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The Biology of Marriage in Cultural Context

In response to my suggestion that it is the women rather than the marriage certificate that settles men down, Diana Moon emailed a question that put the gay marriage debate in a context in which I haven't heard it considered. It offers a good opportunity for clarification:

In the Arab world, there is polygamous marriage and women have severely proscribed rights. Men don't seem to be "tamed" at all; yet the women are the same biologically there as they are here. How do you explain that?

What surprised me about this question is that I didn't have biology explicitly in mind when I made the comment; rather, I was concentrating on the culture within which we operate. Indeed, all of the arguments against homosexual marriage are culturally founded. The institution of marriage is part of our culture from which our society benefits; gay marriage would change the institution, and the argument against it is that it will detrimentally change the culture.

I don't think I'd be wrong to suggest that Diana is not holding up Arab marital practices for our emulation. As she says, the women are severely oppressed, the men are not "tamed," and (although she doesn't mention this) the practice of polygamy has harmful effects on men toward the lower end of the social hierarchy. Within this system, the underlying controls of biology and human nature cannot operate. In fact, although I don't know enough about Arab culture and history to state this as more than an impression, it could be for this very reason that Arab society expends so much effort attempting to minimize the influence of women on the culture.

The more I've delved into social and political issues, the more I've come to think that the central innovation of Western civilization is that it makes the best use of human nature. It acknowledges, for example, that economic freedom will motivate people toward progress. More on topic, rather than seeking to skew away from the family structure in which we find the most strength and motivation to combine responsibility and independence, it capitalizes on that very drive to keep the family, its children, and the overall society healthy. This is what opponents of gay marriage — most of whom would be more appropriately described as proponents of traditional families — are hoping to preserve.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 08:03 PM EST



I've been trying to frame a response to your post over the weekend and I realize that the reason I myself am drawing a blank.

Let's go back to your original comment--that "It isn't the slip of paper used for a marriage certificate that encourages men to "settle down," it's the women whom they marry."

What else could you have in mind other than biology, that is, the biological differences between men and women? I thought you were saying that to "settle down" men had to adjust their sexuality and behavior to women's sexuality, to the fact that women get pregnant, have a different (biologically based) attitude towards commitment, and a host of other things. If it is not a piece of paper, if it is the woman, then what is it about the woman that makes the man settle down other than her biological differences with the man? Please explain, I am thoroughly puzzled.

I should probably wait for you to clarify before saying anything else, but what the heck, I'll add some more.

Human behavior is always a combination between biology and culture. So, you are flat out incorrect to say hat "Within this system (polygamy), the underlying controls of biology and human nature cannot operate." Biology always operates; it is filtered through the culture. In the case of a polygamous system--which is more common than monogamy, let's not forget--the biological propensity of men towards dominance hierarchies is put into brutal play with the effect, as you note, of lower-prestige men being shut out of the marriage market, and a high degree of female submissiveness is cultivated and culturally prized.

I am most certainly not recommending polygamy as a model. I simply responded to your comment that there is something about women that enables them to civilize men, without the input of a legal structure. I gave the example of a society in which there is an entire legal structure that destroys women's supposed innate ability to civilize men. I hope I've made myself clear now.

If this weren't an issue, then gay marriage would be irrelevant, because the overwhelming majority of people are heterosexual, and women would go on making men "settle down" regardless of how many gays get married. But law and society are important, as your concern about the subject attests.

Diana @ 06/22/2003 09:44 AM EST


It looks as if I should have drawn my rhetorical lines a bit heavier.

My initial point (slip of paper vs. women) was made entirely within the context of our culture (i.e., how men and women behave within our society). Of course, biology plays a role in how that culture has formulated the roles of men and women — especially if it is accepted that one of the more notable attributes of Western civilization is the extent to which it has acknowledged human nature.

The slip of paper, representing the totality of the legal structure with respect to marriage, is not the same thing as the totality of the cultural structure of gender balance and marriage. Consider that a "common law" marriage, in which both parties took on the traditional roles of husband and wife, but without legal, contractual ratification, would bring about the same balance between the spouses.

