What Makes Us Human

And one percent Neanderthal

Coupling and Culture

What has marriage been "since the beginning of human history?"

There is a slogan that I find inspiring: "You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts."

"The young housekeepers, a year after marriage"
Sometimes, though, it is hard to uphold this: trying to challenge the way that politicians, in particular, attempt to ground their policy arguments in claims about what is natural for humans can seem impossible.

And you do it knowing that the politicians involved, and their followers, are going to continue to insist that they actually are entitled to their own "facts."

So this post is not for Rick Santorum, the latest to claim that marriage is

something that has existed since the beginning of human history as an institution where men and women come together for the purposes of forming a natural relationship as God made it to be...
Two people who may like each other or may love each other who are same-sex, is that a special relationship? Yes it is, but it is not the same relationship that benefits society like a marriage between a man and a woman.

This post is, instead, for anyone who, reading that quote, might disagree with it but think that, even taking away the poisonous argument that only procreative couples "benefit society," Santorum has history on his side.

He does not.

The main difficulty in refuting people who make the claim that "marriage" has "existed since the beginning of human history" for "men and women [to] come together...for the purposes of having children" is actually that there is too much historical fact that refutes it to easily summarize.

As an anthropologist, the temptation is to cite other cultures where institutionalized sexual relations take place between one man with multiple women, or one woman and multiple men. As an archaeologist, one is tempted to cite debates about the origins of pair-bonding and its relationship to the sexual practices of our nearest primate relatives, or recent studies reconstructing the emergence of monogamy (reproductive pairing) in the history of Indo-European languages somewhere between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago. As a gender studies researcher the automatic response is to point to the many cases world wide and historically of people of third or fourth genders engaging in recognized relationships with others with whom they share sexual anatomy.

But I think those responses, while valid, miss the point.

Santorum and others like him don't mean to include the practices of men and women in Native American, South East Asian, or African traditional societies when they say marriage has existed unchanged since "human history" began, and they don't care if primate studies suggest our species might not actually be quite so naturally straight as they imagine. They mean the history that they claim as their own: the one sanctioned by God as continuing "civilization."

But they are still wrong about those historical facts.

"Marriage" in the U.S. today is a civil contractual relationship. That civil contractual relationship has evolved over the history of this country, from inscribing inequality between partners to a contract between equals. Even in the brief history of this country, then, marriage has not been consistently defined and has been constantly evolving, as Charles Kindregan discusses in a paper published in 2011.

"Marriage" is also used in the U.S. today, of course, as the term for a union sacralized by an established religion. But here again, marriage has not been unchanging even within the religious tradition that Santorum implicitly references: Christianity. Marriage in the Christian tradition has changed from a primarily economic contract between two familial groups, a relationship in which the wife was originally understood as subordinate to the husband, to its modern form of relationship between a couple, a relationship in which each partner is understood to have rights and obligations to the other.

Far from Santorum's view of Christianity as timelessly emphasizing procreation through marriage, research by scholars like Duke University's Elizabeth Clark has shown that

Christians of the first to fifth centuries, to the contrary, believed that the renunciation of family, home, marriage, reproduction, and property was the highest ideal. With ingenious arguments and astute Scriptural interpretation, they fervently argued the "anti-marriage" line.

So much for the Christian tradition having enshrined procreative marriage timelessly "as God made it to be."

But then, I am only inferring that Santorum means to limit his claim to the Christian tradition; what he actually said was that this form of social institution "has existed since the beginning of human history."

When is "the beginning of human history?"

Let's assume "history" here is meant to indicate "written records." That would bring us back to the ancient societies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the lands between them, where the earliest known written records have been preserved.

In 1994, M.J. Geller of University College London published a superb discussion of some of the insights emerging from study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The community that wrote these documents, like the early Christians who followed, were at best ambivalent about marriage.

In discussing the background against which the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls set themselves apart, Geller drew on marriage laws and contracts extending two millennia before the Common Era began. She noted that polygamy (marriage to multiple partners simultaneously) was allowed throughout that history, although it was rare because it required sufficient financial resources for a household to support the multiple contracts involved.

Polygamy was legal in ancient societies of the Levant, including those of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Early Christians (and some of their predecessors) thought celibacy and restraining from marriage was superior to engaging in it.

So where has Santorum gotten the idea that marriage has, from the beginning of human history, been a procreative relationship between one man and one woman?

Perhaps his "beginning of history" is more recent. In Medieval Europe, the Catholic Church tightened control over marriage by defining specific circumstances that would invalidate it:

In the first Christian centuries marriage had been a strictly private arrangement. As late as the 10th century, the essential part of the wedding itself took place outside the church door. It was not until the 12th century that a priest became part of the wedding ceremony, and not until the 13th century that he actually took charge of the proceedings.

