'the future of marriage' live-blog: what is marriage & prehistory

Welcome to part two of my live-blog reading of David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage (2007). You can read part one here. Even though the Family Scholars Blog has gone on hiatus, I have decided to complete this live-blog series (and the book!).

According to Blankenhorn's introduction, the first five chapters of his book focus on a single question: "What is marriage?" (9). He argues that existing histories of marriage are either so narrowly focused as to "tell us little or nothing about marriage as a cross-cultural institution," or overly-broad, necessarily "superficial and unsatisfying" in their attempt to provide a trans-historical narrative of a diverse institution. Not himself a trained historian, David B. does not attempt "a history of marriage, but [does] aim to capture the essence of marriage as a human institution" (10).

So as a historian -- one who finds both narrowly-focused monographs and ambitious synthesis histories to be of value -- I am naturally interested in Blankenhorn's alternative approach: what sources does he use, what bodies of evidence does he draw on, and what analytic tools does he employ, to answer the question "What is marriage?" in a meta-historical, essence-seeking sense?

To begin answering these questions, let's take a look at chapters one and two.

Chapter One: "What is Marriage?"

Chapter one, a mere 11 pages in length, seeks to establish that the status quo in marriage understanding is deficient -- is too vague. In order to wrestle with the question of whether or not same-sex partners can or should be granted social and legal access to marriage as an institution, we need (David B. believes) an "adequate answer ... a working definition of marriage for our time" (21). I have three observations about this opening salvo:
  • David Blankenhorn's sources, ranging as they do across time and space and context (Andrew Sullivan op-eds, E.J. Graff's book-length history of marriage, legal decisions from the U.S. and Canada, a Mae West quotation...), are cherry-picked soundbites that don't offer us any sense of the cultural specificity. In what historical or social context were these observations made?  An opinion piece by a gay marriage advocate like Sullivan, for example, is a different type of source than is a quip by Mae West than is a court decision in a specific case, than is a journalist's argument about the historical meaning(s) of a social institution. To pick out the one source I have recent knowledge of, David argues that E.J. Graff's definition of marriage is, "a commitment to live up to the rigorous demands of love, to care for each other as best you humanly can" (12). This may be technically accurate, as a quote, but it is misleading. Graff actually lays out a detailed set of interlocking answers to what marriage has been for: it has been an economic arrangement, a sexual arrangement, a way to organize procreation and parenting, a way of creating kinship networks, and a way to exert social control over individuals through institutions (the church, the state). Using Graff as an example of modernity's squeamishness over providing concrete responses to the question "What is marriage?" is a poor choice at best, and intentionally misleading at worst. 
  • Even if we were to accept that modern definitions of marriage are vague (historians might argue they are going through a period of flux -- something marriage definitions have done before, and will no doubt do again), I find myself wondering what's so bad about vague? Does that make marriage any less real to you and me? As you all know, I just went through the process of getting married myself. It didn't feel vague. It felt concrete, it felt real. Hanna and I made specific promises -- promises drawn from legal and religious tradition. We signed our marriage license paperwork and our own marriage contract. We had interlocking webs of meaning -- religious, legal, social, political, historical -- with which to make sense of what we chose to do. Just because Joe Schmoe down the street or Mary Smith up the hill might have radically different conceptions of what it means to marry, or be living out radically different married-life arrangements than Hanna and I are currently living, doesn't make our marriage less meaningful or specific than if we were all living cookie-cutter replicas of one anothers' lives. We live in a pluralistic society, and as long as people aren't stabbing one another with olive forks, and are responsive when I shout out the window to turn-the-music-down-please, I'm pretty okay with that.
  • Along those lines, I found myself thinking about E.J. Graff's multi-strand approach to marriage definition(s), and I wonder why we need to reduce marriage to a single "working definition" in order to move forward. Marriage, as David B. acknowledges has never had "a single, universally accepted definition of marriage -- partly because the institution is constantly evolving, and partly because many of its features vary across groups and cultures" (11). That's certainly a statement I'd be willing to get behind! So why, then, are we immediately turning around to search for an "adequate....working definition"? Surely we might more usefully observe that there are a cluster of marriage behaviors  or meanings that can be seen across many, if not all, marriage relationships historically and globally. Within that cluster of behaviors and meanings, some will be more constant than others, some will crop up in some cultures and historical periods only to fade away ... and then to return. Some might be said to fairly reliably appear in most marriages -- sexual intimacy, for example -- although we would be inaccurate to say such a behavior was a requirement of marriage; very few cultures police their married members' sexual activities and some people who marry never or cease engaging in sexual intimacy with one another (or altogether). This more fluid, descriptive approach may be entertaining and illuminating, without the strain of requiring such human diversity to fit into a single concept across all time and space. 
Perhaps David Blankenhorn and I fundamentally disagree in that I am skeptical that there actually is any sort of "essence" of marriage, something which exists outside of what we humans make and remake of it.

