Tag Archives: Marriage

What Does The Bible, and History, Tell Us About Marriage?

It seems like everybody in the Old Testament is either married, about to get married, or was recently married but something went terribly wrong. This may be becasue the bible is about marriage. The Old Testament is a history, it is a set of laws, and it is an enthnography, and the themes themes that hold the whole thing together are warfare, resorces, marriage, and a heavy dose of odd cultish rule-making about food and blood. Marriage is a central theme of cultural life, so of course it plays an important role in a culture’s own history and ethnography. But is the bible, as one example of historical reference, a place to learn what marriage is, or what it should be? Biblical Scholar Jennifer Wright Knust says no: Continue reading What Does The Bible, and History, Tell Us About Marriage?

Marriage and the Naturalistic Fallacy

We’ve been talking about marriage (here, here, and here). We’ve established that marriage has a history, it has variability, and that it is hard to pin down a narrowly defined set of functions for it. However, I also suggested that when we strip away a lot of variants that have special explanations (even if those variants are MOST of the variants of marriage) there is a thing we can call marriage that has a limited and understandable set of functions, or at least, there is a thing we can understand in a very basic evolutionary and social way. And we’ll get to that. But first, I want to take a short detour to cover two important concepts that almost always get in the way of understanding human behavior from a biological perspective: The naturalistic fallacy (in this post), and the fallacy of the pristine primitive (in the next post). You’ve heard of the former and we’ve discussed it here before. I’ve made indirect references to the latter but have not addressed it intensively, and when I do as part of this discussion of marriage I only want to talk about part of that concept, so I’m shortening the name to reflect that narrow approach to the “Primitive Fallacy” or the “Fallacy of the Primitive.” It may be the most annoying of all of the anthropologically related fallacies, it is one of the most common, and it is spoken about the least, possibly because it is so annoying.

But first the Naturalistic Fallacy.

Continue reading Marriage and the Naturalistic Fallacy

Marriage is a tool society uses to reproduce

Most people in a position to read this blog post probably think of marriage as a contract between two people that serves a few different purposes. Initially it may be an extension of the a tacit contract governing sexual access or fidelity that likely preceded marriage. Later on it may be an arrangement that facilitates the decision a couple makes to have one or more children. Along with this a marriage may be a framework for any subset of a longish list of social relations people tend to engage in such as friendship and mutual aid, financial cooperation and joint ownership of things, or meeting and manipulating social expectations and appearances.

For every one of these functions, we can find examples either among individuals or sets of individuals, or cultures or social strata, that defy these expectations. Monarchs may have hung around courts with concubines rather than spouses. In systems where wealth is inherited strictly through a certain (usually male) line, one of the members of the marriage owns nothing, so there is little financial cooperation and no joint ownership. In some societies, men prefer to marry women who have already had a child, regardless of who the father is. In other societies sex between a man and woman is avoided at all costs except to make babies. And so on. Also, there are societies in which marriage serves very important functions that are not mentioned above but that may be considered the most important role of the practice. In societies where dowries are strictly required, marriage is primarily an inter-caste economic arrangement. In the case of the Maasai, written about earlier, marriage is about the cattle.

So, how do we define marriage then? I think there are two ways. One actually has us reaching back into the above described features of marriage and picking out a few key ones that are functions of marriage in many but not all societies. In this case we would make the claim that the other societies are exceptions, even if they have at times in the Earth’s history been widespread. Some of the more elaborate social, economic, and cultural uses of marriage are matters of exapting the practice for purposes that are particular to highly stratified societies or economies based on very vulnerable resources where ultimately some kind of warfare (or Hobbsian state of Warre, if you will) is more important than, say, a nice Valentine’s day gift or a rewarding sex life. Since these societies are almost all a function of changes that have happened over the last several thousand years they may be thought of as exceptional even if common for a long time. We’ll get back to this idea later, in another blog post.

The other way is to think of marriage not as the framework for a couple to have babies and thus reproduce, but for society to organize, obligate, educate and control it’s ascending members and thus reproduce itself writ large.

How this might work will of course vary across societies. Here, I’ll just suggest a laundry list of ways in which the whole marriage thing could be incorporated into the way society perpetuates itself by maintaining categories, relationships between groups or categories of people, and so on. Obviously, “society” itself is not a thing that can reproduce or that has goals or motivations or even mechanisms of the kind that would be needed to do these things. But a given society has groups of individuals with larger than average amounts of power. These individuals and groups can try to make and enforce rules and these can be instituted through cultural practices, marriage being a key one.

  • Who gets to marry whom. The reasons to restrict marriage are myriad and may relate to ethnocentrism or racism, caste, society, and so on.

  • Who gets the children. Generally, the parents have the children in their care, but if there is a unilineal society (and/or “clans” or something along those lines) girls born to married couples may become social capital for exchange or alliance formation with other groups. Sons, on the other hand …. well, “sons are guns” as the saying goes. And, depending on the economy of production, children may variously grow up to be workers.