A history of marriage in the Christian tradition might take us back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when the status of marriage as a religious institution was a topic of debate between Catholics and Protestants:

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century rejected the prevailing concept of marriage along with many other Catholic doctrines. Martin Luther declared marriage to be "a worldly thing...that belongs to the realm of government," and a similar opinion was expressed by Calvin. The English Puritans in the 17th century even passed an Act of Parliament asserting "marriage to be no sacrament" and soon thereafter made marriage purely secular. It was no longer to be performed by a minister, but by a justice of the peace. The Restoration abolished this law and reverted to the old system, but the Puritans brought their concept of marriage to America where it survived.

Santorum's claim for his concept of marriage as fixed in "human history" either is categorically invalid, or else he draws his history from a particular religion (Roman Catholicism) and ignores the vibrant history of debate with that religion.

By emphasizing a "social benefit" argument he might actually unwittingly return to an era when marriage was about ensuring that family property would be maintained, through alliance with another family and the production of heirs to the property.

Both early Christians and the initial leaders of Protestant movements turned away from the institution of marriage as worldly.

Procreative marriage, the kind Santorum wants to elevate as a "social benefit," is most commonly promoted in the modern world not by individual people, but by states. Sarah Harbison and Warren Robinson wrote in 2004 that

most states and organized political units have been pronatalist throughout history...in the period between the two world wars...nearly every European government adopted a pronatalist policy...positive programs [encouraging reproduction] often were accompanied by negative measures outlawing contraception and abortion...Most pronatalist policies have assumed the traditional family-household structure and aimed at creating and strengthening such units...Usually, they have also extolled traditional family values and, implicitly, the efficacy of a male-headed household.

This is the framework, whether he realizes it or not, that surrounds Rick Santorum's insistence that same sex couples should not be given the "privilege" of marrying because they provide no "social benefit."

This is not a call to return to human nature—Santorum doesn't even really argue that point. It is not a return to the roots of human history; the earliest written documents we have come from societies with forms of social contracts that do not conform to the one man/one woman rule Santorum would like to think is timeless. It is decidedly not a human universal. It is a distant echo of authoritarianism, both within the history of a global church before it was contested, and within the history of the nation state.

If that is the kind of policy a politician wants to promote, then fine: that falls into being entitled to one's own opinion. But it is neither timeless historical fact nor, in my view, particularly desirable as a description of a social world for people to live in today. It is a policy prescription that would deny "social benefit" not just to same sex couples, but to opposite sex couples who do not give birth. It would deny the social benefit of marriage undertaken by couples past the age of reproduction. It apparently ignores the ability of people who cannot biologically bear children to nonetheless foster children, or contribute to their raising as part of a community of support.

It is inhumane as well as ahistorical, and it ignores the one real universal about our species: we are human, and humans evolve to fit their times and circumstances.

RE: humans evolve to fit their times and circumstances

"Award-winning actress Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) plays a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive in 19th century Ireland. Some thirty years after donning men's clothing, she finds herself trapped in a prison of her own making."

I still have one question…

This isn't the first time that I've wondered this but I have one enduring question about the work of anthropologists. How is it that we can legitimately use marginal cultures and clans to compare their social mores to that of macro cultures? Though I know there are many differences across the major cultural groups between continents isn't this variation rather limited compared to the unique but normally highly balkanized "Native American, South East Asian, or African traditional societies"? For comparison I know African tribes have the greatest diversity of peoples in the world (cultures too?) yet the Chinese have one dominant culture and over 1 billion people that are >90% genetically similar too.

To put it another way: in every case I've heard of comparing social norms of the world (namely the West) it's always to a culture that is on an island somewhere or in a geographically isolated community where either of which are out of contact with the outside world for centuries at a time. But if their social belief systems bear little resemblance to our own, what is it then that allows us to glean any meaningful reflection of our societies? Is it just because such tiny, unique cultures stand so apart from the crowd that we can't resist but to notice them for it? Or is there really nothing we can learn from them with such turbulent social dynamics in a world ruled by non-tribal, macro cultures and languages?

in reply to Jacob

There are a couple of basic assumptions in your query that need to be discussed.

1) Anthropology ONLY deals in "marginal" cultures.
This was somewhat true of the work done by early generations of anthropologists and stems from the idea that the best cultures to study were those which were thought to be "outside" the industrialized world-system.

Unfortunately it turns out this is not an accurate way of describing even the communities that have been seen as the "typical" field-sites of early anthropology. As an example, Evans-Pritchard's actual experiences with the Nuer were with groups of people some of whom had a great deal of experience dealing with outsiders and some of whom he later recruited into a guerilla military force to attack Italian military targets during WW2.

