Monday 11 June 2012

Origins of Marriage

I’ve been rereading Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography, a book I recommend every female over the age of fifteen read.  One of the parts which struck me was her theory on how marriage came to be.

She complains a great deal about the assumptions of evolutionary psychology and she’s got some valid points.  Women aren’t inherently more monogamous and less sexual than men.  If this were the case, men and society wouldn’t have to work so hard to control female sexuality.  And there’s good evidence that the standards of men wanting young, beautiful women and women wanting rich, older men are more social constructs than inherent biologically driven urges.  Men may like younger women but younger people tend to be more attractive to both sexes.  Stability and commitment are also equally attractive regardless of gender.  Choice may depend more on what’s available than personal ideals.

In Angier’s theory, before agriculture, women could afford be more promiscuous and independent because they and a network of female kin likely provided all the food a woman and her children needed.  Gathering supplies the majority of calories in hunter-gatherer cultures.  Large kills tend to benefit the group as a whole rather than the hunter’s biological family.  No matter how vigilant and aggressive a potential mate was, she had lots of time to pursue alternatives and the independent wherewithal to walk away.

With agriculture, food became a more communal effort and thus community peer pressure became more effective.  As the need to wander to gather food vanished, it was much easier to restrict a woman’s movement and claim an exclusive sexual partnership.

It would be easy to build these facts into a conspiracy where evil men enslaved noble women but that ignores a simple fact.  Women aren’t stupid and since they already had power, they wouldn’t have been coerced into a negative situation.

Angier’s theory suggests forcing everyone into greater proximity made harassment into a bigger problem than it had been previously.  If everyone is working together in the fields or pastures all day and then living together in a communal compound all night, that’s a lot of time for an unwelcome suitor (or two or three) to push for a woman’s attention.  Anyone who has done the bar scene knows how persistent some men can be even when a woman has said no repeatedly and firmly.

By establishing formal public pair-bonds (marriage), a man got the right to exclusivity without having to risk potentially lethal physical competition with other men on a regular basis.  And women got freedom from harassment of unwelcome suitors.  Of course, both sides could violate the pair-bond if they chose.  Affairs probably began right along with marriage.  Both sexes probably indulged but the socially-reinforced ideal of an exclusive relationship forced such behaviour into quiet grounds.

From there, you can see how our “standard” preferences probably grew.  Women would want someone who was both strong enough to intimidate others but also committed to the relationship.  No sense in having the king if he’s likely to toss you out for another woman after a few years.  And it doesn’t matter how loving and committed your husband is if he doesn’t have the status to protect you.  Historically, nubile women were considered part of the booty during raids.  You would want to make sure there was a strong, intimidating male who was eagerly, if not fanatically, devoted to your personal safety.

On the other side, men can never been entirely sure if their wife’s child is theirs.  Until DNA testing came along, paternity was a matter of hope and guesswork.  By getting a young woman (preferably a virgin), he can not only benefit from her extended time of fertility, he can claim her exclusive sexual services.  This minimizes his chances of raising someone else’s genetic children.  The more naïve and inexperienced she is, the more she’ll rely on her husband as a go-between for the rest of the world.  Easier to control and less likely to stray, it’s a winning combination in a cold-hearted Darwinian kind of way.

This sort of theorizing is interesting.  I love learning about different cultures and societies.  It’s fascinating to me.  But in the end, it doesn’t mean anything more than an interesting theory.

Human beings are blessed (or cursed) with brains which let us overwhelm just about any instinct nature cares to throw at us.  So our “evolutionary preferences” are not iron chains binding us to any particular destiny.  I see them more as the equivalent of wall around five feet tall.  It’s easier to stay inside the boundaries but a determined effort will get you out every time.

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