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 But is the bible, as one example of historical reference, a place to learn what marriage is, or what it should be?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?
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.
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
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
This post was originally titled “Mail Order Brides and Hypergyny.” I was prompted to revisit the post because it received a a rather astonishing comment that I chose not to allow, but I did post it on my Facebook page where any attention it would receive would be from the thoughtful people that make up my Facebook community rather than just anybody out there on the Internet. Also, I recently received a complaint from a reader that Scienceblogs.com has been showing a lot of ads for “mail order brides,” and this post was originally partly a response to that.
I should also mention that in the years between 2009 and 2014 it is possible that the term “mail order brides” has been legitimately problematized. I don’t know that it has, it just seems like it must have been. For example, Wikipedia says “The term “mail-order bride” is both criticized by owners (and customers) of international marriage agencies and used by them as an easily recognizable term. It has been pointed out that there is a discrepancy between how international adoptions are regarded (“saving a child”) and how international marriages are regarded (“buying a wife”).” citing Lilith, Ryiah (2000–2001), Buying a Wife but Saving a Child: A Deconstruction of Popular Rhetoric and Legal Analysis of Mail-Order Brides and Intercountry Adoptions 9, Buff. Women’s L.J., p. 225F Schaeffer-Grabiel (2005), When the mail-order bride industry shifted from using a magazine. If you have any comments on that please leave them below.
Original Post, Mail Order Brides and Hypergyny:
Seymour had a mail order bride and he was very proud. Seymour was a night watchman that I got to know because I was forever lurking around at night, passing through alarmed doors and making a nuisance of myself and, usually, keeping just one step ahead of Seymour, who’s main objective in life was to find a reason to throw me out of the building. The one time he actually had the drop on me, found me without ID, with no instructions that people would be working late in the lab, on a weekend that people were not supposed to be in the building because of work being done on the fire alarm system, he made his move and told me to get out or I’d be arrested.
I had no choice.
I engaged in a conversation with Seymour, which no one had ever done before, and after a half hour he went way forgetting that his main goal in life was to throw me out of the building. But in the mean time, I learned about his mail order bride. From Korea.
I’ve noticed that Scienceblogs.com has been running ads for hot Russian mail order brides. These ads are rather funny on the surface; They seem to be parodies of such things that they represent. But if you click on one (and I certainly did … expecting to end up at The Onion) one learns that this is the real thing. These are real ads for real Russian women who really want to marry you. If you are Seymour.
I’ve told you before that I mostly avoid commenting on the advertisers for Scienceblogs.com. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. One of the most evil corporations on the planet is one of our sponsors, and no one ever seems to notice or complain. My blog is editorially independent (as are all the other scienceblogs.com blogs) and I am free, if I choose, to blog against the big evil corporation, and in fact, have done so to a limited extent.
At first, I found it rather shocking that none of my fellow Sblings seem to be blogging about the mail order bride ads. Then I realized that they must all be using ad blockers.
For my part, as you may have noticed, almost everything I encounter lately seems to remind me of a story from the Congo. (I wonder why that is?) So I can tell you a little about hypergyny in the Congo.
Let’s get two things straight:
1) Mail order brides are participating in hypergyny. Hypergyny is where females (gynos) marry “up” (hyper).
2) You will see the term “hypergamy” used and that is simply incorrect. There can be no such thing as hypergamy as a practice because that means everybody marries up. How would that work? The term is “hypergyny.”1
Hypergyny can occur in a lot of different cultural systems, and in fact wherever there is a) differential wealth and b) males tend to control big hunks of that wealth and the associated power (and no, it is NOT all about power … wealth and power are historically interchangeable enough that we should be cautious about making such distinctions) there will be hypergyny because there will be women who either choose it or are forced into it. In this form, and exploiting the ongoing conversations about rape, hypergyny can be understood by reference to the sexual interactions between allied forces liberating Europe from the Nazis and the local women. In Italy, Allied men tended to rape the women. In France, the women seemed happy to sleep with the men. For food. The difference? Well, lots of things were different, but to oversimplify somewhat, there was a big difference in how much people were starving at that particular moment between Italy and France.
Hypergyny is sleeping with the man over a longer term. For food and everything.
The most benign form of hypergyny of which I am aware (not counting mail order brides …. I’m not sure where I want to put that phenomenon on any scale of severity) is that found among the Efe Pygmies (and other Pygmies) in Central Africa.
Here, there are two integrated but distinct cultural entities: Villagers and Foragers. The Villagers are not Efe. They may be Bantu or Central Sudanic speakers (where I worked, they were Central Sudanic Lese). Villagers are farmers who often hunt, Efe are both foragers and farm laborers. The fact that there are material overlaps between the cultures does not make these cultures overlapping in all ways, or hard to distinguish, or flexible in membership. They are as solidly different as any caste might be.
The rules: Any Villager man and woman can marry. Any Forager man and woman can marry. Any man may have more than one wife.
A Villager woman can never marry a Forager man, but a Forager woman may marry a Villager man.
Often, but by no means always, the Forager woman who marries a Villager man is a second (or maybe even third) wife of that man, in a polygynous marriage.
If a Forager woman marries a Villager man, they live in the village as villagers. The woman takes on the cultural trappings of the village much more than other Forager women do. The children are Villagers. If the woman leaves her husband and goes back to the forest, she can not take the children with her. They remain as villagers.
The women can decide to do this or not. Their decision is usually a matter of personal lifestyle preference. The forest means freedoms not available in the village and you get to go camping all the time, and there are rich cultural traditions that live mainly in the forest, and that is where your family is. In the villages, you get a roof that will hardly ever leak.
One of the effects of this system is that men among the Foragers marry on average quite late owing to the a shortage of women.
In this way, there is a slow and steady gene flow from Forager groups to Villager groups, which led me to propose some years ago the Gene Stealing hypothesis. The relationship I describe here occurs in many different places and times. It seems to occur more often in tropical regions, and it seems to occur virtually all the time where the indigenous group (in this case the Forager) is hypergynous to the invading group (in this case the Villagers, who moved into the area hundreds of years ago).
The invading group is not adapted to local disease to the extent that the indigenous group is. But they can ensure that among their children there will be an elevated rate of such adaptation, by coming up with this pattern. This works much better than just killing off the locals or driving them out. You take their genes but keep them distinct as a locally adapted specialist group.
Indeed, there is evidence that something like this may have happened in the middle east with the Natufian culture, and I’ve wondered about the relationship between Modern Humans and Neanderthals in this regard.
I know, I know, that is a long way from pictures of Hot Russian Babes that may or may not be in the right sidebar.
Or maybe not….
1There is a way in which hypergamy, which is widely used much to my annoyance, makes sense: If you have hypergyny and hyperandry, then the two together could be hypergamy, much like polyandry and polygyny are polygamy. But that is not what is going on with these terms.