2) There is no such thing as a "unique" culture. This is a conceit of the travel and exploration literature of the 19th century as much as anything else. Just as another example, "remote" African tribes such as the Dogon, have been tied into long-range trade networks stretching from Cairo to Dakar since at least the 12th century AD. Many African people speak at least three different languages because they live in multi-cultural, multi-lingual, complex and connected communities that have a pretty good awareness of the world around them. To characterize them as "micro" cultures simply shows that we tend to be dismissive of people who don't immediately look like us.

3) In addition, anthropologists and sociologists have worked in lots of communities that are inside "the mainstream" since at least the 1920s. Examples include W.E.B. Du Bois in Philadelphia, Oscar Lewis in Mexico City, Paul Willis with working class English boys, William Foot Whyte's work in Boston and so on. The distinction between anthropologists who study "exotic" people, and sociologists who study "ourselves" has always been somewhat artificial and is more and more obviously untrue. Examples of recent work by anthropologists looking at "mainstream" communities in the US and elsewhere might include Setha Low's work on gated communities, Sandy Smith-Nonini's work on meat-packing plants, Dorinne Kondo's work on women factory workers, Thomas Sheridan's work on cattle ranchers, Karen Sacks's work on Jewish-American historical identity, Alex Golub's work on online gamers, Heather Paxson's work on artisanal cheese makers and so on and so on.

4) Anthropologists have had to struggle for a while against the notion that we "only" study people who are different from "us". As I hope I have illustrated, this is not true in terms of the communities we have worked in but there's one other observation I'd like to make: In some ways, the demand that we be clear about our own cultural and analytical frameworks have meant that we have ALWAYS studied "Western", industrialized and middle and upper-middle class thinking.

I cannot add much to the brilliant response you already received

But let me note a couple of things here. Anthropologists today, in the 21st century, are quite clear that our job isn't just reporting on exotic others. Our job is explaining what it means to be human. Every study that looks at another time or place (and there are many anthropologists whose "other place" is in the US) does so with a dual intention: to understand stand more about the lives of others, and to learn what is taken for granted back home in his or her own culture and society.

So what we learn from asking the right questions are things like: what is the breadth of ways that humans today and in the past do and have organized their domestic life? One of the things I demonstrated is that even for the European Christian tradition, anthropological approaches (which include archaeological ones) show that the way people organized their domestic lives has not stayed static, and there are a lot of differences even within what might seem from a quick glance to be the "same thing".

So, for example, while it is way outside my specialization, I know that it isn't true that the contemporary Chinese have "one dominant culture". I don't know quite what you are thinking of here when you call China a "macroculture", but one of the interesting things being explored by ethnographers right now are the different ways people living in different communities in China are coping with their world. What perhaps can be portrayed as a political unity by a government dissolves when you take an anthropological look, because what you see is diversity. Variety. Human ingenuity.

Do you believe that human history began in Eden about 6,000 years ago?

Sometimes adults tell children things that are not true because they believe that children are not ready for some of the harsh realities of life. Is there a Santa Claus? Is there an Easter Bunny? I will let you decide.
Some people like their folktales in the same way that they like their home team. A person's religion is often like their favorite sports team, determined more by geography and emotion more so than my some rational thought process. If a rational thought process does not determine a person's beliefs, do you really expect such a person to care about your "facts"?
Some people were told by their priests or parents that God created marriage for Adam and Eve and their descendents. Some of these people have an open mind about these beliefs. With others, why waste your time?


You'd think a freakin' anthropologist would understand politics better. Too much time in the rarified atmosphere of the ivory tower and not enough mingling with the hoi polloi.

Academics are paid liars and character assassins just like politicians are, so it must be professional jealousy that drove her to do it.

I think you under estimate the ability of believers to examine facts

The argument that people who hold religious beliefs are irrational, while it may be popular, is unacceptable. There are and have been many scientists who are or were religious believers.

And as a professional teacher, I do expect at least some readers to care about facts.

Rick Santorum is a Roman Catholic-- the religion in which I also was raised. The Roman Catholic church does not reject evolution or the antiquity of the world as demonstrated by science.

To use the term "human history" without regard to facts is not specifically Roman Catholic, or religious.

Nonetheless, as I said in the post itself-- former senator Santorum is not my audience. People who might be open to some real knowledge are.

The "elevation" of

The "elevation" of "procreative marriage" as a "social benefit...is a distant echo of authoritarianism." I understand her meaning, but this is a careless remark. The esteem and utility affixed to maximizing procreation has certainly been tied to imperialist and tyrannical adventurism - in order to numerically and militarily overwhelm your "enemies." However, it was also crucial for maximizing labor on early, sustenance-based family farms; a bulwark against the ravages of disease in early cities; and, yes, restoring the nation-state's population after a war. The "echo" she speaks of is sometimes distant, sometimes quite proximate, and sometimes non-existent. In an otherwise superb article, Joyce should have been more careful.