  • Exchange, concentration, or redistribution of wealth. In American society today, a “typical” “middle class” wedding will cost tens and tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of people get to eat. In other systems, households accumulate bride payments or wealth, or a new couple is set up with a start-up fund. This is all very complicated when looking across cultures, but there are a lot of cases where money or valuable goods exchange hands. Who gets it, how much in relation to the average household economy, who pays, and what happens when you don’t pay varies a lot.

  • Who owns property … and how it is redistributed and used is often linked to marriage. Sometimes, the system of marriage (and who marries whom) is determined mainly by the ownership of property. In one famous system, a marriage is always directly linked to a piece of property and there are just so many pieces of property. Nobody gets married outside of those land-linked arrangements.

  • Lineage maintenance and development. A lineage, usually a patrilineage, is an organizing corporate entity in many societies. Royal lines and houses, clans based on lineality, and so forth are the elemental units that fight, form alliances, or engage in joint ventures often at the expense of a third lineage. Marriage in such systems has to be between lineages, and which lineages are intermarried in a given union is often determined by elders, who make rules, or simply tell people whom they must marry.

  • Religion and heteronormative values. In some societies, people are forced to marry within one religion, so one individual may need to convert; those getting married may be required to promise on pain of eternal damnation to raise their children in that religion. Individuals can only be married if certain “family values” critera are met, for example, only if they are both heterosexual. Other “family values” may be imposed on those being married, often inculcated into the arrangement with required pre-marital counseling sessions or agreements. Sometimes, powerful conservative members of these societies try to impose these and other rules using governmental force or constitutional means.

I wonder which societies do that last one?

This is part of a series of posts on Marriage. To see the full list click HERE.

Photo of Umm Bororo Wedding, Eastern Sudan, by Vit Hassan

A Maasai Marriage

A young woman, “of age” but unmarried, appeared out of the forest near the base of the hill, a few of her relatives and friends staying in the woods while she headed alone up the well worn path. Before she had taken a dozen steps, six or seven women, of her age or a bit older, spotted her and ran down the hill to greet her. They had never met before, but as soon as the women got close they touched her, hugged her, held her hand, fondled some of her jewelry and patted her hair, and all the while they shouted the worst invectives and insults they could think of at her, laughing cruelly while they did so.

“You’re ugly. Where did you get these beads, in a bird’s nest?”

“Who picked you to marry my cousin, did somebody lose at a gambling game?”

“Please don’t go near the cows, we need them to keep giving milk!”

“What was the dog doing down in the forest?”

“Did you know that your future husband has only one cow?”

“Sorry about that large wound on your head. Oh, sorry, that’s you hair, isn’t it!”

“Oh, and your husband’s cow … did you know it has rabies?”

Eventually all the women were in the village located at the top of the hill. Over the next two hours, the insults continued but with less severity and frequency. The women of this Maasai village pruned and preened the newcomer, exchanged items of clothing and jewelry with her, fixed up her make up, and made friends. Eventually the insults went away and expressions of friendship and support replaced them. By the end of the day this young woman would be married to one of the men in this village, a man she had never met (or maybe seen once or twice but never knew of him as her future husband). The women who now worked out the last minute details for the imminent wedding were all married “into” this village. Every one of them had come from some other village, passed through the nearby forest, walked up this hill or a similar one, and suffered the insults. In fact, many of the insults the women used that day were very ones they had heard when they first arrived here, saved up and remembered for later use. And every one of these women had formed strong bonds with the other women in the village. One could say, depending on the individuals involved, that the relationship among the women married into this village was more socially significant, emotionally powerful, and personally stronger than the relationship between many of these women and their own husbands.

After settling in with her new friends, the young woman left the village with a couple of relatives of her new husband, and wandered about the nearby countryside to pick out her son’s cattle. She was allowed to choose a certain number of cattle, any one that she happened to see, as long as she could ask the owner in person for the beast. Needless to say many people chose that day to let their cattle run around unsupervised, but there is a limit to how much one can do that in lion country, so she did manage to get about half her allotment on that day. She would get the remainder over the next day or two. In fact, sympathetic elders would coerce relatives to make available a couple of really good head in order that this small herd be of reasonable quality and potential.

This small number of cattle will form the core of a herd that she will care for on behalf of her future first son, who would then own them. By the time he is old enough to care for them several cow-generations would have passed, and the herd would have grown. Since the offspring of two cattle are jointly owned by the owner of the cow and the bull, which are often different people, the ownership of each of the calves in her herd could potentially be complicated. Also, other cattle may be exchanged as part of the marriage transaction. A future divorce would be allowed by prevailing practice, but only if the ownership of the cattle could be established and every calf, cow, and bull be returned to it’s rightful place. This, of course, would be impossible starting from the birth of the first calves. But, no matter, really, because the herd was in many ways more important than the marriage.