So: within our culture, which I believe to be relatively well aligned with human nature, it is the combination of man and woman, rather than the set of legal contracts, that brings about the familial conditions that are healthy for society. The only argument, as far as I'm concerned, for involving government (i.e., legality) in marriage at all is to encourage these conditions.

It seems that you're putting "legal" into the category of "culture" and placing that in opposition to "biology." This doesn't strike me as the most true model of reality; it is more the case that legality and biology are distinct contributors to culture (the latter, I would say, having stronger influence in most cases). (N.B., it occurs to me to mention, as an aside, that I don't believe biology and human nature to be entirely interchangeable, but for this conversation, they are close enough.)

The ideal culture will build its social and legal structures in such a way as to channel biological tendencies to healthy ends. In some particulars, that will appear more like channeling them away from one area of life than channeling them toward something else. It's a bit like redirecting a river to avoid flooding a village; there may be a new usage (e.g., a water-powered mill) enabled, but the first concern was channeling the water away from the village rather than to the mill.

When I wrote, "the underlying controls of biology and human nature cannot operate," I didn't mean that biology and human nature are the underlying controls, but that what act as underlying controls within biology and human nature cannot operate. In this case, whatever the qualities and attributes in women are that can settle men down, if they are suppressed by a system of oppressive polygamy, then they will not act as controls on the biological tendencies of men (to use your example: dominance hierarchies). One half of the biological complement is held back, and the other half flows too freely.

What makes gay marriage relevant is that it will not be — and is not intended to be by its proponents — merely a contractual, legal arrangement. Indeed, I've argued that one problem presented by the shift would be that the cultural effects would be far disproportionate to the facts and figures of the policy. Let me tweak the river analogy a bit, presenting the mills as marriage and the method used to siphon away some of the flow as cultural/biological gender complement. In this picture, gay marriage would be akin to putting mills on the river itself, and some of those who argue for it suggest that mills on the river will weaken the flow of water to some degree. However, no matter how much grain may be produced (in the form of emotional and sexual gratification), this ignores the purpose for which the water was being redirected in the first place. One danger, from the point of view of those who oppose gay marriage, is that the ethos of rechanneling the water will fade.

(This analogy is meant to address the monogamy and polygamy sections of the discussion. The issues in the Girls, Girls, Girls post would require additional metaphorical layers to be included.)

Justin Katz @ 06/22/2003 12:57 PM EST


I think you should have been clearer about what you meant.

I find that much of what you say is quite heavy on cultural assumptions. If anything, Western culture has been successful to the extent that it overcomes human nature.

As Rose said in the African Queen to Mr. Allnutt: "Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we were put on earth to overcome." No Orthodox Jew would ever say that we should do what comes naturally, simply because it is what comes naturally. Maimonides said that the hardest laws in Judaism to keep were the laws of sexual morality and family purity.

But let it pass; my point simply was that women have no biological magic potion that encourages men to settle down.

That is indeed a matter of an entire cultural edifice, and as we see, Humpty Dumpty has taken a great fall and I fear, can't be put together again.

Diana @ 06/22/2003 04:42 PM EST

Well, Diana, I think you are right to suggest letting this conversation pass, because we have reached a point at which we'll be forced into theological differences that we might never resolve. Being a Roman Catholic, my view of our purpose on earth is bound to be quite different from that of an Orthodox Jew.

I do, however, want you to clarify one point:

I find that much of what you say is quite heavy on cultural assumptions. If anything, Western culture has been successful to the extent that it overcomes human nature.

Well, if your accusation is true, then your response seems to have been to make cultural assumptions right back at me. I'll need your evidence before I can address it as such. In the meantime, it ought to have been clear that I am not advocating doing "what comes naturally, simply because it is what comes naturally." My point is that Western civilization has "overcome" human nature by harnessing it, the first step of which is acknowledging what it is.

Justin Katz @ 06/22/2003 09:06 PM EST

Just to clarify: I'm an atheist, but I find much to admire in the great sages of all religions, and gave Maimonides as an example of a thinker who is admired by Christians and Muslims as well as Jews.

And atheists.

Diana @ 06/23/2003 10:38 AM EST