Chapter Two: "Prehistory"

The evidence base for chapter two is archaeological, anthropological, literary, philosophical, with a liberal dose of evolutionary psychology thrown in. I will admit to a strong bias against any theory that tries to account for human behavior through narratives of human physical evolution. Quite simply, as Blankenhorn himself acknowledges, human prehistory "is a time about which we can only speculate, based on sparse and fragmentary bits of evidence. Yet scholars have speculated on the subject for more than two millennia" (23). Given the dearth of evidence against which to reality-check one's work, it's all too easy to read into our pre-human ancestors and our bodies a biological determinism that -- presto! -- just happen to fit with our own dearly-held desires for what human society or human beings "naturally" are, or what we are "hard-wired" to do. It's a situation ripe for confirmation bias. And obviously, cultural conservatives are not the only culprits: there have long been feminists arguing the case for a prehistoric matriarchy, and anyone who bases their case for queer acceptance on a "born this way" platform is standing on similarly shaky ground.

However, in this instance we're talking about a narrative of prehistory that suggests that marriage was developed by humans "to increase the likelihood of survival and success [of] the infant human," because human young "need a father and the human mother needs a mate" (35). It is because of this survival strategy (keeping male humans involved in parenting their young) that relational sex, rather than simple procreative sex, developed: "A lot more sexual intercourse among the humans, not so as to make a baby, but to make a couple to raise a baby" (35).

Which ... okay. Like, if that's the (pre)story you want to tell yourself? But human biology and human behavior interact in really complicated ways, as any responsible neuroscientist will tell you. This all makes for a great story (if you find that kind of gender-essentialist shit attractive, which I don't, but we'll get to that later) but it doesn't really tell us much about how humans might best respond to their current environment.  Because here's the thing about evolution ... it's evolutionary. We keep on changing. So the way human societies worked in the past tells us about the past, not so much about the present and what our present-day needs and desires might be.

Two additional points before we close this post:
  • I'm not trained in the fields of evolutionary psychology, human neurology, or prehistorical anthropology. However, it is my understanding that the theories that David B. uses to sketch out his prehistorical narrative are deeply contested by feminist scientists and others. Yet this chapter reads authoritatively -- despite its opening caution about speculation. It reads, quite frankly, like the work of someone who has recently read some stuff in the field and is wowed by its arguments. There is little critical analysis of the researchers' potential bias or the quality of their work. All of this gives me pause, and would give me pause even if the person was arguing for something I might philosophically be disposed to want evidence to conclude: for example that humans sexual variety was "hard-wired" or that early human males were "hard-wired" to wash the prehistorical dishes and offer to do the laundry when their prehistorical female partners were busy lactating for the youngins.
  • Blankenhorn posits that the sexual division of humans (male and female) is "the primary division in our species," and argues that long-term coupling created a "new way of living [that] bridged that divide" (30). I am skeptical on two levels about this assertion, which is presented as uncontested fact. First, I question whether sex differentiation is, in fact, the primary division of the human species. Certainly, in our modern world, sex (and its kissing-cousin, gender) feel like a primary division. But we could just as well imagine that rather than sorting by male/female we might sort by left-handedness and right-handedness. Or by skin tone or eye color or height or any number of physical characteristics. We have chosen to over-determine peoples' lives through gender expectations. Second, I am uncertain what he means when he argues that coupling "bridged that divide." Did it need bridging, particularly? Are female and male humans naturally at odds with one another? Would our agendas really be so dissimilar if we were not drawn to one another in sexual desire (setting aside, for the moment, procreation)? After all, other species have solved the care and keeping of infants problem in other ways: human females might have surrendered care of infants to the males (a la sea horses), or might have banded together to care for their young while keeping a few males on hand for procreative purposes (science fiction is rife with such scenarios). It is not a biological imperative that we exist heterosocially -- only that we make arrangements to procreate sexually. And yet, we do. Presumably because we have more in common as a common species than we do differences as a species with two general sex-types and all the lovely variation that comes around and between. 
Finally, pulling us back to the question of compelling stories, I'd like to point out that as compelling as these secular origin stories narratives might be to some, they are also exclusively heterosexual and heteronormative. They might speak to those for whom procreative ability, pair-bonding, parenting, and sexual desire all come together in a tidy-ish package. They're hardly compelling to those of us with more, shall we say, diverse tastes. I'm hardly going to be swayed by the notion that male penises evolved to be extra large so as to satisfy my ladybits. Or that my vagina is tilted so I can look the guy in the eyes while we enjoy us some penetrative sexytimes. I mean, if my wife was endowed with such bits I'm sure we'd work it out. But I find it laughable that human sexual preferences are supposed to be so monochromatic that we'd actually evolve to satisfy something as specific as the missionary position!