In her marriage, she would eventually bear the “children of her husband” with the girls married off to a different village (usually) and the sons who survived a period of youth that involved banishment from the village during those difficult years (possibly the greatest invention of the Nilotic cultures: teenage boys must leave) would obtain their own herds, possibly marry, and vie for position as village Moran (pronounced “Moh Rahn” … respected adult male).

Those young men would have a certain degree of sexual freedom and even though they technically lived as young warriors most of the time in the bush “on their own” they could also visit the bed of a woman who was interested in them, and the married women could choose though only surreptitiously to take these men as lovers. The society consists, more or less, of a small number of married men, some married to more than one woman, women who are sexually mature who are either married or about to be married or widowed, and a fair number of unmarried men. That is how marriage and sex work together and independently among the traditional Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, according to what I’ve read about them and been told by them on my visits there.

This is a patriarchal society, and although a Western concept of ownership is probably inadequate, it is safe to say that if something or someone is owned, it is owned by a man or an agent of a man. The economy is based on cattle. I saw a census in Kenya years ago that listed the richest hundred men. About half were Maasai men living in traditional villages, and their wealth was in many head of cattle. In this society, marriage is life long because divorce, while technically not a big deal, requires splitting herds of cattle, and that is too difficult. Sexual liaison and marriage are poorly correlated and that is tacitly accepted, but infidelity can be severely punished.

In other words, it’s complicated.

There are tens of thousands of “different cultures” in the world, either at present or in the recent past known sometimes as the “ethnographic present.” Of these, a few thousand are pretty well known and several hundred are intensely studied. A few “Nilotic” Eastern Rift Valley cultures, including the Maasai, the Turkana and the Pokot form the core of our understanding of this more widespread form of cattle pastoralism, and these and all other cattle-based cultures, while very different in many ways, share these characteristics of the centrality of the cattle, polygynous marriage, and a strong patriarchy.


I am going to write a bunch of blog posts about marriage.

You should regard my opinion about marriage to be valuable; I’ve had several of them. And in this way, I may be more like a hunter-gatherer than a “modern” Westerner, as the practice among the former is to treat marriage as very important and each partner in the marriage as a critical and similarly empowered member of the contract, while the practice among the latter has been to see women as the man’s property and to form economic, social, and sexual alliances as needed outside the marriage. Who is in on the deal and how they work together to get the job done matters.

As we approach a very important election in the United States, the issue of marriage…what it is and who decides how to do it…looms large as a political issue. People who are of the same sex want to get married, and about half of everybody says no. Why? Why do people of the same sex want to get married, and why does either a slim majority or a bare minority care enough to try to stop this?

One of the things that has been said is that marriage between a man and a woman is what God specified, via his various media outlets. Iron age pamphlets, burning bushes, that sort of thing. That is a religious argument for disallowing people of the same sex to get married, but there is also a secular argument; it ain’t natural. The natural form of marriage is for a man and a woman and nobody else to get married. There are all sorts of interesting questions raised by both arguments, and it is interesting to see where they agree and disagree; almost every person mentioned by name in the old testament who was married whether they were a FOG1 or not was involved in a polygynous union, not a “one man-one woman” marriage. Clearly, the Biblical argument and the Naturalistic argument are at odds.

I really am kind of an expert on marriage, and not only because I’ve had a few. I am an anthropologist and we anthropologists study, among other things, kinship and related social relations. That’s marriage and some other stuff. Also, as a biological anthropologist I’ve had a great interest in the genetical and Darwinian aspects of kinship and marriage. Finally, as a palaeoanthropologist, I’ve studied the origin of marriage. As a matter of fact, I’m the co-author of a peer reviewed paper that explains the origin of marriage in our species, and that paper is in the top ten of all papers ever published in Anthropology’s flagship journal, “Current Anthropology” in terms of numbers of times it has been cited. (This is not to say that all those people who have cited it liked it, of course.)

Marriage isn’t simple. It is about social relationships, economics, child raising, sex, power, and all sorts of other things. It is important enough that The Patriarchy has owned it, in Western Society, for centuries. The politics of marriage will likely shape the nature of politics in general, to a disproportionate degree for a social issue, over the next couple of presidential election cycles, as the politics of abortion and choice have in years past. They are related, as I’ve already suggested–marriage and women’s reproductive activities. Having, or not having, babies is an activity reserved for women, and this worries powerful men. For this reason babies have, in Western tradition, been owned or controlled by men, and marriage is one way in which that ownership is asserted. But I’m getting ahead of my self. Let’s just say that many of the sociopolitical conflicts we are experiencing today can be blamed on that age old problem: The Patriarchy. We’ll get to that too.

1Friend of God

Photo by danny.hammontree