Actually, no.

Sorry, I stand by my commentary here. I would ask you for some sources for your generalizations about maximizing the number of offspring in the circumstances you cite-- because the historical research says that whether you want to maximize your own family size in farming societies is actually a complex issue.

And in the present case, former senator Santorum is speaking in a tradition that in the 20th century has been one of state pro-natalist policies, which are not about "restoring the nation-state's population after a war": they are about maximizing the population, often as a prelude to war, and often in a situation where there is a minority population that a majority is anxious about and imagines is reproducing faster.

The Distant Echo of Authoritarianism

An excellent article. I offer only one caveat: Joyce remarks that the "elevation" of "procreative marriage" as a "social benefit...is a distant echo of authoritarianism." I understand her meaning, but this is a careless remark. The esteem and utility affixed to maximizing procreation has certainly been tied to imperialist and tyrannical adventurism - in order to demographically and/or militarily overwhelm your "enemies." However, it was also crucial for maximizing labor on early, sustenance-based family farms; a bulwark against the ravages of disease in early cities; and, yes, restoring the nation-state's population after a war. The "echo" she speaks of is sometimes distant, sometimes quite proximate, and sometimes non-existent. In an otherwise superb article, Joyce should have been more careful.

Santorum's Argument is Fallacious in Every Way Possible

When a political figure formulates an argument, I expect thought provoking and intelligent contributions. A member of the House of Representatives, Rick Santorum, made an assertion regarding marriage that strayed from the conventional textbook politician. I agree with the notion that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but his stance regarding the logistics of marriage are fallacious. He calls to authority to support his argument and makes a generalization regarding ideal couples, failing to address the faults that pervade throughout "orthodox" marriages sanctioned by churches.
To begin, Santorum stated that "men and women come together for the purposes of forming a natural relationship as God made it to be...." No evidence is given to support the aforementioned declaration. This argument is fallacious because it is calling to an authority figure that is not empirically evident. Though the bible is taken as God's word, there have been several edited testaments redistributed by man and not God himself. However, as previously mentioned, Santorum did not utilize the bible as reinforcement for his argument. Interestingly enough though, a mantra propagated by Christians is: "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7)." It bothers me that a self-proclaimed Christian would stray from his God, who is perceived to be benevolent. Why would such a God make marriage available only to heterosexual couples?
According to Santorum, it is because a marriage between a man and a woman benefit society due to their ability to procreate. There are several problems with this aspect of the argument. He failed to address that heterosexual couples are not interrogated by the church in order to assure that they have the ability to reproduce. Some individuals are infertile and others mutually decide to not have children because it is viewed as a burden since it would stymie their progress in the modern world. But these individuals still get married. Why? Because they are heterosexual. They do not stray from the conventional societal norms.
If rearing children is the only requirement, then lesbian couples could "benefit" society. There are a myriad of alternative means available for conception now-a-days. For example, in vitro fertilization is a process in which an egg and sperm are combined in a laboratory dish and then transferred into the uterus after the embryonic stage has been realized. This couple would thus satisfy the procreation requirement. Would that mean that they could get married?
There are several marriages that have been sanctioned by the church in which heterosexual couples have had children; yet, they did not benefit society by doing so. Some people are simply not suited for parenthood. This is why there are many cases of child abuse. These children are often left with emotional and psychological damage; as a result, they are encumbered by an inferiority complex. Many also rely on drugs or resort to violence as a method of coping. This is where homosexual couples have the option of adoption and "contributing" to society. The children are not biologically related to their adopted parents, but they are given a second chance and a loving home to grow up in rather than a foster home or other unstable lifestyle.
Finally, the only piece of contextual evidence that Santorum utilized was that marriage has existed since the "beginning of human history." If the time span of catholicism coming to prominence is indeed the beginning of human history that he is referring to, does that mean that all other Catholic practices should be accepted as just and true? For example, in the Roman Empire, a right of passage for younger males in scholarly realms was to have sexual relations with the more established figures. Does that mean that men should sleep with other men for prestige because it was done so since the "beginning of human history?"
Santorum is discriminating against those who do not adhere to his beliefs. This is a political figure that represents a portion of the population of the United States and it makes me livid that he cannot formulate a coherent argument. Had Santorum stated that this was his opinion regarding marriage rather than fact, I would have respected it. He stated that procreation is intrinsic to a relationship with God through marriage. You can not deny someone their right to marriage with such a faulty basis. The only thing natural is that humans are influenced by culture and it is evident that Rick Santorum is a staunch believer of his inculcated norms.

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Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.


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