(Plus, he suggests that female humans are the only females of any species capable of orgasm ... a claim upon which the jury is out, at best. After all, how do you ask a snake or a dolphin or even a great ape how much they enjoyed themselves, and what exactly it felt like?)

So, in sum:

Chapter one argued that modern, North American (or perhaps Western?) culture lacks a working definition of marriage, based on a series of quotations from a variety of modern sources -- mostly from the fields of journalism and law. Chapter two argued that marriage is a human creation/evolution that developed as an effective strategy for raising young -- and that sexual intimacy (elaborating upon sexual procreation) developed to ensure the long-term survival of the couple who created the young. Sources for chapter two were the work of scholars in anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and animal behavior, and the narrative he constructed upon those works is speculative at best.

Next up, "The River Valleys" and the "Trobriand Islands"!


  1. In these chapters, I was pretty frustrated with Blankenhorn's lack of real engagement with critiques of his preferred evopsych and evolutionary biology theories, and with this pretty dismissive and unserious treatment of feminist counterpoints to his gender essentialist narrative.

    But, more than that, I think the biggest flaw in his reasoning regarding evolution is that he at once argues that evolution has "primed" men to be fathers (as opposed to mere "inseminators") and yet, despite being purportedly evoluntarily "primed" to be fathers, we still must restrict legal marriage to male-female couples or else men won't stick around and be fathers.

    So, it's like, well.... are men "primed" to be fathers or not?

    Is legal recognition of same-sex marriage really so powerful that it can destroy hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary priming and male-female pair-bonding urges?

    1. I keep thinking about your observation regarding the feminist counterpoints, Fannie, and it's very striking throughout the book (I just finished chapter 8) the differential treatment of female vs. male scholars and writers. That might deserve a post of it's own!

      I agree that, to me, the argument that somehow male-female marriage, and the social expectation that children will overwhelmingly be cared for by their biological parents (the social privileging, if you will, of biological parent rights?), will be jeopardized if same-sex couples can form legally-recognized pair bonds is a real struggle for me to understand. Like, I understand the words and the logic of the argument per se, but David B.'s text seems to anticipate strong emotional reactions at certain points where I have none.

      And while the argument might make logic-sense, I don't actually think it makes sense-sense, if you get what I'm trying to say. Like -- where's the evidence that supports his hypothesis? I'm thus far unconvinced. And, I realize, I'm not a receptive audience here. But I think he's trying to reach his critics to some extent. And I just don't get how he's understanding the relationship between supporting same-sex marriage and endangering children's rights to their parentage.

    2. Whatever, Anna. My marriage has gone all to hell ever since you and Hanna got married, and now Eric's refusing to care for his poor little biological children because GAY. I myself am probably going to bail on the children too, because gay, but I haven't gotten around to it yet because I'm too busy reading blogs and stuff. Also my lactating lady-mind ties me to them, which I guess is a relief.

    3. @Molly

      Damn, you've discovered our Super Secret Evil Lesbian Plot to destroy all male-female couples by virtue of existing! Bwahahahahah ... ;)

  2. OMG, don't give away the Master Plan...