White-Fronted Bee-Eaters

On the True Meaning of Christmas

Posted Dec 31, 2012

Natalie Demong/Cornell
Source: Natalie Demong/Cornell

The holidays are winding down. We had a full house, with the usual visits to other full houses. There were parents and step-parents, with brothers and sisters and their significant others; there were in-laws, and the in-laws of in-laws, and the step-kids of in-laws, and the step-kids of step-kids of in-laws. There were cousins and the cousins of in-laws; there were second cousins and their blind dates. We are a social species! And societies always start with families.

With his wife, Natalie Demong, and their own growing family, Stephen T. Emlen has spent years studying social species, and animal families. He’s found that the vast majority of birds and mammals are solitary—that just 3% are known to form family groups. And he’s found that for solitary animals, it’s easy to disperse; but that social animals, who stay with their families, are often kept on a nest by “ecological constraints.”

Across the wooded savannahs of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, Emlen has watched white-fronted bee-eaters tunnel into the cliffs. They occupy colonies of from dozens to hundreds of animals; and they belong to 3-17 member clans. As many as 5 pairs of adult birds, or as few as a single pair, from each clan breeds.

And the rest—usually more than half—become “helpers-at-the-nest.” They dig and defend burrows; they forage and feed others’ young. Helpers represent up to 4 generations: they’re the grandparents and grandoffspring, parents and offspring, aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters and cousins of the birds they raise. And as always, families matter: breeders with more helpers to do better. 

Two thousand years ago, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Many of his followers were married. “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” So Paul of Tarsus would ask, in a letter to his friends in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 9:5).

Jesus was brought up in Nazareth by his parents, Joseph and Mary, along with his brothers—James, Joses, Judas and Simon—and his sisters, who are never named (Matthew 13:55-56, Mark 6:3). But Jesus never seems to have married, himself. And many of his followers have been unmarried. They've often been members of large families; but they've been asked not to marry, or to have sex, themselves.

It was a contemporary of Constantine the Great—who converted the Roman empire to the Christian religion after the year 313—who founded the first koinonia, or communities, or monasteries, in Egypt. He wanted the boys under his care to be like Abraham’s son: “When he heard his father, he submitted to him, even to being sacrificed, like a gentle lamb.” So he encouraged them to follow his Rules. “He shall be the master of his flesh, according to the measure of the saints,” Pachomias wrote about his monks; and “he shall not be overcome by the works of the flesh,” and “he shall not teach his own soul wantonness,” and “he shall not be led by the lusts of the thoughts.”

But across the densely populated farmlands of the Old World, Benedict’s Rule would be most popular. Benedict put up 12 houses in the wilderness, with sets of 12 monks in each, “and men from Roman noble families began to join him, and entrust their sons to him so that he might raise them for the almighty lord.” They dressed humbly; they ate frugally; they prayed 7 times a day; and they chastised their bodies and avoided all sins of the flesh. “Let us gird our loins with the faith and the performance of good works,” the abbot wrote.

Then one day in the spring of 1520, just 28 years after Columbus “discovered” the wide open spaces of a New World, Martin Luther sent an Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of Germany. It insisted that 99 out of 100 monks in most monasteries had been put there by their propertied fathers, because not every one of a nobleman’s children could become a landowner. But now those days were over. People were finding new places, and new ways, to support themselves—and to support wives. The pope had as little power to forbid marriage as he did to forbid eating, drinking, making bowel movements, or getting fat. “The devil must have ordered it,” he wrote.

A year later, in the fall of 1521, a group of monks walked out of Luther’s Augustinian monastery, and Luther sent another letter to a friend to complain that their “miserable celibacy” had made them tell horror stories daily. “Even now, nothing sounds worse to my ears than the words ‘nun,’ ‘monk’ and ‘priest,’ and I consider marriage a paradise.” Then on a June day in 1525, Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora—who was one of 9 nuns hustled out of their Cistercian convent in a Wittenberg fish cart. She’d give him 6 children, and make him a happy man.

For the better part of two millennia, we’ve celebrated the birth of a bachelor in Bethlehem. Christmas has always been about families; and its masses have always been sung by the unmarried. For the benefit of their parents, brothers and sisters and cousins, celibates like Pachomias, Benedict and Martin Luther have healed the sick, succored the weak, offered moral guidance and prayed. They’ve devoted their lives to their family members.

If white-fronted bee-eaters could sing—and they can—they might celibrate their celibates, too.


Betzig, L. L.  2013.  Darwin’s question: How can sterility evolve?  In K. Summers and B. Crespi, eds., Human Social Evolution: The Foundational Works of Richard D Alexander.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Betzig, L. L.  2009.  But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  Politics and the Life Sciences, 28: 102-105.