bodies, our minds and our nature has been shaped by millions of years of living like this.
The Traditional marriage - that itself only is common in certain societies has been around for at most 10,000 years. It is a blip and it is a social product of a new way of feeding our selves. It's a product of agriculture and the great social invention of agriculture, a state.
With agriculture property is invented and who land and the herds were passed down through generations became THE question.
Property is the central idea in the agricultural world. So men owned property and ensured its ownership through time by owning their women. This was the new deal as told in the story of the Fall and the exit from Eden.
The growth of the state is also part of this system. As the state took more and more of the surplus, it could bind people to the state by offering more of the "services" found in the Tribe. Protection, Employment, Money itself, health care, education, pensions. Only in modern times could there be a nuclear family and even more extraordinary a single parent. These groups are too small to survive in a world that is not so organized.
So has this experiment worked well? After all it is a product of our different environment.
The evidence suggests not recently. Not since the end of the larger more tribal extended family.
In a moment of my own unhappiness years ago, I asked Dan Keating what was the track record of dysfunction in families today. He thought it was over 90%! No effective "natural" social arrangement can have this poor an outcome.
What is it about the nuclear family that drives so much dysfunction?
Let's look at some of the common issues.
There is not enough social diversity to raise a healthy minded child. With only one or 2 parents, it is rare to offer a child a really broad and healthy spectrum of experience and security. Worse it is easy to offer them a very controlled or as bad a very lax and unsafe experience. Most of our challenges in later life arise from this too narrow and too weak platform. We were not designed to imprint on such a small group.
The family is no longer an economic unit where all play a role so we lose our sense of meaning. Children have in fact become a drain on the resources of a family. Our natural place where all provide value and hence where all can find meaning has been lost. Instead children are groomed to make their way as separate beings in the larger economy or left to their own devices. In both cases there is a disconnect at the core of the family.
Property is still the basis of marriage and so drives power issues. We think we own each other. We think that the true roles of the other is to make us happy. It has become all about me. Happiness and self fulfillment have replaced the larger goal of continuing the tribe. This is a very fragile basis for a long and fulfilling relationship.
Long term monogamy is as natural as celibacy! It drives urges that are all too human and makes it certain that we are wracked by guilt and by anguish and failure. For in reality being unfaithful is routine but is seen as being the unforgivable sin. But the traditional marriage - being based on property - makes it inevitable that we fail. With this failure comes a terrible cost in "broken homes" and people.
The traditional marriage is not suited to our nature. So what then?
Frankly I don't know. I am as much a product of my upbringing as you. But I do see some signs.
Tribal Marriage was not a free for all - at its heart was the practical way to survive in a world that was dangerous.
The unspoken partner of the Traditional Marriage is the state. It is the state that underwrites a lot of the risk in life. Only in a state could there be a unit as small as Mum dad and the kids. In all places where the state is weak at least the large extended family prevails where all the family look after all the family.
The state and the large institutions that offer us shelter, food, energy and security enable us to limp along in the traditional marriage.
But there are signs that the economic collapse, with our food system depending on cheap oil and climate change that the state may not be there as strongly as we expect.
In the US now, financial pressures are picking away at the foundations of the safety net. The same is going on in Europe too. Your pension? Health care? Schools. Jobs even.
How will we get by as jobs stay scarce - pensions disappear - food and security become hard to get - as energy becomes very expensive?
We surely have a tried and true social answer. It is at least the extended family. It is at best the Tribe. The tribe being in my mind a unit that is profoundly economic. It exists to provide over generations what all the members need for a good life.
For this to work, we have to return to the ideals of our hunter gatherer ancestors. To raise great kids we ALL have to provide for them. To look after each other as adults and as older people, we ALL have to look after each other. Exclusive bonds make this impossible. How might this work?
I don't know. But I do know this. That such an arrangement is truly natural and that we will feel our way naturally into finding the answers. I think that events will push us here. Families now split up like mine will coalesce.
Several house holds will regroup into a larger whole. Some of the people will not be blood but dear friends. Some how in this mix, the old ways will emerge I think. Not as an act of deliberation or even intent - they just will happen for of course this is all innate.
Many now are wondering what the best response to Peak Oil will be. I am just seeing for the first time that one of the responses will have to be at least the re-establishment of the extended family. And even the Tribe.
For as many of us think more about Peak Oil and the requirement for Local Resiliency, we need to think about the social arrangements in which we will live to cope with a much tougher world and a place where the institutions that we take for granted no longer work.
Many are also wondering about how best to find a "better business model" based on community. Surely the tribe might play a key role here?
We can even predict the social size of these groupings for they too are hard wired into us. My bet is that the ideal size of the group will be found in the social groupings that Dunbar explores and that are found here.
Many of the ideas in this post have been taken from a remarkable new book that is part of a larger body of work on the shift from Hunter Gatherer life to Agriculture.
If you wish to know more a book called Sex at Dawn - The prehistoric origins of modern sexuality is a must read. Here is a teaser video.
In closing, I see another old story here. Back in the 14th century - one of the worst in human experience where it all seemed to go wrong - people started to look again at the old forgotten texts of the classic world. From this new study of an older world came the Renaissance. The grafting onto the world of the time of the lost wisdom of the Roman and Greek world. What is being done today is the same. People are looking back at our Hunter Gatherer Past that had been dismissed as savage and are finding wisdom that we can use today.
Surely family as a social construct is the most important aspect of their millions of years of hard acquired wisdom?
So finally the traditional marriage is as true to our nature as the idea that the world was made in a week 6,000 years ago.
If we can accept the reasons and the value of our successful ancestors, we might ourselves find more fulfillment and a bastion for the storms to come.